ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Greed in King Lear

Updated on May 28, 2015

The palm that itches, the power of vaulting ambition, the desire that makes greater men than I commit murder so foul, is the basic human instinct of Greed. It was greed which resulted in a brother’s murder, causing a son almost mad with vengeance. It was greed which drove Macbeth to go against God, King and Country to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for power. It was greed that motivated Richard III to kill the two golden haired princes in the Tower of London. Shakespeare succeeds in portraying the theme of Greed in many of his plays, showing us the very backbone of human weakness and reducing humanity to a primal level of animal instincts to doing anything possible to get what we want.

There are numerous plays by Shakespeare which explore the theme of Greed. All of these characters are consumed by their greed for money, power or status. Shylock for the loss of his money and his daughter, Macbeth’s voracious greed for power, Richard III and Claudius – from Hamlet – also for power. But King Lear is perhaps one of the few plays by Shakespeare where we see women with a strong antagonistic role portraying the human weakness of greed. Goneril and Regan make Lady Macbeth look like a humble farmer’s wife.

While Shakespeare’s other villains tend to be become bad, straying onto that path of evil because of their greed - with the exception of Richard III who was always evil to the core – the villains in King Lear differ in the way that they are always evil. From the very start, there is no doubt in our minds that Goneril and Regan are up to no good. Initially, Lear sets up a “Love-Test”, quantifying love and demanding his daughters to profess their love for him in material terms. This Goneril and Regan comply with readily, declaring they love him “beyond what can be valued, rich or rare”, which is supposedly “greater than eyesight, space and liberty”. Taking advantage of Cordelia’s absence and their father’s anger, Goneril ominously suggests to her sister that they must do something, and “i’th’heat”. Their greed for power and authority as rulers makes them lie blatantly to their father, declaring a false love in order to get a larger share of his inheritance.

Shakespeare uses various tools to build up Goneril and Regan’s character, but animal imagery and extended metaphors are the most effective in portraying Goneril and Regan’s consuming greed for power. The Fool is the first to use animal imagery to describe these two savage sisters. “For you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it had its head bit off by it young. So out went the candle, and we were left darkling”. This comparison of Goneril to a cuckoo suggests that like the hedge-sparrow who had to rear the young cuckoo chick, Lear has brought up Goneril and she is the ungrateful cuckoo killing the one that raised her. This creates a strong visual image in our minds of a monstrous inhuman woman, who turns on her own parent to prey on him.

Shakespeare continues to build on this characterisation of Goneril, likening her to a sea-monster “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, more hideous, when thou showst thee in a child than the sea-monster.” This brings to mind connotations of a stealthy watery Loch Ness monster, re-enforcing Goneril’s “marble” heart and unfeeling nature. Lear goes on to compare her to other predatory animals, saying “Detested kite, thou liest!” and declaring a final curse on her, that she might have a childless womb, he says “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” This quick succession of vivid animal images creates layer upon layer of a wild savage collage, portraying Goneril as a greedy ruthless woman.

This trend continues through the rest of the play, when outraged at Goneril’s dismissal of 50 of his hundred knights, Lear’s reaction only emphasises Goneril’s cold-hearted greed. “I have another daughter, who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable: when she shall hear this of thee, with her nails she’ll flay thy wolfish visage.” Goneril’s craving for complete power makes her want to eliminate any obstacles in her path that may threaten her authority, even if that obstacle is her father. Even while defending his second daughter Regan, and praising her as a “kind and comfortable” daughter, Lear uses animal imagery to portray the wrath he believes she will feel on his behalf.

However, when Lear is confronted by both his daughters at Gloucester’s castle, he soon realises that Regan is “of the same metal” as her sister more than he realised. His second daughter only cuts down the number of his knights even more, she will accept no more than “five-and-twenty”. Lear’s plea to “reason not the need” only takes us back to his own selfish needs for flattery from his daughters and subjects, reminding us that it is not only the evil who are greedy – greed is a basic human instinct, to envy, to covet, to want more than you have – but while Lear’s greed for praise and flattery, demanded from his subjects was wrong, it hardly justifies Goneril and Regan’s insatiable greed for his Kingdom, and the unscrupulous means through which they achieve this. In one pathetic sentence, Lear summarises the sentiment of parents all over the world “I gave you all”, to which Regan retorts “And in good time too.” This is among the most piercing words that escape the mouths of these wicked sisters, a callous reply to such a pitiful entreaty. Not content with Lear giving them all – divested of “rule, interest of territory, cares of state”, except for one hundred knights, his only stipulation, Regan bluntly responds that he took his time giving it to them, and he should have given them his Kingdom much earlier. Her greed for power and sovereignty makes her blind to her father’s pain and she feels no remorse. He has given them all, and yet they want more, like “pelican daughters” who were thought to devour the flesh of their parents, Goneril and Regan have eaten him out of house and home and yet they still want more, their greed for Lear’s kingdom in its enormity makes them want to cripple him even of his hundred knights, his only semblance to his old title, the whim of a foolish old man. This greed will ultimately destroy both of them.

Although Goneril and Regan are very similar in their greed for absolute power and authority, Regan also has a sadistic twist to her nature and there are a number of animal images that are related to Regan, painting a frightening picture of “a thousand with red burning spirits come hizzing upon ’em” and “rash boarish fangs”, eventually, these “monsters of the deep” who are “tigers not daughters” turn against each other when they both lust over the same man, and greed proves to be their undoing.

The subplot also illustrates a theme of greed and filial ingratitude through Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Appealing to nature, he disregards the customs of the period and plots to poison his father against the heir, his half-brother Edgar, and steal his birth-right. Dissatisfied with stealing Edgar’s birth-right, Edmund’s greed for power and his father’s title, makes him betray his father, commit murder so foul and ultimately he pays for his sins with his life. Edmund’s greed stems from his anger at his illegitimacy which deprives him of the position and respect he would otherwise have, his father’s flippant manner of discussing his conception only aggravates his discontent. This in turn increases his greed for what he cannot have due to his social position, his father’s land, position, money, title, inheritance – he wants it all, and now – “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” He realises that, if he cannot get what he wants through truthful means, he, like Goneril and Regan, will have to use his wit and charm to get what he desires. “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit: All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”

Finally it is Goneril and Regan’s greed, not for money or power, but their desire for Edmund which ends the lives of these merciless women. Edmund also pays for his greed with his life, and the wheel of fortune has come a full circle. Their self-destructive greed affects the lives of all those around them and the repercussions ripple through the country in what I can only imagine would be widespread chaos. Through the portrayal of Greed in King Lear, Shakespeare provides us with insights into what makes human beings want, and the extent to which one will go to realise ones ambitions.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)