In the crumbling universe of Shakespeares King Lear, a world in which evil and treachery is allowed to triumph for a moment too long and goodness falters under the dominion of the former, a terrible irony is made resoundingly clear. The ambiguity of the victory between the binary oppositions becomes one of the most unsettling themes of King Lear: who truly triumphs? Perhaps more importantly, what become the cruelly conceived expenses of such a victory? The prevailing question of cosmic justice pervades the longevity of Lears legacy; the seemingly superfluous evisceration of innocence and purity within the play forces us to confront the staggering nature of fate. And yet, the irony rests in the understanding that while King Lears display of inconceivable human atrocities allows us to realise the profound forces of cosmic justice, we can never truly answer the one confounding question: why?
The tragedy of King Lear lies in the seemingly inexplicable death of truth and goodness, embodied most discernibly in the central relationship dynamic between Cordelia and Lear. The kings initial foolish blindness culminates in Cordelias banishment from the kingdom and as such, an understanding can be established as to Lears fate; his actions must inevitably account for the ruinous consequences.
In studying King Lear, one must bear in mind that there is a marked distinction between cosmic inevitability and cosmic justice. In Lears case, there is, for the most part, a fundamental tragic element that governs Lears fatal flaw with the corresponding cataclysmic implications. His foolishness and vanity are complemented essentially with the chaotic disorder of a kingdom in turmoil, reeling from the seemingly implausible division of the nation.
The duality between what is said and what is done in King Lear becomes exceedingly ironic in the opening scenes of the play. As Lears vanity reaches a climactic profusion, he commands rather heedlessly a speech of sycophantic doting from each of his daughters:
Tell me, my daughters
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state),
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
Therein, Lears seed of unchecked pride instigates the birth of deceit and manipulation, both of which are personified by Goneril and Regan themselves. Recklessly disregarding the potential for his self-gratifying indulgence of obsequiously contrived pronunciations of love to go terribly awry, Lear proceeds to create a spectacle of the respect he commands. It is this principle of falsehood that serves to ultimately bring about Lears demise; he evidently values elaborate and calculatingly devised displays of affection over genuine love, and perhaps more horrifyingly, cannot grasp initially the distinction.
The recurring exploration of the significance of nothing is established by the unprecedented succession of events in the Act I, Scene i. Lears incredulity as to the rather scant content of Cordelias speech emanates from his hollow repetition of:
Nothing will come of nothing.
Lears failure to comprehend the paradoxical depth of Cordelias nothing is once again reflective of his shallow understanding of reality. Incapable of recognising the inherent honesty and sincerity of her words, Lear rages in a frightening demonstration of the extent of his uninhibited wrath, culminating in the irrationality of Cordelias banishment;
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence and avoid my sight
So be my grave my peace as here I give
Her fathers heart from her!
Essentially, Lears blindness to the authenticity of Cordelias affection acts as the catalyst for the resultant chaos and collapse of all established order following her banishment from the kingdom. The synonymity of the notion of truth and nothing haunts Lear in the midst of his internal furore towards the latter stages of the play; the weight of this paradox is embodied in Lears resignation as one of the impoverished. His road to redemption and restoration first and foremost as an individual, is epitomised by his awesome realisation:
Is man no more than this?