King Lear and His Daughters
The analysis of father-daughter relationship in “King Lear”
The story of King Lear, despite its original portrayal, is apocryphal. The mythological aspects that send us to the ancient origins of the story are the numbers of the daughters he had – three. The three children is the common theme in the myths and fairy tales all over the world. Another common motif in mythology is the “natural order” the main character so often refer to. It is natural for father to love his children and for them to return the love.
The main conflict in “King Lear” that drives all the plot and causes the tragedy that brings most of the cast to their death is the desire of the King to test this natural order. He sets the test for each of his daughters: each of them has to prove her love to her father. The self-obsession of King Lear and his desire to be flattered and praised means for him more than the daily work and calm affection that is the real part of the true family love.
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The daughters of King Lear differ drastically one from another. Two elder ones named Goneril and Regan can be seen as selfish and lying, pretending to maintain a pretty picture of family love and not really caring about the feelings. The younger one, Cordelia, is kind and gentle, though shy and modest and unable to express her affection to her father in such a loud and public way. We can see this motif in lots of fairy tales and can predict the further story of the daughters and King Lear himself.
The older ones shall suffer and the younger shall be rewarder. Usually, we look at such characters through the black and white filter, clearly defining who is good and who is evil. But are Goneril and Regan really evil, or are they simply the daughters of their father? As we can see, the “natural order” of King’s Lear family allows the father to disown his daughter, who fails to please him. Unconditioned love is something of a miracle here.
So the answer to the question “Who is King Lear’s daughter?” isn’t “an evil spoiled brat”. The father-daughter relationships in “King Lear” are wrong from the very beginning and the tragedy lies not in the betrayal of Goneril and Regan, but in the inability of the King to fix his dysfunctional family.
What is the “failure” Cordelia is punished so hard for? She simply has the courage to say that she is proving her love every day, so there is no need to play something extra for her father’s pleasure only. Cordelia is brave and sincere, unlike her older sisters. We also know that Goneril and Regan feel envy towards her, they think that Cordelia always was treated better than them.
They are especially glad when their sister is exiled, not only because her part of the kingdom can be divided between them too, but also because they feel that the justice is now restored. But why do they feel that way? Could it be because they indeed were mistreated?
There shall be a reason why the daughters of King Lear are so different, other than the apocryphal plot. Cordelia might grow up a good person not because of her inner virtues, but simply because King Lear finally decided to sincerely care about his child?
Goneril and Regan saw a good example of the “family values”: shallowness, self-obsession and narcissism, when the image and words are valued much more than routine and deeds. No wonder that when their father loses power, the older daughters of King Lear have their revenge, not even pretending to love and respect their father.
We can only guess how much of a hit was King Lear’s betrayal for Cordelia. But still her unconditional love is rewarded with another love of the same kind. The King of France who courted her before, announces that he loves her so much that is ready to marry her disregarding the fact she has no heritage anymore. Without her father’s blessing, Cordelia departs to France.
From now on, the life of Lear turns into the nightmare. Two older daughters with their husbands start to divide the land of the old King, effectively turning him away from their houses. Goneril demands that King Lear dismisses half of his knight (his only guard and source of power left), because her house is not a tavern and she is not obliged to entertain and feed all these people.
She even threatens to get rid of them (and her father) by force. Offended, King Lear goes to the middle daughter, Reagan, to complain and to spend some time in her house, but she is outright hostile, not even letting him stay. Finally the revelation comes to the old former King. Driven mad by grief, he runs away and disappears in the thunderstorm.
But still, the natural order – the real one, not that Lear thinks of – is not shaken. Despite being disowned and exiled, Cordelia still loves her father. As a Queen she gathers an army and declares war to her sister for what they did to King Lear. She is still as brave and sincere as she was at the beginning of the play. Cordelia knows that war is a serious business and she can lose her newly found loving family, her status and even her life, but nevertheless she feels obliged to help her father because that’s what devoted daughters do.
Cordelia manages to reunite with King Lear – now a poor, half-mad beggar in rags, who understands how wrong he was as a king and as a father for all this time. They have too little time together, Cordelia is only able to say that she still loves him, despite everything King Lear did to her. This is their final talk: the battle starts, Cordelia’s forces are utterly defeated and she and Lear are imprisoned and have to be executed soon.
Meanwhile we see that Cordelia’s sisters aren’t happy with their victory. Not knowing what the real life is, they fall in “love” (basically they want to obtain the man) with equally evil Edmund. In order to get their mutual love interest they plot and scheme against each other and soon their love affair becomes so obvious that enraged husband of Goneril arrests her and Edmund for committing treason and plotting to kill him.
But the first Goneril’s victim isn’t her husband: when she is taken to the prison, we learn that Regan is dead, poisoned by her sister. Edmund is also killed and Goneril, not willing to face the incarceration, kills herself too.
With almost everyone from the “bad side” dead, the few of King Lear’s loyal knights now have the chance to rescue him and Cordelia. But it is too late for King Lear’s daughter: Cordelia is hanged right before the knights arrive. They found the old King, cradling the body of his younger and the only loyal daughter. Learning about what happened with the rest of his family, King Lear blames himself and dies from broken heart.
It may look like a tragedy of a man who was betrayed by the dearest ones, but it is also the tragedy of horrible misjudgement and warped priorities. King Lear was unable to teach his daughters love and the result is fully predictable, especially in case when wealth and power are also involved.
Starting a competition for the land between his daughters, King Lear himself makes them rivals, planting the first seeds of further dreadful events. The “test” obviously wasn’t the first case of such competitions: from the dialogues between the sister we can clearly see that they always had to compete for their father’s attention and “love”.
Despite Goneril and Regan being evil throughout all the story and committing so many atrocities, King Lear is indeed the one to blame. He is the one responsible for father-daughter relationship, as an adult he should care not only about physical well-being of all his children, but also about their emotional needs and morals.
Natural order he mentions so often, was violated by him at first and Goneril and Regan just paid the debt. Cordelia with her love and care, bravery and honesty, is more of a miracle than a product of nurture. She is the only one of King Lear’s daughters in the whole dysfunctional family who just wasn’t spoiled by his personality.