In William Shakespeare's King Lear, can the actions of Regan and Goneril against their mad father be justified?
I am thinking about developing a thesis in which I defend the two sisters. I am not sure if there is sufficient evidence in the text to do so. Any references to the book that can help with my argument would help a lot.
Any attempt to defend Goneril and Regan in William Shakespeare’s King Lear would almost literally involve playing the devils’ advocate, yet there is almost always some value in playing that role. By trying to see the play from the point of view of the “evil” sisters, you would almost certainly see it in a fresh way that might illuminate hitherto unsuspected aspects of the text. You might not produce a final argument that most people would find especially convincing, but you might learn in the process how to strengthen your skills as a debater and advocate in other contexts. In fact, you might, if you decide to take on this challenge, think of yourself as a public defender, assigned to make the best possible case for clients whom almost everyone else finds completely unappealing.
Obviously you will find most of your most useful evidence early in the play, rather than later. As the play develops, the sisters become less and less morally attractive. (This is especially true after Gloucester has his eyes ripped out.) Yet Shakespeare often tries to “give the devil his due,” and even his most villainous characters are rarely mere simple stereotypes. In fact, often they are the most fascinating characters of all.
A good example of how you might begin to build a case for Goneril and Regan occurs when Goneril, speaking about Lear to Regan, says,
Goneril. You see how full of changes his age is. The observation we have made of it hath not been little. He always lov'd our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly. (1.1.287-92)
If Goneril’s words can be taken at face value, even she, then, seems to show more sympathy for Cordelia at this point in the play than Lear does. Equally interesting is Regan’s response:
Regan. 'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself. (1.1.293-94)
This, actually, is a fairly valid observation about Lear, as the rest of the play shows, and your best bet might be to try not to defend Goneril and Regan morally but to try to give them some credit for being shrewd analysts of their father’s flaws. Certainly Lear does have flaws, and we can count on Goneril and Regan to notice them and point them out. You might also want to make a case for Goneril and Regan as spokeswomen for order and restraint, at least as concerns their father’s behavior. They distrust his “riotous” retinue (2.1.94-95), and Kent’s disruptive behavior in 2.2 certainly gives Regan the kind of evidence she needs to condemn Lear and his men as unruly. Further ammunition you might use in your argument appears in 2.4.126 and following, and in fact everything from here until the end of that scene seems relevant to the case you hope to make.
By the way, you would not be the first to try to see things from the point of Goneril and Regan (see links below), but you would be one of the few!