Study Guide

King Lear Family

By William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 1
Earl of Gloucester

But I have a son, sir by order of law,
some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in
my account. Though this knave came something
saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was
his mother fair, there was good sport at his making,
and the whoreson must be acknowledged.—Do you
know this noble gentleman, Edmund? (1.1.19-25)

Here, Gloucester reveals that, in addition to his illegitimate son, Edmund, he also has another son "by order of law." ("By order of law" just means Gloucester's other son is legally recognized as a legitimate heir. In other words, this other son isn't a "bastard" like Edmund. Or Jon Snow.)

What's interesting about this passage is that Gloucester says he doesn't favor his legitimate son over Edmund. Gloucester's legitimate son, he says, "is no dearer in [his] account." We can't help but notice that the play is full of speculation about which children are most beloved by their fathers. Recall from a previous passage (1.1.1-6), Kent and Gloucester wondered which son-in-law King Lear liked best. And we know that Lear favors Cordelia over Goneril and Regan.

We should also point out that the more general question of "who loves who the most" turn up again when King Lear stages a love test, demanding to know which daughter can say she loves her father more than everyone else. Seems like Shakespeare is raising the following question: Is love (especially family love) quantifiable?

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.

Earl of Kent

Is not this your son, my lord?
His breeding, sir, hath been at my
charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge
him, that now I am brazed to 't.
I cannot conceive you.
Sir, this young fellow's mother could,
whereupon she grew round-wombed and had indeed,
sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband
for her bed. Do you smell a fault? (1.1.8-16)

Hmm. Seems like Shakespeare's trying to tell us there's going to be a whole lot of family drama up in this play. According to Gloucester, his illegitimate son, Edmund, is a bit of an embarrassment—Gloucester claims he has "often blushed to acknowledge" Edmund (because the young man was conceived out of wedlock). When Kent says he doesn't understand Gloucester's meaning, Gloucester puns on the word "conceive" (to understand or to biologically conceive a child) in order to crack a dirty joke about the mother of his illegitimate son. (Edmund, by the way, is standing next to his father the entire time!) It's not so surprising, then, that Edmund turns out to have a grudge against his father.

I thought the king had more affected the Duke
of Albany than Cornwall. (1.1.1-2)

The opening lines of Shakespeare's plays often provide clues about the play's most important pressing issues or themes. In King Lear, the play opens as Kent and Gloucester discuss which son-in-law King Lear likes best. Shakespeare might as well hold up a sign that says "This play is going to be all about the dynamics of parent-child relationships!"

King Lear

Tell me, my
[Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state—] 
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest born, speak first. (1.1.52-59)

Here, King Lear demands to know which one of his daughters loves him "most" before he announces the division of his kingdom. When Lear asks "which of you shall we say doth love us the most?" he's operating under the assumption that 1) love is quantifiable and 2) that language is capable of expressing his daughters' love. Yeah, both of these assumptions are dead wrong. Check out "Language and Communication" for more on this.

Let it be so. Thy truth, then, be thy dower,
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be,
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. The barbarous
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. (1.1.120-133)

When King Lear disowns Cordelia, who refuses to say she loves her father the most, he "disclaim[s] all [his] paternal care" and insists that Cordelia is no more to Lear than a "barbarous Scythian" or a man that eats his parents and/or his children ("makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite"). In other words, Lear equates Cordelia's so-called betrayal of her father with a kind of barbarous cannibalism.

According to literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, this is Lear's biggest "folly." Cordelia is the one daughter that actually does love King Lear. Lear's banishment of Cordelia, as we see, sets the play's tragic events in motion.

Peace, Kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. To Cordelia. Hence and avoid
   my sight!—
So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father's heart from her. (1.1.135-141)

Now this is interesting. Lear admits that he's angry with Cordelia because he "loved her the most" and was hoping to "set [his] rest on her kind nursery." In other words, Lear was hoping that Cordelia would play mother or nursemaid to him when he retired, which makes Lear more of a child or a baby than a father, don't you think? This is especially apparent when Lear says he's going to spend his retirement "crawl[ing] toward death" (1.1.43). Compare this passage to 1.4. below.


I love your Majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
                                                 Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
I return those duties back as are right fit:
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all. (1.1.105-115)

Cordelia, as we know, refuses to play King Lear's game of "who loves daddy the most." Here, she says that she loves her father "according to [her] bond," which means that she loves him just as much a daughter should love her father, "no more nor less." 

It turns out that Cordelia is about to be married and insists that she reserves half her love for her future husband and half for her father. She also points out that her sisters, Goneril and Regan, dishonor their husbands when they claim to love their father more than their spouses. Is this the reason Lear flips out and banishes Cordelia, depriving her of a dowry? Is Lear jealous of Cordelia's future husband?

Act 1, Scene 2

[…] Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? why 'bastard'? Wherefore 'base,'
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With 'base,' with 'baseness,' 'bastardy,' 'base,'
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th' legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate,'
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.2-23)

In this passage, Shakespeare reveals Edmund's motives for trying to destroy his father, Gloucester, and his brother, Edgar. Edmund has been mistreated and labeled a "base" "bastard" for two reasons: 1) he's an illegitimate child, the product of Gloucester's affair with an unmarried woman; 2) Edmund is not an eldest son (Edgar was born first). 

In Shakespeare's day, primogeniture (the system by which eldest sons inherit all their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc.) was the rule. Edmund is not only seen as a lesser being than his older half-brother, Edgar, he also stands to inherit nothing from his father. But, Edmund objects to the way society views him as insignificant and insists that he's just as noble and well-composed as his brother, Edgar. It is here that Edmund resolves to go after Edgar's "land" as he composes a scheme for revenge.

Act 1, Scene 4
The Fool

[…] e'er since thou mad'st thy
daughters thy mothers. For when thou gav'st them
the rod and put'st down thine own breeches, (1.4.176-178)

Lear's Fool (Lear's personal comedian) seems pretty smart when he points out that Lear's daughters became more like his "mother" when Lear gave up his power and his kingdom to them. The Fool notes that Lear might as well have pulled down his "breeches" (pants) and given his daughters a "rod" to spank him with.

Speaking of mothers, we also want to point out that, even though there's a lot of talk about moms in this play, there aren't actually any mothers present in King Lear. What's up with that?

King Lear

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?

Act 3, Scene 4
King Lear

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).

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...