Goneril

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Goneril
King Lear character
Goneril and Regan from King Lear.jpg
Goneril and Regan by Edwin Austin Abbey
Created by William Shakespeare

Goneril is a character in Shakespeare's tragic play King Lear (1605). She is the eldest of King Lear's three daughters. Along with her sister Regan, Goneril is considered a villain,[1] obsessed with power and overthrowing her elderly father as ruler of the kingdom of Britain. Her aggressiveness is a rare trait for a female character in Elizabethan literature.

Shakespeare based the character on Gonorilla, a personage described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his pseudohistorical chronicle Historia regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain", c. 1138) as the eldest of the British king Lear's three daughters, alongside Regan and Cordeilla (the source for Cordelia), and the mother of Marganus.

Role in Play[edit]

Goneril is the oldest daughter of King Lear, and is married to the Duke of Albany. She is also one of the play's principal villains. In the first scene, her father asks each of his daughters to profess their love for him to receive their portion of the kingdom. Goneril's speech, while flattering, is not genuine, as she only wishes to accrue power.

After Lear banishes his youngest daughter Cordelia for failing to flatter him, as Goneril and Regan did, Lear decides that he will spend half the year in Goneril's castle and the other half in Regan's. Because Goneril does not truly care about her ageing father, she instructs her servants to neglect him, so that he might become frustrated enough to confront her, and then might leave. She believes that her father is an old madman, and that "old fools are babes again" (1.3.20) and must be set straight with reprimands as well as flatteries. When Lear arrives at Goneril's castle with 100 knights who carry on with noisy debauchery, she demands that her father send some away and only retain those with manners. Lear erupts in anger and departs for Regan's castle.

During Act 2, Goneril meets Regan and Lear at the Earl of Gloucester's house, where she supports her sister against her father, causing Lear to fly into a rage and rush out into a thunderstorm. Goneril and Regan then order that the doors be shut on Lear.

In Act 3, after learning that Gloucester has helped Lear escape to Dover to rendezvous with an invading French army, Goneril suggests that Cornwall pluck out Gloucester's eyes. Goneril takes a romantic interest in Edmund, seeing him as more manly than her cowardly husband Albany. Albany is repulsed by Goneril's actions and denounces her, but she questions his manhood.

In the play's final act, as the British forces battle with the French army (led by Cordelia), Goneril discovers that Regan is also pursuing Edmund, so she poisons her offstage to ensure Regan does not marry him. After Regan dies, Goneril kills herself. There is little explanation for her suicide, as it seems uncharacteristic of the self-serving woman presented throughout the play.

Analysis[edit]

Goneril is cruel and deceitful. The earliest example of her deceitful tendencies occurs in the first act. Without a male heir, Lear is prepared to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, as long as they express their true love to him. Knowing her response will get her closer to the throne, Goneril professes, "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter" (1.1. 53).[2] She has no reservations about lying to her father.

She finally begins to show her true colours when Lear asks to stay with her and her husband. She tells him to send away his knights and servants because they are too loud and too numerous. Livid that he is being disrespected, Lear curses her and leaves.

Goneril, the wife of the Duke of Albany (an archaic name for Scotland), has an intimate relationship with Edmund, one that may have been played up in the earlier editions of King Lear.[3] She writes a note encouraging Edmund to kill her husband and marry her, but it is discovered. In the final act, Goneril discovers that Regan desires Edmund as well and poisons her sister's drink, killing her. However, once Edmund is mortally wounded, Goneril goes offstage and kills herself.

While the reasons for Goneril's hatred of her father are never explicitly explained in the text, Stephen Reid hypothesizes that Goneril, as the eldest daughter, hated her father because Cordelia was his favourite.[4] In Reid's eyes, "Lear's actual rejection of a daughter, Cordelia, awakened in both Goneril and Regan dim memories of their past and long repressed bitterness at his rejection of them, a bitterness they had never been able to express or come to terms with."[4]

Performance history[edit]

Onscreen[edit]

  • Kate Fleetwood. "King Lear" (2014) National Theatre Live broadcast. Dir. Sam Mendes
  • Frances Barber. King Lear (2009) PBS Dir. Sir Trevor Nunn and Chris Hunt
  • Caroline Lennon. King Lear (1999) Dir. Brian Blessed & Tony Rotherham
  • Barbara Flynn. Performance King Lear (1998) Dir. Richard Eyre
  • Dorothy Tutin. King Lear (1983) (TV) Dir. Keith Elliott
  • Gillian Barge. King Lear (1982) (TV) Dir. Jonathan Miller
  • Beth Harris. King Lear (1976) (TV) Dir. Tony Davenall
  • Rosalind Cash. King Lear (1974) (TV) Dir. Edwin Sherin
  • Irene Worth. King Lear (1971 UK Film) Dir. Peter Brook
  • Elza Radzina. Korol Lir (1971 USSR Film) Dir. Grigori Kozintsev & Iosif Shapiro
  • Beatrice Straight. King Lear (1953) (TV) Dir. Andrew McCullough

References[edit]

  1. ^ McFarland, Thomas. The Image of Family in King Lear. Shakespearean Criticism Vol. 73. 2003. Gale Literature Resources Center, Web. 25 March 2010.
  2. ^ Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. Ed. Greenblatt, Cohen, Howard, Maus. W.W Norton and Company, 1997. 707–781.
  3. ^ Auden, W.H. Lectures on Shakespeare. ed. Kirsch, Arthur. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2000. 219–230
  4. ^ a b Reid, Stephen (1970). "In Defense of Goneril and Regan". American Imago: A Psychoanalytic Journal for Culture, Science, and the Arts. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. Ivy Books, 1996.
  • Feinstein, Elain and the Women's Theatre Group. "Lear's Daughters" in Fischlin, Daniel and Fortier, Mark (eds.) Adaptations of Shakespeare. Routledge, 2000. 215–232

External links[edit]