Many characters in King Lear do not seek true love but only selfish and false representation of love. True love is unconditional and honest while selfish love is motivated by money, lust, or merely approval from others.
At the start of the play, Lear stages a love test. Lear tests each of his daughters on how much they love him. Opportunistic Goneril and Regan flatter him and he accepts this because he sees verbal love as true love. Lear rewards Goneril and Regan’s love for him by giving them land and wealth. This only enforces the idea that material things are not apart of true love.
The youngest sister, Cordelia, is not as eager to confess her love to her father.
What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.(Act I, Scene 1)
Cordelia makes it clear that she loves him, but she can’t put it into words. She knows that words can’t truly express true feelings. True love does not require mere words as a dedication to devotion. Unfortunately Lear does not understand that so he disowns her when she refuses to flatter him.
Soon after, Cordelia is to get passed off. She is expected to marry Burgundy or France. But now that she is disowned with no dowry or title, her status has decreased. Soon, Cordelia gets rejected by Burgundy because he only seeks authority and power from a possible relationship with her. But France steps forward and takes her hand because he understands the true meaning of love, which enforces Cordelia’s representation of true love.
Then arrives the second plot of the play – Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar and Edmund.
Gloucester makes fun of Edmund’s illegitimacy and refers to him as “whoreson” (Act I. Scene 1). Edmund is desperate to feel loved so he selfishly plots his father’s and Edgar’s demise to feel above from his title as a bastard child.
Edmund lies to Gloucester and puts Edgar against Gloucester. Gloucester is quick to accept these claims without any proof. Gloucester rejects Edgar the same way Lear disowns Cordelia. Gloucester then tries to execute Edgar while Lear banishes Cordelia.
While Lear and Gloucester reject their respective child that represents true love, they fall for the characters that represent anti-love. Goneril, Regan, and Edmund represent false love. They are only motivated by money, lust, or self-serving love.
Edgar and Cordelia are the epitome of true love. They are forced to suffer banishment, rejection, and Edgar has to disguise himself to remain loyal. Cordelia rushes to help Lear when she learns of his new state and Edgar kills Oswald to defend Gloucester. They consistently prove their love for their respective fathers despite when their respective fathers’s have casted them out.
At least in the beginning, Lear and Gloucester are similar to Goneril, Edgar, and Regan because they all represent false love. They all have flawed perceptions of love. Lear and Gloucester see true love as approval from others while the three antagonist are motivated by money, lust, and their self-serving nature.
But Lear and Gloucester are forced to confront their mistakes. They spend most of the play suffering and facing the consequences of their actions. Soon they learn that verbal love does not equate to true love. But that true love is more than skin deep.