King Lear Family Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.
This policy and reverence of age
makes the world bitter to the best of our times, keeps
our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish
them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the
oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath
power, but as it is suffered. Come to me, that of this I
may speak more. If our father would sleep till I waked
him, you should half his revenue forever and
live the beloved of your brother. Edgar.'
Hum? Conspiracy? 'Sleep till I waked him, you
should enjoy half his revenue.' My son Edgar! Had
he a hand to write this? A heart and brain to breed it
in?—When came this to you? Who brought it? (1.2.49-61)
When Gloucester reads the fake letter that Edgar supposedly wrote to his brother, Edmund, he seems ready to believe that his son would conspire to kill him. But why? Shakespeare explores how Gloucester's relationships with his two sons dramatize some common issues surrounding primogeniture (the system by which eldest sons inherit their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc.).
The letter proposes that the brothers kill their father so they can share Gloucester's wealth ("revenue"), which gives voice to a common fear that all sons look forward to their fathers' deaths. This kind of anxiety can also be found in other plays like Hamlet and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.
Now, all the plagues that in the pendulous air
Hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters!
He hath no daughters, sir.
Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment! 'Twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters. (3.4.73-81)
After Goneril and Regan betray Lear (who has given them all his land and power), he's quick to condemn all women as he attempts to blame the troubles of the world on "unkind daughters." What's particularly interesting about this passage is the way Lear compares his daughters to "pelicans." In Shakespeare's day, mother pelicans were thought to have wounded their breasts so their young could feed off their blood. (Ew.)
King Lear's being a bit of a martyr here, as he suggests that he is like a mother pelican who has been sacrificed so his greedy daughters can thrive. Lear is pretty fond of using this kind of imagery—earlier in the play, he compared Cordelia to a man who eats his parents (or children).
History Snack: In the late sixteenth century (just a short time before Shakespeare wrote King Lear), Queen Elizabeth I (who never had any kids) used the image of the pelican in order to portray herself as a kind of loving and self-sacrificing "mother" to her "children" (the subjects of England).
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.—Away, away! (1.4.302-303)
When Goneril boots her father out of her house, Lear complains about the sting of Goneril's rejection. We don't doubt that Lear's emotional pain is real but we do wonder if Goneril isn't right to order her father out of her home. Lear, after all, is a pretty lousy houseguest. He shows up on his daughter's doorstep with a hundred "rowdy knights" who act as though Goneril's pad is bar or a brothel and he, Lear, expects a warm welcome. So, who's right? Goneril or Lear?