The opinion that Shakespeare expresses doubt, in King Lear, that it is possible for a good God to exist has troubled me. Neither do I agree that it is a really depressing play. I guess the main quotation expressing these views is by Gloucester, when he says:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods:
They kill us for their sport. (Sc 15, 35-36)
Gloucester has seen Lear fall from king to rejected old man; he has seen a beggar so lowly as to remind him of a worm (but also his son). This really fits into the whole realm of “Why would a good God allow pain and suffering?”
But I find that I can’t agree with anyone who concludes that King Lear shows an overwhelming belief that there is no good God. And I can’t agree that King Lear is a depressing play.
At one point the falsely accused Edgar observes Lear in his grief and madness being cared for by Kent, the Fool, and Gloucester. He says:
When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers, suffers most i’th’ mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind.
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship. (Sc 13, 91-96)
There is suffering, but we all suffer (albeit not to the same degree). But in suffering together, it is not such a big deal. In suffering together, and in compassion for each other, we grow closer. In regards to God, the God of the Bible shows that He is with us in our suffering. David sings:
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil
for you are with me… (Psalm 23: 4)
Moreover, God sent Himself, as Jesus, to suffer for us. As Edgar says, when we see our betters – those more virtuous or worthy than us – suffering as we do (or in the case of Jesus, suffering for us), must we not forget our own miseries?
Next, is it depressing that Lear and Cordelia both die at the end? Deaths are always sad, but death is also always a matter of sooner or later. Lear comes to an understanding with Cordelia before they die. He realises his foolishness. He knows that Cordelia loves him, and he loves Cordelia. Cordelia holds no grudge against her father. I think that theirs cannot be called depressing deaths, when you consider that Lear could have died before reconciling with Cordelia.
Just as Shakespeare has his problem comedies, or as his comedies (even those not officially categorized as problematic) contain doubtfully happy endings, I think that The Tragedy of King Lear is problematic as a tragedy. The deaths of Lear and Cordelia are not nearly as tragic as the death of Hamlet, where he dies still confused about his father, mother, uncle, and Ophelia.
I know that these thoughts do not prove anything, but hopefully they are an interesting and thought-provoking read.
Note: For a comparison of Prince Edgar’s “When we see our betters bearing our woes” soliloquoy to Pauls description of Christ bearing our sins, see King Lear and the King of Jews.