The Disastrous Divisions of King Lear

© January 2015 Mary Crockford

Shakespeare as both poet and playwright had much to say to and about British monarchy. While arguably “an advocate of aristocracy and monarchy” (Farshid 249) if only by virtue of how frequently and diversely he made royalty the subject of his works, his tragedies uniquely depict rulers as teetering on the precipice of failure as a consequence of decisions subversive to vital interpersonal and political power structures. In contrast to Henry V, whom Farshid calls “an astute king who is shrewdly conscious of power relations” and wisely “fortifies the pillars of his sovereign power,’” Shakespeare depicts Lear as “a king who seems to be ignorant of them” (249). Because he lacks understanding of the function of power as either source or spoiler of familial and national security, Lear is a leader in perpetual conflict, internally and externally. As a father, he appears oblivious to the dangers of pitting child against child in a competition for filial affection and inheritance, and ignores the potential consequences of elevating politics and self-interest above his daughters’ well-being, including jeopardizing their future security by bequeathing his holdings to ambitious and greedy men. He is also spiritually double-minded, appealing to divine designation of kingship when it suits him, but then blaming the gods and nature for the problems his decisions and actions cause. But it is his decision to divide his kingdom, by default dividing his household through contrivance of a rivalry between his daughters, which causes him to fail as both monarch and father, and to ultimately destroy every blessing over which he believes heaven grants him stewardship and authority.

As king of Celtic Britain, Lear is accustomed to a political system in which governance takes place “from the top of a hierarchical pyramid…founded on the possession of a large amount of land and the conception of being protected by divine power” (Farshid par. 3). Because of the narcissism inherent in this demigod-like view of monarchy, he displays “the archetypal gangster’s refusal to register the role of others as part of the construct of self-hood” (Griggs 125) and refuses counsel so that his “majesty falls to folly” (Lear 1.1.167). Paradoxically, in spite of his narcissism, as he ages he experiences more frequent “periods of dramatic self-doubt, anxiety and worthlessness” (Segal) which demand constant attention and flattery from those around him to keep his fears and inadequacies at bay. As an aging widower and father, he is also increasingly anxious about his masculine legacy, and parasitically acts to “allay his own anxiety by arousing it in his children” (Greenblatt 1252), a form of emotional vampirism in which sabotaging dependents’ happiness and safety are an acceptable means to avoid confronting his increasingly intolerable emotional, physical and psychological infirmity. Teising describes this paradigm of self-loathing and anxiety transference as “’the narcissistic mortification of an ageing [sic] man’s failure to control what remains enduringly emblematic of his manhood, across time and place,” in Lear’s case his patriarchal identity and control of affairs and persons across his sphere of influence (Teising 2008). While he wishes to retire from the responsibilities and sacrifice of kingship and “Unburdened crawl toward death” (Lear 1.1.43), Lear remains “unwilling to lose his identity as an absolute authority both in the state and in the family” (Greenblatt 1252), in Lear’s own words “The name and all th’addition to a king” (Lear 1.1.152). He calls a meeting purportedly to confer “all cares and business” of the old to the “younger strengths” (1.1.41-42), claiming that by doing so, any “future strife/May be prevented now” in the kingdom (1.1.47-48). In a moment of candor he confesses a “darker purpose” (1.1.37) behind this political action and announces that he will be dividing his kingdom between his three daughters: his oldest daughter Goneril, married to the duke of Albany; Regan, to the duke of Cornwall; and his youngest daughter Cordelia, a young woman of “steadfast honesty” and “sustaining, generous love” who is yet unmarried (Greenblatt 1253), but for whom Lear has arranged two potential suitors. He anticipates that the Duke of Burgundy and King of France will vie first for his favor, then in exchange for Cordelia’s dowry of her third of the kingdom, take her hand in marriage and cement another alliance advantageous to the retiring king. To this end, he stages a public “love test” in which each daughter is commanded to convince him who loves him best, and thus who will receive the “largest bounty” of the kingdom (Lear 1.1.57). It is in this decision that the king’s nature as a divided man is seen in full flower, as he willingly ignites an intra-familial Hobbesian state of war which “inevitably pits humans” – in this case his daughters and sons-in-law – “against one another and makes them not only competitors but enemies” (Slavicek par. 3). It is a test Cordelia fails in Lear’s eyes because her insistence that there is “Nothing” she can say to embellish her love is actually “her refusal to flatter the father she loves” (Greenblatt 1253) with the same feigned obsequium of her sisters. Her simple, sincere statement that “You have begot me, bred me, loved me;/I return those duties back as are right fit” (Lear 1.1.96-97) frustrates Lear’s insatiable need to have his vanity stroked, so he mocks her honest and sincere nature, raging at her, “Thy truth, then, be thy dower!” (1.1.120). In the same breath the spiritually schizophrenic king swears by “The mysteries of Hecate” (the gods) and the “operation of the orbs” (nature) to justify cruelly disowning and banishing his youngest daughter from her home and family (1.1.122-123). He projects onto her his own toxic methods of parenting, and his last words spoken directly to her are an embittered tirade comparing her to a filicidal savage, and as an offspring better unborn:

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, forever. The barbarous Scythian,

Or he that makes his generation messes

To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom

Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved,

as thou my sometime daughter. (Lear, 1.1.114-121)

Lear then heaps similar cruelty onto the Earl of Kent, who as a man of integrity has the audacity to declare “Lear is mad” and challenge the king’s “hideous rashness” for disowning his child (1.1.152). For his just defense of Cordelia, the loyal Kent becomes the next casualty of Lear’s ever present relational sword of Damocles. Lear warns him to “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1.1.124), a foreshadowing of the king’s psychological degeneration beginning with “extreme irritability” and “exhibition of disinhibited thoughts that may be the harbinger of psychosis or his premorbid traits” (Ottilingham). Lear then calls down the wrath of the gods, this time Apollo and Jupiter, to condemn to death the “vassal” and “miscreant” who has in truth been his most faithful adviser (Lear 1.1.185). Kent flees the atmosphere of “banishment” which now permeates Lear’s household, to “shape his old course in a country new” (1.1.189), in soliloquy vowing to return in disguise to serve his master though he “dost stand condemned” (1.4.5-6).

Lear, still hours away from losing all lucidity, is exposed as a man of selectivity in which areas of his life he permits division. His ego-driven decision to base his daughters’ inheritance on them proving who “doth love us most” (1.1.56) is one he happily makes even though it means exploiting his daughters’ desire for security and creating division between them so that he may “Unburdened crawl toward death” (1.1.43). The “us” in Lear’s ultimatum suggests that he sees himself as embodying the three indivisible facets of royal dominion over his fellow humanity and nature, those of “the land, power and kingship, as well as Lear their father” (Lee 274). Though Lear attempts to humiliate Cordelia by stripping her of his affection and her dowry, the duke of Burgundy protests to Lear that “she herself is a dowry” (Lear 1.1.278). The king of France admires Cordelia’s unimpeachable character, and in being freed from her father’s tyranny, declares that she is “most rich, being poor” (1.1.290) and takes her as his wife. Lear, finding no catharsis in Cordelia’s rejection into the arms of the king of France, proves that his divisiveness and instability are as ingrained in his method of parenting as they are in his method of rule; a fact confirmed by Goneril’s declaration that “he always loved our sister most” (1.1.336), and Regan’s confirmation that he “hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.340). Lear proposes an absurdly Solomonesque division of the last remaining tangible signifier of kinghood, his crown, between Cornwall and Albany, thereby conscripting both his sons-in-law into his familial war with a farcical exercise in “the impossibility to divide absolute power…represented by the ‘coronet’” (Slavicek 4). In asking Cornwall and Albany to break the crown in half, the object “necessarily becomes the bone of contention” (Slavicek 4) between the two households Lear now expects to live in on alternate months for the rest of his life.

As his cruel rejection and banishment of Cordelia illustrates, the one thing Lear seems slow to divide is truth from deception when it comes to the true natures of his daughters. His pattern of filial sacrifice extends to scapegoating Goneril for all his failed fatherly miseries, even going so far in his rage to preemptively cut off his future grandchildren from his favor by cursing her with barrenness:

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 honor her. (Lear 1.4.291-295)

Clearly, in Lear’s view females are of the more treacherous gender. He curses Goneril that if in spite of his curse she were to become pregnant she would bear a daughter, a “child of spleen” (Lear 1.4.296) as ill-tempered and ungrateful as she is who will “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” (1.4.300-303). He is slower to see the faults of his “reptilian daughter” Regan (Greenblatt 1253) whom he swears “shalt never have my curse ” (Lear 2.4.192-194) and who, on his behalf, will “flay the wolvish visage” of the newly delegitimized Goneril (1.4.325). When Regan enters Goneril’s home moments later, Lear continues in his denial of Regan’s true character with his “good hope” (2.4.215) that his middle daughter had no knowledge of the stocking of his disguised servant, Kent. Only the intervention of Goneril to effect a united front against their father distracts Lear from Regan’s exposure as guilty of the offense against her father’s authority.

Violent animal imagery “running throughout the play suggests an obsession with the act of ingratitude,” and Lear’s belief in “a contrast between actions of humans and the natural world in terms of ethics” (Jafari 120). Comparisons of Goneril to a “sea-monster” (Lear 1.4.272), “detested kite” (1.4.274), and the sharp-toothed serpent equate her with “animals known for their ferociousness and preying” (Jafari 120). To Kent he calls Goneril and Regan “pelican daughters” (Lear 3.4.1) after “a bird that was believed to feed his young with its blood” (Jafari 120), intimating that they have cannibalized their father. Even the only source of wisdom Lear hearkens to, his “all-licensed fool” (1.4.206) calls both daughters “she-foxes” (3.6.24) and warns Lear that Goneril would devour him, like a brood-parasitizing bird allowed to dominate its unrightful nest too long: “For you know, nuncle,/The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,/That it’s had it head bit off by it young./So out went the candle, and we were left darkling” (1.4.220-23). The so-called fool’s observation rightly points out “not only a sharp and crude image of ingratitude, but it is also an image of Lear’s own foolishness, his misjudgment, his improvident helplessness, and his egoistic blindness” – all character traits which contribute to his abject failure as a father. His “daughters are human beings, yet cruel as beasts, lacking any sense of sympathy” for him, and as such are “throwbacks in the evolutionary process who have not developed proper humanity” so are little more than animals (Jafari 120). Lear pleads with the gods overseeing the natural world he finds so heartless to “Make it your cause./Send down and take my part” (2.4.220) but it is Regan who takes her sister’s part and the two mock their father’s growing “dotage” or senility (2.4.226). Relishing their father’s humiliation, the daughters unilaterally “negotiate” down the number of knights they will allow Lear to keep should he reside with them each month, systematically decimating the ranks of his retinue from the original 100 down to none. The “she-foxes” through trickery and badgering, succeed in stripping the king of this last remnant of military command and membership in the warrior male community, and Lear the archetypal gangster “is cast out into a parallel wilderness, a castrated patrician for whom death is the only natural progression” (Griggs 129), thus freeing them from responsibility for his care.

The role of nature is critical to the Lear narrative, at times forcing characters forward and placing them in varying degrees at its mercy. Following the banishment of Lear and his unruly retinue from the houses of Albany and Cornwall, Gloucester announces that Lear is “in a high rage” (Lear 2.4.338), “calls to horse” (2.4.340), and has ridden into “the high winds” battering Albany’s castle walls (2.4.343). The horse becomes a metaphorical vehicle for Lear’s final departure from his daughters’ hearts and homes and into the harsh outer world of nature. His call for the animal is also the last of his orders to be obeyed before he is stripped naked of his kingly vestments by the madness he encounters in the torrential downpour.

Lear’s experience on the storm-battered heath mirrors the chaos of his declining mental state. The storm is not only symbolic of the chaos in the king’s mind, but of the outward “chaos that is the by-product of his own faults” (Jafari 120) which results in the downfall of his monarchy and family. The storm’s timing and severity eerily coincide with Regan’s callous and vindictive statement to Gloucester disregarding the dangers of the storm to her elderly and obviously mentally unbalanced father: “O sir, to willful men/The injuries that they themselves procure/Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (2.4.346-48). The storm raging outside reflects the continuing chaos indoors, as the fragile detente between Goneril and Regan begins to fracture as each learns of the other’s affair with Edmund, Gloucester’s “bastard son” who has divided his own family by falsely accusing Edgar of planning their father’s murder. But temporarily, the sisters’ shared purpose of separating their father from his wealth and influence supersedes dividing their ranks of two over their shared lust for Edmund.

When Kent effects a rescue of Lear and brings him into the shelter of a farmhouse, Lear’s madness accelerates and he undertakes “a mock trial of his daughters in absentia” (Ottilingham) with only an “honorable assembly” of Edgar, the fool and Kent in attendance (Lear 3.6.51). As judge he arraigns Goneril then Regan in the person of an empty chair, and hallucinates of his dead dogs that Mack calls “phantoms of Lear’s deteriorating mind” which illustrate that “Lear feels lower than a dog now” himself (270). To allay the anger and grief of the mad king, Edgar proposes “thus throwing my head” to beat back the barking hounds Lear imagines he sees and hears (Lear 3.6.75), metaphorically offering his sympathy and sounder mind to vanquish all symbolic “dogs” who have declared “open season on King Lear” (Mack 270). Gloucester enters and tells Kent he has “o’erheard a plot of death” on the king, and urges him to take Lear to Dover where there they will “meet both welcome and protection” (Lear 3.6.98). In a morbid duplication of Lear’s mock prosecution of his daughters, Gloucester is seized by Cornwall and Regan, who calls him an “ingrateful fox” (3.7.33) and punishes him for helping Lear by having the “vile jelly” of his eyes gouged out (3.7.101). His world now “all dark and comfortless,” Gloucester calls out for Edmund to “enkindle all the sparks of nature” to save him and Lear (3.7.103-105). Regan reveals Edmund’s complicity and to fully avenge his friendship to her father, orders that Gloucester too be “thrust out at gates” to blindly “smell his way to Dover” (3.7.113-14).

The arrival of Cordelia’s company from France finds the mad Lear still one to endanger his subjects, this time for the sake of retaining the makeshift crown he weaves of weeds and flowers. He forces his rescuers to give chase, leaving Gloucester alone, blind and bleeding from the eye sockets, and precipitating a skirmish between Edgar and Oswald, who desires the bounty on Gloucester’s life. Edgar kills Oswald, saving his blind father’s life and learning of Edmund’s complicity in Goneril’s conspiracy to kill Lear. Though Lear had regularly cursed the gods for his unhappiness and suffering, Cordelia blesses and entreats them to help her father, who in his dementia is “mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,/Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds” (4.4.3-4). In compassion she mourns the physical and mental degeneration of a once powerful, proud and self-sufficient man:

All you unpublished virtues of the earth,

Spring with my tears. Be aidant and remediate

In the good man’s distress. Seek, seek for him,

Lest his ungoverned rage dissolve the life

That wants the means to lead it. (Lear 4.5.118-22)

Out on the heath, the leviathan of the state embodied in the king collides even more violently with “nature’s subversiveness in the form of monstrosity” (Lee 275) that gives truth to Lear’s earlier complaint that “Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” (Lear 2.4.307), or as Hobbes put it, “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short” (58). But Lear’s experience in the harsh wilderness is not one of immediate death or violence or even abandonment, as he is in fact united with three of the play’s most sympathetic characters: Kent, the now-blind Gloucester, and Gloucester’s banished son Edgar. In such an unprotected and hostile space, soaked by rain and with his only known subject the blinded but loyal Gloucester, that Lear comes face to face with his own blindness to the superficiality of his intemperate knights, former yes-men who like “Goneril with a white beard” flattered him “like a dog” (4.6.115-16) but are nowhere to be found in his time of abject bodily need:

To say “ay”

and “no” to everything that I said “ay” and “no”

to was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet me

once and the wind to make me chatter, when the

thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I

found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to. They are

not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything.

Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof. (Lear 4.6.117-24)

As a horse had carried him away from Regan and Cornwall’s castle, Lear is driven by the storm toward revelations of his own human weakness and fallibility, and that “he can neither construct nor recover his own kin(g)ship [sic]” (Hecq 24). His monarchal delusions of near-godhood now a mockery, the king now crowned in wilted weeds must also face his legacy of poor judgment, including having taken for granted and often abused those who truly loved him. In ironic commiseration with the suicidally depressed Gloucester, Lear admits that his adulterous friend’s “bastard son was kinder to his father/than my daughters got ‘tween the lawful sheets” (4.6.133-4). His lucidity all but gone, Lear alternates between moments of disorientation and kindness to both Tom and Gloucester, tantrums at the gods, and misogynist fantasies of women as centaurs whose reproductive parts conceal “the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption!” of hell (4.6.143). Dirty, chilled and damp with his own excretions as well as from the rain, he can no longer distance himself from the degradation of his physical body as even the hand he grabs his crotch with “smells of mortality” (4.6.148). In one of the play’s gentler ironies, Lear, the sighted man long blinded by his own arrogance has seen the folly of his ways, and exhorts the physically blinded Gloucester that a wiser “man may see how this world/ goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears” (4.6.165-66). Still torn between a deposed king’s self-pity and a father’s regret, Lear would actually change places with Gloucester, saying “If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes” (4.6.194).

Lear’s most meaningful chance for redemption comes with Cordelia’s arrival, in a rare lucid admission that his betrayal of his youngest daughter was his gravest and most regrettable mistake: “Pray you now, forget, and forgive. I am old and foolish” (4.7.98-99). When both are captured, Lear again asks his daughter’s forgiveness, in his dementia believing the gods and stars he previously railed against would now grant him favor, and that nature would replace Lear’s persecutory beasts with those disposed to kindness toward him and the daughter of his rejection:

So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—

And take upon ’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out,

In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones

That ebb and flow by th’ moon. (Lear 5.3.12-20)


The “stage of fools” (4.6.201) Lear chuckles about on the heath while “preaching” to Gloucester suggests the king, if lucid at that moment, remains callously detached from the immense human suffering precipitated by his “injudicious decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters” (Farshid 249). On Lear’s stage, the king is put out to die in the wilds of his own kingdom, as are his truest friends, one of whom must serve him in disguise or be banished yet again; his fool is hanged while prophesying; Gloucester, a superstitious stargazer once as blind to the natures of his own children as Lear, no longer has eyes; Edmund, a bastard supplanter who stole Edgar’s rightful duchy and imprisoned Cordelia and Lear, dies in trial by combat by his “mad” brother’s sword; and Cornwall is mortally wounded in a duel with one of Gloucester’s servants; Goneril poisons the alcoholic Regan’s wine then kills herself, heartbroken over a self-confessed lecher; and Albany, wise too late to his wife’s adultery and otherwise “Most barbarous, most degenerate” nature (4.2.53), can not save Lear or Cordelia from the destruction that Edmund and the king’s two “Tigers, not daughters” have set in motion (4.2.49).

That Lear’s internal chaos is “initiated by his misjudgments, empowered by his wrath and rage, and spirals down to his fall by his alienation from the human world” (Jafari 120) is enough to make Shakespeare’s King Lear a tragedy. But the far-reaching external effects of his decisions for everyone around him makes his tale a tragedy of cosmic proportions for its scope and degree of human suffering. It is difficult if not impossible to identify a catharsis in a tale in which a father banishes his daughter, who is then imprisoned and hanged after attempting to rescue him and forgiving the unforgivable. It is almost as difficult to locate a satisfactory nexus for labeling King Lear a cautionary tale, for it contains a number of solemn warnings – against pride, vanity, anger and numerous other hamartias that each on their own would prove disastrous for Lear. But his precipitating decision to elevate vanity and pride over the future wellbeing of his family by dismembering his kingdom, highlights the fallacy of a human being believing that as monarch and man he is “invested with all the transferred power” of the state and exists “outside the ambit of contractual parties” (Slavicek 1), so that love and land can be rightly “manipulated and distributed for political/personal purposes” (Lee 274). For Lear not to understand that “it is foul for a royal father to request love in exchange for a portion of his kingdom” is an indication of how profoundly depraved he is and chooses to remain, though it is clear he is losing everyone and everything he claims to care about. That “Goneril’s and Regan’s sweet flattering helps them get part of his territory” (Lee 274), while Cordelia is rejected for refusing to do the same, suggests a perverse capacity to blur the lines between parenting and power, so that Lear’s relationship with his daughters has misogynistic and even incestuous qualities. That one daughter is poisoned by another, one commits suicide and one is assassinated is not a legacy that any responsible, sane father can disclaim. “Mad” Lear, far from ensuring the future peace and prosperity of his kingdom, subjects and family, is a tyrant and gangster masquerading as king. His willingness to create “disarray in family relationships and in the state” (Lee 274) for his own gratification results not in progress and protection, but heartbreaking ruin to both.

Works Cited:

Farshid, Sima. “Divergent Monarchs in Henry V and King Lear.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 1.16 (2011): n. pag. Center for Promoting Ideas (CPI). Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “King Lear.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. New York: Norton, 2012. 1251-1254. Print.

Griggs, Yvonne. “‘Humanity Must Perforce Prey upon Itself like Monsters of the Deep’: King Lear and the Urban Gangster Movie.” Adaptation 1.2 (2008): 121-39. Web. 3 Jan. 2016.

Hecq, Dominique. “Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: The Name-of-the-Father in King Lear.” Colloquy 13 (May 2007): 24-33. Arts Online. Monash University. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Trans. Jonathan Bennett. (2010): 1-76. Early Modern Texts. Web. 2 Jan. 2016.

Lee, Chin-Ching. “From Nature/Culture Dyad to Ecophobia: A Study of King Lear.” Linguistics and Literature Studies 3.6 (2015): 271-77. HRPub. Horizon Research Publishing. Web. 28 Dec. 2015.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. London: Routledge, 2013. Google Books. Google. Web. 04 Jan. 2016.

Ottilingham, Somasundaram. “The Psychiatry of King Lear.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 49.1 (2007): 52-55. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Medknow Publications. Web. 01 Jan. 2016.

Segal, Lynne. “Chapter 4: The Circus of (male) Ageing: Philip Roth and the Perils of Masculinity.” Ed. Stephen Frosh. Psychosocial Imaginaries: Perspectives on

Temporality, Subjectivities and Activism. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. N. pag. Google Books. Google. Web. 30 Dec. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of King Lear.” Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. (n.d.): n. pag. Folger Digital Texts. Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 31 Dec. 2015.

Slavicek, David Jan. “The Hobbesian State of War in Shakespeare’s King Lear.” Lecture University of Zurich, 2005. English Language and Literature Studies (2001): 1-10. Print.

Teising, Martin. “Narcissistic Mortification of Ageing Men.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 88.6 (2008): 1329-344. Wiley Online Library. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.


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