Parent / child relationships

Biblical teaching

In Shakespeare’s day people developed their understanding of family relationships from what was taught in the Bible
In the Old Testament, as well as telling children to ‘honour your father and your mother’ (Exodus 20:12) there is some firm guidance about wayward children. The pain of chastising a child was outweighed by the danger of encouraging sinful living, which would lead to the death of the soul Proverbs 23:13-14.
Jesus welcomes the childrenIn the New Testament fathers are given advice which suggests that successful family life is more a question of give-and-take. Children were expected to obey, respect and honour their parents; parents were not supposed to provoke their children. Similar thoughts are expressed in Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 (see Family relationships). Jesus welcomed and appreciated children (Mark 10:13-16) and spoke of God as a loving father (Matthew 7:9-11). 

Re-paying the debt

Love is not love if it is merely given lip-service. According to the Bible it has to come from the heart:
      9 Love must be sincere … 10 Be devoted to one another in love. 
Honour one another above yourselves.   (Romans 12:9-10)     
The practical reality of reality of love and honour was particularly anticipated in the relationship of children to parents. Even duplicitous Edmund speaks of:
      with how manifold and strong a bond
The child was bound to the father;  (Act 2 Scene 1)            
In the absence of material provision by the state, it was the duty of children to provide for parents, as their parents had once provided for them. This commonly resulted in multi-generational households, which is why it was so shocking that Regan and Goneril should bar their doors (and that of Gloucester) from their elderly father. However, Lear’s challenging expectations regarding his retinue meant that his pride had blinded him to the concept of not exasperating his children (Ephesians 6:4)!

The destructiveness of selfishness

Relationships between children and parents are at the heart of a play which explores the destructiveness of selfishness. Both Lear and Gloucester at the beginning of the play put themselves first:
  • Lear wants to buttress his fragile ego by hearing his children give a public avowal of love and duty
  • Gloucester talks of the ‘sport’ with which Edmund was conceived and puts concern for his own personal safety above any concern for who his two sons really are.
Yet these parents are shocked when Goneril, Regan and Edmund are themselves self-serving and contemptuous of the feelings of their parents. 
Edmund voices his own sentiments in the letter he pretends is from Edgar:
      This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times.      (Act 1 Scene 2)     
His action in betraying his father to Cornwall makes his selfishness more explicit:
      This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses; no less than all:
The younger rises when the old doth fall.
(Act 3 Scene 3)     

Love and rejection

King Lear explores the nature of love and rejection. Right at the start of the play, Lear pushes away the daughter who eventually becomes his saviour. Such is the extent of his vanity and self-obsession that within 120 lines of Act 1 Scene 1 Cordelia is cast out of her father’s love to be ‘new adopted to our hate’ and Lear does not press Burgundy ‘to match .. where I hate’. Edgar too is bewildered when his brother reports the ‘speed’ of their father’s ‘rage’, Gloucester falsely believing Edgar to be a ‘villain.’ 
These changes are all the more surprising given parental fondness. Both fathers mention the expanse of their love:
      ‘his father, that so tenderly and entirely loves him’
                                 (Gloucester, Act 1 Scene 2)
‘Your old, kind father whose frank heart gave all,’   
                                            (Lear, Act 3 Scene 5)    
gaining sympathy from the audience. Such tenderness makes it devastating when Edmund, Goneril and Regan reject their fathers. It leads to despair in Gloucester and mental instability in Lear, both unable to compute how the ‘flesh of their flesh’ can be so antagonistic to their interests.
It is clear that Lear in particular has most favoured Cordelia, whilst Edmund the outsider has a malcontent’s prejudice against the brother who will inherit everything. Perhaps such favouritism is what leads to the glee of siblings over Cordelia and Edgar’s respective downfalls, as well as Goneril, Regan and Edmund’s lack of respect for their parents – a fault to be laid at the door of the older generation. Lear and Gloucester have allowed vanity and superstitious fear to blind them to what should be the governing principle of the equality of love within human parenting. 
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.