Character of Life in King Lear

I. Introduction

King Lear is at once the most highly praised and intensely criticized of all Shakespeare’s works. Samuel Johnson said it is “deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare” yet at the same time he supported the changes made in the text by Tate in which Cordelia is allowed to retire with victory and felicity. “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles.”1 A.C. Bradley’s judgement is that King Lear is “Shakespare’s greatest work, but it is not...the best of his plays.”2 He would wish that “the deaths of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester should be followed by the escape of Lear and Cordelia from death,” and even goes so far as to say: “I believe Shakespeare would have ended his play thus had he taken the subject in hand a few years later....”3

Many critics have sworn that the story is too fantastic and cruel to be true and that it should be viewed only as an allegory or fantasy. Yet Johnson called it a “just representation of the common events of human life” and C.J. Sisson has cited historical evidence from the lives of several men which closely resembled Lear’s division of his kingdom and tragic rejection by his daughters.

Despite its undeniable greatness, throughout the last four centuries King Lear has left audiences, readers and critics alike emotionally exhausted and mentally unsatisfied by its conclusion. Shakespeare seems to have created a world too cruel and unmerciful to be true to life and too filled with horror and unrelieved suffering to be true to the art of tragedy. These divergent impressions arise from the fact that of all Shakespeare’s works, King Lear expresses human existence in its most universal aspect and in its profoundest depths. A psychological analysis of the characters such as Bradley undertook cannot by itself resolve or place in proper perspective all the elements which contribute to these impressions because there is much here beyond the normal scope of psychology and the conscious or unconscious motivations in men. Nor can a broad holistic approach such as G. Wilson Knight’s which portrays the dramatic milieu of the play without clearly revealing the lines of causality, the role of character and the relationship between symbol and reality, art and life.

We can see in Shakespeare’s works a gradual development which in a sense parallels the historical development of dramatic literature. In his early comedies plot is the sole or major element and character remains a minor or insignificant determinant. As his art develops, the delineation and individuality of character becomes more prominent and is able to exert a major influence on the course of action. In his later works, Shakespeare transcends even the boundaries of individual character, giving his works a still wider amplitude. The character, atmosphere and forces at play in the social milieu are portrayed and integrated with the plot. Not only man but physical nature--the animals, climate, stars, seas--are related to and become expressions of the human experience. A power or powers greater than man, forces of universal life, good and evil, the gods and fate--influence and even determine the course of events overriding human motives and action. But always the portrayal remains faithful to the realities and potentialities of human nature. This is the impression we get from Shakespeare’s greatest works, the impression of an all-embracing vision of human existence in its widest cosmic context.

King Lear is not only a consummate artistic masterpiece. It is also Shakespeare’s most all-encompassing portrayal of human life. Character, atmosphere, dramatic techniques are all employed and inextricably bound together in an effort to give living reality to his vision. Like nature herself, Shakespeare has created a world which is in its essence and major outlines, in its portrayal of human personality and social interrelations, in its expressions of simultaneity and sequence and in many other respects true to life. The challenge that he poses before us is to discover the nature of the correspondence between his work and nature’s own creation and, once that correspondence is known, to see in and through his work the character of life itself.

Numerous theories have been put forth to explain the sequence of tragedies Shakespeare wrote during this same period by linking it to some experience of melancholy, anger, despair in the author himself. But such theories overlook the fact that it is in this very same period, in fact, in these same tragic works that he has portrayed the heights to which human nature can rise in its purest and noblest if not happiest terms. Surely the creation of so much light alongside the darkness and the perfection of the artistic medium through which he gives them expression argue against them having been written in a state of melancholy or any other condition which is a drain on the mental energies. It is not the dark side of human nature which is Shakespeare’s chief concern at all. His effort is to portray human life in its fullest, widest and profoundest context; to reveal not only the dark depths but also the treasure rooms of our being; to pierce beneath the superficial motives and forces of our surface behaviour, social and cultural expressions, to the deeper levels of individual character and human nature; and to place these aspects of human existence in their true relation to the wider field of universal life. He chose the medium of tragedy because at his time man had not yet emerged sufficiently from the lower and darker portion of nature which he inherited from his animal ancestors. The greatest intensities of which human life was capable were suffering, hatred and evil and it was through such experiences that they most fully realized their place in the cosmic scheme. Certainly love, joy, nobility, loyalty, self-giving were developed, in some individual cases to a very high pitch, but they were not yet able to establish themselves in the consciousness of humanity to the extent of the negative forces in nature.

In King Lear Shakespeare transcends the natural boundaries of drama to express life beyond the limits of his artistic medium. For this reason Bradley calls it his greatest work but not his best play. Its failure as a play is a success at a higher and wider level. In Macbeth Shakespeare represents destruction at the physical level--war, murder, etc. In Lear it is faith, love, hope and expectation that are destroyed--things of the mind. It is psychological destruction in the wider plane of life, destruction of values not just bodies.

The forces expressing themselves in King Lear are of universal dimensions. Both good and evil find their purest and most powerful expressions but it is the impression of evil which is most predominant and enduring. Kindness and goodness were not sufficiently developed to get expressed on that scale. It can be seen that Shakespeare’s evil, cruel characters are always more powerful than his good ones. Even in The Tempest where he portrays the power of good victorious, it is only by magic that it conquers, not as a normal power in life. The expression he gives to good, though it reaches a high beauty, is less compelling, inevitable and realistic because he is expressing conditions which human consciousness is not yet fully able to realize. The intense expression of positive forces is made possible by a further development of human culture.

The universal character of King Lear by which we do not refer merely to its general application to all mankind but to the intensity and extensity of the forces at play, is indicated in many ways. The unbearable nature of Lear’s suffering, its prolonged and unrelieved continuity, the destruction of not merely family but of the deep emotional bonds between father and child, the disruption of an entire kingdom and Lear’s loss of his sanity, all point to the action of very powerful forces. The swiftness with which the issue leads to calamity is another indication. The King’s entire initiative is compressed into a few short moments and all else is but an inevitable working out of that initiative by life. Finally, even the forces of physical nature expressing themselves in the storm play a role in his suffering. The intensity of evil has saturated that plane of life and nature itself responds to the movement. On learning of Edgar’s betrayal, Gloucester gives a superstitious but nonetheless accurate expression to the conditions pertaining in the land.

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d, twixt son and father. (I.ii.100)

Bradley reflects this universality of the forces at work and their evil nature: “...these terrible forces bursting into monstrous life and flinging themselves upon those human beings who are weak and defenceless, partly from old age, but partly because they are human and lack the dreadful undivided energy of the beast.”4

When we recover from the shrinking of our senses at the horror which is presented, we discover that though evil is by far the most intense and penetrating force represented here, it is not either during the course of action or in the end a dominating influence against which all others are helpless. Rather we find that this evil has been released into the atmosphere by a chain of events it did not initiate and that after a brief but terrible period of destruction those who were its instruments are themselves destroyed. A still deeper insight into the life portrayed here will reveal that what we took to be a thoroughly pessimistic portrayal of evil, suffering and destruction contains within it a process of growing human consciousness and evolving social life.

II. The Division

As the story opens, the political conditions in Britain are precarious. Lear is an aging king, ‘four score and upward’, with three daughters and no male heir. Sooner or later power must be transferred to one or more of his daughters. The two eldest, Goneril and Regan, are sinister in nature and no division or assignment of power could satisfy them which left any authority in the hands of another or even with each other. Therefore, any arrangement was likely to be followed by civil war and a struggle for absolute power. Through no man’s fault or initiative, persons of extremely evil propensity were placed very close to power. This situation is an outer expression of the conditions of the social consciousness of the country. Until now Britain has been ruled by a powerful monarch who kept the country unified by his strength. There is no one of equal power to replace him. The solution which naturally suggests itself is a division into three parts, each to be ruled by a daughter and her husband and the national unity maintained by familial bonds. The change is necessitated by circumstance, but that circumstance reflects a compelling inner necessity. Something in the social consciousness is seeking to evolve beyond the limits of absolute power vested in a king. That evolution is what follows Lear’s renunciation of power. All the resistances it meets, all the destruction it releases are a preparation of the consciousness and a working out of that which opposes the social progress.

As King, Lear represents in himself the conditions of the country which identifies itself with him just as he identifies himself with it. He is a man of great vital power, a commander of men, not only by virtue of his position, but by his very nature. He is generous, open and unsuspicious, though too choleric, vain, obstinate, passionate and domineering to be simply called “good”. Beneath his vital personality of power lies an emotional being of exceptional depth and richness which, once released by madness, opens and universalises itself in sympathy with his fellowman. But as he is placed in life, Lear’s emotions are too much dominated by selfishness, vanity and egoism to express real love or affection.

As the country has come to a transition point, so has Lear. In his old age, he feels compelled to put aside the mantle of authority and spend his last days in the comfort and warmth of his youngest daughter Cordelia’s affection. There is in Lear an inner urge to renounce the satisfactions of power with which he is saturated and grow into the satisfactions of the heart. But there is also much in him which is so accustomed to the privileges and pleasures of absolute power that to give them up would itself seem like death. What takes place is a working out of the forces within his being, compelling and resisting a shift in consciousness from the vital to the emotional center.

Lear announces a contest in which the kingdom is to be divided among his three daughters and their husbands according to each one’s profession of love and devotion to him. Even the manner in which he expresses his intention forebodes a different outcome.

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburden’d crawl toward death. (I.i.35-40)

The scheme is intended not only to satisfy Lear’s desire for affection but his love of absolute power as well. At the very moment he proposes to relinquish the powers and privileges of his position, he employs them to elicit assurances of devotion. Instead of commanding, he wants to be persuaded with flattery. He is trying to raise himself from the plane of power where things are ordered and commanded to the plane of emotions where things can be given and received but never demanded. But he does so by using the mechanism of power, the authority which commands. This insistence on using the lower means for a higher end leads to tragedy.

The elder two daughters have no difficulty fulfilling his request because they are incapable of true affection and driven only by mercenary aims. Only Cordelia, the one who is actually capable and full of tender feelings for her father, finds it difficult to flatter his vanity in return for a kingdom. When he comes to her, the only reply is “Nothing.” The intent of that “Nothing” is certainly not to harm but it does immense harm. When Lear presses her further, she responds with a mental formula of duty which only further disappoints and infuriates the king.

Cord. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty

According to my bond; no more nor less.

Lear. How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little,

Lest you may mar your fortunes.

Cord. Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

Why have my sisters’ husbands, if they say

They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty.

Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

Lear. But goes thy heart with this?

Cord. Ay, my good lord.

Lear. So young and so untender?

Cord. So young, my lord, and true. (I.i.90-106)

When she refuses to make public professions of love, vanity coupled with pride sparks the king’s fury. In a moment of embarrassment and extreme outrage, he withdraws Cordelia’s inheritance and disclaims all emotional relationship with her.

Thy truth, then, be thy dower!...

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

Propinquity and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me

Hold thee from this for ever. (I.i.107-115)

His rashness and rage borders on pure cruelty and madness as the following lines reveal.

....The barbarous Scythian,

Or he that makes his generation messes

To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom

Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and reliev’d,

As thou my sometime daughter. (I.i.115-119)

With one sweep Lear banishes Cordelia from his life. With another he casts out his most true and loyal servant, the Earl of Kent, who only seeks to save him from folly and the catastrophe to which it inevitably leads.

Kent.My life I never held but as a pawn

To wage against thine enemies; nor fear to lose it,

Thy safety being motive. (I.i.154)

With a third sweep, Lear bestows all his power and property on his two eldest daughters and their husbands.

For Lear it is a complete renunciation: renunciation of power, security and social position; renunciation of true family ties and affection; renunciation of human fellowship, goodwill, and service. These three represent all that supports life, nourishes, strengthens and fulfils. With them resides the potential for great social happiness and cultured living. Without them human life is primitive, barbarian, empty. By rejecting them he abandons the encrusting protection they afford to each man at his own level and puts himself in direct contact with forces of universal life and nature. Man grows by renouncing the lower for something higher, by giving up what he is to become something greater. Lear’s triple renunciation of power, family and friends opens his entire being to the world around him and through an ordeal of suffering results in a growth which he could not otherwise have made.

But there is also in his renunciation a strong element of violence or offense to that which he renounces. In the plane of consciousness not only the renunciation but the offense too has its own result. In this division of the kingdom, Lear introduces a purely personal motive into an issue of national import. He allows an old man’s pride and vanity to overrule a king’s prudence. Having ruled the country as a sovereign monarch who identifies himself with the kingdom, he wishes to divide and dispense it as personal property based on his affection for his children and their devotion to him. A nation or community, like an individual, has a consciousness of its own which responds to man’s attitudes and actions both overtly and through the subtler mechanism of life forces. Desdemona’s elopement with a black Moor was an affront to the social consciousness of Venice which raised active resistance from that deeper level of life, resulting in her immediate departure from the country. So also Lear’s action is a violence against the consciousness of the country. By allowing pride and passion to take precedence over national interests, he has sacrificed the country and put it into the hands of destructive forces. Hereafter the power and protection he drew from the kingdom is cancelled and he is left without its support. In the battle his own subjects and countrymen actually fight against his cause in defending their land from foreign invasion. The intensity of the consequences which follow is determined by the intensity of the plane in which man functions, not merely the intention of the doer. Here it is the plane of national life, therefore the intensity of consequences is very great.

Similarly Lear’s curse on Cordelia for refusing to flatter him is an unpardonable offense to the consciousness of family, human relations, the bonds between father and daughter. His curse and rejection of Cordelia cancels all family bonds, all effective protection and nurturance; for, to be effective, such bonds require reciprocity. Once he cancels them, Cordelia becomes helpless to support him despite her deep wish to do so. Lear repeats the same error in his curse of Goneril who subsequently becomes the chief instrument of his suffering. Likewise the rejection of Kent is a rejection of the bonds of devoted service. Kent continues to serve but his loyalty no longer has the power to save.

III. Cordelia and Kent

The tragedy of Lear is made far more tragic and painful by the presence and suffering of the king’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. While our sympathy for the king is somewhat restrained by his brutal cruelty towards others, there is nothing to dampen our emotional response to Cordelia’s suffering and to prevent us from wishing along with Tate, Johnson and Bradley that Shakespeare had given her a sweeter destiny. Nothing, that is, at first glance. Harley Granville-Barker justifies her irreconcilable fate thus: “the tragic truth about life to the Shakespeare that wrote King Lear... includes its capricious cruelty. And what meeter sacrifice to this than Cordelia?”5 Yet in another passage Granville-Barker has come much closer to touching on the real explanation. I quote the passage at length.

It will be a fatal error to present Cordelia as a meek saint. She has more than a touch of her father in her. She is as proud as he is, and as obstinate, for all her sweetness and her youth. And, being young, she answers uncalculatingly with pride to his pride even as later she answers with pity to his misery. To miss this likeness between the two is to miss Shakespeare’s first important dramatic effect; the mighty old man and the frail child, confronted, and each unyielding... If age owes some tolerance to youth, it may be thought too that youth owes to age and fatherhood something more--and less--than the truth...6

Again he sums it up:

Pride unchecked in Lear has grown monstrous and diseased with his years. In her youth it shows unspoiled, it is in flower. But it is the same pride.7

As in his portrayal of Desdemona, here too Shakespeare has presented a woman of beauty and culture. Her demeanor is gentle and refined though not lacking in strength or determination. Her emotions are deep, pure, loyal and enduring. Her mind is clear and idealistic. Desdemona is more of the heart, softer and more graceful, while Cordelia combines emotional goodness with a stoical will and courage born of idealism. Desdemona inherited from her father a certain narrowness and rigidity of mental outlook and an inability to see how others are affected by her actions. Likewise Cordelia has inherited from her father, who is a far more powerful figure than Brabantio, a very limited mental outlook which expresses itself because of her goodness as doctrinaire idealism and an inflexible will functioning in accordance with those ideals.

As Granville-Barker has pointed out, Cordelia possesses the same pride and obstinacy we find in Lear, only her emotions are purer, more cultured and refined than his. We have already quoted Lear’s response rejecting and cursing his best loved daughter. In eloping with Othello, Desdemona infuriated her father to the point where he refused to have her re-enter his home and died of grief shortly thereafter. Though her intention was never to hurt him it comes as a mortal blow. Desdemona is only following the promptings of her heart and mind. When Cordelia refuses to make public protestations of love to her father, she too is only following the promptings of her heart and mind. She would fain use her genuine affection for her father to win any worldly gain. The deeper emotions rebel at the very thought of public demonstration. To her the truest thing is not to speak, rather than flatter even by saying what is true. Lear is proud and vain. Cordelia refuses to be compelled to satisfy his vanity in front of the entire court.

But what is it in her that refuses? As Granville-Barker has said, it is the same element of pride and vanity inherited from her father, the same adamancy and obstinacy and wilfulness. Cordelia refuses to bring herself to the level of a bargain, to exchange her precious emotions for a piece of land. The very idea of the contest is repulsive to her. She decides to be silent and her silence has catastrophic consequences. Along with Granville-Barker we must ask if “youth owes to age and fatherhood something more--and less--than the truth.” By remaining silent and then speaking only a dry mental platitude about divided duty to father and husband, surely Cordelia does not express the truth. For the truth is that she feels deep affection for her father but resents hypocrisy and mercenary professions. She acts on principle, a fixed narrow principle, but beneath the principle is the pride of one who refuses to have her emotions commanded and who clings unbendingly to her sense of personal dignity.

I yet beseech your Majesty-- If for I want that glib and oily art

To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend

I’ll do’t before I speak--that you make known

It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,

No unchaste action or dishonoured step,

That hath depriv’d me of your grace and favour;

But even for want of that for which I am richer¾

A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue

That I am glad I have not, though not to have it

Hath lost me in your liking. (I.i.224-233)

Cordelia’s refusal, like Desdemona’s elopement, is a violent blow to her father. Both have in them an element of unconscious and unintentional cruelty to which the limited mind and will are always prone. Cordelia like Lear can think only of her own position. She neither considers nor responds to her father’s need. Her allegiance to truth has a touch of self-righteousness and arrogance. Bradley observes that “Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet.”8 What Bradley calls fate can be seen on closer scrutiny to be an expression of a life principle. In Othello we saw the violent forces unleashed by the social consciousness of Venice against the transgression of its values and the natural defensive mechanism in social life which seeks to retard or destroy any attempt to rise above the common existence toward some ideal condition: in this case, the romantic dream of a perfect love. Life acted at the point of weakness--Desdemona’s ignorant and blind initiative which failed to evaluate her own nature realistically, the effect on her father and the world around her, and Othello’s impure lower nature whose capacity for rage and jealousy necessarily negated the possibility of perfect love.

Cordelia, like Desdemona, is one of nature’s higher creations. She embodies a high degree of emotional and mental purity. Like Desdemona she is born into a society far less cultured and pure, an atmosphere of low consciousness where evil has substantial scope for expression. Life moves to stifle the budding perfection in her nature and it does so by acting on the small grain of impurity in her otherwise sparkling character. What Bradley calls fate is the activity of life forces at this one vulnerable point, the pride she inherited from her father. Cordelia’s assertion of divided duty and Lear’s assertion demanding professions of affection are the same trait. The movement that arises to destroy him touches her also, for her act of relating to it by assertion. Because she takes the initiative to speak arrogantly and advance the movement instead of cancelling it, she loses the capacity to save her father later on.

The rejection of Cordelia, Lear’s most loving daughter, is followed by the banishment of Kent. As a character, Kent is a further and greater development of the qualities possessed by Horatio, Emilia and Macduff, but he is a character of a higher build. His is pure goodness expressed as loyalty and service. His role in life is service, not strength, to solace, not to save. His position, personality, and consciousness are those of loyal obedience. He recognises the authority in Lear and relates to it by selfless devotion. In his confrontation with Lear over Cordelia’s disinheritance, Kent shows the same adamancy as the King. He has the strength to speak out boldly, not the strength for powerful or effective action in life. Out of his affection for Cordelia and the King he transgresses his natural role in the court and denounces Lear’s action as madness.

Be Kent unmannerly

When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man?

Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak

When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound

When majesty falls to folly. (I.i.144-8)

The immediate result is the order for his own exile from the kingdom and his donning a disguise so that he may continue his service to Lear.

It is noteworthy that none of the truly evil characters in the drama have yet taken a conscious initiative. Up to this point everything centers around the interaction of Lear, Cordelia and Kent and all the terrible sufferings which follow have their source in this encounter. To rightly comprehend the tragedy which follows, it will not suffice to blame Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund. We must see the true significance of the court and the direct relationship between it and all that follows. We must ask and attempt to answer to our own satisfaction a number of crucial questions. Why does Lear suffer so much, so constantly and without any relief except death? Why is Cordelia caught in the same movement? Why is it that Lear and Cordelia are not finally given a few happy years together? These are the questions with which Shakespeare has most moved the hearts of his audience and most baffled the minds of his critics. We must discover the source of the great intensity and direction which finds expression in the action of the drama, and carries it to its inexorable conclusion.

IV. Lear and His Daughters

Lear is a dominating imperious king wielding very great natural strength. Though he takes initiative to disinherit his youngest daughter and exile his faithful friend, there is not in him the capacity for conscious and intentioned evil which we see prevalent in his two elder daughters as well as in Cornwall, Edmund and Oswald. Nevertheless, there is a force in Lear that releases a movement of destruction in which evil does rise and momentarily take hold on the course of events. When Lear decides to renounce power in favour of emotions, the vital egoism in him which thrives on power rises up and asserts itself against the movement. It is the drive for power, attention, recognition, vengeance; the habit of assertion, anger, rage; the traits of pride and vanity which take hold of him and initiate a downward movement of destruction in opposition to the upward movement of the heart. The course of events which follows is an inevitable working out of these opposing movements. For until the lower is exhausted, the higher cannot be fulfilled.

The vital egoism in Lear is a dominating force which permits the existence and expression only of itself and its own will. Whatever submits and satisfies survives, the rest must vanish unnoticed or remain unexpressed. Such an atmosphere is stifling to the natural growth of other personalities which require freedom for self-expression in order that they may outgrow what is primitive and childish in favour of what is mature and cultured. These psychological circumstances almost inevitably result in suppression and repression rather than growth. Instead of being expressed and out-grown the capacities for selfishness, cruelty and perversity in man get organised beneath the surface into pure evil of great intensity. Lear’s daughters are the product of such an atmosphere. Goneril and Regan learned how to please their father in word and act while harbouring beneath the surface a hostility which gradually matured into organised evil. Only the youngest, Cordelia, who was Lear’s favourite and undoubtedly given freedom by his emotions from the iron hand of his will, was free to develop naturally the nobler qualities which lie latent in her father, depth and richness and goodness of heart. But even in Cordelia there is evident a wilful stubborn mind, sense of pride and the egoism that is their natural consequence and that prevents the emotions from fully blossoming in their native power for good. In Lear’s words,

O most small fault,

How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!

Which, like an engine, wrench’d my frame of nature

From the fix’d place; drew from my heart all love

And added to the gall. (I. iv. 266-270)

Cordelia’s brief caustic remarks to her sisters after the court scene, reveal the manner in which that egoism can express itself as cruelty whether justified or unjustified.

I know what you are;

And, like a sister, am most loath to call

Your faults as they are named. (I. i. 269)

In choosing to pursue a doctrinaire idealism, Cordelia loses not only her share in the kingdom but the power to help her father. Because her idealism is genuine, she gains a noble husband in the King of France and power outside of Britain. She loses her inheritence for her pride but gains a husband’s love for her love.

We may appear unfair in emphasizing these negative qualities, especially where they are present only as seeds in a noble personality like Cordelia. But the true nature of these qualities and their native expression is fully reflected in Lear’s two elder daughters. Heilman observes, “this extension of inner conflict into conflicting characters who in part objectify the warring subjective elements is most marked in Lear’s family... Lear’s tragic flaw is the whole being of Goneril and Regan.”9 Simply to call Goneril and Regan evil or inhuman is to overlook the capacities in human nature which make their existence possible. A self-willed, obstinate, passionate egoism and its natural companions, pride, vanity, arrogance and domination are traits present in Lear and his daughters. In each case they express themselves as cruelty to others. Where the personality is large and the energy great, the distorting effect of channeling all for one’s own utility creates greater intensities of cruelty. If in such a case there is added some element of perversity as we see evident in Goneril and Regan, that perversity becomes an opening for forces of evil and destruction to act in and through the human vehicle. The greater, the more powerful the personality, the more the destruction. The result is a being with all “the undivided energy of the beast”. It is this quality we find fully developed in Goneril and less fully but perhaps more offensively in Regan whose lesser strength is compensated by a greater joy in perversity.

When we ask in bewilderment how one man could possibly give birth to such stark opposites as the good Cordelia and these monsters, it is because we fail to understand the fundamental condition of life which is that the worst and the best are inextricably bound together so that only by completely eradicating the one can the other ever find free and full expression. The evolution of life is nothing less than a gradual purification of all that is ignorant, small, narrow, mean, selfish and perverse in man so that what in him truly knows, loves and is capable of self-giving can develop and emerge. This process of evolution of consciousness which Bradley refers to as “process of purification” is what we see working out on a miniature scale in Lear as a representative--not merely as a symbol--of the entire race.

As Granville-Barker wrote, “We may see, then, in Goneril and Regan, evil triumphant, self-degrading and self-destructive.”10 The force which motivates them cannot be dismissed by any terms such as human smallness, selfishness, hatred or meanness. It has an intensity and scope beyond the limits of their personalities. It is contagious and spreads from them to Edmund and Oswald and Cornwall evoking the worst from all who can respond to it. This evil is of the nature of a vibration, a vibration of destruction. It destroys whatever it comes into contact with, self or other. But destruction is not in itself synonymous with evil, for even the most positive forces in the universe must employ destruction as a means to a greater creation. The characteristic of evil which distinguishes it from all other vibrations in nature is the intention to inflict harm either on the subject in which it arises or through him on others. The extent to which that harm is the sole or major motivating force indicates the degree or absoluteness of the evil.

But for such evil to emerge in life some weakening and rift in the normal social fabric, some opening is necessary. In Macbeth it is war. In Othello it is the violent social transgression of the elopement. Here it is Lear’s conscious initiative in renouncing power, rejecting daughter and friend, three acts of violence against the consciousness of his world which splits life open at its seams and allows all that is dormant below the surface to erupt and dominate the scene.

In Lear vanity is the occasion but it is not the driving force. His acts and their consequences do not issue from that surface motive but from a deeper more powerful source. Had there not been a deep stirring and eruption of self-destructive egoism in Lear himself, the emergence of similar forces around him would not have been possible. As Bradley puts it, we tend to regard Lear as “a man more sinned against than sinning ... almost wholly as a sufferer, hardly at all as an agent ... we are in some danger of forgetting that the storm which has overwhelmed him was liberated by his own deed”.11

Once that plane of life was activated there was no positive force of corresponding strength in a position to counteract it effectively. All the good in Cordelia and Kent was powerless. The evil released had to play to its own natural conclusion. In the process it not only destroyed itself but brought forth the birth of something greater and truer.

The true significance of Lear’s action soon becomes apparent. He has given up his powers and property with the sole condition that he be maintained alternately by his two daughters along with a company of one hundred knights. He has renounced power but wants to retain its trappings. Almost immediately after the transfer of power Goneril finds an excuse to complain of the arrangement and press for the dismissal of the king’s knights. Her action cannot be attributed to even the worst of motives, not even power or greed. What is expressed is pure meanness, a desire to hurt, and the threat to remove his train is aimed to strike directly at Lear’s enormous vanity and reduce him to a whimpering child.

This admiration, sir, is much o’ th’ savour

Of other your new pranks. I do beseech you

To understand my purposes aright.

As you are old and reverend, should be wise.

Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires;

Men so disorder’d, so debosh’d and bold,

That this our court, infected with their manners,

Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust

Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel

Than a grac’d palace. The shame itself doth speak

For instant remedy. Be then desir’d

By her that else will take the thing she begs

A little to disquantity your train;

And the remainders that shall still depend

To be such men as may besort your age,

Which know themselves and you. (I.iv.236-251)

Goneril is tactful in her psychological assault and her steward Oswald is the perfect instrument. Before departing, Lear utters a horrible curse on Goneril which reminds us of his words to Cordelia and the reason for his present suffering.

Hear, Nature, hear; dear goddess, hear.

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful.

Into her womb convey sterility;

Dry up in her the organs of increase;

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honour her! If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her.

Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,

With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,

Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits

To laughter and contempt, that she may feel

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child. Away, away! (I.iv.275-289)

Bradley’s comment here is perceptive:
The question is not whether Goneril deserves these appalling imprecations, but what they tell us about Lear. They show that, although he has already recognised his injustice towards Cordelia, is secretly blaming himself, and is endeavouring to do better, the disposition from which his first error sprang is still unchanged. And it is precisely the disposition to give rise, in evil surroundings, to calamities dreadful but at the same time tragic, because due in some measure to the person who endures them. The perception of this connection, if it is not lost as the play advances, does not at all diminish our pity for Lear, but it makes it impossible for us permanently to regard the world displayed in this tragedy as subject to a mere arbitrary or malicious power. It makes us feel that this world is so far at least a rational and a moral order, that there holds in it the law, not of proportionate requital, but of strict connection between act and consequence.12

Lear departs to seek refuge and support from Regan. But he finds in her hostility equal to Goneril’s. What Regan lacks in quality of evil, in the capacity for original ideas of cruelty, she compensates for in quantity by an even cruder more overt harshness. Cornwall throws Lear’s messenger Kent into the stocks, and the king himself is driven out onto the stormy heath by their “calculations” to reduce his company of knights.

The difference between Goneril and Regan’s husbands is noteworthy. Albany is a good, mild man as Goneril constantly reminds him,

This milky gentleness and course of yours,

Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,

You are much more ataxt for want of wisdom

Than prais’d for harmful mildness. (I. iv. 342-345)

He is deeply in love with his beautiful but evil wife. His goodness and affection give the impression of weakness. But once he fully realises his wife’s nature, the attachment is broken and the strength of his character emerges. Cornwall, on the other hand, shows no capacity for gentleness, affection or goodness. He is a small personality of bad temper, aggressiveness and cruelty whose limited energies for evil are quickly exhausted. Like Regan, he joys in perversity but lacks the strength to organise it for any purpose. Goneril has married a good man opposite to her evil capacities in every respect while Regan has married one similar to herself in size and nature. The evil in Regan is crude and primitive. It issues from the vital being. The evil in Goneril is organised in a developed mind, it is more self-conscious and more absolute. The undeveloped vibration of evil in Regan attracts a mate who can bring out its further development while the mature evil in Goneril attracts a mate to destroy it. Life supports every vibration until it reaches its full stature and then provides the necessary circumstances for its destruction or transformation.


1. Casebook: King Lear, Edited by Frank Kermode, Macmillan & Co., 1969 pp. 27 & 29.

2. Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley, Macmillan & Co., 1965, p. 202.

3. Ibid., pp. 202 & 206.

4. Ibid., p. 220.

5. Prefaces to Shakespeare Vol. II, Granville-Barker, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1963, p. 48.

6. Ibid., p. 48.

7. Ibid., p. 50.

8. Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley, Macmillan & Co., 1965, p. 265.

9. Casebook: King Lear, Edited by Frank Kermode, Macmillan & Co., 1969, p. 175.

10. Prefaces to Shakespeare, p. 48.

11. Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley, Macmillan & Co., 1965, p. 231.

12. Ibid., p. 234.