Good and Evil In Shakespeare´s King Lear and Macbeth

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

34 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Concepts of Good and Evil in Renaissance

3. Good and Evil in King Lear and Macbeth
3.1. Forces of Goodness: Cordelia and Banquo
3.2. Forces of Evil: Edmund and Lady Macbeth
3.3. Challenging Concepts of Good and Evil: Lear and Macbeth

4. Resolving Evil? The Final Scenes

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The concepts of good and evil, which can be understood and defined differently, are two broad and sapid concepts because of its diverse interpretations. The two abstract notions have been discussed throughout the centuries since the human existence and continue to be a dispute today. However, the meaning of good and evil was especially interesting in the middle Ages and Renaissance that will be introduced in the first part of this thesis. It will present the different origins of good and evil and examine how variously these concepts were perceived in the middle Ages and Renaissance. It should be pointed out that there was a great contrast in defining of good and evil in both centuries. While in the Middle Ages, good was supposed to come from God and evil from the Devil, in the Renaissance it was believed that good and evil originated from human beings. Moreover, these concepts were defined quite interestingly in early Renaissance. With existing hierarchical system and natural order in the universe in that age, good and evil were separated with the set of behavioural norms, so that evil was defined as opposite of good and meant every action which could cause the disruption of this order; a person performing an evil act was consequently called an evil person. However, in the late Renaissance, which is also seen as the beginning of the modern era, the existing system of the universe has collapsed and the perception of good and evil has changed again. The concepts began to be distinguished as good, bad and evil acts. Moreover, they began to be problematic to be clearly defined, and the question also existed about struggle and victory of both forces. Additionally, the second part of the thesis will explore the problems of those concepts in terms of King Lear and Macbeth. It will deal with the problems of goodness of Cordelia and Banquo, evilness of Edmund and Lady Macbeth and badness of Lear and Macbeth. It will also identify how the characters turn to good, bad or evil side, whether they become creator or victims of evil, and finally reveal who of them can be called good, bad or evil person. Finally, the third part of the thesis will present the interpretation of the final scenes where both tragedies end with the coronation of the new king. It will explore the conflict of both forces and reveal what kind of force can actually win the struggle between good and evil in both plays. It will also deal with the problem of ambivalent depiction of the characters and examine the question of what is actually good and evil and how to define it in Shakespeare´s plays. So, the aim of the thesis is to explore the problems of the concepts of good and evil in terms of the tragedies King Lear and Macbeth and to identify to what extent the characters can be seen as good and evil. However, before exploring the characters it is worth introducing the varied meanings and definitions of the concepts of good and evil in Renaissance in order to be aware of how these concepts changed.

2. The Concepts of Good and Evil in Renaissance

First, it is important, curious and interesting comparing the vision of good and evil in the Middle Ages and Renaissance in order to understand how meanings of those concepts have changed from one century to another. In the middle Ages, it was believed that good initially originated from God and evil was created by the Devil. Medieval philosophers wondered about the origins of good and evil, and came to the conclusion that evil could not come from God. For example, Basel, theologian of the fourth century, claimed that “evil [was] neither uncreated nor created by God”, while the pseudo-Dionysius, philosopher of the next century, stated that “evil [was] …neither good nor productive of good…” (in Spivack, 17). Evil was seen as absence of good and God, and by that reason it was supposed to be originatedfrom the Devil. Additionally, it was widely believed that human´s soul was controlled by God and the Devil. For example, modern critic Davenport explains that wrongdoing of a man of that age was seen as “…corruption of human nature…by the Devil” (4). Moreover, in that age there was a tendency to personify the concepts of good and evil, and a good example of such personified notions of good and evil give the medieval morality plays. According to Davenport “…ideas of good and evil [were] represented by allegorical personification of human nature” (5), were goodwas presented in a figurative way, and was called virtue, which stand for all good qualities of a man. Evil was also personified and was called vice figure which stand for all negative qualities of a man. Supposing that supernatural beings can control a man´s soul, Virtue was thought to be messenger of God, whereas Vice was believed to be a messenger of the Demon. Moreover, the pattern of resolving conflict between good and evil was a simple one, because according to Davenport it was “[t]he pattern…of innocence, corruption and repentance” (5). So, it can be concluded that the traditional resolving of the conflict between good and evil was that goodness prevail evil, as a sinful man who had to repent and was saved by God.

While in the middle Ages it was believed that good and evil originated from God and the Devil, in the Renaissance the meaning of good and evil has changed. It was accepted that good and evil was a part of human nature and originally came from human beings. It should be pointed out that people of that age believed that the whole world was organized by God as a hierarchical system. Tillyard, researcher in the field of Elizabethan literature, states that people of that era believed in the existence of order in the universe, and adds that “order [was] the condition of all that follow[ed]” (11). Order was the condition of human existence and was present everywhere: in outer space, nature and society. People saw themselves as part of the hierarchical system and did not question the existence of the universe and order at all. Especially important for people was society, which was held by family and religious bonds. Modern critic Johnston explains that “faith, hope and charity [were] …responsibilities of that bonds which tie[d] together the family and the larger social groups”, he adds that bonding gave individuals “ a rich sense of social identity where each person´s place in a hierarchical order [was] publicly acknowledged and honoured” (1). So, people did not question the existence of the universe, because they accepted a general order as a law. Moreover, they glorified God as a powerful organizer and feared the destruction of that system, which was the basis for their life. Relying on such social believes the distinction between good and evil was set by the norms of human behaviour. Evil was defined as opposite of good and was thought to be every action which could harm the natural order, especially society and family order, which was so important for people. Being deeply religious, people believed that denial of society or family bond was a sin, which could lead to a disruption of society order. Moreover, persons who were trying to harm the order by their wrongdoings were regarded as evil persons, because they could cause chaos, and disruption of natural order.

A good example of evil characters gives a Renaissance drama, where vice figure of morality plays developed in a villain person, who was seen as a cruel person involved in wrongdoing. Modern critic Coe explains that the audience of Elizabethan Age regarded villains as evil persons. He states that “[a]udience regarded them as types: black, illegitimate, deformed”, he adds that the audience did not feel any sympathy for villains, because they were “unnaturally objective about their criminal nature” (69). In addition, one of such evil figures was Machiavel, the term derived from the Italian philosopher of the Renaissance Machiavelli who wrote the book the Prince, which was published in 1532, andin which he gave a special importance to the fact that a royal Prince according to circumstance should use his intelligence for manipulation of others in order to get and to maintain the power (cf. 22f). Such idea was regarded as an evil one, because deception and manipulation of others was seen as means directed against medieval society and was associated with disruption of society order. So, the theatrical performers acting in this way were also seen as despised and evil figures. Johnston explains, that in that age there was a banal vision of evil, because of existed social structure, he adds that there was a “…frequent attempt to demonize such individuals, that is, to make them as abnormal and unnatural as possible” (1).

Moreover, while strong medieval beliefs in God and the Devil still continued to exist in the Renaissance, it was widely belied in the existence and power of witchcraft. It was supposed that witches were representatives of evil, because they could control a man´s soul and his fate. Contemporary researcher of literature Bailey comments on beliefs in witches of Renaissance age, saying that “…witches were accused of worshiping demons, renouncing their faith, and surrendering themselves completely to the service of the devil”, he adds that belief in witchcraft fed to a large degree off common social structures” (4). So, the witches, whose supernatural practices were seen as a danger to natural order of society and religion, were thought to be in alliance with the Devil, because their power was directed against men.

In addition, being aware that consciousness of good and evil was incorporated in human nature, people believed in the Chain of Being, a concept which reflected human position in the hierarchy of the world. To apply the understanding of good and evil to human behaviour, people looked carefully at the position of man on the Chain. According to Tillyard, the Chain started with God’s throne at the top leading down to the lowest creatures, the beasts, where human had a central position on the great chain (cf.66). It was a simple position between good and evil, in which good was regarded as aspiration to be perfect, while evil was seen as a consequence of human sins. Humans believed that God gave man freedom of choice to move on the Chain in both directions. Twentieth century critic Spivack nicely describes the free choice of man on the Chain, saying: “Already part angel part beast, [man] can rise to more angelic stature to fulfil his spiritual aspiration, or he can degenerate to bestiality through surrender to animal nature” (24). Man was thought to be capable of two kinds of sins. As man had a soul as an angel, he could be overwhelmed with passions, which was called intellectual sin. Man had also physical desires as an animal, so he could be overwhelmed with physical satisfaction which was called physical sin. People believed that it depended on each person whether he followed his intellect or not in order to make a choice between good and evil.

However, in the late Renaissance the development of the individual takes place and, as the consequence of it, the hierarchical system of nature has collapsed. Now instead of glorifying God, art was directed to honour the individual. Church was not seen as a main centre of social activities, religion was not dominating anymore, and material world became a dominant part of life. Cultural historians of the nineteenth century Burckhardt enumerates many of those conditions which influenced the human consciousness: “Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom…a Church which… was not identical with the State - all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought…” (71). All these factors also influenced the Renaissance vision of good and evil associated with God, order and disorder which began to disappear.

Moreover, new outlook on the world has sharply changed the spiritual and moral values in human consciousness. The principle of free human development becomes a main idea of the late Renaissance, and a religious sight at a person as on a sinful being who was thought to be evil has also been overcome.In this period, the new direction gets stronger which is called humanism. According to Oxford English Dictionary, under this word was understood a world outlook, proclaiming the supreme value of the human, confirming his rights of happiness and harmonious development (cf. 22). A person’s earthly life and his struggle for happiness become the main idea of this epoch. In addition, new individuals of the Renaissance, who do not see natural order in the nature, have new opinion about good and evil. Johnston indicates that new individuals strongly oppose the medieval vision of morality and immorality, holding the opinion that man should apply his wit to shape his own future and to find his own sense of oneself without relying on what the community tells them what is wright and wrong. They regard a good life as an assertion of their own individuality (cf. 1).

With new consciousness and outlook on the world, the great difference between good and evil began to disappear. Writers firstly argue the concepts of good and evil and make them problematic. For example, philosophers of the late seventeenth century Bacon and Montaigne discuss the concepts of good and evil and their degrees. Bacon raises the question what one can define as good and evil, saying: “In deliberatives the point is, what is good and what is evil, and of good what is greater, and of evil what is the less?” (149), then, he comments on the degree of their evaluation: “The reprehension of this colour is, that the good or evil which is removed, may be esteemed good or evil comparatively, and not positively or simply. So that if the privation of good, it follows not the former condition was evil, but less good…” (156). Bacon makes a contrast with the medieval perception of those concepts, when evil was seen as absence of good, and now he gives a new understanding of evil, pointing out that evil is not the absence of good, but is something what is less good. Besides, Montaigne disputes the concept of evil as common opinions or prejudice saying “that what we call evil is not evil in itself-or at least, whatever it is, that it depends on us to give it a different savour and a different complexion; for all it comes to the same thing” (33). Montaigne states that evil things can in fact be not evil at all,obviously referring to the fact the humans made things evil by the opinions they had which were shaped by the former hierarchical structures of the world and society.

So, the late Renaissance can be characterized as the beginning of the modern era, when attitude to human behaviour which could not be set by the norms of destroyed hierarchical order any more has changed. New perception of human individuality created the distinction between good, bad, and evil, and so the attitude to wrongdoers has also changed.What was morally wrong was not always seen as evil but as bad. Moreover, to define evil became problematic because of its ambiguous nature. According to the critic of Renaissance morality Heller: “Evil [was seen as] a great force, sinful, amoral. But at the same time [was] definitely not an absolutely negative force” (313). So, the next chapter will clarify to what extent the characters in Shakespeare´s plays King Lear and Macbeth can be seen as good and evil from the new perspective and explore the problems of good and evil. First, the goodness of Cordelia and Banquo will be presented and clarified in the following pages.

3. Good and Evil in King Lear and Macbeth

3.1 Forces of Goodness: Cordelia and Banquo

Cordelia represents a symbol of idealized goodness because of her manifestation of the absolute and pure love for her father, Lear. She reveals her true feelings in the love test, in which Lear trials the emotions of his three daughters in order to divide his Kingdom among them. It is sufficiently to note that Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, did not deceive her father, whereas her sisters did. Needless to say, she felt that her father should know of her obvious affections without the need for frivolous words. Cordelia acts against the test, because she tries to aware her father in the falseness of her sisters’ love to him, as she knows that their love is not as pure as they profess. Her meek sentences reveal her act against Goneril’s flattering: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (1.1.62). She continues her speech against Regan’s fraud: “Then poor Cordelia, /And yet not so, since I am sure my love´s/ More ponderous than my tongue” (1.1.76-78). Cordelia tries to warn her father that he is being deceived by the flattering of her wicked sisters. In addition, Cordelia´s way of speaking demonstrates her true and chaste love for Lear. She does not even make an attempt to convey her feelings by words when she speaks: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave [m]y heart into my mouth (1.1.91). Cordelia is not able to flatter the way her wicked sisters do and her virtuous love apparently makes her mute. She is so truthful and charitable, that she cannot express her love through words, because seemingly the words cannot describe her feeling. Hence, her faithful love appears to be more than words and cannot be expressed through an eloquent speech.

Moreover, Cordelia´s great love reveals her temperament of a sincere daughter who shows fidelity to her father. Cordelia is neither proud nor stubborn when she speaks to her father: “I love you majesty /According to my bond, no more no less” (1.1.92-3). Her sentence exposes that Cordelia is different from her bad sisters because she shows her honesty and generosity, and truly describes her feeling remaining truthful to her bond. Moreover, her emphasis of the word bond indicates that Cordelia acknowledges the bonding between parents and children. She is a character who supports the medieval view of the society based on interrelation of bonds and who acknowledges moral order in the nature. So, her love is also traditional and manifests the daughter´s chaste nature.

Cordelia is a pure goodness and remains so until her tragic end. She does not show any change in her disposition throughout the play, and that makes her different from other characters that will be presented in the next chapters. Cordelia was silent during the love test because she quietly answered to her father when he asked about her feelings: “Nothing my lord” (1.1.87), and she continued to be quiet in the reconciliation scene, when she met her father again (4.7.40f). After being unjustly banished by her own father during the love test because of her short answers, which Lear did not accepted, Cordelia appears again in the scene where she is being forgiven by her father and can finally restore friendly relationship with him. When Lear is asking for her forgiveness, she answers: “Alack, alack (4.7.40). And so I am, I am (4.7.70). No cause, no cause “(4.7.75). Again, she remains emotionless as at the beginning, and it seems that she does not have any compassion to herself but only to her father. That gives an impression that Cordelia is very unselfish and remains true to her filial love despite of her unfair treatment. Moreover, Cordelia, whose love is immense for her father, shows her willingness to suffer for him, what becomes obvious during her imprisonment with Lear. Being in capture with Lear, Cordelia shows her tears to him (cf.4.7.71) and her weeping seemingly reveals her pity and compassion not for herself but for her father. So she is aware of her father´s suffering and knows that he endures pain because he treated her inequitable and was blinded by her wicked sisters’ flattering. So, Cordelia wants to act in any way to relieve his pain, what can be achieved only on the cast of her own life. Only when Cordelia loses her life, and Lear sees her beloved daughter dead, he is seemingly relieved from suffering and dies not in despair but as Foakes notes in joy (cf. 139).

Cordelia’s goodness which is apparently spiritual and self-sacrificial merits an admiration for its high purity. Cordelia even resembles a Christ the way she suffers because she is ready to sacrifice her life for her father. Modern critic Anderson nicely comments on Cordelia´s sacrificing nature: “[Cordelia] made an investment in the good of another - an investment that is necessarily self-sacrificial…” (280); she gives her life in the sake of her father´s good. So, there is no doubt in Cordelia´s virtuous and conciliatory nature of goodness and her moral purity. So, the problem is not in her good nature, but in her death.


Excerpt out of 34 pages


Good and Evil In Shakespeare´s King Lear and Macbeth
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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problems, good, evil, shakespeare´s, tragedies, king, lear, macbeth
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Alina Müller (Author), 2012, Good and Evil In Shakespeare´s King Lear and Macbeth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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