Bad Dads and Favorite Children: An Analysis of Familial Relationships in King Lear

Photo from i.telegraph.co.uk
Photo from i.telegraph.co.uk

The painfully complex and utterly ridiculous play, King Lear by William Shakespeare, scrutinizes dysfunctional parent-child relationships in a way that seemingly disapproves of Early Modern parenting attitudes.

Acting as a cautionary tale, Lear specifically examines the relationship between the titular character and his daughters as well as the relationship between Gloucester and his sons, thus illustrating the universality of familial dysfunction and the unsavory impact of bad parenting. Within the Lear household, Cordelia, the youngest, is prized as the favorite child, a fact so blindingly apparent that Lear thinks nothing of admitting it while his two other daughters are present. In reference to Cordelia, Lear thunders at Kent, “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery” (1.1.122-3).

As a result of these sentiments, Lear displays an unfair bias towards Cordelia, forsaking his two other daughters as second rate. When Lear divides up his kingdom, parceling it out to his daughters, he reserves the greatest and most politically valuable piece of land for his precious youngest child. Though all three daughters are forced to indulge him by playing a can-you-top-this-style-game, Lear divvies up the prizes all too soon and it becomes evident that even according to his own testimony and without having yet said a word, Cordelia is to receive the best allotment. Trying to persuade Cordelia to speak, Lear cajoles, “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters” (1.1.84-5).

Photo from mckellan.com
Photo from mckellan.com

For an outsider looking in at the Lear household dynamic, it becomes inescapably clear that Lear does not place the same value on all his daughters, treating the eldest two unfairly, making them resentful and hard-hearted. Though Goneril and Regan undoubtedly mistreat their father in the later acts of the play by acting snarky and inhospitable towards him, the audience is called to view their actions almost (so close but not quite there) sympathetically.

After all, Lear wasn’t the kindest and fairest father to begin with! However, Boose reports that this type of familial relationship was not uncommon. In fact, children were often disproportionately viewed by parents, boys being valued before girls and first-born boys being precious above all else. In its own ludicrous and maddening way, Lear acts an unflattering reflection of typical family relations in Early Modern England, which places the blame for villainous children on bad parenting.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Marketing & Development Editor

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