Study Guide

King Lear Loyalty

By William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 1
Earl of Kent

Reserve thy state,
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness. Answer my life my
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverb no hollowness. (1.1.167-173)

After Lear foolishly disowns Cordelia, Kent stands up and urges the king to "reverse" his decision to ban his only loving and loyal daughter. Even Kent can see that Goneril and Regan will betray their father—they're "empty-hearted" and their flattering words mean nothing.


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)

We discuss this passage in "Family" but it's worth talking about here as well. When Lear demands his daughters profess their love to him, Goneril and Regan lay it on pretty thick—professing they love Lear "the most." Here, Cordelia points out that Goneril and Regan are being disloyal to their husbands because, as married women, Goneril and Regan owe much of their love and "duties" to their spouses.

Cordelia says she will "obey," "love" and "honour" her father (hmmm… sounds a bit like a wedding ceremony, don't you think?), but she's going to reserve "half" of her "love" and "duty" for her future husband. Cordelia's honesty sends Lear into a rage and he disowns her. (He also takes away the dowry he promised.) Why?

Act 1, Scene 2

[…] Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper. (1.2.21-22)

Because Edmund feels he's been shafted by society and his father (for being an illegitimate and second-born son), he justifies his disloyalty and scheming against his family. Edmund feels entitled to "grow" and "prosper" at the expense of his father and half-brother. For him, there is no such thing as family loyalty or duty.

Act 1, Scene 4
Earl of Kent

If but as well I other accents borrow
That can my speech defuse, my good intent
May carry through itself to that full issue
For which I razed my likeness. Now, banished Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand
So may it come thy master, whom thou lov'st,
Shall find thee full of labors. (1.4.1-8)

Even after Lear banishes Kent, the man remains loyal by disguising himself as "Caius," in order to serve the king. Some literary critics see Kent as being an emblem of an old school style of service, whereas his counterpart, Oswald, seems to embody a newer model of service—that is, Oswald, like many of the play's young people, is motivated by self-interest rather than loyalty and puts his own needs and desires ahead of his master's.

Act 3, Scene 3
Earl of Gloucester

Go to; say you nothing. There is division
betwixt the dukes, and a worse matter than that. I
have received a letter this night; 'tis dangerous to
be spoken; I have locked the letter in my closet.
These injuries the king now bears will be revenged
home; there's part of a power already footed. We
must incline to the king. I will look him, and privily
relieve him. Go you and maintain talk with the
Duke, that my charity be not of him perceived. If he
ask for me. I am ill, and gone to bed. If I die for it, as
no less is threatened me, the king my old master
must be relieved. (3.3.8-19)

Gloucester knows that he will get in trouble for helping Lear. So, why does he do it? Is he being loyal to the king or, is he worried about saving his own hide? (He knows that an army has landed in Dover to aid Lear and thinks the king will be "revenged.")

Act 3, Scene 7
Duke of Cornwall

See 't shalt thou never.—Fellows, hold the chair.—
Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot.
He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help!
               As Servants hold the chair, Cornwall forces out
                                                  one of Gloucester’s eyes.
                               O cruel! O you gods!
One side will mock another. Th' other too. (3.7.81-86)

Cornwall blinds Gloucester for being a "traitor" (that is, loyal to King Lear). Is Gloucester under any obligation to serve Cornwall?

Act 5, Scene 3

We are not the first
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst. (5.3.4-5)

Cordelia seems to recognize that she is one in a long line of people who gets shafted while trying to do the right thing. The kicker is that she doesn't yet know "the worst" consists of her death.

Duke of Albany

[…] Edmund, I arrest thee
On capital treason; and, in thine attaint,
This gilded serpent.—For your claim, fair
I bar it in the interest of my wife.
'Tis she is sub-contracted to this lord,
And I, her husband, contradict your banns.
If you will marry, make your loves to me.
My lady is bespoke. (5.3.98-106)

Gosh. The writers of One Life to Live must have read King Lear because this play is beginning to look and sound a lot like a soap opera. After Albany finds out that his wife has been sleeping with Edmund (and that his sister-in-law, Regan, is trying hook up with Edmund too), he charges Goneril and Edmund with "treason." Because Albany is a ruler, Goneril's infidelity doesn't just make her a disloyal spouse, it makes her a criminal against the state.

King Lear

This is a dull sight. Are you not Kent?
                                                            The same,
Your servant Kent. Where is your servant Caius?
He's a good fellow, I can tell you that.
He'll strike, and quickly too. He's dead and rotten.
No, my good lord, I am the very man—
I'll see that straight.
That, from your first of difference and decay
Have followed your sad steps.
                                                 You are welcome
Nor no man else. All's cheerless, dark, and deadly.
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
And desperately are dead.
                                          Ay, so I think.
He knows not what he says, and vain it is
That we present us to him. (5.3.340-356)

Loyalty? It's not rewarded in King Lear. When Kent finally reveals his true identity to Lear, it's too late.

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