Many themes are evident in King Lear, but perhaps one of the
most prevalent relates to the theme of justice. Shakespeare has
developed a tragedy that allows us to see man's decent into
chaos. Although Lear is perceived as "a man more sinned against
than sinning" (p.62), the treatment of the main characters
encourages the reader to reflect on the presence or lack of
justice in this world. The characters also vary in their
inclination to view the world from either a fatalistic or
moralistic point of view, depending on their beliefs about the
presence or absence of a higher power. The theme of justice in
relation to higher powers can be illustrated from the perspective
of King Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar.

When reading King Lear, it is helpful to understand the
Elizabethan "Chain of Being" in which nature is viewed as order.
Rosenblatt (1984) states that there was a belief in an
established hierarchy within the universe. Everything had its
own relative position beginning with Heaven, the Divine Being,
and the stars and planets which are all above. On earth the king
is next, then the nobles, on down to the peasantry. Holding the
lowest position were the beggars and lunatics and finally, the
animals. Interrupting this order is unnatural.
King Lear's sin was that he disrupted this chain of being by
relinquishing his throne. By allowing his daughters and their
husbands to rule the kingdom, the natural order of things was
disturbed. His notion that he can still be in control after
dividing the kingdom is a delusion. According to Elizabethan
philosophy, it would seem that this is the beginning of his
mistakes and is also the cause of much of the misfortune that
occurs later on in the play. Chaos rules the unnatural.
As well, King Lear makes another devastating mistake which
affects his relationship with his daughters by asking them to
tell him how much they love him in order that he may divide his
kingdom according to the strength of their love. Cordelia, the
youngest daughter, states that she loves her father "according to
her bond" (p.4). She is saying that she loves him as much as any
child could love a father. On the other hand, Goneril and Reagan
easily speak the words that their father wants to hear, rather
than the truth.
Because Lear is not satisfied with Cordelia's response, he
turns his back on Cordelia and on her love. By doing this he is
destroying the natural family unit and lacks the insight to know
this. He unjustly punishes Cordelia by banishing her from the
kingdom. He casts out his daughter in an unfatherly fashion, yet
is gravely upset by the ingratitude of his other two daughters,
Goneril and Reagan.
Once again, due to Lear's lack of wisdom, he fails to recognize
the sincerity of Cordelia's words. Thus, he puts his
relationship with his daughters in jeopardy which results in a
constant source of grief for King Lear.
King Lear holds firm to his belief that the world is
governed by the gods and in justice. Therefore he does not
question the will of the gods in letting him suffer from his
daughter's unkindness, but prays
If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not with so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger (p.50).
Greer (1986) reminds us that Shakespeare uses the word
"nature" often, but rarely with the same meaning. For instance,
Lear personifies nature when he calls Cordelia "a wretch whom
Nature is ashamed/Almost to acknowledge hers" (p.9). Here, it
seems as though Lear thinks himself to be particularly special
and close to nature because he is presumptuous in believing that
he can read Nature's mind. On the same note, Lear also seems to
order his goddess, Nature, as though he is in control. He
commands Nature to follow his orders,
Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful (p.29).
Therefore, Lear is once again disturbing the order of things by
putting himself above the gods.
Lear disturbs the Chain of Being, unjustly punishes Cordelia
and misinterprets his role in life by assuming himself to be the
lord of creation. For these "sins" he is punished when Goneril
and Reagan turn on him and Cordelia dies. Thus, it would seem
that justice is served.
However, Holloway (1961) suggests that Lear suffers more for
his "sins" than seems reasonable. Holloway sums up this concept
as follows: "the world can be to mankind, and has been to Lear,
a rack: a scene of suffering reiterated past all probability or
reason"