Delayed Judgement for King Lear

Within the first couple scenes of King Lear, it becomes clear that some characters are meant to be perceived as “good” and others as “bad.” Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are bad; Cordelia and Kent are good. Lear is maybe the only one whose goodness isn’t set in stone at the end of the first act. Although Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all have legitimate grievances tied to their lack of options to gain wealth and power in a patriarchal society dominated by inheritance, they are marked from the beginning as evil. In later acts, their evilness becomes clear in the violence that they either take part in or allow to occur, but in Act 1 their only bad action is trying to push back against an unfair system.

The reason for these snap good/bad divisions in the play is loyalty, but only loyalty to the “natural” power, which is Lear. This is shown through the treatment of Goneril’s servant Oswald, a very loyal character who is repeatedly harassed by Lear in Act 1 Scene 4 and Kent in Act 2 Scene 2 for showing Lear less than complete devotion. But it’s unclear why Lear deserves this devotion in the first place, when his unpredictable temper and lack of compassion for Kent and Cordelia suggest that he is not a capable or worthy leader. Why is Lear, who begins with the advantages of complete power via the “natural” system and still treats the people around him poorly, the one who gets a redemption arc?

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