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.i)
King Lear opens with Lear’s demand that his daughters declare how much they love him: this line is Goneril’s response. If Lear’s demand makes us suspect that all is not well in the kingdom of Britain, Goneril’s reply confirms our suspicion. She claims that her love makes her “speech unable” in the middle of a long and complex speech. The audience (and Kent and Cordelia onstage) can see that Goneril’s declaration of love is insincere flattery. Lear’s inability to tell the difference between true feelings and flattery causes much of the play’s suffering, and King Lear continues to focus on the damage flattery can cause when a ruler is not wise enough to recognise it.
Nor are those empty-hearted, whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness. (I.i)
This line is Kent’s attempt to explain to Lear how badly he has misunderstood Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him. While Lear interprets Cordelia’s plain speech as evidence that she doesn’t love him, Kent insists that simple but truthful speech is worth more than over-the-top insincerity. The line introduces an important theme of King Lear: the gap that often exists between a person’s feelings and that person’s ability to express themselves. As Lear’s suffering deepens, he too will discover that profound feelings are often difficult or impossible to express.
These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly-ducking observants (II.ii)
Cornwall declares himself suspicious of Kent’s plain-talking style, pointing out that what seems to be plain speech can often be just as deceitful as flattery. King Lear is deeply concerned with flattery and the need for rulers to be able to recognise it. Cornwall’s argument suggests that spotting flattery is harder than it seems. Throughout King Lear, its characters cast doubt on the effectiveness of speech as a way of communicating. In this scene, Kent and Cornwall demonstrate that any attempt to communicate in a political setting is likely to be misinterpreted or to have the wrong effect.