Parenting Adult Children: Lessons from King Lear

Lear Disowning Cordelia

Lear Disowning Cordelia

In November I saw a Calvin College production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Intrigued, I then read the play. Lear is elderly and wishes to step aside from the burdens of ruling. He has three daughters and plans to divide his kingdom among them. His way of deciding who is to get what is at best unwise and at worst likely to generate incredible turmoil. He says,

Tell me, my daughters,
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (Act I, Scene 1, Lines 50-55)

(Note: line numbers taken from Signet Classic Edition)

In other words, if you tell me that you love me the most, I’ll give you a larger portion of the kingdom. The oldest two daughters, Goneril and Regan, oblige by exaggerated professions of love. Goneril, for example claims:

No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (I:1:60-63)

Dismayed by her sisters’ insincere praise, Cordelia, the youngest daughter and formerly her father’s favorite, refuses to enter the competition:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less. (I:1:93-95)

Enraged, Lear disinherits Cordelia, dividing her portion between Goneril and Regan. It soon becomes clear that Cordelia is the only one that truly loves Lear. Goneril and Regan, who had promised to alternate housing him, quickly tire of having him around. One after the other, each pushes him to leave her castle and deprives him of the contingent of knights they agreed to support. Infuriated, Lear prepares to leave. Even though he is old, it is night, and a terrible storm is brewing, neither daughter tries to dissuade him. When the Earl of Gloucester points out the hazardous conditions, Regan replies coldly:

O, sir, to wilful men,
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors. (II:4:302-304)

Lear ostensibly has bestowed a great favor on his daughters by giving them his kingdom. He seems to think he has acted in love. If Lear loves at all, though, he loves conditionally. If, as with Cordelia, a child doesn’t do or say what the parent wants, all signs of love are withdrawn. Lear is seemingly incapable of unconditional love. Such love doesn’t always give the child what he or she wants, but it always values the child and does what seems to be in the child’s best interest.

Young children need their parents’ love, but so do older children, adolescents, and adults. In my work as a psychologist, I regularly meet with adult clients who are hurting because one or both parents were and still are unloving towards them. One woman is constantly told that she is incompetent and will fail; another is repeatedly informed that her brother has always been a better child, a third has repeatedly been given the message that she isn’t to have any life of her own but has to take care of everyone else in the family. I suspect that each client’s parent believes that he or she loves the child. Yet any affection or affirmation that they give is highly conditional; it’s withdrawn whenever the child doesn’t follow the script the parent has laid out, regardless how onerous and harmful that script is. If they deviate, they are treated like Cordelia, cast out of the kingdom.

You might imagine that the two older sisters, on seeing that Lear’s favorite has lost her position, would try to stay in his graces. They already have his kingdom, though, and, probably because of how he has treated them all along, it no longer matters to them what he thinks of them. The sisters agree that he has exercised poor judgment in rejecting Cordelia. Here’s their take on what has happened:

REGAN ‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.

GONERIL The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them. (I:1:295-302)

In other words, at his best our dad was highly flawed, and he’s gotten even worse with age. Parents who love conditionally not only harm their children but also ruin their children’s regard for them. Regan and Goneril may have come out on top, but they know full well that outcome was the result of manipulation. People seldom look favorably on those they have manipulated. Parents who, like Lear, ask for falsehoods from their children may get those falsehoods, but are likely to lose their children’s esteem in the process.

There’s much more to learn about parent-child relationships from Lear and his daughters. I’ll explore their relationship further in another post.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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