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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.

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