King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

Generational conflict

I have heard him oft maintain it
to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers
declined, the father should be as ward to the son,
and the son manage the revenue. (I.ii)

With these lines Edmund insinuates to his father Gloucester that his brother Edgar has been plotting to take over Gloucester’s estates. In order to be effective, this deceit of Edmund’s must be plausible, and Shakespeare’s audience would have known that it was not uncommon for landowners’ children to want to take over their father’s lands before their fathers died. The contemporary court case of Sir Brian Annesley revolved around a daughter who claimed to believe that her father was too senile to manage his property, and the case caused a sensation, which shows that situations of this kind were the cause of a great deal of anxiety in Shakespeare’s day. King Lear is deeply concerned with the disasters which can occur when the normal processes of inheritance are disrupted.

You should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. (II.ii.338-339)

When Lear makes his final, explosive demands to be allowed to retain his followers in his daughters’ homes, Regan responds with these lines, which fold the play’s concern with generational conflict into the theme of self-knowledge. The audience sees that Regan has a point. Lear is behaving badly, and to some extent it was his own idea to hand over his power to his daughters. However, the audience also has reason to suspect that Regan and Goneril will be unlikely to treat Lear better if he gives way to them. King Lear stages a particularly complex example of intergenerational conflict in which neither the aging father or his daughters can be trusted to wield power fairly.

Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary. (II.ii)

When Regan accuses Lear of failing to see that he is old, Lear responds sarcastically with these lines. As always, Lear’s sarcasm disguises an important truth. Here, the line “age is unnecessary” speaks to one of King Lear’s most important questions: it’s true that in this play, older people seem to serve little purpose. We are often reminded that age has not made Lear wise. Gloucester, too, is both unwise and ineffectual. At the same time, we cannot accept that their children have dealt with them fairly. The suffering endured by Lear and Gloucester is even more upsetting because the sufferers are elderly. King Lear asks what the point of old age is, and by extension what the end goals of human life are. The play offers no easy answers.