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I will be concentrating on the presentation of Goneril and Regan, because Cordelia is more a symbol of purity, innocence and righteousness than a regular character.
In Act I scene I Shakespeare present the sisters to the audience through King Lear. First King Lear calls upon Goneril to give him a declaration of her undying love for him. It is then established for the audience that Goneril is the eldest of his daughters for he says, “Goneril, our eldest-born speak first”.
The fact that she is the oldest might give the audience a false idea of responsibility and honour. The idea is false, because later in the play Goneril has no honour or responsibility. Also presented here is the idea that the younger sisters look up to her for guidance. Goneril gives him an utterly devotional declaration of her undying love for him, thus establishing the idea of honour and love.
Then Regan is called forward to give her declaration of undying love for her father.
She gives the same devotional declaration of undying love, but she out does her sister saying, ” I find she names my very deed of love; only she comes too short.” Immediately the audience can sense the competition between the two sisters. Because of Cordelia’s aside after Regan’s declaration, ” I am sure my love is richer than my tongue” the audience is also led to distrust both Goneril and Regan’s declarations and wonder whether they have false intentions.
Cordelia is then called forward to give her declaration of undying love, but against expectation she does not give a declaration of undying love but instead says “I love your majesty according to my bond, no more no less.
” Because of her honesty her father who is furious then disowns Cordelia. Through her reaction to her disownment Shakespeare reveals some of her character. Cordelia takes her disownment with pride and understanding. She does not rant and rave neither does she fall down on her knees begging forgiveness, but instead tells her father “since what I well intend, I do’t before I speak”.
Once again through what Cordelia says the audience is led to distrust the nature of her sisters’ declarations ” If for I want that glib and oily art, to speak and purpose not.” She does not believe in making empty promises that sound wonderful, but mean nothing. She suggests that her sister perform this art, she says “that glib…”. The audience feel they can trust Cordelia because Shakespeare presents her as the favourite daughter and also through her speeches that is short, yet filled with wisdom. Shakespeare used the honest and innocent to reveal the intentions of the evil. Through both Cordelia and Kent who says “and your large speeches, may your deeds approve” the audience is led to mistrust Goneril and Regan. After King Lear and all his followers leave and only the three sisters and the King of France are left, Cordelia comes straight to the point. All pretensions are dropped and Cordelia is almost resigned to the fate of her father. ”
To your professed bosoms I commit him, but yet, alas, stood I within his grace I would prefer him to a better place.” She seems resigned because of the word “alas” and the commas that separate this word from the rest of the sentence. They emphasise the word as important. Cordelia knows her sisters cannot be trusted and see right through their deception. As Cordelia leaves she says “Time shall unfold what plaited hides: who cover faults” And not long after she leaves, her sisters through their dialogue, confirm the suspicions that Cordelia has risen in the audience. Shakespeare uses a soliloquy to present the sisters true feelings to the audience. Goneril and Regan discuss their father in a very disrespectful manner. This proves that their earlier declarations of love were but false and empty words.
By the amount of lines Shakespeare attributed to each of them, the audience can clearly see that Goneril is the more dominant of the two. She has about four times more the amount of lines Regan has and she starts the conversation as well as ends it. The contrast between them is also portrayed to the audience when Regan says, ” We shall further think on’t” which is a very passive approach to the situation. But Goneril says” We must do something and ‘n the heat ” which is a more active approach to the situation. They also decide too work together in this first scene and become united in their treachery. “Pray you, let’s hit together.” Their selfish character is portrayed through Goneril’s words ” This last surrender of his will but offend us.” Goneril also speaks for them both saying “us”; this also shows her dominant character.
In Act I scene III Goneril is present again, but this time with her servant. If the audience was not sure about how Goneril feels about her father, this scene certainly proves that she loathes her father. ” I will not speak with him.” She is very clear about about her decisions. She lies to her father through her servant giving the order ” say I am sick.” She gives her servants the right to ignore her father, the old king. “Put on what weary negligence you please” therefore stationing the servants above her father and showing to the audience that she has no respect. Again the audience see that Goneril and Regan are in this together “Whose mind and mine, I know are one” She berates her father in his absence and in the presence of a servant “Idle old man” once again being disrespectful towards her father and stationing him below her servants. ” I’ll write to my sister, to hold my very course. Prepare for dinner.” She appears to completely in control and mistress of her household. She commands her servants “Prepare for dinner” and she knows what she will be doing about her dilemma “I’ll write to my sister”
In Act I scene IV the audience is once again shown that Goneril and Regan are not to be trusted through the fool. The fool berates the old king “since though madest thy daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them the rod” This also gives the audience the feeling that Goneril and Regan are in control and that they treat their father like a little child. Goneril speaks to her father with viciousness and scorn. “You strike my people and your disorder’d rabble” This shows that she is vicious and gets what she wants through deceitful ways.
King Lear compares Goneril and Cordelia in his speech and sees that Goneril is more evil than Cordelia. “How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show.” King Lear curses Goneril with barrenness, but this does not bother Goneril at all “never afflict yourself to know the cause.” Any normal woman would be stricken with terror to be cursed with barrenness because their one goal in life was to give birth to a healthy male heir. Goneril is not a normal woman; she is unfeeling, strong and dominant. She does not believe in the ramblings of an “Idle old man” and is not bothered by curses. She says: “Never afflict yourself to know the cause”, therefore immediately dismissing her husbands fears of the curse. To King Lear Goneril is dead “Yet have I left a daughter.” She dominates her husband as well. Telling him “Pray you, content” with her decisions. She says he has “milky gentleness” and that he has “want of wisdom”. She is talking in threatening tones “Safer than trust too far”. There still is no trust between the sisters “If she sustain him and his hundred knights when I have show’d the unfitness,” She also does not want her sister to be better than her by being kinder to her father and does not want her father to be respected and treated according to his right.
In Act ll scene l the audience meet Regan again as she tries to avoid her father. She is also trying to get out of the agreement she and her sister made with their father. Like her sister she is making excuses pretending she is coming to ask advice from Gloucester “Our good old friend, lay comforts to our bosom; and bestow your needful counsel to our business”.
In Act ll scene ll the audience is presented with the unsympathetic side of Regan’s’ character. She purposes that Kent should be put in the stocks “Till noon! Till night, my lord; and all night too.”.
In Act ll scene lV Shakespeare presents the sisters as being on the
same side, they are both rebelling against the agreement they made
with their father. Regan, instead of sympathising with her father and
blaming Goneril, tells her father that “She have restrain’d the riots of
your followers, t’is on such ground, and to such wholesome end, as
clears her from all blame.” She tries to get rid of her father by telling
him to “Therefore, I pray you, that to our sister you do make return;”
The commas emphasises the “I pray you” showing that she is in earnest
of what she is saying and almost desperate to get rid of him.
Shakespeare presents Goneril through the things King Lear says about her. King Lear tells Goneril that “you are too tough” and that she is “a disease that’s in my flesh…thou art a boil, a plague sore” She is described as something that is detested yet feared as well. After King Lear has left Gloucester’s castle and have ranted at the storm on the heath, King Lear holds court for his daughters even though they’re not there. Here Shakespeare presents Goneril and Regan’s hearts through the illusions of King Lear. “whose warp’d looks proclaim what store her heart is made on… Corruption in the place!” The exclamation mark indicates the enormity of the corruption within Goneril and Regan.
Shakespeare also presents Goneril and Regan through the opinion of Mad Tom (Edgar). Mad Tom says that they have “Tooth that poisons if it bite”, he compares them to dogs ” Mastiff, greyhound…”. The fact that they are compared to dogs, may mean that they will turn and bite the hand that fed them at anytime.
As Goneril comes in, the two sisters team up against their father. They both want to get rid of him and take turns to make the ones demands worse than the others, until King Lear leaves them both. Goneril says, “What need you five and twenty” and Regan says, “What need one?”. King Lear then leaves with a last insult of, “you unnatural hags”.
Shakespeare presents to the audience the brutal side of both Goneril and Regan through their reaction to Gloucester’s so called treason. They propose that they must “Hang him instantly” and “Pluck out his eyes”. Even though Regan speaks first, which might indicate that she is more eager about it, Goneril gives the more brutal suggestion of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. Although Goneril gives the more brutal suggestion, she keeps her hands and side clean by leaving, “Farewell, sweet lord, and sister.” She is wiser and more political of mind than her sister. The audience can see who is the dominant sister and who is the follower when they follow Gonerils’ suggestion and plucks out Gloucester’s eyes.
Regan is presented as viscous, because she starts to taunt Gloucester and she mocks him by saying, “The one side will mock another; the other too.” She is also bloodthirsty, because she doesn’t squirm to run the servant through with a sword. (Takes a sword and runs at him behind).
Both Goneril and Regan develop tender feelings for Edmund and compete for his attention. They both lust after Edmund and Goneril will go as far as to poison her sister to get Edmund, “Your lady, sir, your lady: and her sister by her is poisoned; she hath confessed it.”
Goneril is also presented as the dominating character in her household, she “change arms at home, and gives the distaff into my husband’s hands.” She is the one who gives the orders and goes into battle.
Cordelia is presented by Shakespeare as the good and forgiving daughter. She still cares for her father even though he rejected and disowned her. She is gentle and kind and still respectful. Where her sisters call him an “idle old man” she still calls him “royal lord” and “majesty”. She still recognises his authority as her father. She also knows of her sister’s wrongdoing and wants to rectify it, “let this kiss repair those violent harms that my two sisters have in thy reverence made.”
In the end Shakespeare, through the reactions of King Lear, presents to the audience which daughter King Lear has always loved. When Cordelia died he was devastated and his last words before he died was of Cordelia, “look at her”.
The way the three sisters die, just shows the audience their characters. Cordelia went proudly to her death “for thee oppressed king, am I cast down”, but Regan is killed by a jealous sister and Goneril the strong and domineering takes the cowardly way, by taking her own life. “and after slew herself”
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