Monday, November 18, 2013

King Lear - Like Father Like Daughters?

Like Father Like Daughters?
King Lear

                      Two questions always bother me when reading or seeing this, Shakespeare’s most emotionally gruesome play, King Lear: Are Goneril and Regan as awful as everyone says they are? And if they are – why?  What is there in the text that prompts directors to immediately show them as haughty, false, lying, hypocritical, vampy, etc., etc., from the moment they walk onto the stage?
                      To quote a few of the characters, my answer is, “Nothing.”
                      Maybe I’m missing something but in the whole first scene what I see are two respectable older daughters and a saucy younger one, and a manipulative, hypocritical, hot-tempered, frighteningly irrational father.
                      Here’s the situation. The old king, to the surprise of everyone and the dismay of some, is retiring and dividing his kingdom equally among his three daughters. Sounds good, right? But in the very first lines of the play we are informed that Lear tends to play favorites: Kent says to Gloucester: “I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.” That is, Goneril’s husband more than Regan’s husband.  Gloucester agrees but goes on to say that now that things are to be divided equally, who knows?
                      Enter the king and the whole gang.  In the eleventh line he speaks, Lear reveals himself to be an emotional manipulator:

…Tell me, my daughters -
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where merit doth most challenge it?. (Scene 1)

                      Wha’?! he just told them it would be divided equally, now they have to compete by loving him most?  I think the daughters can be excused for being a bit puzzled but Goneril and Regan are daughters to a king, wives to dukes and heads of great households. They are trained in the art of diplomacy as would all women of their class be. Goneril starts with, “Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter…” Regan ends with, “…I am alone felicitate/ In your dear highness’ love.”
                      Flowery yes, but hypocritical? Why should we think so?  This is a ceremonial moment. They are put on the spot.  They rise to the occasion and if we might think, “Why should they love the brutal old coot – I sure wouldn’t!”, I doubt that we would say so if we were in their position.
                      That Cordelia dares to go against this is in fact very strange. We find it admirable as do Kent, Gloucester, the King of France but I can’t help but wonder why they do. A saucy young daughter who sasses back to her royal father in public in the name of honesty – yes, of course we cheer her on but why do these three males who represent the patriarchal power structure admire her so much?  Would they want their daughters to…?
                      Lear’s reaction, at least his initial dismay, is understandable from him point of view but we still hate him for his virulent rejection of her and the alert spectator/reader will note that he, for all the court, proclaims, “I loved her most.”
                      That’s never a fun thing for siblings to hear and as we find out it’s not the first time Goneril and Regan have heard it.
                      That the three sisters are not the sweetest of friends we detect in Cordelia’s farewell to Goneril and Regan:

…I know you what you are,
And like a sister am most loath to call
Your faults as they are named. Use well our father,
To your professèd bosoms I commit him.
But yet, alas, stood within his grace
I would prefer him to a better place (Scene 1)

                      What?  What? What are their faults.  Why would Lear be better off somewhere else?  This is probably what directors base their presentation of the immediately nasty G&R on but for me it’s far too vague. Goneril says, “Don’t tell us what to do,” i.e. “Prescribe not us our duties” and Regan tells her to mind her own business.  Cordelia sweeps out with her new king after telling them their faults – whatever they are – we do not know, Shakespeare doesn’t tell us! – will be revealed.
                      Nor in the exchange between Goneril and Regan that immediately follows do we see anything other than two daughters concerned about the irrational behavior of their angry father but three things are clear: 1) they know that: “He always loved our sister best”, 2) that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (very astute of Regan!) and 3) that his irrationality is likely to continue and get worse.  Conclusion? Let’s stick together and do something.
                      These are not the evil intrigues of evil women.  They are the unhappy observations that most children make over their aging parents – even those of us who had lovely, or at least normal, parents – and the feeling of “we have to do something” is surely universal. And for Goneril and Regan it is, as it is for us, a new situation.
                      Let’s jump to Lear at Goneril’s. We learn in Scene 3 that Goneril is already at her wits’ end because Lear is not a gracious houseguest. You must agree that if Lear and his one hundred rowdy soldiers were staying with you, you’d be as angry as Goneril? That you’d be frustrated and impatient because the “idle old man” still wanted to “manage those authorities that he hath given away!” (Scene 3)?  Haven’t you ever been driven crazy by visiting parents, even the nice ones?
                      Still she speaks to him rather more respectfully and reasonably in Scene 4 than I would have managed to do in the face of the taunting of both Lear and his Fool.  Her appeal to him is filled with the words sir, safe redress, fearful, good wisdom, beseech, understand… And these words should be delivered in a manner to show a woman who wants to do what is right, who wants to be respectful but is desperate because her entire household is in an uproar caused by Lear’s and his soldiers’ totally unacceptable behavior.  Not as the evil conniving power-hungry daughter she is so often shown to be.
                      What follows is among the most painful scenes in Shakespeare, Lear’s curse on his daughter.
                      He starts by calling her “detested kite” (for us non-bird people the Norton edition tells us this is a carrion-eating hawk) and a liar, claims his soldiers are as sweet as lambs (come on! A hundred soldiers all in one confined place?!) and that he was wrong about Cordelia.  So before the curse even starts Goneril is called by her father King Lear a carrion eater and a liar and compared (for the umpteenth time) to his other, favorite daughter.
                      And then the curse:

…Hark, nature, hear;
Dear goddess, 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 disnatured 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 –
That she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.

                      I can literally find no words strong enough to express the profound, the absolute cruelty of this curse.  Most women want children. In Lear’s time and society (whenever that is) it is absolutely vital for noble women to bear children to carry on the family line, especially a royal line.  That Goneril has been married to Albany for some years is not explicitly stated but it’s fair to assume so. That they do not yet have children can – and must – be seen to be if not a sorrow for Goneril at least worrying.  In her society bearing children is essentially the only thing expected and demanded and accepted of her. And her father not only says he hopes she never has children, he calls upon the goddesses to “dry up in her the organs of increase” – the very fount of life and, at least sometimes, joy.
                      And then he adds the curse that if she does have children they will turn against her. With his famous line about thankless children Lear, the expert manipulator, turns himself into the victim.
                      I hate him. He is a terrible father and what he has done cannot be forgiven no matter how cuddly he gets with Cordelia in the end.  Surely somebody among all the Shakespeare scholars throughout the ages has not only seen this but turned the academic spotlight on the essential, vital significance of this curse in the play.  Yes, Lear later in his madness is given great credit for coming to some understanding of the suffering of his lower class subjects but he never expresses regret over the suffering he has caused his two older daughters.  He never comes to the tiniest insight, has the tiniest inkling, that he is in the wrong in this relationship.
                      You know what? I can’t go on.  I was going to analyze all the exchanges between Goneril and Lear and Regan and Lear but this is enough.  Regan is far nastier than Goneril ever gets to be and with less visible cause but I’ll have to leave her and the two sisters’developing rivalry for Edmund’s favors for another time. For now I will simply leave this text with the image of a daughter devastated by the cruelty of her father and abandoned by her judgmental husband (also to be dealt with another time) and turned thereby into a cruel and manipulative villain.
                      Like father, like daughter.

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.

 Spinoffs and Lear related films seen:
  • A Thousand Acres 1997. Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse. Cast:– Jason Robards -King Lear;– Jessica Lange Goneril; – Michelle Pfeiffer - Regan; – Jennifer Jason Leigh –Cordelia (they all had other names of course).  This might be the best Lear film so far. The parallels are clear, the story tragic, but from the sisters’ point of views.
  • Ran Akira Kurosawa 1985. Cast: see the movie review on the movie blog.  These are not names I recognize, except for Kurosawa.  The film is visually impressive and at times very dramatic.  It is a masterpiece, I can agree, and must be seen. But it doesn’t grip me.

 Films seen:
  • BBC, 1982. Director: Jonathan Miller. Cast: Michael Horden - King Lear; Gillian Barge– Goneril; Penelope Wilton– Regan; Brenda Blethyn– Cordelia; Michael Kitchen – Edmund; Anton Lesser – Edgar; John Shrapnel - Kent; Norman Rodway - Gloucester.  In hindsight, having seen all the other versions, this one stands out as perhaps the best.  Quite straightforward, as the BBC productions tend to be, and with many strong actors in the cast, this one is definitely an OK version to watch.
  • Olivier 1983 Cast: Laurence Olivier– King Lear; Dorothy Tutin – Goneril; Diana Rigg – Regan; Anna Calder Marshall – Cordelia; Robert Lindsay– Edmund; David Threllfall – Edgar; Colin Blakely- Kent; Leo McKern- Gloucester.  It starts out good with perhaps Olivier’s best performance and much of the cast is strong but it loses momentum in the storm.
  • Nunn and Hunt 2008 Cast: Ian McKellen – King Lear; Frances Barber – Goneril; Monica Dolan – Regan; Romola Garai– Cordelia; Philip Winchester – Edmund; Ben Meyjes – Edgar; Jonathan Hyde - Kent; - William Gaunt - Gloucester.  Ian McKellen is unbeatable but the production is even more uneven than Nunn usually is and really doesn’t reach the heights that one expects.
  • Davenall 1974. Cast: Patrick Magee – King Lear; Beth Harris – Goneril; Ann Lynn – Regan; Wendy Allnutt – Cordelia; Patrick Mower – Edmund; Robert Coleby – Edgar; - Ray Smith - Kent; Ronald Radd - Gloucester.  This one is almost a disaster.  It was almost impossible to watch but I stuck with it.
  • Brook 1971 Cast: Paul Scofield – King Lear; Irene Worth – Goneril; Susan Engel – Regan; Anne-Lise Gabold – Cordelia; Ian Hogg – Edmund; Robert Lloyd – Edgar;  Tom Fleming - Kent; Alan Webb - Gloucester.  Some very dramatic and powerful filming but another uneven production that didn’t carry it off.

 All of these except the BBC version have been reviewed on

 Seen on stage:
  • December 11, 2011 with 1-2-3 Schtunk, a comedy trio who had us laughing from start to…almost to the finish, which was as tragic as the play is supposed to be.
  • On October 26, 2013 at Stockholm’s Stadsteatern with the Swedish acting legend Sven Wollter in the lead.  Set in a modern day psychiatric geriatric clinic with outstanding stage settings and visual effects, this is in some ways better than all the films put together. But it too has its flaws which make it less than the original.



  1. As always, beautifully written and thought-provoking. I've been re-reading the play (as if I didn't have enough plays to read for the first time!) and I thought I'd re-read your essay as well. We seem to agree to a disappointingly high degree, but fortunately there is some room for disagreement.

    I do agree the elder daughters have had worse press than they deserve. "They are so thoroughly hateful that we do not even like to repeat their names", Hazlitt wrote with royal outrage in the plural. But of course they are not, not for the first two acts anyway. Their protestations of boundless love for their father cannot be accepted as sincere, but, on the other hand, one can hardly blame them for humouring their irascible and vain (but not mad or senile yet, this is a monumental dramatic mistake) parent. Goneril is right to complain of his dissolute knights and Lear's cursing her is at least as deplorable as his banishing of Cordelia (whom I find admirably honest rather than saucy).

    It is from Act III onwards, I think, that Regan and Goneril begin to reveal themselves as more and more grasping and scheming and ruthless and really quite crazy about Edmund (is he that hot? or is he the strongest pretender for the throne?). They begin as good friends ready to support each other, as amply proved by their conclusion of the first scene, but actually end as mortal enemies. I feel either of them would love to have the whole kingdom (and Edmund) for herself. But even so, Edmund remains the real villain, the second smartest and most charismatic in Shakespeare.

    I've also reached, on this re-reading, the profound conclusion that Lear is unique among Shakespeare's tragic heroes for at least two reasons. First, he and he alone is to blame for this downfall; he doesn't have Iago or Cleopatra or the circumstances (like Hamlet) to escalate his degradation; his folly and his folly alone does it. Second, he is the only one who's really insufferable for two full acts. Will knows, Hamlet, Othello and Antony can be quite exasperating. (When Hamlet sneaks behind the praying King, who hasn't shouted, mentally at least, "Stab the bastard in the back!"?) But they do win some sympathy, even compassion, from the beginning. With Lear Will evidently loaded the dice against his protagonist a little too much for some readers/spectators. I find myself moved by the old man's plight towards the end, but I can well understand if it leaves you rather cold.

    G. B. Harrison, my second favourite Shakespearean scholar (after you, of course), made the curious remark that this is "the finest specimen of deep tragedy in English drama, and, for that very reason, not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays." Leaving aside the first claim, which is purely subjective, the second can be verified objectively: the other three of the Big Four have more copies and more reviews on LT. One is justified in asking, what is the reason for this relatively limited popularity? Is it too emotionally exhausting for most people? Or is it simply that (anathema!) Will failed to make Lear too different from his elder daughters - or from Edmund, for that matter, for his curse on Goneril, with its Nature as a goddess concept, is strikingly similar to the Bastard's eulogy on bastardy?

    PS I am embarking on a Lear film marathon these days and may come back for some thought exchange on screen Lears. No Larry, I promise. (But Larry was spot-on in calling Lear "stupid old fart", wasn't he?)

    1. This was a brilliant comment, Alexander! It makes me want to read old Lear again, in spite of how disgruntled the old curmudgeon makes me. Thank you so much for writing (and please do let us know your thoughts on the films you've been watching), and for your flattering words. Flattery will get you a very long way in my Shakespearian heart. So looking forward to your future comments.