Familial Conflicts in King Lear

In King Lear, the main themes are clearly illustrated through the family setting. The play reveals King Lear’s and Gloucester’s dysfunctional families which are both characterized by conflicts and misunderstandings. In King Lear’s royal family, the conflict reaches its peak when King Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril betray him. King Lear says that they have uncovered his manhood. In Gloucester’s family, Edmund’s role resembles that of Regan and Goneril who were disloyal to their fathers.

The first incidence of conflict in King Lear’s family rises when King Lear is testing his daughters’ love for him. He had decided to give the largest part of his kingdom to the daughter who loves him best. He tests them, wherein Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia pretend to love him. However, when the king asks Cordelia what she could do win the richest part of his kingdom, she replies,”Nothing my lord” (1.1.72). This disappoints the king. King Lear continues to insist her to speak for herself but Cordelia refuses to participate in the contest. This act leads her father to disown her, after which he divides his kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Led by their thirst for power, they pretend to love their father. Their main aim is to get his property and then dispose of him. Ironically, Cordelia who is loyal to her father is rejected for not taking part in a foolish contest.


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Later, Goneril and Regan start mistreating King Lear. Conflict erupts when Lear strikes Gorrell’s steward; Goneril complains, ‘By day and night, he wrongs me’. Goneril feels offended and chooses to send him to her sister Regan, whom she says will give similar treatment to his father (1.3.5-7).This statement significantly contributes to the theme of loyalty. Goneril is not loyal to her father. This is despite the fact that she had received a substantial part of his property. She even reaches to an extent of referring him as,”an idle old man” (1.3.18). From this statement, it can be noted that young people are undermining the old. Goneril confirms that her sister Regan will give her father the same kind of treatment because they both view their father as a pesky old man. They undermine him because of his age. This reflects the general view of the young people in the society who views the old people as useless beings. For instance, Goneril tells Oswald to ignore Lear and his entourage.

Later, the conflict stirs up when Goneril scolds on her father for his behavior. Lear, in turn, calls Goneril a monster and discourages her husband not to have children with her (1.4. 193). Lear becomes very angry for being told that he is old and revered but not wise.

When Lear and his two daughters Regan and Goneril meet at Gloucester’s house, they do not manage to settle down their differences. In fact, the conflict intensifies and the two daughters threaten to kill their father. Gloucester advises Lear to flee for his dear life. At this point, Lear’s daughters reveal their disloyalty to their father.

Conflict is also evident in Gloucester’s family. The conflict is between Edmund, his brother, and father. The main source of conflict is Edmund who is considered as an”illegitimate” son. The reason being that Edmund was conceived outside of marriage. This leads Gloucester to prefer the other son to the one who was bored outside the wedlock. He says that he is an embarrassment to him (1.1.2). This contributes to the theme of the family. In most families, children are the main source of conflict. Children who are born within the marriage are favored. This brings tension and conflicts in many marriages. This attitude cultivates an ill will in Edmund towards his father.

Led by his jealousy towards his brother Edgar, Edmund plans a trick against his brother. Edmund claims that Edgar was planning to murder his father and had persuaded him to participate but he refused. Edmund continues to convince his father that he had escaped with injuries for refusing to participate in the murder and uses evidence of a bleeding arm, which he had inflicted himself. The main theme indicated by this scene is the theme of jealousy. Edmund is jealous towards his brother because of a good relationship existing between him and his father. This further exemplifies the theme of the thirst for power. Edmund wants to be his father’s heir but his brother was a major obstacle. This leads him to a suggestion to plan a skullduggery. His target is to overpower his brother Edgar. After realizing what had happened, Edgar hid and later decided to disguise himself as a beggar (1.2.40). This is again ironical because Edgar was loyal to his father. It is ironic that the king is forced to believe that the innocent one is guilty.

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