Tuesday, June 1, 2010

King Lear

"King Lear," one of William Shakespeare's darkest plays, is also one of his most famous. Though the play is dark, it also has moments of humour. The main character, King Lear, is mad. Unfortunately for him, he no longer has a wife to take care of him. He decides to divide his estate equally among his three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia.

The division of the estate should be a simple matter. However, King Lear decides to ask his daughters to tell him how much they love him before giving them their share. Though he should give each one-third, he encourages each daughter to praise him more in order to draw a bigger share of the estate.

His daughters Regan and Goneril both flatter him greatly but their words are not true. His youngest daughter Cordelia speaks honestly but fails to please her father. He does not understand that she is the only one who speaks the truth. In his anger, he disinherits her and gives her none of his estate. The following is a famous excerpt of this popular play.

King Lear:

To thee and thine hereditary ever
Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
No less in space, validity and pleasure,
Than that conferr'd on Goneril. Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess'd; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia:

Nothing, my lord.

King Lear:

Nothing!

Cordelia:

Nothing.

King Lear:

Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.


The king of France and duke of Burgundy are both interested in marrying Cordelia. For this reason, King Lear mentions the vines of France and milk of Burgundy. When King Lear asks Cordelia what she can say to receive a greater third than her sisters, the humour is evident. If each sister receives one-third of the estate, each receives an equal share. However, King Lear suggests that Cordelia can receive a greater third if she praises him more than her sisters. It is clear that her share is equal to that of her sisters, though. He simply wants her to flatter him as much as possible.

Cordelia, however, is a very honest daughter and tells her father that she cannot speak greater words than the false words of her sisters. To her father, these words are completely unwelcome. He becomes very angry.

He makes it clear to her that if she does not change her words, she will receive none of the estate. This is a big turn of events. Suddenly Cordelia risks the entire loss of her share of the estate. She is so honest, however, that she cannot change her words even though this incurs her father's wrath.

"King Lear" is a tragedy which nevertheless provides moments of humour. King Lear's vanity convinces Regan and Goneril to offer him false praise. Cordelia, his most loyal daughter, does not do so and suffers greatly. The irony is that King Lear realizes his mistake near the end of the play when Cordelia comes to his rescue. Sadly, though, by this time it is too late to reverse their fortunes.