“In King Lear good does not vanquish evil: it is evil that destroys itself”
Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” discusses many notions the most important being the relationship between good and evil and the constant battle of the opposites; their dependency and the origin of wickedness, as well as the fact that something good can never “destroy” anything all play a key role in the question of if it is evil that destroys itself. The following essay will deliberate these ideas and compare good and evil throughout the play to show the self-destruction evil caused for itself. Throughout the entire play of “King Lear” there are many acts of goodness as well as acts of wickedness that represent the two ideas of virtue versus deviltry that depend on each other. Without the good there could not be any evil and the same goes for evil because without the opposite they could not be compared and therefore not be identified as being either good or bad. King Lear would never have realized the horrible mistake he made when he claimed that “nothing will come of nothing” (Act 1, Scene 1), would it not have been for Cordelia’s vicious sisters that drove evil too far and made their father go mad. Their evil behavior towards their father can be seen in Act 1 Scene 3 where Goneril instructs a servant to be rude and less courteous to Lear. “Put on what weary negligence you please, you and your fellows: I’d have it come to question” she says, ordering the servant to show Lear no respect which highlights her evil intentions. Only Lear’s craziness makes him see his truthful daughter and also who deceived him.
If Regan and Goneril were not evil, Lear would have never noticed his neglect and he could not have seen the truth and his daughter’s real intentions. However, if Regan and Goneril were to have been good, there would not have been a misconception at the distribution of the kingdom which would have led to Lear choosing his favorite daughter over the two others and Regan and Goneril being left with nothing which would have made the audience feel empathy towards them and give every character a new idea of good and evil. Therefore both virtue and deviltry are necessary for the play because they compliment each other’s differences and highlight the opposites even more, further changing the story that depends on both extremes. All the evil happenings in the tragedy of King Lear can be related back to goodness which makes good the cause of evil, adding to another relationship and connection the two opposites share.
The virtuous side created wickedness which you can see clearly through Edmond’s treachery against his father and brother. This can be seen in Act 1, Scene 2 where Edmond’s soliloquy clearly underlines his evil plot of replacing his brother as his father’s heir. “[…] Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard, Edmond, as to th’legitimate […] if this letter speed and my invention thrive, Edmond the base shall to th’legitimate. I grow; I prosper; now gods, stand up for bastards!” he exclaims. This is the first time the audience sees how evil and vicious Edmond is and what his plans are. If Gloucester had not treated his “bastard son” so badly, he might not have turned so evil. However, because his father continuously showed Edmond that he preferred Edgar over him, Edmond grew up with such a bad attitude towards him which led to his evil plot and his vicious actions. Thereupon, goodness is responsible for the creation of evil and without the good wickedness could not exist.
Furthermore, the destruction of evil could not have been through goodness because if goodness were to destroy anything it could no longer be identified as “good”. This states that the word “destruction” already implies a negative and evil idea where as good would be determined as the opposite. Cordelia is a purely good character which shows even when she had the chance to fight evil, she did not reach for brutality or destruction of bad but rather tried to help the good and fix the terrible situation. Accordingly, if good were to destroy evil it could no longer be called “good” because it would be on the same level as evil and could not be differentiated anymore. It is therefore impossible for good to destroy evil, since it is basically incapable of wicked actions. Edmond’s death, however, could indicate the vanquishing of evil through good. The brothers Edmond and Edgar that represent evil and good, fight until Edgar finally kills his brother. On one hand, one could possibly see this as good overcoming evil since the “good” brother killed the “evil” brother; yet this certain feeling of hope is quickly crushed by the tragic ending and the deaths of most of the main characters representing goodness in the play. On the other hand, it is evil that caused its own destruction all along due to the fact that it took on more than it could handle, striving for too much power which ultimately led to its own downfall.
Edmond started off with a plan of taking over his brother’s and then his father’s position but he got carried away by the idea of power that he competed for a position that was too high for him which eventually made him fail. If Edmond had only aimed for ranks that were within his reach, he would have successfully accomplished his goal. Edmund’s deviltry can be seen until the very end, where he confesses to have ordered for Cordelia and Lear to be hanged, just before he dies. “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do, despite of my own nature” he reveals, wanting to at least do one good deed before his life is over. Yet because he tried to scheme for even more power, he is responsible for his own elimination and the cause of his failure. Another example of evil’s own vanquishing is the battle between the sisters Goneril and Regan. At the beginning they fight on the same side against their father yet towards the end of the play they both become to obsessed with the idea of power that they turn against each other to strive for everything. They both fight over Edmond and are too greedy to want to share the kingdom. This can certainly be seen in Act 4, Scene 2 when Goneril says “One way I like this well; but being widow, and my Gloucester with her, may all the building in my fancy pluck upon my hateful life” which indicates that Goneril is scared that her sister will take Edmond away from her. Their betrayal upon each other can also be recognized through Regan’s poisoning by Goneril in Act 5, Scene 3. When Regan falls to the ground ill, Goneril says “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine” foreshadowing Regan’s soon death. The sisters greed for power grew so strong that the betrayed each other just to reach a goal. This shows that the two variants of deviltry destroyed themselves through selfishness and greed. Throughout the tragedy of King Lear the fight between good and evil brings forward many connections and highlights the relationship of the two opposites. Not only are they dependent upon each other, wickedness was created by purity and without one the other could not exist. Virtue is also incapable of destruction leaving all these notions to prove that good did not vanquish evil, but that it was evil that destroyed itself.