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King Lear

Comments on Act 2 Scene 4

According to Marianne Novy, “The contrast between Goneril and Regan on the one hand and Cordelia on the other owes something to the traditional tendency in Western literature to split the image of woman into devil and angel, Eve and Mary. Goneril and Regan are much less psychologically complex than most Shakespearean characters of comparable importance. Few of their lines carry hints of motivations other than cruelty, lust, or ambition … Shakespeare gives them no humanizing scruples like those provoked by Lady Macbeth’s memory of her father [preventing her from killing the king]. He does not allow them … to question the fairness of their society’s distribution of power as articulately as Edmund [1.2].”

Being in a position of dependence for so long, due to their sex, Goneril and Regan despise this trait in others. “Rather than attacking tyranny, they prefer to attack weakness … [displaying] a hatred of others they consider weak because of a fear of being weak themselves.” Later Lear notes how often we condemn others for our own faults (4.6 here and here).

“Cordelia by contrast with her sisters is much less stereotyped. Shakespeare’s presentation of her shows sympathy for the woman who tries to keep her integrity in a patriarchal world … refusing pretense as a means of survival” (Novy, Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, 1984).

To avoid giving the impression of Cinderella’s wicked step-sisters, creative actresses have found ways to emphasize differences between Goneril and Regan. The elder sister is sometimes played as more head-strong, even masculine, having tried for years perhaps to be the son her father never had. She takes the lead in her marriage, criticizing Albany’s “milky gentleness” (1.4), “the cowish terror of his spirit” (4.2), and says that she “must change names at home and give the distaff [sewing tool] into my husband’s hands … A fool usurps my bed” (4.2). In contrast, Regan has become accustomed to getting her way by feminine charm, handling her upset father with calculated consideration, repeatedly calling him “sir,” “good sir,” attempting to calm him down rather than confront him (at least at first).

Production notes

Shakespearean scholar Harley Granville-Barker coached John Gielgud in his second production of Lear (1940) to play with constant variety, switching quickly from one mood to the next. After cursing his daughters with tremendous vindictive power, he could sustain the effort no longer and pitifully cried out for the Fool as they exited into the storm. Leggatt considers Olivier’s performance in this same vein: this multiplicity of emotions “is not just an actor showing off; these moods are all in the text, all tactics Lear uses on his daughters, and the reason there are so many of them is that none of them works” (141).

Ian Holm (1997 National Theater) brought Goneril to tears with his curses, then he showed a moment of tenderness on “Thou art my flesh and blood, my daughter” to which she smiled with relief for a moment, “the last glimpse of a relationship they might have had” (Leggatt 155).

Thunder followed Paul Scofield’s (1962) threat to unleash “the terrors of the earth,” as if his curse triggered the storm.

Peter Ustinov (Stratford, Ontario, 1979) in a fatherly manner made his daughters sit on a bench with him while he taught them the meaning of “true need.”

Ian McKellan (2009) takes off his belt as if he intends to whip these naughty daughters of his.

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