When King Lear begins, in the play bearing his name, to realize the truth of his daughters’ love, he exclaims, “Ingratitude! Thou marble-hearted fiend!” Lear rated his daughters repeatedly for their lack of gratitude. He never understood that the quality of his love did not merit any gratitude from his children.
The play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. Before making the partition, he asks which of them love him most, so that he may give her the greatest part of the kingdom. The older daughters oblige him with hyperbolic speeches. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, tells her father that she does love him, but will give half her love to her husband, and will not “love my father all.” For this response, Lear disowns and disinherits her.
In this one scene, Lear pits his children against each other, to compete for his gifts; extracts professions of love by dangling rewards; and punishes the one child who would not flatter him.
Having driven out one daughter, and given his kingdom to the remaining two, Lear sets the program for the rest of his life: to live with each older daughter a month at a time, bringing with him one hundred knights as his attendants. This went as well as any reasonable person would expect. Goneril, the eldest daughter, is soon complaining to her father of his behavior, and his attendants’ behavior, in her house: “You strike my people; and your disordr’d rabble / Make servants of their betters.” She asks him to reduce his attendants to fifty.
Lear—beginning and ending with a denunciation of his daughter’s ingratitude—calls down vivid curses upon her. He leaves in a rage and goes to Regan, the second daughter. Regan greets him: “I am glad to see your highness.” Lear answers, “If thou shouldst not be glad / I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, / Sepulchring an adultress.” In this, we see another method of Lear’s management of his children—threatened rejection, with insult or injury to another member of the family as well.
When Goneril arrives, a sort of family conference develops. The sisters close ranks—Regan telling Lear that he may stay with her with twenty-five attendants, and Goneril asking him why he needs even five. Lear erupts into incoherent threats: “No, you unnatural hags, / I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world–I will do such things– / What they are, yet I know not;–but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.” And again he storms out, and no one would imagine that either sister regretted it.
Lear memorably declared that he was a man more sinned against than sinning. There is no doubt that the narrative agrees with him. One senses here a cultural mist. In Shakespeare’s day, the idea of duty or honor owed to a father—and even more to a king—was far more powerful than it is today. Even so, I would not disagree with Lear’s conviction that his daughters had sinned against him. But what is striking is Lear’s conviction of his own guiltlessness.
In truth, Lear’s sins were returning to him. He had attempted to compel his daughters’ love by threats and promises. Naturally, he had compelled only a pretense of love, and that pretense faded as soon as he resigned his power to punish and to reward. His daughters were selfish, but so was the man who had raised them.
Lear called his daughters unnatural because they did not act with what used to be called “natural love.” But Lear was not lovable, and it is not unnatural that his daughters should not love him. You cannot demand, by right or nature, a love that you have never shown.