Uncivil Obedience: Foolishness and Betrayal in King Lear

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits / send quickly down to tame these vile offenses, / It will come, / Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep.1

Shakespeare has set two major forces at work against King Lear in this play. The first is King Lear’s own pride and ignorance. The second is the willing betrayal of his daughters, Goneril and Regan. While the lines above foretell the consequences of this lack of respect toward authority, they also present a deeper idea, that the folly of our existence is self-imposed suffering. Not only in the sense of the individual submitting himself to it, either willingly or unwillingly. But also by the values of power and corruption that society imposes upon itself and the people within it. In her criticism, Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, Marilyn French wrote that “the tragedy [of King Lear] presents an agonizing picture of the consequences of such a morality.”2

Irrespective of the fact that the tragedy of the play stems from King Lear’s foolish decisions regarding the inheritance of his kingdom, the true evil lies in the lustful nature of power itself. The pride and foolishness of King Lear are certainly the factors that fail to prevent his daughters from taking advantage of him. But can the blame for what consequently happens lie completely on his shoulders? Lear states in his apparent insanity, that he is “even / The natural fool of fortune.”3 His truest fault is not his goading by Goneril and Regan’s fawning praise, but his disowning of Cordelia for professing her honest opinion. This action was grounded in egotism and selfishness, thus it is the very nature of King Lear that allows the tragedy to ensue.

King Lear was not without fault, but the disobedience of his daughter’s also weighs heavily into the equation. Goneril and Regan manipulate their father with open-faced lies, and there is no denying their guilt. What they do to King Lear accounts to characteristic uncivil obedience. By telling him exactly what he wants to hear, Goneril and Regan are able to get exactly what they want from him. They exploit King Lear’s foolishness and are corrupted by their lustful desire for power. And it is this lust and inequality that drives the people within a society apart in the first place. This sentiment is echoed in the penultimate lines of the play, when Edgar remarks, “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”4

Thus, one might arrive at the conclusion that the blame neither lies completely with King Lear or with Goneril and Regan. Rather, both parties are guilty in different ways. Had King Lear been a wise enough leader, he would not have split up his kingdom in the first place, nor would he have succumb to the flattery of his treacherous daughter’s and abandoned his loyal daughter Cordelia. Likewise, had Goneril and Regan not taken advantage of the fact that their father was a fool, we would no longer be reading a tragedy. However, these traits are not of the nature of these characters, and tragedy does follow as a consequence. Notwithstanding, one question remains; are Goneril and Regan truly evil? Or have their values simply been perverted by society’s “morality of power and control”?2 It is my contention that they are not rooted in evil, but that the base of society grew such a malignancy in their hearts.

Endnotes: 1 King Lear; IV; ii; 46-50. 2 Marilyn French, Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, 1982. 3 King Lear; IV; vi; 187-88. 4 King Lear; V; iii; 324-25.