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The practice of combining love and justice in the governance of relationships between parents and children is crucial to the moral formation of the young. This balancing act also requires the most strenuous and careful exercise by those who would be good parents of the very moral virtues that they are striving to cultivate in their offspring. Moreover, the entire endeavor hangs on one of the oldest and most perplexing of all questions, the question of whether, and how, human excellence can be taught.

Most parents and children will, however, experience this large philosophical difficulty by living through a series of more immediate and personally focused dilemmas. Can parents encourage, nurture, and praise excellence in their children without at the same time making it seem as though love comes simply or mainly as the recognition of achievement? Should parental love be contingent to any degree upon performance? Can children ever cease their conflicting demands to be approved and appreciated for their merits and yet to be loved altogether regardless of them? Not all of us are parents, but we have all been children, and we might well ask ourselves whether our most “successful” efforts to make ourselves worthy of our parents’ love have ever been anything but the hollowest of triumphs. “Do you love me for myself or for what I have been able to accomplish?” How many of us have not, at some time or another, sought an answer to this question by devising tests of love for our parents?

When it comes to such questions, we all need the most profound guidance. Hence we must turn to the poets, for in matters of this sort, we need a sentimental education, a course of instruction that engages the feelings and the imagination along with reason. The very best poetry does not simply instruct us and move us; it instructs us by moving us. For our purposes here, one of the poems that most movingly and most truly gathers up the great themes of love and justice is Shakespeare’s King Lear. One character in particular—the Duke of Gloucester’s elder son, Edgar—and especially one speech made by Edgar toward the end of Act V, provide an especially useful focus for considering two related matters: first, the several difficulties involved in managing a union of love and justice in relationships between parents and children; and second, the several ways in which the best dramatic literature serves as a uniquely powerful resource for thinking through these and other matters of vital ethical importance.


Edgar’s speech (Act V, Scene iii) is the story of a life’s journey:

List a brief tale;
And when ‘tis told, O, that my heart would burst!
The bloody proclamation to escape
That followed me so near—O, our lives’ sweetness,
That we the pain of death would hourly die
Rather than die at once!—taught me to shift
Into a madman’s rags, t’ assume a semblance
That very dogs disdained: and in this habit
Met I my father with his bleeding rings,
Their precious stones new lost; became his guide,
Led him, begged for him, saved him from despair;
Never—O fault!—revealed myself unto him,
Until some half-hour past, when I was armed,
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I asked his blessing, and from first to last
Told him our pilgrimage. But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

The scene between Edgar and Gloucester that this speech describes does not, like the earlier and closely parallel scene between Cordelia and her father, King Lear, end with full recognition and reconciliation but with the death of Edgar’s father Gloucester. We may be tempted to think that Shakespeare chose not to represent directly this latter scene of Edgar and Gloucester as part of the dramatic action of the play precisely because of its relative incompletion and failure. The reason for Shakespeare’s refusal lies deeper, however. Edgar’s telling of the tale that includes his recognition of a serious flaw in the way he sought to restore himself to his father’s good graces is much more important than the scene of that incompletion and failure would itself have been. In the telling of his and Gloucester’s pilgrimage, Edgar is still in the process of learning the difficult lessons that the audience, through Edgar, are learning for themselves. In other words, the dramatic action here is just this learning process and not the narrated events that gave rise to it.

What exactly does Edgar learn? Edgar is the elder and the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. At the beginning of the play, his younger and illegitimate brother Edmund has recently returned from an absence of nine years, and at once contrives to win the inheritance that rightfully belongs to Edgar. By the use of a forged letter, numerous slanders, and other more delicate and sinister stratagems, Edmund convinces Gloucester that his beloved son Edgar is plotting to kill him. Whereupon Gloucester proclaims Edgar a traitor, disowns him, disinherits him, bars all escape routes, and summons all the powers at his disposal to seek Edgar out and kill him. Edmund has in the meantime also duped Edgar. Pretending to be his brother’s ally and protector, Edmund informs Edgar that their father has flown into an inexplicable rage against him. He arranges for Edgar’s escape from Gloucester’s castle, and he urges Edgar to be armed against the very forces that Edmund has encouraged Gloucester to unleash against him. The wily villainy of Edmund is matched only by the astonishing credulity of both Edgar and Gloucester. Banished from his home and fearing for his life, Edgar “shifts into the madman’s rags” he mentions in the speech quoted above. He mortifies his body, ties his hair in knots, covers himself with grime, and goes about in the guise of a blithering beggar.

The summary of this entire complex development takes Edgar but five and one half lines. Notice that the brief tale omits much (no mention of Edmund), and that it pretends to explain simply and directly more than in fact it does explain. Thus, for example, the “bloody proclamation” might by itself suffice to explain why Edgar needs to disguise himself, but it does not explain why he chooses the kind of disguise he does—“t’ assume a semblance that very dogs disdained.” As he speaks, however, the deeper source of his choice of disguise seems to dawn upon Edgar. It is, after all, his father’s “bloody proclamation” (the double entendre is intentional here, for, as we shall see, Gloucester thinks of his paternity primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of blood and law; thus, the proclamation is bloody both in the sense of its threatening Edgar’s blood and in the sense of its being pronounced by Edgar’s own blood) that inflicts “hourly” upon Edgar “the pain of death.” So his disguise is no disguise at all; it is rather the representation of what Edgar most truly feels himself to be. Or, more exactly, Edgar’s disguise both conceals and reveals him. The beggar’s rags may conceal him from his father’s agents, but they at the same time reveal what Edgar really feels himself to be—a rejected, despised, and half-crazed wretch.

Perhaps Edgar is someone who is ready to believe the worst about himself. How else explain his readiness to accept rather than to challenge his father’s wrathful proclamation against his life? Perhaps at some level of his being, Edgar believes that he deserves judgment and punishment. Perhaps he thinks, or at least he feels, that his father’s proclamation is justified. Perhaps his father’s feeling about him is all that matters, regardless of whether or not it is “justified.” Remember that Edgar does not know for a long time what we know from the beginning—that Gloucester’s wrath is the result of his credulity in the face of Edmund’s deceptions. In any event, the trust and the understanding between father and son must be very fragile in order for them both to fall prey so easily to Edmund’s plot. How secure are any of us in the affections of our parents? Is there not something about our condition that leads to isolation, separation, and estrangement even from those we love the most?

To ask these questions is perhaps to move, like Edgar, too quickly from the particularities of his own relationship to his father to a more general statement about the human condition (“O, our lives’ sweetness . . . ”). Nevertheless, we can, even at this early point of our interpretation of Edgar’s speech, begin to see what the pilgrimage described by Edgar is all about and how it is that our attention to that pilgrimage can move us to see something about the conjoint operation of love and justice in the actions of a parent. Edgar’s and Gloucester’s pilgrimage does not tell us simply or even mainly about what happened or about what will happen between a particular parent and a particular child. It does, however, show us (by making us “see the world feelingly”) what happens when a child has been unjustly despised and rejected by a parent. Edgar’s long endeavor with his father is about the tremendous pain all of us have known if ever and whenever we have felt rejected by those whose love means the most to us. Moreover, it shows us how, once rejected, we have grown to feel especially unworthy of regard, much less affection, from our parents precisely because their verdict upon us has made us feel the way Edgar appears. And this astonishing process of a parent’s love or its withdrawal effecting before our eyes the very thing that in part gave rise to it teaches us something about parental love that we might otherwise overlook—that it has the power to bestow, even to create, worth and value in its object. “Edgar I nothing am” (II, iii): to ask whether this is a subjective or an objective judgment is to misconceive both the character and his situation.

In some such condition of convicted unworthiness, Edgar encounters his father. Gloucester has fallen prey to more of Edmund’s machinations. The poor old man has been blinded and cast out of his own castle to endure a terrible storm on the heath and to “feel his way to Dover” where he expects to rendezvous with the forces allied with King Lear and led by Lear’s daughter Cordelia. Then, according to the account in his speech, Edgar “became his guide, led him, begged for him, saved him from despair . . . .” One of these efforts to “save” his father involves an astonishing deception. Edgar convinces the suicidal Gloucester that he has led him to the brink of a precipice, and after the poor man flops over onto the ground (for there is no precipice), Edgar assumes yet another guise in which he tries to convince his father that, even though he has really plunged down several fathoms from the brink of a cliff, he has been miraculously spared by the just gods above. Not until he has taken on a few more disguises, not until he puts his father through several more ordeals, does Edgar reveal himself to Gloucester and ask his blessing. But by then it is too late. Before Gloucester can pronounce his blessing upon Edgar, the old man finally dies.

Again, perhaps the most important thing about Edgar’s account of all of this is what it omits. It omits the fact that when Edgar encounters the bleeding and blinded visage of his father, he overhears Gloucester repent of his wrath against him. At the very moment Gloucester was blinded, he learned that Edgar had been true to him and Edmund false. Indeed, Gloucester says within Edgar’s overhearing, “Might I but live to see thee in my touch, I’d say I had eyes again” (IV, i). Gloucester, in other words, is quite clear about the terms of his own salvation. He does not need to be guided through a long pilgrimage, tested, deceived, and “saved from despair” through cunning stratagems. Instead, he needs only to “see Edgar” in a deeper way, a way that is anchored in sentiment and understanding rather than merely blood and law.

Edgar has other plans for his father, however, largely because he has other plans for himself. He will not give his father an opportunity to make amends until he has revealed himself as worthy of his father’s love (the logic of revelation here will be particularly difficult for a son “in disguise” before a father who is blind). He will literally win his way back into his father’s affections by offering proof of his merits. He will found love upon justice. He will get love the old fashioned way: he will earn it. Edgar is quite explicit about these plans:

Mark the high noises, and thyself bewray [reveal]
When false opinion whose wrong thoughts defile thee,
In thy just proof repeals and reconciles thee.
(III, vi)

If parental love were simply a matter of true opinion and the distribution of affection according to merit, there would be good sense in Edgar’s strategy. But the plan fails to reckon with three facts of life made visible to the audience by the dramatic coincidence of Edgar’s “disguise” and Gloucester’s blindness. First, though the “logic” of both parental and filial love certainly involves matters of blood, law, and merit, it also involves matters of trust, perception, and sentiment”not the sorts of things that can be quickly repaired in a moment of triumphant disclosure by “just proof” and “true opinion.” Second, the logic of revelation or disclosure in matters of love between parents and children is extremely problematic, since the children will to some extent be what their parents perceive them to be. Third, given that parental love is both immense and to some extent a gift, a child can never reach the point when his or her achievements “merit” such love.

Edgar’s actions show us what happens to someone who fails to reckon with these latter and, to the audience, obvious difficulties. He becomes egotistical and cruel, for one thing. Thus, when he first sees his blinded father, his first thought is of himself, of his plans, of his fate. “I am worse than e’er I was,” he says (IV, i). This egotism quickly gives way to cruelty. For Edgar, knowing that his father “would say that he had eyes again” if only he could see Edgar in his touch, nonetheless remains disguised. He is thereby implicated in Gloucester’s continuing blindness.* This egotism and cruelty are wholly understandable, given the nature of Edgar’s project as outlined by his speech in Act V. He is nowhere near the “good success” that he hopes for. He is not armed, and he has not yet vanquished the chief rival for his father’s love, his brother Edmund. But this is what he proposes to do; then and only then will he be ready to reveal himself. Until that time he must remain in disguise. Those who seek to earn love must wait until they are at the height of their powers before they lay claim to it. And this moment never quite comes, as it never quite comes for Edgar. So he compromises. He reveals himself to Gloucester fully hoping for success against Edmund, but prior to the point when he has attained it. But it is too late, as it must always be too late for those who insist upon complete success. The quest for complete worthiness as the condition of love can end only in death. No wonder he thinks first of himself when he sees his father. Edgar really is worse than e’er he was. For since he really does plan eventually to impress Gloucester with his worthiness, he must do so only when he feels impressive. And his beggar’s rags bespeak a sense of self that is most unworthy indeed.

Another thing that we learn by seeing Edgar’s project miscarry is that those who seek to earn love are often oblivious to it when it is freely offered. Again and again Gloucester blesses him, but Edgar does not hear. Before Gloucester attempts suicide, he prays, and at the conclusion of the prayer he exclaims, “If Edgar live, O bless him!” (IV, vi). Later, after Gloucester has begun to suspect Edgar’s charades, he bids him a temporary farewell by saying, “Grace go with you, sir” (V, ii). But Edgar is too busy with his plans to pay attention. When he finally asks for what has already been given but not accepted, the request is as superfluous as it is untimely.

We learn finally that those who seek to earn parental love and who, like Edgar, thereby make its attainment impossibly difficult become deeply self-deceived. Edgar really believes that he is concealing his identity, the true inner sense of his own unworthiness, in order to protect and save Gloucester. But Edgar is really protecting himself. Those who seek to win the love of those others who really matter the most to them can so easily convince themselves that deception is a strategy undertaken for the good of the deceived rather than for the protection of the deceiver. We may even suggest that the most common fantasy of the disgraced person is this, namely, that in withholding the truth about himself from those whose love he most seeks and needs, he is really protecting them, whereas in fact he is protecting himself from having to take the immense risk of facing these others as he really knows himself and feels himself to be. Thus, what begins as estrangement from others quickly becomes, under the pressure of the endeavor to earn love, first deception and then self-deception.

We can now perhaps begin to see that Shakespeare really does show us, in the character of Edgar, what happens to those who seek to earn parental love. Yes, self-mutilated children feigning madness are rare things, but persons of low self-worth seeking vainly to achieve a kind of worthiness in order to merit affection are altogether too common. Yes, halting and pathetic pilgrimages to Dover are not to be seen every day, but lifetimes spent in living through disguises, deceptions, and self-deceptions are common enough and pathetic enough. And yes, sword fights fought to the death between siblings in order to secure sole or at least primary possession of a parent’s love are seldom seen but everywhere imagined and commonly approximated.

All of this seems rather grim, but there may be hope, even for Edgar. In seeking vainly to teach and save his father he is himself educated in the ways of justice and love. And we see the first small fruits of that education in the very speech we have been analyzing. Two small words in that speech have rather large implications. “O fault!” Edgar exclaims in the course of admitting his delay in revealing himself to his father. He has come to understand that telling his father a true story of what the two of them had endured together and inflicted upon one another was a far better way both of expressing filial love and of asking for a blessing than vanquishing a brother or standing in full armor and at full strength before his father. And he frames the narration of his telling of that story so as to show us how deeply he has come to identify with his father. The story he tells Gloucester of their pilgrimage together causes the old man’s heart to burst, and Edgar wishes that this would happen to him after he finishes telling the story of the same pilgrimage to the remaining vestiges of Lear’s kingdom.

Though he has already learned much about the dark ways of love and justice, he is still perhaps too much like Gloucester, still not ready to occupy the position that he will occupy at the end of the play. But he will lose another father. And that loss will teach both him and us some more lessons about love and justice. These lessons will dawn upon us as we discover how and why Edgar has become less and less like Gloucester and more and more like his other father, King Lear.


Few critics seem to have noticed the significance of the fact that Edgar is Lear’s godson. But on the basis of our discussion of the play thus far, this detail is extremely important both to the central themes of love and justice and to the structure of the play’s dramatic action. When Regan asks of Gloucester, “What, did my father’s godson seek your life?/He whom my father named, your Edgar?” (II, i), she suggests that though it is shocking enough to imagine intended patricide, it is more shocking still to imagine that Lear’s own godson would plan such a thing. Of course the ironies here are legion (Is Regan’s shock perhaps feigned, given what she is plotting in the very scene of this disclosure about Edgar?), forcing us again to recognize the unfathomable character of evil. But the way in which this major disclosure is phrased—“ . . . my father named, your Edgar”—also forces upon us the sense that Lear is deeply implicated in Edgar’s life and Edgar in Lear’s in ways that we must seek to understand if we are not to miss many of the things the play has to teach us about love between parents and children.

In the same speech in which Edgar reveals his plans to reconcile with his father through “just proof,” he notices a striking comparison between himself and King Lear. “He childed as I fathered,” Edgar says of Lear, meaning, presumably, that just as Lear sired children who turned for inscrutable reasons against him, so he, Edgar, “fathered” Gloucester, who, for equally inscrutable reasons, turned against him (III, vi). But if we bear in mind the fact that Edgar is Lear’s godson, deeper affinities emerge along the lines suggested by Edgar’s observation. Just as Gloucester had two sons and was bound to one, according to Gloucester himself, only by blood and nature and to the other by blood and law, so Edgar had two fathers, bound to one by both nature and law and to the other by (apparently) nurture and character. If we bear these complex connections in mind, we can learn a great deal about the several aspects of paternal and filial love—nature or blood, law or convention, and nurture or character—by observing the ordinarily conjoint aspects of these loves in their isolated operation.

Gloucester’s weakness and credulity stem from an imbalance in him between his carnal longings and his dispositions to be loyal and devoted to his king. Edmund seems to inherit only the blood lust, such that nature becomes his goddess, his only source of attachment to his father, and the engine of his blind ambition. Edgar inherits a preoccupation with law, legitimacy, and, as we have seen, justice. Altogether absent from Gloucester’s love for either Edmund or Edgar is any understanding of who they are, any grasp of, much less any appreciation for, their characters. To witness the drama between Gloucester and Edmund is to witness the power of the blood tie and its horrifying inadequacy as the sole basis for paternity and filial devotion. To witness the long pilgrimage of Gloucester and Edgar is, as we have seen, to fathom the importance of law and justice as an aspect of paternal and filial devotion, even as we grow to feel the sad inadequacy of justice as the sole basis for paternal and filial love. Gloucester seems simply to lurch between nature and law as defining his paternity. He sometimes speaks, especially regarding Edmund, as though blood were an all-powerful tie between father and son. At other times, especially regarding Edgar, he speaks as though the law were strong enough to revoke nature itself, to sever the tie of blood and the deep affections that go with it. “I had a son/Now outlawed/ from my blood; he sought my life/ But lately, very late. I loved him, friend./ No father his son dearer” (III, iv, emphases added).

Again, discernment of his sons’ characters is altogether absent. Thus, the character of Gloucester’s recognition, when it finally comes, is not simply that “Edgar was abused” but that the whole character of his fatherhood was deficient such that Edgar could have been abused. He needs, not repentance for a single piece of bad judgment, but the power of discerning character and the motivation to do so. Gloucester’s restoration (as far as it can go) is completed, then, before Edgar encounters him. For Gloucester already “sees” exactly what he must do and be, and his despair is linked directly and completely to the fact that he believes he will have no such opportunity.

But what is absent in Gloucester is wholly present in Edgar’s other father, Lear. He not only names Edgar, he knows who Edgar is. Indeed Edgar is Lear himself, possessed of the same great fault as a child that undoes Lear as a parent. When Gloucester first encounters Edgar “disguised” as Tom o’Bedlam, his “son came then into his mind” as the embodiment of wretchedness (IV, i), but when Lear in his “madness” first encounters Edgar as Tom o’Bedlam, he recognizes him for what he is, a “man of justice!” (III, vi). Lear, the parent, tries, at the beginning of the play, to found justice upon love, to divide the kingdom in accordance with the extent to which each of his children loves him. Throughout the opening actions of the play, i.e., throughout the first two acts, Lear thinks of love in quantitative terms (as when he equates the amount of love that Regan and Goneril feel for him with the number of knights they will permit him to retain) as a basis for a rough kind of distributive justice. The more you love, the more material goods you deserve. Edgar wants to found love upon justice, as we have seen. He wants to earn, through deeds and other “proofs” of his worth, the affections of his father. Both of these projects drastically miscarry, but the son, partly by watching his two fathers expose in body and in speech the dark anatomy of love and justice in all their forms (IV, vi), partly by coming to see the faults in his own strategy with Gloucester, and partly by feeling the successive shocks of losing first Gloucester and then his other father Lear (who is then legally Edgar’s father), becomes by the end of the play prepared to rule over Lear’s tragic legacy.+

The more we come to understand Lear, the more we come to understand Edgar. And conversely. We may wonder, for example, why Lear should unthinkingly assume that Poor Tom has been reduced to such a state because he has given everything away to his daughters (III, iv). In seeking to answer this question, we come to see that Lear’s own obsession with filial ingratitude suggests that he was the kind of father who invariably distributed favors and affections to his children for the sake of a return to himself rather than for the sake of the children themselves. Asking them to do the same (to love him or to profess love for him in order to secure favors, as Lear does at the beginning of the play) seems perfectly reasonable, since Lear has in effect been doing something like that with his daughters all along. To expect gratitude as the proper response to gracious love is one thing. To love in a way that aims at gratitude is quite another: that way madness lies. No wonder, then, that Lear can so readily “recognize” Edgar as someone obsessed with his own crazed project of earning affection. Both men learn from opposite sides of the problem (the would-be lover and would-be beloved; the parent and the child) that the truest love must not be motivated by the prospect of returns. Lear learns from the fact that his love for his daughters was always so motivated and he was hence driven mad by filial ingratitude, Edgar, from the fact that his project was, as we have seen, doomed to failure both by its own logic and its own psycho-logic. To endeavor to earn unconditional love is a contradiction in terms, one that deepens the very longings it seeks to satisfy.

In order for Lear and Edgar to lead us to feel our way through to these harsh truths about love and justice, parents and children, we must see them as they see themselves, as reverse mirror images of one another. The fool prepares us for this seeing. He sings to Lear that “Fathers that wear rags/ Do make their children blind” (II, iv). This ditty plays upon Lear’s obsessive conviction that poverty in parents will lead to indifferent blindness in their children, whereas riches will lead to kindness. But Edgar, as we have seen, discovers a more profound truth in the exact reverse of this ditty: Fathers that are blind do make their children wear rags. For the audience as for the characters, matters of love and justice come to be more and more deeply bound up with matters of knowledge and perception.


We have, perhaps, seen enough of Lear thus far to “see feelingly” that paternal and filial love involve justice, involve ties of blood, and involve perception of and appreciation for character. And we have learned as well that the operation of any one of these aspects to the utter exclusion of the others can lead to hideous results. By focusing our attention upon Edgar and his relationships to his two fathers, we have also been able to discern how crucial it is to construe these complicated matters not in terms of static concepts but in terms of changing patterns of human affection and regard over the course of a lifetime, or a pilgrimage. The failure to emphasize this crucial longitudinal feature of parental and filial love has led even some of the best philosophers to offer inadequate or unnecessarily perplexing accounts of these matters of love and justice between parents and children. To see how and why this is so, let us turn briefly to Aristotle’s account of parental and filial love in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle says of the relationship between philia and justice (and he treats filial and parental love as special instances of philia) that “when men are friends they have no need of justice.” Yet Aristotle never quite fully explains why this should be so. Is it so because philia in the highest and best sense of the word is superior to justice in that it includes the complete fulfillment of demands between friends for fair and equal treatment? Or do friends have no need of justice because justice and philia, though distinct and sometimes conflicting, are coextensive, i.e., they address the same range of concerns in different ways and from different motives such that friendship is preferable? When Aristotle takes his examples from friendships among persons who are not akin to one another, the former seems to be the case, that is, justice between such friends is both completed and superseded by philia. But when Aristotle takes his examples from friendships among persons who are akin to one another, the latter seems to be the case. “[I]njustice increases by being exhibited towards those who are friends in a fuller sense; e.g., it is a more terrible thing to defraud a comrade than a fellow citizen, more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger, and more terrible to wound a father than anyone else. And the demands for justice seem to increase with the intensity of the friendship, which implies that friendship and justice exist between the same persons and have an equal extension” (emphases added).

Difficulties such as these arise in Aristotle’s discussion of philia almost every time he considers friendship among persons who are akin. The point here is not to fault Aristotle for these seeming quandaries, for the same difficulties appear in King Lear. It is as though filial and parental love cannot be fathomed by considering these loves exclusively in terms of philia, eros, or charity, or even in terms of some combination of them. One can perhaps only watch and be affected into understanding. For example, Aristotle says, in speaking about friendships between persons who are unequal to one another with respect to virtue, that in “all such friendships implying inequality the love also should be proportional, i.e., the better should be more loved than he loves . . . ; for when the love is in proportion to the merit of the parties, then in a sense arises equality, which is certainly held to be characteristic of friendship” (emphasis added). It would seem that, on the basis of this analysis, children should love their parents more than parents love their children if there is to be a friendship in the highest and best sense among parents and children.

On the other hand, elsewhere in his discussion of friendship, when Aristotle elaborates more clearly the character of filial love, he seems again to contradict himself. He reiterates his earlier claim that the friendship of children to parents is “a relation to them as to something good and superior,” but he also explains why parents in fact love their children more than children do their parents. For first of all, parents love children “as being a part of themselves”; second, as ones who know the children better than the children know their parents; and third, as ones who love their children for a longer period of time, for “parents love their children as soon as these are born, but children love their parents only after time has elapsed and they have acquired understanding or the power of discrimination by the sense.” Under these circumstances children cannot possibly “equalize” the relationship by loving more; instead, they must “do what they can” to honor those who “are the causes of their being and of their nourishment and of their education from their birth . . . .”

King Lear dramatizes these conundrums from the opening scene through to the end of the play. Thus, Cordelia’s opening speech to Lear in the first scene expresses her love for her father in precisely the terms Aristotle uses to describe those filial obligations that derive from the “greatest benefits” conferred upon children by their parent. “Good my lord./ You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I/ Return those duties back as are right fit./ Obey you, love you, and most honor you” (I, i). Yet by the end of the play Cordelia has more than “equalized” the relationship between herself and her father. A love in the highest and best sense between Lear and Cordelia involves works of supererogation by Cordelia that are the very image of charity, as Lear has become the image of patience (literally Cordelia’s patient). Her moving love for her father has come to exceed his for her, and this seems just and fitting in part because of the magnitude of the action.

We sense, in the cases of Lear, Gloucester, and their noblest children, that we have witnessed lifetimes unfolding before us, pilgrimages if you will. We learn from all of these characters in action that love between parents and children cannot be “equalized” by loving “in proportion to the merit of the parties” at some precise moment in time. When asked to capture filial love in speech, Cordelia speaks fittingly and truly of her duties, even as she intimates the dangers inherent in any implicitly quantitive understanding of love by speaking of giving half of her love to her husband, half to Lear. But over the course of a lifetime , a pilgrimage, the love between the best parents and the best children can be and often is “equalized.” So Aristotle’s seemingly perplexing statements are not perhaps as perplexing as they first appeared to be. Between parents and children, love is a matter of living in a loving manner over time : “When children render to parents what they ought to render to those who brought them into the world, and parents render what they should to their children, the friendship of such persons will be abiding and excellent.” At times, there is need for justice; over time, duty and love become one and the same.

Even so, we live from day to day, and we have seen from the greatly disturbing examples of Lear and Edgar that justice is a necessary part not only of parental love but also of filial love. Yes, parents must show justice in their dealings with their children, especially in that part of the parental task that involves discipline, but children must also practice justice toward their parents in that their characters are involved, along with blood and law, with their parents’ love for them.

But if the mingling of love and justice is necessary, is it necessarily tragic? This finally is the great question Lear forces upon us. Edgar’s and Lear’s great suffering would seem to suggest that the need to mingle justice and love in parenthood cannot help but lead to a wide variety of tragic outcomes. Cordelia’s splendid example suggests that the tragic outcomes can be prevented if and only if parental and filial love partake to some extent of charity. This seems to me perhaps the most important lesson the play suggests to us.

Though the world of King Lear is finally a bleakly pagan one, its characters articulate a variety of theological convictions that are informed by and that in turn inform their more human loves. Thus, it does not or it should not surprise us to find that Gloucester’s gods are “wanton” and that they manipulate, even kill, human beings “for their sport” (IV, i). We have seen how and why Edmund regards nature as his goddess. And we find what we would expect to find given our analysis of Lear and Edgar, namely, that both of them insist against all appearances that the gods are finally just, that justice is the supreme theological virtue. Indeed, both men go to great and sometimes grotesque lengths to “show the heavens more just” (III, iv), to convince others, especially Gloucester in the case of Edgar, that the gods are not arbitrary but that they operate according to strict principles of reward and punishment according to merit. Nowhere in any of these men’s theologies is there a place for a deity who “maketh his rain to fall upon the evil and upon the good,” who loves unconditionally, who, like Cordelia, remains faithful without any cause or reason for doing so.

Absent any such deity, absent any divine example that might inspire and enable charity as at least another aspect of the love between parents and children, the several tragic dynamics of love and justice continue even to the very end of the play. Edgar, as we have seen, has surely risen in both stature and understanding. He comes to recognize that in matters of filial love, at least, we should “speak what we feel” and so reveal ourselves to our parents instead of being driven forever by the need first to achieve what we ought to achieve in order to earn their admiration. Moreover, his last words show us that he has grown to appreciate the magnificence that was there in his godfather and to measure himself against it. Left with the vestiges of a “gored state,” shattered by the loss of both of his fathers in quick succession, and admitting that both the power and the range of his discernment will never equal theirs, Edgar must nevertheless resign himself and his generation to a comparatively brief and cheerless life, partly because, in failing properly to regard their parents, they have been responsible for their sufferings:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. (V, iii)

Absent charity, there are no grounds for hope.

Yet we do, of course, have Cordelia. Unlike Edgar, she directly hears her father disown her, disclaiming all of his “paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood” (I, i). Yet throughout most of the play, greatly present in her absence from the action, Cordelia does what she resolved to do from the moment of her first aside: she loves and is silent. She loves simply, and she simply loves. And most unlike Edgar, Cordelia loves when love is not justified at all, whereas Edgar cannot accept love even when, from Gloucester’s standpoint at least, that love is “justified,” i.e., stemming from the correction of a prior error in judgment. We have tried to understand the sources of this refusal. From Edgar’s perspective, Gloucester’s love would be a kind of charity, and this is why he cannot bear it. Indeed, Edgar is the very kind of “extreme case” that C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves , used to demonstrate “how difficult it is to receive, and to go on receiving a love that does not depend on our own attraction.”

Unlike the imperfect reconciliation between Edgar and Gloucester, the one between Cordelia and her father is almost unspeakably beautiful. Lear has become the very image of patience and she the very image of charity. That all of this does nothing to prevent her fate or her father’s is beside the point. The reconciliation takes place between the two of them, not between them and the world. According to the vast majority of contemporary critics, King Lear simply cannot be in any strong sense a “Christian” play, for charity neither redeems the world nor does it even save its only clear embodiment, Cordelia. But the play is most Christian in just exactly this respect. Its unflinching attention to the way the world really works does not permit us to imagine either that charity redeems the world or that it can be in any sense a fit basis for political rule. On this side of eternity, there are at best fleeting though magnificent moments of glad grace, such as the one we witness between Lear and Cordelia. Although such moments are vastly more redemptive than anything else in the world of Lear, they are finally unworldly, in the world but not of it. The best the world can give us is a justice that is blind and that abides only so long as it remains blind. The best that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jesus gives us is a love that sees and that nevertheless abides forever. This charity is truly redemptive, but it is more than human flesh can bear for long.


Telling stories and seeing plays (presuming, of course, that these are the right stories and the right plays at the right time) are far better ways toward understanding and even managing these matters of love and justice than any number of other strategies often thought to be superior for such purposes (therapy, life experiences, support groups, etc.). It is finally Edgar’s telling of his and Gloucester’s pilgrimage together that moves his father to that point of joy and grief (a combination of feelings very different from despair) that is fitting for one who has come at last to see the world feelingly. Moreover, the story has an immediate and astonishing effect upon the seemingly impervious and unredeemable Edmund: “This speech of yours hath moved me, and shall perchance do good . . . ” (V, iii). Soon thereafter, the formative power of Edgar’s brief tale prevails, at least temporarily, over Edmund’s animal nature. As Edmund faces his own death, he strives to save Lear and Cordelia, and in this effort he vindicates the capacity of narrative to move and change us. “I pant for life, some good I mean to do/ Despite of mine own nature” (V, iii). Finally, our seeing Edgar’s story and the others in King Lear moves us to understand the visions, wordless discernings, disguises, longings, refusals, blood-lusts, fears, rivalries, hopes, blessings, mistakes, sorrows, apprehensions, and “touching” moments of grace that are all a part of the lived experience of filial and parental love. Ethics may be finally a matter of perception, of seeing the human world aright, and perception in matters of love and justice just is a matter of seeing the world feelingly.

And seeing the world feelingly may be the only way to grasp the major lessons of Lear. Charity and grace, after all, defy reason, at least the concept of reason that was prevalent among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and that still prevails among many today. From Luther to Hobbes, reason was understood to be a reckoning of sums (Hobbes), a kind of calculation of merits and demerits, linked invariably to some kind of rule or law (Luther). Reason always reckons (Hobbes), and the law always condemns (Luther). Charity, since it is contrary to reason under this description, cannot be both authentically and fully conveyed by appeals to reason. It requires at least image, example, story, and a receptive form of cognition that sees the world feelingly in order to be comprehended and infused within us.

If we are lucky enough to have the right parents, whose love for us includes a measure of that love which passes all understanding, and if we are able to feel our way with them into the right stories, we just may be spared some of the needless anguish of an Edgar or a Gloucester or a Lear. These characters will, in any event, always be there for us to guide and lead, maybe even to save us from despair, as we make our own pilgrimage.

* Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love,” in Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 54–57. I have learned a great deal about the matters I discuss here from this splendid and lengthy essay. Though I most often find myself in some disagreement with Cavell about the play, his essay takes up almost all of the issues I discuss here, and readers should certainly read it if they wish to think further about these matters. I have been more informed and stimulated by this essay than by any other piece of criticism of Lear and I wish to acknowledge my debt to Cavell here.

+ Ever since A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, discussion of King Lear has been to some extent skewed by an almost universal disposition to see the subplot involving Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar as simply a repetition of the theme of the main story. For Bradley, the characters of the main plot and those of the sub-plot paralleled one another exactly”Lear: Gloucester: Regan/Goneril : Edmund :: Cordelia : Edgar. Because he was so insistent upon these exact parallels, Bradley believed that the “double-action” of the play was its “principal structural weakness.” The five characters who were “technically of the first importance” included Lear, his three daughters, and Edmund. Edgar was “technically about as important as Laertes.” I would argue that once the focus shifts from the Lear/Gloucester axis to where it properly belongs, to the Lear/Edgar axis, the sense of both the structure and the meaning of the play changes dramatically. The quotations here are from Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1952), 254–56, 262.

Mark R. Schwehn is Dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University and author of Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation (Oxford University Press).

Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art via Creative CommonsImage cropped.