Saturday, 3 April 2010

Filial ingratitude in King Lear!

Filial ingratitude is a dominant theme in King Lear. It is a universal theme in the sense that it is common to find many sons and daughters who show much ingratitude and cruelty towards their parents. In the play, there are two fathers (Lear and Gloucester) who suffer because of favoring certain kids to others. Their tragedy is caused by those whom they have already favored and preferred. The play gives us incidents which connect one father (King Lear) with his two ungrateful daughters (Goneril and Regan) on one hand, and another father (the Earl of Gloucester) with his son (Edmund). Those two lines of relationships display the issue of ingratitude on a very deep and comprehensive level.

What made this play a tragedy was the evil children's "filial ingratitude," for the "blindness" of Lear and the Earl was so great that only through suffering from the "monster ingratitude" of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund did they learn to distinguish the good children from the evil ones. It was "filial ingratitude" which opened Lear's eyes to the "painful truth": he had disinherited his good daughter and had given power to his evil daughters.

Lear expresses his great shock addressing ingratitude as an enemy that has occupied the heart of his daughter. He says:

"Ingratitude, though marble-hearted fiend,

More hidcous when thou showe'st thee in a child

Than the sea-monster!"

The traditional values that make the parent-child relationship natural and wholesome are distorted and destroyed in this play. The order and harmony that usually characterize a stable family are disrupted by the evil designs of the greedy Edmund, Goneril, and Regan. Lear and Gloucester are both trusting fathers. They foolishly believe the words of their evil children and banish the offspring that truly love them. As a result of their lack of judgement, both fathers are made poor by their unthankful children. The filial greed and ingratitude shown by Edmund, Regan, and Goneril bring immense suffering to all.
The play begins by an unusual incident. King Lear wants to divide his kingdom among his three daughters because he has become too old to rule. Therefore, he asks each one to express her love to him. The first two daughters (Goneril and Regan) choose very passionate and poetic terms to flatter their father which reflect how hypocritic they are. Goneril says:

"Sir. I love you more than words can wield the matter;

Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;

Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;

No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour."
The most horrible moment occurs when it is Cordelia's turn to speak. Lear is shocked when Cordelia has not said what he expects from her as his most beloved and dearest child. She says that she loves him as any dutiful daughter should love her father:

"…I love your majesty

According to my bond; nor more nor less…

You have begot me, bred me; I

Return those duties back as are right fit

Obey you, love you, and most honor you."
She is very realistic in her expression which indirectly expose the exaggeration and hypocrisy displayed by her sisters. But her father is too emotional and rash to get her point; he misunderstands her considering her ungrateful and cruel, and consequenly, punishes her.
The first sign of ingratitude is displayed immediately after the two sisters receive their share in the same session. Goneril and Regan have a private conversation in which they reveal their real identities. They begin to conspire against their father whom they regard as very rash and emotional. They plan to treat him in the way that they think he deserves. Goneril comments on her father state saying:

"You see how full of changes his age is;

The observation we have made of it hath not been little:

He always loved our sister most;

And with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off."
The development of the action in the play shows that the two daughters prove to be ungrateful and Villain. The reality of Goneril is revealed to Lear when he visits her. She does not want him to behave as a king anymore because she thinks that if he still has his title (as a king) and the royal accompaniment (represented in the one hundred knights), he will remain the real king the eyes of the public. In this way, she with her husband will do their dirty work without much recognition. She wants to dismiss 50 knights and give orders to her steward to ignore her father and treat him badly:

"Put on what weary negligence you please,

You and your fellows. I'd have it come to question.

If he dislike it, let him to our sister,

Whose mind and mine, I know, in that are one,

Not to be overruled. Idle old man,

That still would manage those authorities

That he hath given away!"
These words reflect how bad and ungrateful this daughter is. She insults her father calling him an 'idle old man' who still wants to enjoy his lost glory. It seems that she accuses him of being fool when he willingly gives up his power. In addition, they indicate the two sisters' conspiracy against their father; Goneril is sure that when her father goes to Regan, she will treat him badly.

Lear is hurt by his evil daughters' ingratitude, which is made obvious by their great disrespect and intolerance toward him. Goneril's meanness towards him prompts him to say, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child!" Leaving Goneril's home in anger, Lear exclaimed, "Monster ingratitude!"

Therefore, he heads to Regan expecting her to take his side and criticize her sister. Unfortunately, the sign of ingratitude shown by the second daughter is worse than that shown by the first one; Lear is badly received by his daughter, Regan, who apologizes for not meeting him, claiming that she has been tired. He becomes angry and says:

"Deny to speak with me? They are sick?...Mere fetches.

Fetch me a better answer."

Lear becomes furious as a result of this strange attitude of his daughter. He cannot believe what happens to him, and therefore, he asks the elements of nature to avenge his humiliation:

"We are not ourselves when nature, being oppress'd, commands the mind.

To suffer with the body. I'll forbear."

He will "forbear" because he can no longer restore what he has lost as a result of his rashness and injustice.

Regan is crueler than her sister. In addition to sharing her sister in treating her father badly, she dismisses him from the palace making him face the outside storm alone. Devoid of love for him, the two sisters show that they are ungrateful, insulting, and threatening to the father who gave them both land and power. It is not proper on all scales of morality to dismiss a father in such bad whether. Therefore, Lear speaks to Kent expressing the internal storm which goes inside him. He states that Goneril's and Regan's villain actions leads him to madness:

" The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind

Doth from my senses take all feeling else

Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!

Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand

For lifting food to't? But I will punish home:

No, I will weep no more. In such a night

To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure."

In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!

Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,--

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;

No more of that.

Following the other line of ingratitude (Edmund's ingratitude towards his father), we find that Gloucester does not choose to abdicate his role, as Lear has already done. Therefore, his ruthless son Edmund schemes and plots against him to replace Edger (Gloucester's legitimate son) as heir, and then seek an opportunity to depose his father. Edmund plans to make his father read a letter that contains a conspiracy against him by Edger. When he speaks to himself, we realize that he is, not only ungrateful son, but also a real devil. He displays his hatred of both his father and brother saying:

"I do serve you in this business.

A credulous father, and a brother noble,

Whose nature is so far from doing harms,

That he suspects none; on his foolish honesty

My practices ride easily! I see the business.

Let me, if not by birth, have hands by wit:

All with me's meet that I can fashion fit."

His vicious scheme succeeds and Gloucester rejects his son, Edger. Then, Edmund humiliates his father by revealing his sympathy with Lear to his daughters and a secret letter which his father has received regarding the landing of French forces. These incidents lead Gloucester to blind himself saying:

"O you mighty gods!

This world I do renounce, and in your sights

Shake patiently my great affliction of."

Gloucester's life is saved by his son, Edgar, whom he has already deserted. This action is completely contrary to the villain actions and vicious schemes made by Edmund who is regarded as the "fiend".

In a moment of enlightenment, Gloucester, after becoming blind, that Edmund has deceived him and that his ingratitude has been so intense. He discovers that his son has sacrificed him in return of some worldly benefits. It is quite clear that Edmund ingratitude is motivated by achieving his personal interests and his wicked nature.

In the same way, Lear reaches the same stage of enlightenment when he is provided with care and concern by Cordelia, the daughter whom he has already deserted. She comes to him to mend and cure him. She wants to be a relief that my wipe her sisters' ingratitude. When she sees him in his miserable state, she says:

"O my dear father! Restoration hang

Thy medicine on my lips; and let this kiss

Repair those violent harms that my two sisters

Have in thy reverence made!"

Now he is able to realize the sharp contrast between Cordelia, as a dutiful daughter, and her two ingrateful sisters. At the end he says some very passionate words to Cordelia indicating that she is the only one with whom he feels happy and satisfied even in prison. He asks her to forgive him for his injustice towards her:

"…Come, let's away to prison

We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness. So, we'll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh."


  1. Really great &very useful post

    Thank u doctor..

  2. Thank you Dr. Mahmoud for sharing this with us. It's really an important theme. We all appreciate your great effort.

  3. I think that this essay is more comprehensive than that of Manar. It is supported with significant quotations. But, Manar succeeded in presenting her message in a clear and simple style.
    Thanks a lot to both of you.

  4. Hi Mona and Reham! Glad to see that you found this article useful too. I agree with you, Reham, that Manar succeeded in conveying the idea in a simple, straightforward language. For me, I tried to provide some details and quotations that should support the idea. Therefore, taken together, Manar's account and mine are useful and should be employed functionally if an answer is required to a question in the same regard. Now, it's your turn to give more detailed comments and insights that should improve my account and Manar's one. After all, our goal should be to develop useful ideas and open the space for further discussions, not to close the way by providing final products. The final products should come at the end after many threads of discussion. To make it clearer, I'll give you a small example...My main argument in the above essay on filial ingratitude is based on "two lines" of relationships which display the issue of ingratitude on a very deep and comprehensive level. This is the way I think the theme should be addressed. However, this "two lines" argument might not appeal to another one/other people. Some people may see it in terms of a "main plot" and "sub-plot" in the play rather than "two lines of relationships". Some people may argue that this main plot meets with the sub-plot at a specific stage in the play (how???)...and so on and so forth! In this way, we can open new horizons and spaces in which our arguments are extended beyond the limitation of a certain line of argument.
    Hope this is useful!
    Best wishes

  5. thank u so much dr.mahmoud for these useful topics.i want to say my opinion about what king lear did according to dividing his kingdom. i think that he wasnot mistaken when he decided to divid his kingdom among his daughters and he wasnot afoolish person because if he was foolish he couldnot become a king. but i think the way he divided his kingdom was foolish. finally, this topic is wonderful.

  6. Hi Semostar! You're most welcome! Thanks so much for developing the argument. Your opinion seems very convincing...However, the issue of whether King Lear is foolish or not, and whether he was mistaken or not, is still a debated among critics...Each critic has his own evidence from the play that supports his argument. Personally, I agree with you that the criterion based on which Lear divided his argument was not fair because those who are good at expressing themselves and using metaphors in their verbal expressions are those who should win or gain ground. Instead, Lear should watch the behaviour and make conclusions out of that if he insists on this criterion. However, in terms of dividing one's throne or kingdom while he is still alive among his successors is in itself for many critics a foolish example. Lear's example should ring warnining bills to all fathers and parents to never give everything while they're alive because in this way they won't feel secure...There's a moral lesson here that should be communicated to all future generations...and here lies a very important function of art or literature: to teach and instruct! As for the argument that Lear is not foolish, otherwise how could he become a king?, I can argue that Lear didn't become a king based on any personal intelligence or effort...He must have inherited the throne from his father...Another point: Lear is too old to think in a rational way compared to any young person. The point of age and the weaknesses it brings with it is very relevant here...Thanks so much for giving me the chance to say that...Well done! Mahmoud

  7. Thanks too much Dr. Mahmoud this essay is very useful and important and for these significant quotations I think king Lear is a wise man when he divide the kingdom

  8. Hi Manar! You're most welcome. Thanks for your comment. According to your point of view, Lear was wise when he divided his kingdom...Could you please explain this viewpoint and develop your argument? I'm really interested in seeing different viewpoints and perspectives...That's the main reason why this Blog was created! Best wishes

  9. thanks a million for the essay i just have one problem i thought that glouchester had his eyes plucked out by cornwall, not himself ?

  10. this is a wonderfull ..

    Thank you so much .

    you don't know how you please and help me .

    I seach for a long time to find any thing useful and help me in the theme of king lear ,

    I will pray for you so much ..

    My Allah bless you ..

    from Tibah ..

  11. Hi Tibah! You're most welcome. Glad to know that the account is of any help to you. But, may I ask: Who are you? Are you studying in the English section? In assiut???


  13. please how can i can contact with you dear mahmoud abdallah i need ur help??

  14. Hello...You're welcome...How can I help???

    1. hello dear im rona and i really need help please

  15. hello.. my research is about filial disobedience in king Lear ,if you can help me and guide me i will be grateful because i can't found any source just your essay. this is my

  16. Dear Rona...Of course it's my pleasure to help you with your research, but unfortunately, though my BA major was Education and English, my present career is related to English language teaching methodology. But this Blog was part of an online programme related to the PhD study I was conducting in the UK. So, I'm not specialised in literature. It will be a good idea if you approach specialised staff in this area as I can't help. I wrote this article a long time ago when I was a student and shared with with my students to solicit feedback and comments. Best regards...Mahmoud

    1. oh its bad news, because i cant find sources, i have just your article in my hand. please if remember anything or source send to me.. thank you so much

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. add to that, Edmund betrayal to his father when he told Cornwall, Goneril husband, that his father seeks to help Lear and the French. this mean act leads Cornwall to pluck Gloucester eyes as a punishment for his deeds. this show how this son is cruel, mean and ungrateful to his father.

  19. Hey do you know any literary devices that are great for the theme ingratitude?