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Evil in King Lear

Google definition has several definitions for “evil” that essentially encompass the same idea. According to Google, evil is “the quality of being morally wrong”. Although this is a good basis for a definition of evil, is evil deeper than Google can describe? One always hopes that good will prevail over evil, but this does not always happen. There are various factors that can determine the eventual outcome and several questions that need to be answered. “Is evil intrinsic to ones nature?” “Can one person force another person to be evil?” “Are there different levels or degrees of evil?” In King Lear by William Shakespeare, evil is a dominant theme. We are not born evil, evil is learned through experience and while no one can force another person to be evil, one can be influenced by another person to perform evil acts. Evil is the quality of being morally wrong, but there are different degrees of evil. In King Lear, evil and its degrees are illustrated through the characters.

The sisters Goneril and Regan are an example of characters that take evil to a new level. It can be argued that they are the most malicious characters of the play. They have betrayed Lear several times and have inflicted horrors on many others for self gain alone. The first of their wrongs starts at the very beginning when they deceivingly tell Lear how much they love him. They do this only for the land he has promised them in return for their loving praise, along with housing, taking care of him, and one hundred of his knights. They go back on this deal, which is another, but not their worst of wrongs. They drive Lear mad, all as part of a plan to diminish him of his title of king and make him nothing. They drive him to the point in which he runs off into a raging storm and they urge Gloucester to not help him and leave him, which is said in this quote “My lord, entreat him by no means to stay.”(act 2, scene 4). Their worst does not stop there, Goneril plans to kill her husband and commits adultery and Regan urges Cornwall to pluck out Gloucester’s eyes which leads to Cornwall getting stab and killed. In the midst of all this the two sisters develop a family feud over Edmund which inevitably results in their downfall.

Edmund is of the same breed of evil. He is ruthless and deceitful; his evil appears to have no end. The first we hear of Edmund, he is scheming to overthrow his father Gloucester and acquire Gloucester’s title of duke. To do so, he would also have to get rid brother Edgar, the rightful heir to the title. Edmund is the kind of guys who doesn’t think twice to screw someone over. Edmund begins his long and evil plan by setting his brother up saying that Edgar wants to overthrow Gloucester. As planned, Gloucester banishes Edgar. Now looked at as the trustworthy son, Gloucester entrusted Edmund with a potentially dangerous secret; a secret in which Edmund did not keep. He betrayed his father and told the sisters and Cornwall of Gloucester’s plans to help Lear escape to the safety of France. This resulted in Cornwall plucking out Gloucester’s eyes, a deed Edmund did nothing to oppose. Edmund does not stop there, he knows of the sisters feud over him and he leads them both on to play them against each other in which he states in this quote “To both these sisters have I sworn my love; Each jealous of the other, as the stung Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take? Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d, If both remain alive”. Edmund does all this for personal gain. He knows of his evil and he continues because he wants more power.

The rest of the characters of the plays evil deeds do not rise to the same level of evil that our main conspirators, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund achieve; but they too commit evil acts. Arrogance and being self-centered can also be considered to be evil traits and they are two of Lear’s tragic flaws. Lear is arrogant, he believes that he can give up his responsibilities as king and keep the titles and benefits. He thinks that if he gives his daughters all his land, they will take care of him. He was wrong in his assumption, and when he was told that he was making bad choices by his most loyal friend Kent, he banished Kent. Lear was unjust to Kent, and it was wrong to banish him for caring. Lear also makes the mistake of banishing his daughter Cordelia for telling the truth to Lear. Lear is self-centered, everything is always about him. All he can think about is how everyone is doing him wrong. He believes that he is “more sinned against than sinning” Lear’s acts were evil, but minor compared to that of his daughter’s and Edmunds.

In life one hopes that good prevails, but in the end this is not always the case. It is human nature to want to see evil doers get what they deserve, but that too does not always happen. In King Lear, some of the characters that perform evil acts get their just desserts, but there are casualties along the way and both good and evil die. Evil is not intrinsic to ones nature, but evil tendencies can be influenced along the way. A truly evil character can be identified by the evil he intends. As it is in Shakespeare’s King Lear, it is in life; human beings perform evil acts in different degrees. One can be an evil doer, an evil watcher, or the just the person who stands by and does nothing. Any way you view it, evil is as Google definition defines, “the quality of being morally wrong.”

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