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In the first scene of King Lear, the aged king asks his daughters a simple, yet loaded question: Which one loves him the most? The question is crucial, since Lear announces his plan to give the daughter who gives the best answer the largest share of his kingdom. Lear has three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. Regan and Goneril each respond with obsequious speeches, full of flattery, in which they fairly blatantly attempt to curry favor with their father by telling him what he wishes to hear. Cordelia, however, has a different answer. She will not say, as her sisters have, that she loves her father to the exclusion of all other things, because that would be ridiculous, especially considering that she is being courted by both France and Burgundy. Her speech, then, is honest:
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?
In short, she is not saying that she does not love her father, but rather that she will not attempt to outdo her sisters, who it seems clear from the quotation above, she regards as disingenuous. Lear, of course, does not see things this way. He flies into a rage, disowning Cordelia and banishing Kent when he attempts to intervene on her behalf. This sets in motion the complex and tragic events of the play.
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