King Lear begins with Lear offering to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. This situation positions Lear as a benevolent character, a caring father offering to pass his rule along to his daughters. However, before granting his daughters his kingdom, Lear proclaims, “Interest of territory, cares of state–/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty may extend” (I. i. 55-57). Thus, the story begins with Lear pitting his daughters against each other, as they compete to proclaim their love for him. It can also be inferred that this is not the first time in Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia’s lifetimes that he has forced competition between them. Goneril and Regan proclaim their love dutifully; however, it is revealed that even though they succeed when Cordelia refuses to compete at all, they were never meant to. Both profess their love for Lear, claiming that they love him more than their husbands, themselves, and everything else in the world. Yet, even before hearing Cordelia speak, Lear states “our joy [referring to Cordelia]…what can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I. i. 91, 94-95). Then, Lear later tells Kent, “I loved her [Cordelia] most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery” (I. i. 137-138). It is clear that Lear never intended for Goneril and Regan to succeed, content with the idea of giving a greater portion of his kingdom to Cordelia. When Cordelia fails (twice, as Lear even gives her a second chance) and Lear’s narcissism forces him to exile her, Lear is left with Goneril and Regan as a second choice.
Now, we don’t know what Lear’s past with Goneril and Regan may be, but based on Lear’s actions in the first scene, it is likely the two grew up second best, neglected by Lear. Is it truly that surprising that two people who grew up in a household where they likely held little to no power immediately become power hungry when given the chance?
As the story continues, Goneril and Regan finally assume their long awaited positions of power. However, quickly into their reign, Lear makes clear that, though he has given them his kingdom, he will continue to rule over them as king and retain his power. This is not the deal Goneril and Regan were promised. Goneril asks the servant Oswald, “Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding his Fool?” to which Oswald replies, “Ay, madam” (I. ii. 1-3). In response, Goneril begins a small soliloquy, expressing that she is tired of her father’s subversions. While Goneril’s anger and treatment of Lear, are far from just, Lear refuses to compromise with her, exacerbating the situation. When Goneril offers him 50 knights as opposed to 100, he refuses, eventually resulting in Goneril and Regan revoking all of his knights (II. iv. 300-302). Lear’s unwillingness to compromise is eventually what results in him wandering around in the storm as Goneril and Regan offer him places to stay, but tell him he cannot bring his entourage. Instead of potentially compromising, or showing any willingness to work with them at all, Lear proclaims, “And let not women’s weapons, water drops/Stain my man’s cheeks./No, you unnatural hags,/I will have such revenges on you both” (II. iv. 318-320). And he heads into the storm.
As the story begins when the power struggle begins, it is difficult to truly assess the dynamics between Goneril, Regan, and Lear before the power struggle. Only the first act can really give insight into that. But, the first act tells us that Goneril and Regan are second best and thus less powerful than both Lear and presumably Cordelia. Then, the second act also allows us to infer that Goneril and Regan are not entirely ruthless. They do originally attempt a compromise regarding Lear’s knights, Lear just refuses to accept, behaving rather like a child in a grocery store. So, Goneril and Regan carry on with their lives and leave Lear behind in the storm. But, Lear could’ve stuck up his own bargain. As a matter of fact, especially as the parent in the dynamic, he should have been able to do so.
Later in the story, there are also parallels drawn between Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. As we know from Act 1, Edmund’s hatred towards his father stems primarily from his father’s mistreatment of him because he is a bastard child. Gloucester even refers to him as a “whoreson” (I. i. 24). Thus, perhaps this is another clue that like Edmund, Goneril and Regan also dislike their father due to mistreatment. While this doesn’t necessarily make their actions against Lear right, it explains some of their motives. As Lear is stubborn, power-hungry narcissistic, and easily driven to seek vengeance, the same things can be said about Goneril and Regan. They likely got a fair amount of their traits from Lear himself. Thus, though Goneril and Regan are flawed characters, they are as flawed as Lear himself. Though they are responsible for their own actions and certainly are not the heroes or idols of the story, Lear is hardly a hero either. Rather, Goneril and Regan are just representations of Lear’s failures as a king and as a father. Lear is who stands in his own way, both the protagonist and antagonist of the play.