How are Goneril and Regan responsible for the fall of King Lear?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

King Lear makes a considerable mistake in giving his kingdom to his daughters Goneril and Regan. They profess their love for their father, stating that they adore him more than any other. The third daughter, Cordelia, honestly says that she loves her father but also her future husband: “Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all?” Lear does not care about their insincerity. He appreciates their flattery and obedience and condemns Cordelia.

Unfortunately, that is all it is—flattery. Behind Lear’s back, the two daughters conspire to strip their father of his power. They observe that he is rash, “full of changes,” and full of “unruly waywardness” in his old age. Goneril becomes increasingly annoyed with his behavior, wondering why he thinks he is still king when he has essentially given away his power: “Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away!”

Lear curses Goneril and turns to Regan in hopes that she will show filial piety. Regan stands by Goneril. The two point out that Lear does not need one hundred knights, who are only a burden to them. In fact, they narrow it down until they ask him why he needs any at all: “What need one?” Lear storms off into a tempest, and Regan and Goneril close the doors on him, saying that they only refuse him because of his entourage. They blame him for any hardness that befalls him. This abandonment and betrayal breaks Lear’s heart.

Without his crown, physical support, and his daughters’ respect, Lear’s life spirals out of control. When Goneril and Regan war with France, Lear’s daughter Cordelia is killed, as are they. Lear finally dies, apparently of old age and grief. His two eldest daughters contributed greatly to his demise.