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Villains in King Lear



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    It could be argued that the most interesting characters In Shakespeare’s plays King Lear, there are many interesting characters however the action in the play is driven by the villainous characters. This is often the case in Shakespeare’s plays, but it may be even more so in this play, which contains four villainous characters.

    There are King Lear’s two daughters, Regan and Goneril, who turn on their father as soon as they have enjoyed a taste of his power. There is Regan’s husband, Cornwall, who engages in the most physically gruesome act of evil behavior ever exhibited in any Shakespeare’s work when he gouges out Gloucester’s eyes.Finally, there is Edmund, who is arguably the most interesting character in the entire play and who easily takes on the role of the most villainous character in the play. Goneril is the first of the King Lear’s daughters to express to him the depths of her love.

    She tells him that, “Sir I love you more than word can wield the matter” (1. 1. 60). However, we soon realize that Goneril is not the loving daughter she presents herself to her father as in the first scene of the play.

    She tells Regan that something must be done quickly to make sure that their father does not “carry authority with such disposition as he bears” (1. . 351-352) to act as rashly with her and Regan as he did with Kent and Cordelia.When Regan suggests that they think on it further, Goneril responds, “We must do something i’ th’ heat of times” (1.

    1. 355). When Lear comes to stay with Goneril, it does not take long for her to act against her father. Goneril insults her father saying “As you are old and reverend, should be wise.

    Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires, men so disordered, so debauched and bold, that this our court, infected with their manners, shows like a riotous inn” (1. 4. 247-251).Her actions and words makes Lear decide to take a long journey to stay with Regan.

    Later in the play, when Goneril falls in love with Edmund, her villainy clearly shifts. Her actions change from that of a cold hard bitch to that of a jealous teenage girl. She sees Edmund as a future lover and her anger against her father quickly materializes into anger against both her husband, Albany, and her sister as they are seen as objects in her way against a relationship with Edmund. In the heat of passion, she takes a further step toward outright evil by committing murder when she poisons her own sister.

    At first, Regan seems like less of a villain than her sister. After all, she does suggest that they “further think of it” (1. 1. 354) regarding what to do with their father, whereas Goneril thinks that any action must take place immediately.

    However, she quickly joins her sister in trying to find a way to get rid of their father. She joins her sister in disabusing Lear of his train, telling him, “If till the expiration of your month you will return and sojourn with my sister, dismissing half your train, come then to me” (2. 4. 235.

    237).She also joins Goneril in pushing their elderly father out into the stormy night alone and without shelter or comfort, with the intent of causing him mortal harm. She says, “To willful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (2.

    4. 347-349). These are not the actions of a daughter who loves her father, like she pledged not long before. Regan cements herself as a villain in the minds of the reader when she partakes in the blinding of Gloucester.

    She takes an active part, urging on her husband saying, “One side will mock another.Th’ other too” (3. 7. 86).

    Regan’s villainy also shifts as a result of her lust for Edmund. Her husband dead, she quickly sets her sights on taking the bastard as her lover. Both of the evil sisters who were quite capable villains in their own right in the beginning of the play, seem by the end of the play to take a back seat to Edmund, bickering with each other over him. Regan’s husband, Cornwall, though a less interesting a character than his wife and sister-in-law, proves himself as a villain in arguably the most memorable scene in the play, the grinding out of Gloucester’s eyes.

    Cornwall is steadfast in his loyalty to his wife and her plans for Lear. His gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes makes him an instant villain to remember. Not only does he do the deed, but he seems to get a perverse enjoyment out of doing it, saying, “Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly! Where is the luster now? ” (3.

    7. 201-102). Edmund may well be one of the most interesting villains ever created by Shakespeare. He rivals Iago from Othello in always being two steps ahead of everyone else.

    Noted literary critic Rev. H. N.Hudson says that, “For the union of wit and wickedness, Edmund stands next to Richard and Iago” (Hudson).

    Edmund, at first, comes across as a character we can feel sympathy for. However it doesn’t take long for us to see Edmund for the bastard that he really is. Edmund’s first act of villainy is a double-cross of his own brother, Edgar. Edmund produces a false letter to show his father, Gloucester, which implicates Edgar in a plot to kill Gloucester.

    Edmund then goes to Edgar and convinces him that Gloucester is extremely angry with him and that he needs to run away.Edgar, like his father is easily deceived, and runs. Edmund completes his deception by telling his father Edgar attacked him when he refused to partake in Edgar’s plot to kill Gloucester. Gloucester completely buys this, as he disowns Edgar and legitimizes Edmund.

    Edmund’s villainous deeds continue to increase in cruelty until he does the unthinkable. Edmund stopping at nothing in an attempt to gain power writes another letter. This one is similar to the first, except instead of implicating his brother to kill his father, he implicates his father in a plot with Cordelia to overthrow Regan and Goneril.Edmund acts like he is distraught over finding out his father’s supposed treason, saying, “How malicious is my fortune that I must repent to be just! This is the letter he spoke of, which approves him an intelligent party to the advantages of France.

    O, heavens that this treason were not, or not I the detector” (3. 6. 10-14). Edmund’s actions gain him his father’s title as Earl of Gloucester but also cost Gloucester his eyes.

    Later in the play, Edmund further shows us the depths of his evil when he talks about his feelings for Regan and Goneril and how he plans to treat Lear and Cordelia upon their capture.He says, To both theses sisters I have sworn my love…

    Both? One? Neither? Neither can be enjoyed if both remain alive… As for the mercy which he intends to Leer and to Cordelia, the battle done and they within our power, shall never see his pardon, for my state stands on me to defend, not to debate” (5.

    1. 63-77). Edmund is by far the most intriguing of the villains in the play. Edmund does his best to try and convince us that he only acts to attain what is rightfully his.

    However, the means he uses to attain those things are downright evil. In conclusion, there are interesting characters in King Lear. There are great heroes such as Edgar, Kent, and Cordelia. However, the average reader comes away more likely remembering the villains than the heroes.

    Whether it be Regan or Goneril for their betrayal of their father, Cornwall and his brutal blinding of Gloucester, or Edmund and his by any means necessary attitude. In the play King Lear, Shakespeare truly redefines what it means to be a villain in a tragedy.

    Villains in King Lear. (2017, Aug 08). Retrieved from

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