King Leer

by David P. Gontar (November 2016)

It’s always interesting to observe which dramatic elements catch our attention and which slip furtively by with downcast eyes as though they had something to hide. To be sure, we can’t focus on everything, but each omission risks overlooking something fruitful. One of the aspects distinguishing Shakespeare, however, is the extent to which even minor details turn out to be far more revealing than they seemed at first glance, and it’s worth wondering whether these are so often set aside because they’re deemed trivial or because we’d rather not face their implications. Take Cordelia, for example, King Lear’s most cherished child. He declares this perverse preference before the entire court (The Tragedy of King Lear, I, i, 123), and her sisters echo the sentiment. (I, i, 287-288) We might ask, What sort of parent not only selects a specially admired offspring but makes no secret of the choice? Contemporary parents do their best to bestow love equally on all their children so that each feels confident and appreciated. We know parental favoritism can work much harm and leave lasting scars. Was that not so in Shakespeare’s era?

Which students of the text stop to consider Lear’s gross favoritism, its implications and consequences? Does he love Cordelia so because she is more physically alluring than her sisters? The text offers no support for this. Is it because her moral unction wins his admiration? Hardly. For young children do not express independent moral philosophies, and those ethical strictures Cordelia evinces in the first scene of the play are precisely those which outrage her father. A.C. Bradley deepens the question with a provocative addition: 

He loved Cordelia most and knew that she loved him best, and the supreme moment to which he looked forward was that in which she should outdo her sisters in expression of affection, and should be rewarded by that ‘third’ of the kingdom which was the most ‘opulent’. (Bradley, 202, emphasis added)

One thing is plain at the very beginning of all this: the hate Regan and Goneril cultivate for their young sister is easily appreciated. Loved less, they will, according to plan, receive less in the subdivision of the royal estate than she, yet they must compete with each other in a contest of contrived adoration for their less-than-equitable progenitor. What happens to us as we watch this odd narrative unfold on page or stage? We recoil against the falseness of these two sororal declamations of affection and, repulsed by their scheming and abuses, we tend like doting testators to love Cordelia best as our distraught monarch does. Unwittingly, then, audiences recapitulate the basal error of the tragic protagonist. Our unmitigated admiration for Cordelia blinds us at just the critical moment. Saintly Cordelia is no saint, and makes no effort to demur when Lear displays his inequitable sentiments.


                                                             Now our joy,

                Although our last and least, to whose young love

                The vines of France and milk of Burgundy

                Strive to be interessed: what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters?  Speak.
(I, i, 82-86)

Is silence the ideal response at this point? Does “nothing” obtain the optimal result? She might have said,

                Father, dearest father, we all of us do cherish you,

                Each in her own way, and need no bounty to speak

                The content of our hearts. Each of us is

                Equally your own, and none needs riches

                To be yours, having the treasure of your love.

                Then let Cordelia be true sister and true child,

                For fair enough in opulence is love.

And yet no less an authority than A.C. Bradley tells us “she loved him best.” That ambiguous pronouncement could mean (a) Cordelia loved King Lear more than she loved anyone else, or (b) her love for Lear was greater than that of her sisters, or (c) her love for her father meant more to him than the love he got from anyone else. Since Cordelia professes she must divide her love when she marries, ‘a’ can’t be correct, whereas alternatives ‘b’ and ‘c’ are not mutually exclusive. What is behind “love” of such intensity? 

Suppose Lear instead of three daughters had three sons. Would that make a difference? Is it reasonable that he might devise such a contest for them, awarding the lion’s share of his kingdom to the prince that gushed forth the most extravagant protestations of filial affection? Impossible. Young men are always in some sense in opposition to their fathers and do not commonly devote themselves to public testimonials of their ardor. Such a scene as we have in Act I of King Lear depends then on the gender of Lear’s heirs. It must therefore be in some sense sexual.

Other unexplored questions follow thick and fast. What became of Lear’s never-mentioned wife? Where is he living and with whom? What will happen to him when he is no longer king? Let’s suppose he has been for a long time a widower. As Cordelia is a maiden she abides with Lear in the royal palace. We know of no other residents. At the same time the King is incoherently sundering his realm he is somehow arranging his retirement. Many understand that he intends to stay with each of his daughters in turn, but that may not be the case.

There is a further point, which seems to have escaped the attention of Coleridge and others. Part of the absurdity of Lear’s plan is taken to be his idea of living with his three daughters in turn. But he never meant to do this. He meant to live with Cordelia, and with her alone. The scheme of his alternate monthly stay with Goneril and Regan is forced on him at the moment by what he thinks of the undutifulness of his favorite child. (Bradley, 203)

Based on what we know of King Lear this is not at all incredible. But as Cordelia must marry, how would that affect having one’s father as a housemate? Was this all well thought out? Or is it a telling fantasy of an elderly man preoccupied with his youngest daughter? In Unreading Shakespeare it was suggested that the reason we find Lear and Cordelia acting so strangely in scene 1 is because he has been imposing on her sexually her since her childhood, perhaps following the death of his not-to-be-mentioned wife. That would explain the meaning of his loving her “the most,” as well as the meaning of her reciprocity. It would explain his “darker purpose,” that is, the tremendous anxiety he is experiencing as he surrenders his kingdom, hoping to find in Cordelia’s sympathetic response to his extravagant bequest a token of her forgiveness. Finally, it would account for the low esteem in which he is held by his other daughters. When Cordelia, true to her nature, cannot absolve him of the sins of paternal intimacies (which may not have ceased), Lear explodes, and banishes her, palming her off on the King of France without a dowry. By refusing to take up the simple question of the meaning of his favoring of Cordelia we miss the opportunity to strike to the bottom of this compelling drama. 

From 1681 to 1838 some critical readers expressed dissatisfaction with the unhappy ending of the play, and actually provided revised fifth acts, in one of which both Lear and Cordelia survive and Edgar marries her! And Bradley himself has the candor to admit that he, too, hankers after a more romanticized conclusion, especially if the theatrical mode be not “tragedy” but drama.  What would it be like?

remainder of his days is not ‘the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again, not what Tate has given him, but what Shakespeare himself might have given him – peace and happiness by Cordelia’s fireside. (Bradley, 205, emphasis added)

Such are Bradley’s keenest dramatic instincts. What, then, would become of Cordelia’s husband, the esteemed King of France, who accepted her with no dowry, and now finds he must drag his wife away from that cozy paternal hearth to bed each night? After all, “Haply when I wed / That Lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty.” (I, i, 100-102)  The answer is, France will have his love discounted steeply at 50% if he’s willing to stay on, and he’d have no reason to complain because he heard Cordelia declare her philosophy in open court.

And no matter the intimacy, no matter the idealized propinquity, almost no stalwart member of the academy is willing to concede that the absurdities of King Lear can only be assimilated on the premise of father-daughter incest. Yet It oozes out of every line. Indeed, the reader will recall that after Cordelia and her husband France take up an army and invade England to rescue Cordelia’s poor bewildered father, the King of France suddenly and inexplicably retreats to France without her!


                Something he left imperfect in the state

                Which, since his coming forth, is thought of, which

                Imports to the kingdom so much fear and danger

                That his personal return was most required

                And necessary.

                (The History of King Lear, 4.2 (sc. 17, 3-7)

Let’s be sure we understand this. Hearing that her father is mightily abused and that the English nation is about to topple into the civil war Lear’s improvidence and incipient madness invited, the King of France and his new warrior bride Cordelia set sail with a puissant army to restore the ancient regime and Lear’s integrity. No sooner has France landed than he suddenly does a volte face and hies him home, leaving his precious Cordelia as Queen in charge of the war assisted by Field Marshall “Monsieur La Far.” This is, again, no small detail to be brushed off,  but speaks volumes about the tenor of the play. It is France’s action in deserting his wife in the midst of war that exposes her to mortal danger and results in Cordelia’s capture and death. What discovery did France make about his non-dowried spouse that might have impelled him to desert her on the field of battle? He learned quite obviously that the person of greatest importance to Cordelia was not himself but her father, and that his lot, should he keep her would be not 50% of her charms and devotion but closer to 2%. He learned, in other words, that Cordelia is damaged goods and used the ostensible invasion as an opportunity to send her back from whence she came, ready to “sing like birds I’ th’ cage” with her father. (The History of King Lear, 24 (5.1), 9) We are meant to see through the vague and clumsy reference to “something he left imperfect in the state” to the actual state of affairs.  

                Lo, in the orient when the gracious light

                Lifts up his burning head, each under eye

                Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,

                And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,

                Resembling strong youth in his middle age,

                Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,

                But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,

                Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,

                The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are

                From his low tract and look another way:

                                So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,

                                Unlookt on diest, unless thou get a son.

The personification of the sun here is not mere metaphor but reflects an intimacy and reverence typical of ages past, now lost to our sophisticated hearts. This is a late medieval poet, not a modern astronomer and epistemologist.

The fascinating thing, then, is to follow a modern theorist of knowledge and avowed subjectivist such as Stanley Cavell and see how he regards a personage like King Lear. We may be surprised by what we find.

Gloucester toward Dover, Lear anticipates God’s call. He is not experiencing Reconciliation with a daughter, but partnership in a mystic marriage. (Cavell, 69)

It can be said that what Lear is ashamed of is not his need for love and his inability to return it, but of the nature of his love for Cordelia. It is too far from plain love of father for daughter. Even if we resist seeing in it the love of lovers, it is at least incompatible with the idea of her having any (other) lover. (Cavell, 70)

And there it is, Lear and Cordelia, hand in hand, atop the mystic wedding cake. Pardonnez-moi, but isn’t this indeed a relationship of a father with his married daughter? Here is the pater who loved this daughter the most, the man who planned on his retirement to live with her and her alone, the man who exploded in rage when she would not advertise their so special love in the opening scene of the play, now in his expiring hour experiencing the joys of a “mystic” (that is, fantasized) nuptial union with her. So strong is the incestuous undertow that even a subjectivist like Stanley Cavell finally paints the true picture of this couple united in wedded bliss. Yet not once does Cavell suggest that these two so much as touched one another, ever, until he picked up her dead body and carried it in his arms.

At this sensitive moment Professor Cavell recalls an unfortunate and curiously absent King of France, who obviously would be an awkward guest at the mystic wedding of Lear and Cordelia.  What of him?

The next time we see [Lear] he is pressing off to prison with his child, and there is further thought of her husband. It is a standing complaint that Shakespeare’s explanation of France’s absence is perfunctory. It is more puzzling that Lear himself never refers to him, not even when he is depriving him of her forever. Either France has ceased to exist for Lear, or it is importantly from him that he wishes to reach the shelter of prison. (Cavell, 71)

Here is a perfect specimen of Cavell’s subjectivist detour. Failing to even consider the prospect of actual intercourse between father and daughter or at least a shared obsession with one another, he has no way to account for France’s leave-taking except inadvertence on the part of the world’s greatest writer. Yes, it’s another example of Shakespeare’s goofy literary streak, hedged in by stage acting, rehearsals, love affairs, hasty forays in Holinshed and Chaucer, travels to the continent, fancied dinners with the Queen, etc. It’s a wonder the poor fellow had a moment to put quill to paper. Would that he had blotted two thousand lines, let alone one. It never occurs to Cavell that having married a girl totally obsessed with an overbearing father, the King of France in the course of daily and nocturnal living would come upon an absolute impediment to marriage. Either Cordelia is not a virgin or her Oedipal complex and father obsession is so all-consuming and severe that it renders her marriage to France utterly impossible. Ditching her at Dover is probably his best option. But from Cavell’s prestigious vantage point it’s an opportunity to look down on the “bard.”     

But wait:  Professor Cavell has another Cupid’s arrow in his quivering quiver. It has to do with his conviction that on the symbolic level the figures of Lear and Gloucester are on a par with one another. The subplot’s significance may at last be exhumed, thus:

represent Lear, but is psychologically identical with him. (Cavell, 52)

Fair enough, but what are the implications of this tortuously derived corollary? Look to the play’s opening scene, in which we meet Gloucester before Lear arrives. Gloucester introduces Edmond, his bastard son, to the Earl of Kent, and makes light of his conception, turning the tale into a jest. Carve the goose as you will, it’s an admission of sexual indiscretion and the result is an illegitimate son. That bastard son in the very next scene speaks of “unnaturalness between the child and the parent.” (The History of King Lear, 1.2, 139) This anticipates Lear’s own guilt-laden reference to incest in the “man of virtue” at 3.2, sc. 9, 54-55. 


At the inception of Shakespeare criticism, Victorian prudery prevented so acute a reader as A.C. Bradley from being able to look squarely at Lear. As we venture forth in these early days of the third millennium not much has changed. The subjectivist turn in Shakespeare studies is a cul-de- sac, an ‘unearthly ballet of bloodless categories’ which can only feed parasitically off a work, never capture it. Subjectivism recapitulates the neurotic guardedness and myopia of the 19th century: the thing itself is always elided. The bulk of Shakespeare criticism today is a parade of personal impressions all marching in the service of a handful of “politically correct” ideologies.  Instead of learning from our poet by patient, steady immersion in the natural manner, making all plausible inferences to achieve insight, students are encouraged to adopt some self-representing or self-serving ideology and filter the corpus through that narrow channel. The loss is substantial. 


Let us summarize the incestuous dimensions of the plays enumerated above. This will help us to discern the pattern.

  1. The play Pericles is from beginning to end an explicit and sustained treatment of incest. It begins with Prince’s confronting of incestuous King Antiochus’ and his daughter/mistress, and concludes with Pericles’ meeting with his own unrecognized daughter, Marina, who has been employed of late in a brothel in Myteline. An affair between these two is avoided only by happenstance.
  2. In Cymbeline Posthumus Leonatus and Imogen are de facto brother and sister. Their marriage is opposed by King Cymbeline under the influence of his wife, who seeks to have her son Cloten marry Imogen and inherit the British throne.
  3. Likewise, Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well is in love with and eventually marries and has children by her de facto brother Bertram.
  4. The Winter’s Tale, like Pericles, concludes with a meeting of King Leontes of Sicilia with his long lost teenage daughter Perdita. He falls in love with her, and in the novel Pandosto on which the play is based, the king commits suicide as a result.
  5. Duke Prospero in The Tempest has been marooned on a deserted island with his daughter Miranda since she was three years old. Periodically, in his capacity as reigning magus, he causes her to fall into a deep sleep from which she cannot awaken without his command. In bad faith he projects his incestuous lust onto his hapless slave Caliban. His manner is overbearing and anxious, as is Lear’s manner, as Prospero arranges Miranda’s marriage himself with Florizel. The movie Forbidden Planet, based on The Tempest, underscores the incestuous aspect of the play.
  6. King Henry VIII reflects historical reality: King Henry VII grooms Prince Arthur to be his successor and arranges a match for him with Princess Katherine of Aragon. Young Henry Tudor, the younger son, pretends to be celebratory but seethes with jealousy and ambition. During his honeymoon, Arthur dies under highly suspicious circumstances. Prince Henry thus inherits the throne to morph into the chronically overbearing King Henry VIII, taking the widow, Katherine of Aragon as his spouse. He fails to have a son by her, however, and while despairing over this falls in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting, long suspected of being Henry’s own daughter. In the play, as indicated, during his passionate courtship of Anne, Henry coerces Katherine into seclusion where she meets her end. Henry’s story is thus a passage from incest with Katherine to incest with Anne. Like Hamlet, it is a tale of two brothers, one of whom kills the other and absconds with the dead brother’s wife.
  7. King Lear has three daughters and no wife. He finds himself in love with the youngest, Cordelia, who resembles him in important aspects of character. He decides to retire and partition his kingdom, two portions to be given to the elder, married, daughters, and a larger portion to the youngest, his avowed “favorite,” with whom he plans to reside. This unfair legacy will be justified on the basis of a contest in protestations of love, in which it is expected that Cordelia will outdo her sisters in fulsome praise of her father and the love she bears him. This speech of love will also serve as a token of forgiveness for years of sexual intrusions. To his dismay, Cordelia refuses to give the anticipated speech, wrecking Lear’s plan. He therefore lets Goneril and Regan split the kingdom between them and sends Cordelia off with the King of France, only to discover that he cannot obtain hospitality with the elder sisters. During a terrible storm on the heath, abandoned by Goneril and Regan, and haunted by Cordelia, Lear goes mad. Learning of her father’s catastrophe and fearing he will be an early casualty in the brewing war of Regan against Goneril (a bloody struggle made inevitable by Lear’s vivisection of his realm), Cordelia returns with her new husband to rescue her father. The King of France has by this time naturally learned of Cordelia’s obsession with her father and abandons her in England, where she and her father are captured. Father Lear and daughter Cordelia both die.

The answer, then, to those who wring their hands over the “unhappy” ending of King Lear, and cannot understand how Shakespeare can be so insensitive as to allow Lear and his beatific daughter Cordelia to suffer death, is that Lear and Cordelia are not saints. Rather, they resemble King Antiochus and his daughter, knee deep in a forbidden incestuous affair. This misalliance leads through a bizarre concatenation of events to a bloodbath and the violent end of many persons at court. Most amusing, then, is the fancied “happy ending,” in which father and daughter are spared, the intransigent and self-righteous Cordelia being swept off her feet by Edgar! Even if she obtained an annulment of her marriage to France, given her total preoccupation with her redoubtable father, it isn’t likely that she would be an ideal wife for “Poor Tom.” He’d be out in the cold again for sure.  


A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, (1904) Meridian Books, 1955.

Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

William Shakespeare Complete Works, 2d ed., S. Wells and G. Taylor, eds., Clarendon, 2005.




Unreading Shakespeare. He is also the author of Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.


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