Shakespeare's portrayal of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia in King Lear?

Categories: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's presentation of Lear's three daughters in the play "King Lear" is both interesting and highly effective. Goneril and Regan are the two wicked sisters being both hypocritical and evil in their plot to gradually destroy their father. Cordilia however is presented as the complete opposite proving to be honest and respectful and shows that she is the one that holds true love for her father. The play begins with Lear about to divide and give up to his daughters his kingdom.

Crucially Lear wishes to be told how much his daughters love him before he divests his rule, kingdom and cares of state. Tell me my daughters ...... which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we, our largest bounty may extend'. It is here that when we hear each daughters reply that we get the first insight into each complex character. Goneril the eldest is to speak first, she replies 'Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter'.

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Here we can see she professes to love her father more than any thing. Foolishly Lear is at once gratified, obviously not knowing her true disposition, which Shakespeare has veiled effectively for her advantage.

Regan is then asked to which she replies much the same, describing herself as being 'made of the same metal as my sister', adding 'I profess myself an enemy to all other joys. Here we can see that Regan is just as hypocritical as Goneril, in professing to love her father beyond all other joys, knowing she will gain from making this proclamation.

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In their fulsome speeches to Lear they both use the same metallic imagery, as though love were simply a commodity. But next with quite the contrast we are presented with Lear's third and youngest daughter Cordilia who demonstrates to be the complete opposite from Goneril and Regan.

Cordilia in an aside says 'then poor Cordilia! And yet not so since, I am sure my love is more ponderous than my tongue'. Evidently she truly loves her father greater than her ability to talk about it. We see Shakespeare's development of a true honest character in the way he presents Cordilia. Also next when she explains that she 'loves her majesty according to my bond', but the man 'whose hand must take my plight, shall carry half my love with him'. This demonstrates Shakespeare's ability to project forth Cordilia's purity and respectfulness.

She is not ambitious and treacherous like her two sisters, and Shakespeare's unbalanced equation of two evils and one good emphasizes this point dramatically. The unjust is brought upon the just as Lear disowns Cordilia and gives her nothing letting 'her honesty be her dower'. With Cordilia safely out the way Goneril and Regan's true characters begin to shine forth. When they are left alone, their realistic appraisal of Lear's character and their accusation that he is in his 'dotage' stands in stark contrast to the love which they have professed, demonstrating them for what they really are.

In this scene Shakespeare presents them at the start of their brutal plot, but as we later see they get progressively worse. Act 2 scene 2 is the center of the core for the whole play in that here is the point that Lear realizes how grave a decision he has made regarding his daughters. 'By day and night he wrongs me' claims Goneril. She (who has Lear living with her at that point) becomes increasingly irritated by Lear's boisterous knights and acquaintances. By making her father feel unwelcome, she can force him to reduce his retinue, here Shakespeare presents a very clever and conniving character.

The attack on the Knights is part of her strategy. Naturally Lear is absolutely infuriated by this and argues that he has another daughter whom he is 'sure is more kind and comfortable' than his 'thankless' daughter Goneril. Yet Goneril knows better, yet instead of demonstrating any signs of remorse or compassion she belittles the foolishness of Lear giving away his powers describing him as 'an idle old man', 'that would still manage those authorities', that he hath given away! ' Here we can see Goneril's ruthless thirst for ambition projected forth.

Now that she has her share of the kingdom she doesn't care what anybody thinks; Lear included. Shakespeare presents this accordingly as we get the first taste of the bitterness in which Goneril and Regan are made of. Lear arrives at Regan's and makes clear his feelings toward Goneril's actions, describing her as 'Sharp-toothe'd unkindness, like a vulture'. He expects Regan's sympathy and compassion, yet it is not so. Goneril enters and they side together, this being all part of their strategy to destroy their father's sanity.

She proves to be even more brutal than Goneril. As if letting the venom sink in slowly they lower by their standards the number of knights they think Lear needs 'what need you five and twenty? Ten? Or five? ' Regan then has the final blow by simply stating 'what need one'. This is the point in which Lear snaps. Those three words are the beginning of the end for Lear. The one thing that keeps Lear happy is the idea of still existing authority. His daughters know this and that is why they use this tactic to drive Lear away and make him go insane.

This all contributes to the wickedness that Goneril and Regan are rapidly being shrouded in. Deliberately using Lear's weakness to their advantage. Lear measures his personal worth in terms of his belongings. Shakespeare makes sure that Goneril and Regan are presented as heartless and vindictive as possible in this scene, when Lear enraged runs off they lock him out of the castle to teach him a lesson. This shows that they have no feeling of compassion or empathy toward their father but they think of themselves only.

The fact that there is a storm brewing and that it erupts with great force is one of Shakespeare's clever devices of setting a certain atmosphere and mood, which has a great effect on the audience. This storm imagery plays an important part in the language of the play, as it reflects the chaos and breakdown Goneril and Regan have caused including the mental chaos they have created within Lear's mind. It emphasizes the drama of the situation and makes it look more cruel and sinister. For example, if the weather was sunny and cheery outside this scene wouldn't be as powerful.

The capture and torture of Gloucester makes as a clear indication that there is no going back for Goneril and Regan. As Cornwall, Regan, Goneril and Edmund are discussing the traitorous Gloucester, Regan states 'Hang him instantly', yet Goneril suggests 'pluck out his eyes'. We can see here how far Goneril and Regan will go to fulfill their reckless ambitions. To the abhorrent point of ripping somebody's eyes out. As Gloucester enters Regan digs her claws in right away calling him an 'ingrateful fox'.

Here, Shakespeare has used (like he has done many a time through out the play) animal imagery in the form of an insult; this is often to stress inhuman behavior. When Regan calls him a 'fox' she is basically saying that he is sly and cunning like the fox is well known to be. This is ironic because she is nonetheless ten times worse than him. Shakespeare has done this to increase the frustration of the audience about the injustice of the whole situation. Even though Goneril is not present at the blinding of Gloucester it was her suggestion.

Regan as we can see takes a sadistic delight in interrogating the prisoner, in plucking his beard and inciting Cornwall to gouge out his second eye claiming that 'one side will mock the other'. This is absolutely repulsive and brings us to the question: who really is the worst out of the two sisters? Now we can see that Shakespeare has drew them as abnormal turning into monstrous. Through out the play it has been evident that both Goneril and Regan are the ones domineering their husbands. We can see this with Regan when the blinding of Gloucester takes place; she is the one egging him on.

For example when Cornwall says 'bind him I say' Regan adds 'hard, hard: o filthy traitor' she is the voice behind Cornwall's doings, she is the source making commit all the more evil deeds. Not to say he is the innocent victim he knows what he's doing yet it is Regan leading the way. Goneril through out the entire play walks all over her husband the duke of Albany. She treats him with no respect and continuously humiliates him. Right form the start of the play in Act one Scene four Albany openly supports his wife Goneril over the injustice carried out against her own Father - his Father in law Lear.

But as we come to see later on Albany's strength increases, he renounces his wife and demonstrating his disgust toward her curses her saying ' you are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face' and obviously realizing what has been going on added that combined Goneril and Regan are 'Tiger's not daughters'. Shakespeare presents them like this because it is the direct opposite of what was done in the Elizabethan era. The man was the head of the household and creating two evil sisters who have the dominion over their husbands was something else added to their lists of crimes.

This was done with the intention to shock people, which is one of the things Shakespeare loved to do most. Yet as we have seen it is not the case in the end as Albany stands up for himself against Goneril. Both Goneril and Regan are having an affair with Edmund. Their pursuit of him serves not only to build towards appropriate deaths for them, but adds sexual promiscuity to their other sins, plus the deception of Albany and each other. Goneril in Act four Scene two is extremely flirtatious with Edmund who reciprocates accordingly. She try's to arouse and provoke him by giving him a kiss to 'to stretch' his 'spirits up into the air'.

To which he replies ' yours in the ranks of death'. Meaning that he is forever hers. Act four Scene five is when Regan (who is also involved with Edmund) starts to worry about her sister's intentions for Edmund. This is when the rivalry for Edmund begins. The intense jealousy between the two sisters becomes rampant and is evident to the audience when Goneril says in an aside 'I had rather lose the battle than that sister should loosen him and me'. Here we can see to just what extent Goneril will go to always get her own way. She plots to poison her sister we know this because when Regan exclaims ' sick, o' sick'.

Goneril replies under her breath 'if not, I'll ne'er trust medicine'. Obviously Goneril has done the ultimate deed of wickedness by poisoning her sister who she was in it all together with. All over a man. This is ironic for the most devious and cunning of minds to be destroyed by a fact such as this. But it is this and this alone is what gives that awesome effect of retribution, and Shakespeare delivers this superbly. But what has happened to Cordilia? Cordilia remains righteous and heroic throughout and continues loyal to her father who treat her so badly in the beginning.

Upon her return she tries to help and sustain her father. While he is asleep she professes her deep and abounding love for him, which she was unable to speak of before. Shakespeare has created three magnificently drawn out characters two evil and one good. The two evils stay evil through out. The good, good though out. These characters will go on forever and ever and will continue being studied for generations and generations, and many different views and opinions will be shaped about them. The way Shakespeare presents these characters will stay the same and that is what makes his plays truly special.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Shakespeare's portrayal of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia in King Lear?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's portrayal of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia in King Lear? essay
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