Lear's elder daughters

Goneril and Regan by Edwin Austin Abbey 1902The sisters

Goneril and her sister Regan do not hesitate to declare their great love for their father as part of the test he sets up in Act 1, already aware that Lear loves his youngest daughter Cordelia most. Never for one moment are they actually sincere in what they say. They merely want the portion of the kingdom that Lear has foolishly promised to whichever daughter can assure him of the greatest affection. The grotesquely extravagant words spoken by Goneril and Regan stand in sharp contrast to the uncompromisingly sparse words spoken by their sister Cordelia. When Cordelia infuriates the king with a frank admission that her love has to be shared with her future husband, Goneril and Regan share the prize when the King divides his kingdom between just the two of them.


Compared to Regan

Although both sisters are deeply immoral, Goneril takes the lead in the perpetration of evil:
  • She introduces the idea of humiliating Lear in Act 1 Scene 1
  • She orders her steward, Oswald, to be disrespectful to the King in Act 1 Scene 3
  • In the Act 1 Scene 4 she initiates the dispute concerning the number of followers that Lear is allowed to keep, as a result of which he begins the descent into madness.

Goneril’s relationship with Edmund

In Act 4 Scene 2 Goneril’s wickedness becomes even more pronounced as she starts a love affair with Edmund, hinting that there is a murder plot to murder her husband, the virtuous but relatively weak Duke of Albany. Both she and Regan desire Edmund, and Goneril declares that she would rather lose the battle against the avenging forces led by Cordelia then lose Edmund to her sister. Their sexual rivalry is another strand to the play's general atmosphere of moral and physical degeneracy. When the plot against Albany by Goneril and her lover is brought to light, she poisons Regan and then commits suicide (as reported by the Gentleman in Act 5 Scene 3), presumably unable to face the constraint of imprisonment or defeat.

Goneril compared to Lady Macbeth

Neither Goneril’s nor Regan’s evil has any subtlety about it. Goneril is, however, the more aggressive of the two. Indeed she is so uncompromisingly nasty that she is sometimes compared to Lady Macbeth, even though she lacks the complexity of Macbeth’s queen. We see Lady Macbeth from the inside, seeing the terrible effect her crimes have on her state of mind. Lady Macbeth is a character who has a conscience whereas Goneril seems to have no conscience at all. She lacks complexity and has become one of drama’s most powerful icons of self-seeking evil.



The middle daughter of King Lear, Regan is soon revealed to be uncompromisingly and uncomplicatedly evil. She has no moral qualms about hypocritically declaring her love for her father in the public test of affection which the king has devised, although her behaviour is generally proud and aloof. Her only aim is to secure her share of the kingdom. Her unscrupulous behaviour is successful and she ends up having an even greater share when Cordelia’s honesty means that she forgoes her planned third of Lear’s kingdom.

Follower or leader?

Regan follows the lead set by Goneril and joins her in humiliating the King once he has surrendered power to them and their husbands. She is encouraged also by her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, and supports him as he performs the play's most appalling act of cruelty, plucking out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester in Act 3 Scene 7. 
Does this mean that she is intrinsically weak and evil rather than proactive? Certainly she is the least energetic of the play’s villains. Although, once her husband is wounded, Regan does not hesitate in murdering the servant involved, nor does she hang back in becoming a rival to Goneril for the love of Edmund, she is defeated by the stronger and even more ruthless Goneril, who poisons her sister. The audience’s last sight of Regan on stage is as someone overcome by the sickness that will lead to her death. She dies off- stage and only later is news of this, and of Goneril's confession as to who poisoned her, brought to the other characters, indicating her lesser significance.
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