Lear's dilemma - future of Britain & Cordelia
Tripartition of Britain - Lear's grand plan
Kent & Gloster - Lear's attitude to Cornwall
Act 1 Scene 1 - Enter KING LEAR
The flattery game - Goneril & Regan
Sharing the kingdom - a third more opulent
Lear and flattery - did he love it or hate it?
Duke of Burgundy - the dowerless suitor
King of France - in choler parted
Edmund - sectary astronomical
Duke of Albany - worthy prince
Queen Goneril - King Lear's successor?
Oswald - this detested groom
Goneril - under the influence
Regan - is she worse than Goneril?
Goneril/Edmund/Regan - unequilateral triangle
Division 'twixt Albany and Cornwall - rumour
Lear's sanity - recovery
The final tableau - Lear endures his going hence
The last word - Albany or Edgar?
'The flattery game' — Goneril and Regan
Is it Lear's fault that he is flattered?
Now we come to the thing that has brought opprobrium on Lear: The Flattery Game. Lear invokes a contest between his daughters in which their inheritances are to be in proportion to the love they express. Here are the conditions or rules that apply to the game:
If Lear plays the game AS HE PROPOSES, he cannot know who deserves the 'largest bounty' until he has heard and compared all three speeches. In fact, Lear does not play the game according to the conditions he lays down. Twice he breaks Condition 2 by handing out a prize immediately the speaker concludes her speech. When it comes to the last speaker, Cordelia, Lear tells her that she can win 'a third more opulent than your sisters.' The 'third more opulent' is, of course, the 'largest bounty' which Lear offers Cordelia, to further show that he is definitely ignoring Condition 2. Quite clearly he is not basing the prizes on the relativity of the speeches. That Lear scraps Condition 2 entirely is pretty well accepted by all commentators, yet these same commentators insist that Lear applies Condition 1 to the letter. How can they be so confident that Lear is serious about Condition 1 when they see the way he dumps Condition 2 so blatantly? Lear does not seem particularly interested in what the speakers say so flatteringly. He makes no comment whatsoever about them. This is a strange way to respond if he is sucking up to flattery. Can one be sure that he bothered to listen with any interest? All he does, in a matter-of-fact way, is point to the map to show them what he has given them. Are we to believe that a daughter's casual remark will modify, as Burgundy put it, 'than hath your highness offer'd, nor will you tender less' and again a little later 'that portion which yourself proposed'. The proposal has been agreed by Lear, France and Burgundy only after very lengthy negotiations and it is ridiculous to think he might change this to the detriment of his future son-in-law and ally.
Lear is accused of pandering to flattery but is he really interested in flattery? He does not, in fact, ask for flattery. He asks, 'Which of you, shall we say, doth love us most?' Whilst he may be wrong to frame the question that way, and so induce a flattering response, flattery is the fault of the person doing the flattery, not the person being flattered. Is it likely that Lear ever asked for flattery in the past? Are we to believe that if Goneril and Regan had flattered Lear in the past, they would now be so naive in their over-flattering. Goneril seems to be clutching for high-sounding words as though caught by surprise. Regan, hearing Goneril, catches on but is hardly original in resorting to comparing herself to Goneril. It is obvious from Cordelia's words that she, too, has never been faced with this situation before. If she had, she and Lear would have already fallen out. So, why would he ask to be flattered today? The whole point is that it has nothing to do with flattery! It is just Lear's way to try to hide the fact that he has arranged everything in advance. By playing out this flattery farce he can seem to be bestowing his inheritances in a spur of the moment fashion. It seems more like a bit of showmanship that goes disastrously wrong. But are we to believe that Lear, the astute monarch, would make snap decisions based on what his daughters say at this late stage when his decision will vitally concern his alliance with his continental ally and new son-in-law? Of course not. He has the details worked out in advance.
It comes unstuck when the completely unexpected happens in the least likely place: Cordelia's unwillingness to utter a single word, despite the repeated, mild requests of Lear to cajole her into saying something. Her repeated refusals back Lear into a corner and he over-reacts and disinherits her. This, at face value, is terribly cruel to Cordelia and has cast Lear in a bad light. Lear lets his feelings get the better of his judgement. He is so determined on Cordelia's instant disinheritance that he fails to think the new problem through and consider the alternatives. He picks a worst case scenario. Cordelia's lost inheritance will always rankle with her husband. Lear should see this as likely to lead to an invasion of Britain. Lear's agenda is overturned by Cordelia's response. In light of the sudden change, he ought to have taken over Cordelia's inheritance and lived there as he planned, deferring a final decision until a later date.