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Shakespeare's Characters: Goneril and Regan (King Lear)

From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.

The characters in King Lear fall into strongly contrasted groups of good and evil beings; and as the main action of the drama is shaped by the energy of evil, it is natural to begin with those in whom that energy prevails.

There is no accounting for the conduct of Goneril and Regan but by supposing them possessed with a strong original impulse of malignity. The main points of their action were taken from the old story. Character, in the proper sense of the term, they have none in the legend; and the dramatist invested them with characters suitable to the part they were believed to have acted.

Whatever of soul these beings possess is all in the head; they have no heart to guide or inspire their understanding, and but enough of understanding to seize occasions and frame excuses for their heartlessness. Without affection, they are also without shame; there being barely so much of human blood in their veins as may suffice for quickening the brain without sending a blush to the cheek. With a sort of hell-inspired tact, they feel their way to a fitting occasion, but drop the mask as soon as their ends are reached, caring little or nothing for appearances after their falsehood has done its work. There is a smooth, glib rhetoric in their professions of love, unwarmed with the least grace of real feeling, and a certain wiry virulence and intrepidity of mind in their after-speaking, that is very terrible. No touch of nature finds a response in their bosoms; no atmosphere of comfort can abide their presence: we feel that they have somewhat within that turns the milk of humanity to venom, which all the wounds they can inflict are but opportunities for casting.

The subordinate plot of the drama serves the purpose of relieving the improbability of their behavior. Some have indeed censured this plot as an embarrassment to the main one, forgetting, perhaps, that to raise and sustain the feelings at any great height there must be some breadth of basis. A degree of evil which, if seen altogether alone, would strike us as superhuman, makes a very different impression when it has the support of proper sympathies and associations. This effect is in a good measure secured by Edmund's independent concurrence with Goneril and Regan in wickedness. It looks as if some malignant planet had set the elements of evil astir in many hearts at the same time; so that "unnaturalness between the child and the parent" were become, it would seem, the order of the day.

Besides, the agreement of the sister fiends in filial ingratitude might seem, of itself, to argue some sisterly attachment between them. So that, to bring out their characters truly, it had to be shown that the same principle which unites them against their father will, on the turning of occasion, divide them against each other. Hence the necessity of setting them forth in relations of such a kind as may breed strife between them. In Edmund, accordingly, they find a character wicked enough, and energetic enough in his wickedness, to interest their feelings; and because they are both alike taken with him, therefore they will cut their way to him through each other's life. And it is noteworthy that their passion for him proceeds mainly upon his treachery to his father, as though from such similarity of action they inferred a congeniality of mind. For even to have hated each other from love of anyone but a villain, and because of his villainy, had seemed a degree of virtue in beings such as they are.

There is so much sameness of temper and behavior in these two she-tigers that we find it somewhat difficult to distinguish them as individuals; their characteristic traits being, as it were, fused and run together in the heat of a common malice. Both are actuated by an extreme ferocity; which, however, up to the time of receiving their portions, we must suppose to have been held in check by a most artful and vigilant selfishness. And the malice of Goneril, the eldest, appears still to be under some restraint, from feeling that her husband is not in sympathy with her. For Albany, though rather timid and tardy in showing it, remains true to the old king; his tardiness probably springing, at least in part, from a reluctance to make a square issue with his wife, who, owing to her superiority of rank and position, had somewhat the advantage of him in their marriage. Regan, on the other hand, has in Cornwall a husband whose heart beats in perfect unison with her own against her father; and the confidence of his sympathy appears to discharge her malice entirely from the restraints of caution, and to give it a peculiar quickness and alertness of action. Near the close of the king's last interview with them, we have the following:

GONERIL. Why might not you, my lord, receive attendance
From those that she calls servants or from mine?

REGAN. Why not, my lord ? If then they chanc'd to slack you,
We could control them. If you will come to me
For now I spy a danger I entreat you
To bring but five-and-twenty; to no more
Will I give place or notice.

LEAR. I gave you all.

REGAN. And in good time you gave it.

LEAR. Made you my guardians, my depositaries;
But kept a reservation to be follow'd
With such a number. [II, iv, 237-247.]

This passage is quoted mainly to draw attention to the concentrated wolfishness of heart in those few words, "And in good time you gave it," snapped out in reply to the pathetic appeal, "I gave you all." Human speech cannot be more intensely charged with fury. And this cold, sharp venom of retort is what chiefly discriminates Regan from Goneril; otherwise they seem too much like repetitions of each other to come fairly within the circle of nature, who never repeats herself. Yet their very agreement in temper and spirit renders them the fitter for the work they do. For the sameness of treatment thence proceeding is all the more galling and unbearable forasmuch as it appears the result of a set purpose, a conspiracy coolly formed and unrelentingly pursued. That they should lay on their father the blame of their own ingratitude, and stick their poisoned tongues into him under pretence of doing him good, is a further refinement of malice not more natural to them than tormenting to him. It is indeed difficult to conceive how creatures could be framed more apt to drive mad any one who had set his heart on receiving any comfort or kindness from them.

For the behavior of Regan and Goneril after the death of Cornwall, and their final transports of mutual fierceness, Shakespeare prepares us by the moralizing he puts into the mouth of Albany:

That nature which contemns its origin
Cannot be border'd certain in itself. [IV, ii, 32-33.]

meaning, apparently, that where the demon of filial ingratitude reigns, there the heart is ripening for the most unnatural crimes, so that there is no telling what it will do, or where it will stop. The action of Goneril and Regan, taken all together, seems the most improbable thing in the drama. It is not easy to think of them otherwise than as instruments of the plot; not so much ungrateful persons as personifications of ingratitude.


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