Disrespectful Adult Children: Lessons from King Lear

In an earlier post I wrote about Shakespeare’s King Lear, looking at the king’s interactions with his daughters. Lear promised to distribute his kingdom to his daughters if they would profess great love for him. Goneril and Regan, the two oldest, responded by expressing incredible love. Cordelia, the youngest, said she loved Lear but wouldn’t attempt to outdo her sisters. Lear was enraged by her modest response and disinherited her. I pointed out that Lear loved conditionally rather than unconditionally and that he had arranged matters so as to encourage manipulation. I started to discuss the effects his behavior had on his daughters. In this post I’ll look more at how Goneril and Regan reacted to Lear.

Lear set a few conditions on his transfer of his kingdom, namely that Goneril and Regan allow him to retain 100 knights and agree to house him and his knights, each a month at a time. Lear first goes to the palace of Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. Things quickly turn sour. Forgetting Lear’s gift to her, Goneril soon begins complaining about him:

By day and night he wrongs me; every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other,
That sets us all at odds: I’ll not endure it:
His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids us
On every trifle. (Act I: Scene 3: Lines 4-8)

It’s fascinating that Goneril then employs a metaphor for the elderly that still is heard today:

Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away! Now, by my life,
Old fools are babes again; and must be used
With cheques as flatteries,–when they are seen abused. (I:3:17-21)

In other words, old Lear is like a child that must be disciplined when he is wrong. As we age, we can indeed develop some childlike characteristics, such as indifference to social convention and an enhanced sense of wonder. Some of us may even become childlike in that we don’t always show good judgment. I’m constantly hearing of older adults with balance problems who fall because they were a little too confident that they could walk without using a cane or walker. That sort of questionable judgment is not the same as regressing to childhood, though. My mother is ninety; she occasionally does overestimate what she can do, but on the whole she displays considerable wisdom when it comes to understanding her limits and life’s complexities. She is no more like a child than she was fifty years ago.

Goneril proposes “A little to disquantity your train,” in other words, to cut the number of Lear’s knights by discharging those she considers unruly. Lear’s response is just a bit over the top, pleading with nature and the gods as follows:

Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! Away, away! (I:4:285-296)

In other words, I hope she is barren or has a child who treats her as badly as she treated me. Lear leaves to seek consolation from Regan, only to find that she both sides with Goneril and like her expresses doubts as to his mental capacity:

O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong’d her, sir. (II:4:145-151).

Lear responds much more humbly than he did to Goneril:

‘Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary: on my knees I beg
That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.’ II:4:153-155)

Regan will have none of it, and insists he return to Goneril and apologize. Doing so would be so unpalatable that Lear decides to strike out on his own, though this means heading out into a dreadful storm. Lear had habitually shown imperiousness and inflexibility to his daughters. Now, when he responds reasonably, Regan is unbending, just as he taught her to be.

This is one of the lessons Shakespeare has for us. We reap what we sow. When Lear was in charge he wasn’t concerned with anyone’s welfare, even his daughters. After he relinquishes power, Goneril and Regan show the same disregard for his welfare as he previously showed to them. How we treated our children when they were dependent on us is an important factor (though not the only factor) influencing how they will treat us when we eventually need their help. Show kindness to your children; it’s good policy, both for them and, eventually, for us.

Lear and His Daughters (1997 BBC Production)

Lear and His Daughters (1997 BBC Production)


About Bob Ritzema

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 . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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