Marriage is vital to King Lear and the principle plot of “the division of the kingdoms” (1.1.4). Shakespeare measures marriage through a series of parallels in this play. He demonstrates the parent-child “bond,” the relationship between a husband and wife, and the representation of adultery by Edmund and Goneril and Regan (1.1.102). Marriage also plays an important role in transferring property.
King Lear asks his daughters to speak of how much they “obey [him], love [him], and most honor [him]” to determine whether he wants to transfer his property (1.1.108). However, he is, in fact, transferring his land to his son-in-laws because of the “nature” of marriage in this time period (1.2.1). Understanding a woman’s responsibility of serving a husband and a father in a patriarchal society, Cordelia defines her love for King Lear in honest and realistic terms, “according to my bond, no more nor less” for “begot[ting] [her], bre[eding] [her], and lov[ing] her” (1.1.102 & 1.1.106). Then, she goes onto explain her lack of obedience to her father by asking a question to her sisters who stated that they love Lear more than anything in the world; she says, “why have my sisters husbands if they say/ they love you all?” (1.1.109-10) Her explanation draws attention to the gender role and sexuality in Shakespeare’s era. Marriage, in Renaissance period, is the means of defining gender role and personal responsibility; Since marriage adds more to parent-child relationship, Cordelia states: “Sure I shall never marry like my sister’s/ To love my father all” (1.1.114-115). Her statement truly reveals the gender role she has to play in the society.
I argue that King Lear offers the true depth of love’s legitimate bonds. Even though the gender roles from the 1500s are different than the gender roles we play in the 21st century, marriage still creates more responsibilities. It puts us in a position where we have to find a balance between various relationships such as paternal bonds, marital bonds, friend bonds, and political bonds. King Lear shows how true love can maintain relationships.
As Jannette Dillon remarks in her book about King Lear, Cordelia’s response to her father’s request to “heave/ [her] heart into [her] mouth” sets the play as an “extended examination of how bonds are maintained or broken between human begins” (King Lear 1.1.100-101 & Dillon 104). Cordelia, considering the gender role that comes along with marriage, has to respond to Lear in a sincere manner that she can juggle between her responsibility for her father and her future husband. Lear’s misunderstanding of her answer stems from the gender role; Alexander Leggatt in her “King Lear: We have no such daughter” from her book, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Violation and Identity, and Richard C. McCoy’s article, “Look upon me, Sir: Relationships in King Lear,” describe how Cordelia’s role of respecting and being loyal to her future husband as well as her father influenced the relationship between King Lear and Cordelia.
Leggatt argues that Lear imposes a fantasy of his daughter to his actual daughter. In his words, Cordelia “is not [even] real” (145). Asserting his authority as king and father, he produces “a version of her in his mind” (145). He constructs an imagination that she “loves him totally” and expects her to comply with his fantasy. By forcing her to act according to his image of her, Lear fails to understand Cordelia because of his inconsideration towards her other duties as a woman. In other words, he does not consider her as an individual who has multiple responsibilities, attempting to force her to behave in the ways he wants her to. This failure to acknowledge Cordelia’s roles damages their parent-child bond, which Cordelia does not give up to restore.
McCoy, on the other hand, focuses on Lear’s violation of the legitimacy of natural law, in the context of parent-child bond and husband and wife relationship, and primogeniture. He argues that Lear’s action of going against the natural law created the fall out between Lear and Cordelia. He notes, even when Lear finally recognizes the unconditional love of “[his] child, Cordelia,” Lear still remains as a “very foolish, fond old man” for “detain[ing] him[self] from Cordelia”(4.7.49 & 4.7.60 & 4.3.42-47). When Lear runs away from his daughters who “sworn [their] love” to him, his daughter whom he “love’d [the] most” comes to rescue him (5.1.64 & 1.1.122). However, with “his mind [full of] burning shame,” Lear “detains him[self] from Cordelia” by fleeing away from her (4.3.42 & 4.3.47). Therefore, McCoy claims that their relationship is “fraught” (McCoy, 50). McCoy also comments that according to the primogeniture, Lear is not supposed to test Cordelia’s love in the first place; his property is supposed to go to his eldest daughter. According to McCoy, Lear’s act of testing her love, unrecognizing Cordelia’s role as a woman, and inability to accept Cordelia’s kindness to rescue him ruins their chance of restoring the relationship.
King Lear Today:
King Lear helps us understand how marriage affects the parent and child relationship in contemporary era. Even though women are not property of their fathers or husbands, they still bare the responsibility of supporting their families and parents. Catherine Belsey in her “Gender and Family from The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy and Keith Linley’s King Lear in Context: The Cultural Background discuss contemporary issues regarding marriage and supporting family.
While Belsey focuses on the change of supporting family when women get married, Linley centers his argument on maintaining the marriage. Belsey suggests that women voluntarily take responsibility of their family; she says, “if women are to become consenting partners for men perhaps one condition is that they too must endure pain without protest” (134). As more women work nowadays, it becomes more difficult for them to take care of their family and parents. Although husbands share the duty of taking care of family, it is still challenging to juggle between family and parents.
Linley argues that King Lear demonstrates “two forces in contemporary society: traditional male unfettered sexuality and the newer moral code of Puritanism attempting to control the sex impulse” (110). Gloucester’s adultery and the ubiquity of sexual activity are problems that are still relevant today.
Maintaining the marriage itself and maintaining the relationship with more family as people get married are still issues in modern day life. Cordelia’s true love for Lear can perhaps gives us a solution for the family issues in contemporary society.
The opening of Act I scene I is rich in references to marriage.
Earl of Kent: I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
Earl of Gloucester: It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most, for 5
equalities are so weigh’d that curiosity in neither can make
choice of either’s moiety.
Earl of Kent: Is not this your son, my lord?
Earl of Gloucester: His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blush’d to acknowledge him that now I am braz’d to’t. 10
Earl of Kent: I cannot conceive you.
Earl of Gloucester: Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew round-womb’d, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
Earl of Kent: I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so 15
Earl of Gloucester: But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account. Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was
his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the 20
whoreson must be acknowledged.- Do you know this noble gentleman,
Edmund: [comes forward] No, my lord.
Earl of Gloucester: My Lord of Kent. Remember him hereafter as my honourable friend. 25
Edmund: My services to your lordship.
Earl of Kent: I must love you, and sue to know you better.
Edmund: Sir, I shall study deserving.
Earl of Gloucester: He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again.
[Sound a sennet.] 30
The King is coming.
Enter one bearing a coronet; then Lear; then the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall; next, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, with Followers.
Lear: Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.
Earl of Gloucester: I shall, my liege.
Exeunt [Gloucester and Edmund].
Lear: Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we 40
Unburthen’d crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy, 45
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answer’d. Tell me, my daughters
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state), 50
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first.
Goneril: Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; 55
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er lov’d, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable. 60
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
Cordelia: [aside] What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.
Lear. Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich’d,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads, 65
We make thee lady. To thine and Albany’s issue
Be this perpetual.- What says our second daughter,
Our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall? Speak.
Regan: Sir, I am made
Of the selfsame metal that my sister is, 70
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short, that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense possesses, 75
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear Highness’ love.
- Cordelia: [aside] Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since I am sure my love’s
More richer than my tongue.80
- 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 85
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interest; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
- Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.
- Lear: Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.
- Lear: How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
- Cordelia: Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit, 100
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty. 105
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
- Lear: But goes thy heart with this?
- Cordelia: Ay, good my lord.
- Lear: So young, and so untender?110
- Cordelia: So young, my lord, and true.
- Lear: Let it be so! thy truth then be thy dower!
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs 115
From whom we do exist and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian, 120
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and reliev’d,
As thou my sometime daughter.
- Earl of Kent: Good my liege-125
- Lear: Peace, Kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I lov’d her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.- Hence and avoid my sight!-
So be my grave my peace as here I give 130
Her father’s heart from her! Call France! Who stirs?
Call Burgundy! Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughters’ dowers digest this third;
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.
I do invest you jointly in my power, 135
Preeminence, and all the large effects
That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustain’d, shall our abode
Make with you by due turns. Only we still retain 140
The name, and all th’ additions to a king. The sway,
Revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm,
This coronet part betwixt you.
- King Lear has been planning to divide his kingdom for a while. It is unclear if love test was also planned.
- A reference to marriage.
- Both of suitors have appealed to her emotionally before they knew that she is about to inherit the land. However, we get to learn that one of them only pursued her for the possibility of inheriting Lear’s property.
- Cordelia seems to have choices but in reality she does not. She does not have choices in the delivering a praise for Lear if she wants the land.
- She knows that when she gets married, she won’t be able to support Lear as much as she can as a single woman. She tries to find a way to answer in the way that she can balance between supporting her husband and Lear.
- Lear misunderstands Cordelia’s answer. It seems as if she loves him because she has to, but in fact she meant her love for him is natural.
- She talks about the gender role in Renaissance period. Women had to take care of both husband and father.
- It seems as if Lear has already divided the land regardless of the speeches his daughters deliver.
Belsey, Catherine. “Gender and Family.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. Ed. Claire McEachern. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 123-141. Print.
Dillon, Janette. “King Lear.” The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Tragedies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 103-113. Print.
Leggatt, Alexander. “King Lear: We have no such daughter.” Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Violation and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2005. 145-176. Print.
Linley, Keith. King Lear in Context: The Cultural Background. New York: Anthem, 2015. Print.
McCoy, Richard C. “Look upon me, Sir”: Relationships in King Lear.” Representations.81.1 (2003): 46-60. JSTOR. Web. 25 Aug 2014
Shakespeare, William. The Oxford Shakespeare: King Lear. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.