In William Shakespeare’s play King Lear, the relationships between King Lear and his three daughters play a critical role in the events of the play. Lear has dysfunctional relationships with all three of his daughters, resulting primarily from his overbearing demands that they should love only him. Through the end of Act 4, the relationships with his two older daughters deteriorate, and for much of the play Lear is estranged from his youngest daughter. Although Shakespeare demonizes the two older daughters to a large extent, the text itself suggests that Lear is primarily responsible for the dysfunctional nature of the father/daughter relationships in the play. The way Lear’s two older daughters treat him mirrors Lear’s own treatment of them. Ultimately, Lear fails to treat his daughters well, and then goes mad when they do not treat him well in return.
The nature of those relationships is established in the first act of the play. Lear announces that he wishes to relinquish his duties and holdings as king because he is old and nearing death. He has summoned his daughters and then explains that he will divide his kingdom among the three daughters, but the daughter who convinces him that she loves him the most will receive the largest part of the kingdom. Even before the first daughter responds, it is evident that Lear does not treat his daughters equally, or he would not have made this announcement. He is not basing his decision on birth order, as he presumably would if he had sons. He is not basing his decision on the leadership merits of one daughter versus the other two daughters. He is essentially basing his decision on which daughter will do the best job of telling him what he wants to hear.
Lear’s announcement sets the tone for the rest of the play, in addition to raising some questions about him as a paternal figure. Simply put, what kind of father plays his children against each other, letting them know he will reward the one who is most convincing instead of either dividing the kingdom equally or rewarding the one who is most deserving? By issuing a challenge to his daughters to compete this way, he lays the groundwork for them to quarrel among themselves and turn on each other, as well as to resent him for putting them in this position. Nothing in the text indicates that Lear has been a good father. He perhaps has been a good ruler, but without any other evidence of what he was like as a father, the initial impression he makes is of an emotionally needy and demanding parent who plays favorites with his children.
Lear commands the oldest daughter, Goneril to speak first and she responds: “As much as child e'er loved, or father found;/ A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;/Beyond all manner of so much I love you” (1.1. 55-57). Lear responds by establishing the boundaries of the part of his kingdom Goneril will receive. He then challenges Regan, to whom he refers as his “dearest,” again indicating some favoritism. Regan raises the stakes a bit, by indicating that her love for him is the only thing that bring her happiness; she says, “And find I am alone felicitate/In your dear highness' love” (1.1.73-74). In Lear’s comments to Regan, he has mentioned that she is married. Given her response, a psychologically well-adjusted parent would ask her if something is wrong with her marriage, if the only thing that makes her happy is the love she has for her father, or if there is some quarrel between her and her sisters, since she apparently takes no pleasure in her affection for them. Yet Lear does not find anything disturbing about Regan’s remarks; instead, he indicates that her share of the kingdom will match Goneril’s share in size and value.
Lear at this point addresses the youngest daughter, Cordelia, and challenges her to state her love for him in a way that will convince him to give her a larger share than her sisters have thus far received. When Cordelia responds that there is nothing she can say to convince him to do so, Lear is taken aback. When he asks her to reconsider her words, she responds that she loves him the same way he loves her but that when she eventually marries, she hopes to love her husband in addition to loving her father. Her statement is extremely reasonable, and reflects a well-balanced personality. However, Lear responds to her statement as if he is insane; as Skura notes, “Lear's childish self-centeredness smothers Cordelia; her youthful declaration of independence tears him apart and drives him mad” (122). Lear states, “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” (1.1.114-117). Because Cordelia is unwilling to make a grandiose statement that she loves only her father, Lear disinherits her and tells her she means no more to him than a stranger would.
As the scene goes on, when Kent tries to get Lear to be reasonable, Lear rejects the interruption and then claims that Cordelia was the daughter he had previously loved the most. He makes this statement while all three of the daughters are still present, not hesitating at all to show the type of favoritism that would naturally create bad feelings among the three daughters. One does not need to be a mental health expert to know that a parent stating in public he loves one child more than the others is bad parenting. After Lear dismisses Goneril and Regan and then discusses marriage to Cordelia with her two suitors, he also says that it would have been better if Cordelia had never been born than for her to have displeased him. At this juncture, Lear has made it abundantly clear that his so-called love for his daughters depends entirely on them stroking his ego and never doing anything that might displease him.
Lear’s character is further revealed when Goneril and Regan discuss the situation privately. Goneril comments that Lear’s age is affecting his judgment, evidenced by his banishment of Cordelia, who was known to both Goneril and Regan to be the daughter he most loved. Regan responds by noting that while old age has increased his lack of judgment, their father has never known himself well, presumably meaning that he thinks of himself one way while acting another way. According to them, at his best he exhibited rash judgment and with the diminished cognitive functions that old age often brings, he will bring them additional problems. Their words foreshadow what occurs during the rest of the play. The calm way in which Goneril and Regan assess his character and actions indicates that they have no delusions about Lear as a father or a ruler. Goneril, in particular, seems to be very aware of the havoc their father can cause and how quickly his allegiances and love can shift; as described by Taylor, “To the extent an eldest child is aware of the perquisites of her birth position being allowed to speak first, for instance, when Lear solicited declarations of love she might well be aware, also, of the fragility of these perquisites, of how they might be passed along to the next in line if she, the eldest, does not behave properly” (33).
As Goneril and Regan had predicted, Lear creates problems wherever he goes. The next the audience hears of Lear’s interactions with his daughters, Goneril is asking her servant if her father struck him because he criticized one of her father’s men. The 100 knights her father insisted on retaining as his personal retinue have been unruly and Lear complains and criticizes every time he opens his mouth. Goneril tells her servant she does not want to speak to her father. Lear has evidently made himself so unpleasant at his daughter’s home that she wants to avoid him. Again, this speaks to the nature of their relationship. Lear is hypercritical of Goneril, the same way he had been hypercritical of Cordelia previously. Goneril notes that despite Lear having relinquished his authority as king and having given ruling authority to her and Regan, he still wants to retain power when he wants it. From Goneril’s comments, Lear has behaved badly in her household and has not kept his word. She cannot rely on him to have good judgment, to behave reasonably, or to keep his promises.
When Lear insists on speaking to Goneril, even though she had left word she was ill, she attempts to make him see reason. She describes to him how his “insolent retinue/Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth/In rank and not-to-be endured riots” and that their actions make her palace seem like “a tavern or brothel” (1.4). She insists that he reduce the number of knights he has. Although the actions of Goneril seem reasonable so far, from the comments that other characters make, such as the fool, Shakespeare obviously intends the audience to feel that Goneril and Regan are evil, unloving daughters who are exploiting their father. And yet, what is evil or unloving about Goneril not wanting to have 100 ill-behaved, armed knights hanging around her home, that she must house and feed? What is evil or unloving about wanting her father not to complain or criticize every action she takes? What is evil or unloving about wanting her father to keep his word that she and her husband now have ruling authority over their part of the kingdom?
Lear condemns himself as a parent through his own words. After he argues with Goneril, he expresses to her husband: “Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend/To make this creature fruitful!/Into her womb convey sterility!” (1.4). As far as the audience knows, the first time that Goneril does not accede to her father’s wishes and instead conveys her displeasure at the actions of his retinue, he reacts with hatred and scorn, wishing her to be infertile. After Lear leaves, Goneril expresses to her husband her fear of what the knights could do, with blind obedience to her father whose whims change from moment to moment. She expresses fear for her life and that of her husband, which speaks volumes about the relationship she has with her father. She does not trust him based on his constantly shifting alliances, irrational actions, and vitriolic statements about her.
During the subsequent acts of the play, Lear leaves Goneril’s household and goes to Regan’s household, where he expects nothing but sympathy for the way he has been treated. On his part, this seems like a deliberate attempt to create tension between the two sisters; he is trying to play Regan against Goneril. Lear is shocked that Regan does not plan to treat him any differently than Goneril did; this surprise confirms his total obliviousness to how his daughters actually feel about him. If they do not in fact love him, one can hardly blame them. If Lear’s actions in the play itself are any indication of his actions in the past, he has never given them any sort of unconditional love; he has not so much wanted family as sycophants.
Acts 2 through 4 contain scenes intended to portray Goneril and Regan as scheming, because both of them side with Edmund in his plot against his father, and in addition, they conspire to kill Lear himself while also conspiring against each other. Although wanting their father to be dead seems extreme, it is entirely understandable given his actions in the play. Their father has shown himself not to love them truly but to love them only so long as they flatter him and do as he wishes; it is hardly surprising that once he becomes vindictive toward them, they respond with equal or greater vindictiveness.
Cordelia, on the other hand, is presented as the daughter who loves Lear unconditionally. She is sorrowful when she hears of what has transpired with Lear and persuades her husband to send his forces to defend Lear. In turn, Lear is embarrassed by his former behavior and ultimately declares his love for Cordelia. In the context of their previous interactions, this switch reinforces just how dysfunctional the relationships are between Lear and his daughters. Lear decides he loves Cordelia only when he is displeased with his other daughters. He does not love Cordelia in and of herself; he loves her because she is not either of her sisters. He loves her because she is willing to wage war against her sisters to support him.
Overall, the father/daughter relationships presented in King Lear appear to be toxic. Lear treats his daughters as objects, whose primary function should be to adore him absolutely while he is free to dispense and withhold love based on his mood of the moment. Although Lear tries to repair his relationship with Cordelia, he does so in a way that will result in additional tragedy and death. Essentially he shuffles from one daughter to another, looking for the one who will stroke his ego the most. Based on the internal evidence in the play, Lear is an abysmal parent who ultimately destroys any positive aspects of his relationships with two of his daughters and whose demand for unconditional love leads his third daughter to risk her life and kingdom for him. Again, while Shakespeare obviously intended the audience to perceive Goneril and Regan as evil, much of the text suggests that Lear did not deserve any better treatment from them than what he received. If he had been a better father, perhaps all three daughters would have treated him well. As the play stands, it is hard to feel much sympathy for Lear and relatively easy to feel that he is at best a mentally unhinged ruler whose relatives needed to take over ruling for him, and at worst a self-centered tyrant who gets what he deserves. The normal father/daughter relationship that should consist of love has been subverted into relationships that are not rewarding for the daughters. McCoy described how Lear shows that so-called “bonds of love can become a form of bondage and oppression” (46). In the father/daughter relationships in King Lear, the bonds of love turn to bonds of hatred and aggression.
McCoy, Richard C. ""Look upon Me, Sir": Relationships in King Lear." Representations.81 (2003): 46-60. Web. 12 Jan. 2013.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Digireads Publishing, 2011. Kindle Edition.
Skura, Meredith. "Dragon Fathers and Unnatural Children: Warring Generations in King Lear and its Sources." Comparative Drama 42.2 (2008): 121-48. Web. 12 Jan. 2013.
Taylor, Mark. "Birth Order of Children in King Lear." The Upstart Crow 23 (2003): 31-8.. Web. 12 Jan. 2013.