Madness, marginalization, and the epistemic limits of justice in Shakespeare's King Lear

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2022-05

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Abstract

Critical interpretations of Shakespeare's King Lear have for too long focused narrowly on the experiences and redemption of Lear in isolation from the other characters and the political landscape of the play. I respond to this tradition of reducing the play to the character with whom it shares its namesake by emphasizing where Lear and Lear diverge. I argue that the play as a whole denounces Lear's attempt to discover knowledge of metaphysical order through isolated introspection, and whereas the popular humanist interpretations of the play celebrate Lear's escape from the political world, I argue that the play itself condemns this selfish choice and demands its audience to pursue justice despite its inevitable difficulties. The main way that the play condemns or condones the actions of its characters, I argue, is the effect that these actions have on the pervasive forces of marginalization within the play. Lear's inability to respond to clear examples of injustice during his isolated epistemic pursuit of an objective basis of justice marginalizes the other characters, and it especially silences his favorite daughter Cordelia. I offer an interpretation of the play that fully recognizes the constant marginalization that Cordelia suffers before she is ultimately silenced in death. By expanding the scope of investigation into Lear to include Lear's constant marginalization of Cordelia, I argue against redemptive readings of the play and instead offer an alternative source of optimism through the character Edgar. The play endows Edgar with the moral authority of its final lines because Edgar recognizes the limits of his reason, responds to others' needs, and uplifts the voices of those around him, making him a better source of optimism in the play than Lear.

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Keywords

Madness, Marginalization, Justice, Skepticism, Shakespeare, King Lear, Epistemic Limits

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