How Should we Judge the Morality of Shakespeare’s Characters?

I believe that King Lear does a good job at giving morality its nebulous nature. Every character is much a more a product of their experiences than they are of some innate malicious intent. The antagonists of Lear are generally indignant, and rightfully so. Edmund’s actions are a product of his unfair treatment within society as a bastard. Regan and Goneril are second to Cordelia, as Lear is noted to have played favorites. And Lear, with his inability to take criticism, is this not just a pernicious side effect of his position within society. And if it is to be supposed that these characters are not a product of their environment, one would have to argue that they are a product of nature. This leaves a difficult dilemma where blame is escapable. Why blame character for actions that are dictated purely based off of either their environment or their innate qualities? This is simply not a feasible model for anything, it is not practical, riddled with excuses for actions, and disheartening. We cannot prove that free will exists, and yet we must accept that it does, for everything falls apart without that assumption. If we cannot prove its existence, we must at least pretend. In addition to this, what dictates the will of these characters? Does one dictate one’s own will? What wills Cordelia to forgiveness? What wills Goneril and Regan towards hate? Are we capable to dictating our own will, or only recognizing it? While I do not believe that Shakespeare attempts to answer these questions, or that this play speaks against the concept of a freely determining will, I still think Shakespeare is arguing that taking into account the experiences of a person is the most essential aspect to determining their character. King Lear touches on this, and by doing so, Shakespeare argues for a message of mutual understanding, of causal examination, and of empathy.

2 thoughts on “How Should we Judge the Morality of Shakespeare’s Characters?

  1. Tim M

    I think that the most significant evidence of Shakespeare’s masterful writing, and one of the reasons that his work continues to be lauded and studied 400 years after his death, is the complexity of his characters. As you explain, no character is individually at fault, and no character is entirely flawed or entirely innocent. That’s part of what makes the play so appealing — for instance, the audience doesn’t see Edmond as solely a villainous figure, because they are able to sympathize with a man who is driven by a desire for equal treatment after a whole life of being treated as inferior.


  2. Brigid B

    As fascinating as I find the debate between nature and nurture, I think it can be quite harmful to stagnantly assume one way or the other. In my own experience, things in this world, including the world of literature, are very rarely black and white. All experiences, people, stories, and ideas are some amalgamation of good and bad, holy and unholy, white and black, hero and villain. There is no one determining factor in anything.


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