The Complex Family Dynamics of King Lear

TW: emotional abuse, violence, dementia

As I was watching the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s recent stream of King Lear, I was confronted with a feeling I didn’t expect: empathy for Goneril. This was my first experience with King Lear and all I had heard was that Lear was horribly abused by his two evil daughters. I didn’t feel that way though (at the start). I found her original request to be reasonable. All she asked was that Lear and his men respect her and her home. Then, Lear unleashed every insult and curse possible. I found his reaction to be completely outrageous. Goneril’s face crumbled, showing every hurt she was feeling in that moment. I was confused, so I brought the conundrum to the Shakespeare 2020 Facebook group. The key difference appeared to be that I saw Goneril’s request as genuine, whereas many, even most, did not. As the play continued, I had to agree that Regan and Goneril were genuinely terrible, but it got me thinking about the complex dynamics between Lear and his daughters.

Lear comes across as emotionally abusive AND mentally feeble. What does that mean for his daughters?

Emotional Abuse

During my research for Domestic Abuse in Othello, I looked into the common signs of emotional abuse, and Lear exhibits quite a few of them. We could assume that his abusive nature is strictly a result of his declining mental health, but I have a hard time believing that. He is not so far gone that his personality has changed completely and I would argue there are indicators of previous abuse.

First of all, Lear plays favorites. Everyone in the entire English court and probably the French court know that Cordelia is Lear’s favorite daughter. They know this because he openly proclaims it frequently and with no regard to his other two daughters. He proclaims it so frequently that it has become common knowledge at court. There’s a reason parents are not supposed to have favorites or claim favorites. The children that are not the favorite take an immediate and lasting hit to their self esteem. Imagine being told for a significant portion of your life that you are less than. I imagine it would create some feelings of anger and resentment. Cordelia gets disowned and still ends up Queen of France. I imagine that would have to sting a bit.

Lear is also quick to anger. This is often used as a tactic for emotional abusers because it keeps the abused off balance. The one being abused never knows exactly what is going to set off the abuser and tends to make them more submissive. Lear first shows his anger with Cordelia. His rage is intense enough that those around him are shocked. Kent even gets banished when he tries to intervene. Goneril comments to Oswald before confronting Lear how quick he is to get angry:

Goneril: Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding his fool?

Oswald: Yes, madame.

Goneril: By day and night he wrongs me; every hour he flashes into one gross crime or another, that sets us all at odds: I’ll not endure it. His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids us on every trifle.

Act I, Scene 3

When there is no one left, he turns his anger on the world and then on himself. It isn’t until he has driven those who loved him away and fled from the rest that he sees the error of his ways. It isn’t until there is no one left to abuse that he starts to abuse himself.

Sudden anger is not where his abuse ends though. He weaponizes his gifts when his daughters express displeasure. He uses what he has given them to guilt them into obedience. In this way, his gifts are a way to maintain control over them. If they express any criticism or complaints, then they are being ungrateful, unnatural, and cruel. It becomes clear that Lear wanted to give away all responsibility, but maintain all his power. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t work. He has given away everything, so he really has nothing to hold over them. There is nothing he can leverage for control except guilt…and insults.

Which brings us to our final evidence of abuse, the cruelty and insults. Once Lear feels he has been slighted, he unleashes a barrage of insults that are intended to break down the target. Cordelia’s proclamation of love is not sufficient so he disowns her immediately, tries to ruin her future, and finally wishes she had never been born:

Lear: Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.

Act I, Scene 1

Let’s remember here that Cordelia didn’t say she didn’t love him. She attempted to be more honest than her sisters and say she loved him as a daughter should, but once she married, her husband would hold some of her love. This statement causes Lear to disown his favorite.

Cordelia is not the only one to face his cruel wrath. Kent receives his fair share of insults before he is exiled. Goneril, however, may receive the worst. He calls her a “degenerate bastard,” “detested kite,” “marble-hearted fiend” and one with a “wolfish visage.” It is difficult to imagine a father being angry enough at his child to say such horrible things to their face. But he doesn’t stop there; he wishes one of the worst things you could wish on a woman at the time on his oldest daughter: barrenness. He hopes that she never has a child, which at the time was practically what made you a woman. That had to cut deep.

His abusive nature made me feel sympathy, especially for Goneril. It could not have been easy to deal with that abuse for so many years and stay a doting daughter. HOWEVER, there is a turning point in the play, and I think it is when it becomes abundantly clear that Lear is in a state of mental decline. There becomes a point where they are abusing a feeble old man.

An Ailing Father

It’s made clear from early in the play that Lear’s mind appears to be slipping. Kent attempts to defend Cordelia, but is quickly cut down by Lear, to which he responds “be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad.” (Act I, Scene I). He repeatedly attempts to appeal to Lear’s formerly good judgement, as does the King of France. No one can seem to quite believe what is happening. Even Goneril and Regan see the writing on the wall.

Goneril: You see how full of changes his age is; the observation we have made of it hath not been little: he always loved our sister most; and with what poor judgement he hath now cast her off too grossly.

Regan: ‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.

Goneril: The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look to receive from his age, not alone imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them

Act I, Scene 1

They make it pretty clear that he has always been quick to anger, but it’s definitely getting worse as he gets older. They write it off as old age, but today we may notice signs of dementia or similar ailments. Goneril during their confrontation also tries to appeal to Lear’s former judgement, “as you are old and reverend, you should be wise.” (Act I, Scene IV) Goneril and Regan are very aware of his mental decline when they enact their final cruelty on him.

This event, in my opinion, is where the tide changes. Goneril and Regan come together and quickly chip away at the last bit of power or dignity that Lear possesses. Lear becomes so enraged that he runs off into the storm. Goneril and Regan show no care for his physical or mental health and forbid anyone to go after him. The stress of his daughters confronting him and the intensity of the storm causes Lear to fully lose touch with reality and quickly. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from dementia to slip more quickly while under duress. This is what we see happen with Lear.

The audience sees Lear deteriorating and it’s difficult to watch. It’s painful to witness a man lose everything, even his own mind. We also see Lear reflect on his decisions and show genuine remorse. The audience sees growth in Lear’s character along with his painful mental decline. It gives the audience more sympathy for a clearly ailing man. At the same time, the audience sees Regan and Goneril become practically evil. They have all the power once they are free of Lear and they use it to be cruel.

We, as the audience, see the dynamic between the father and daughters change, even though they are not together. It becomes evident that Lear does not have full mental capacity, whether it be dementia or something else. His mental decline takes some of the responsibility off of him for his own actions. He becomes more like a child, so his daughters become the adults. They are the ones that have their full mental faculties. This puts them at a higher level of responsibility. They should know better. The Fool comments from the very beginning that they are like his parents now:

Lear: When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?

Fool: I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy daughters thy mothers

Act I, Scene 4

It makes the relationship much more complicated for both Lear and his daughters.

It’s Complicated

At the end of the day, the only thing we can conclude is that King Lear’s relationship with his daughters is complicated. I can’t blame Regan and Goneril for not feeling affectionate toward their emotionally abusive father. They must be filled with resentment and anger towards his years of abuse. However, they are the responsible ones and end up being the ones that are abusive. The daughters are faced with an interesting dilemma: what does one to with an abusive parent that is in decline? Just because he isn’t fully responsible for their behavior now, doesn’t mean he wasn’t fully responsible for the years of hurt. And it certainly doesn’t make it hurt any less. However, he needs their care.

What do you think of Goneril and Regan? What do you think of Lear? Let me know in the comments down below. I would love to hear what you think.

Make sure to check out my podcast, Breaking Bard, and YouTube channel for more Shakespeare fun!

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