How do loyalty and betrayal work in King Lear?
Loyalty and betrayal in King Lear are tied to the theme of appearance and reality. In family matters, those who appear the most loyal are the most disloyal, while those who appear disloyal are the loyal children.
Lear is deceived by the flattery of his older daughters, who will say anything to get his kingdom and couldn't care less what happens to him. Cordelia, though she genuinely loves her father, is so repulsed by her sisters' lies that she refuses to flatter. She comes across as cold, leading Lear to banish her, saying:
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child. Away, away!
Of course, Cordelia is not the thankless child. The children who will be serpent's teeth to him are Goneril and Regan.
In a parallel plot, Edmund, angered that he is disinherited due to his illegitimate birth, plots to destroy his brother Edgar. Edmund appears the loyal son when he "exposes" Edgar's plot to kill Gloucester. In fact, Edmund has concocted the fake plot to discredit his brother. He betrays both his brother and father, just as Goneril and Regan betray their father.
Gloucester and Lear learn too late that they should have searched more deeply to discern who their loyal children were. Shakespeare cautions that it is easy for those in power to lose touch with reality and believe flattering words.
King Lear and Cordelia's relationship is characterized by loyalty and betrayal. When Cordelia refuses to flatter her father and appease his vanity, Lear betrays his role and responsibilities as her father. He turns his back on her, with very cruel and hateful words, and sends Cordelia into exile. She is put not only out of her home, but out of her country. Despite all that Lear does to her, however, Cordelia remains loyal to him. She does not stop loving him, and she is the daughter who acts to save him after he is then so horribly betrayed by her sisters, Goneril and Regan. Because of her loyalty, Cordelia and her father are reunited, if briefly, and Lear comes to understand the selfless nature of his daughter's love for him. He seeks her forgiveness. Cordelia dies knowing that her father loves her, too, but Lear lives, mourning her loss and tortured by his role in her destruction. Very tragic indeed.
Cordelia's relationship to Lear is one great example of loyalty from the play. She is disowned, quite literally, by King Lear yet she urges her husband to help Lear when he is in need. She maintains the same filial loyalty throughout the play, regardless of adverse circumstance (while also refusing to embellish or exaggerate her affections).
There is a lot in Lear about the difference between words and actions. Goneril and Regan betray Lear, but Kent remains loyal to Lear. And yet in the beginning, Lear trusts Goneril and Regan a lot more than he listens to Kent.
Kent stays very loyal. How many people would disguise themselves and go back to serve someone who threatened to kill them? Really.