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:

Condition 1 Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
Condition 2 That we our largest bounty may extend

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.

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
[Aside] What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich'd,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,
We make thee lady: to thine and Albany's issue
Be this perpetual. What says our second daughter,
Our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall? Speak.
Sir, I am made of that self mettle as my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense professes;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear Highness' love.
Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love's
More richer than my tongue.
To thee and thine hereditary ever
Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
Than that conferr'd on Goneril.

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.

For those who insist Lear sought flattery, go to:
Lear and flattery — did he love it or hate it?