As he is aging and thinking about succession, King Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters. If this were the entirety of his plan, it would appear sensible. However, he does not determine to give each daughter an equal share or to divide the kingdom based on his daughters’ merits, but rather based on how well each daughter states her love for him.
This plan then appears foolish, as it invites rivalry, lies ,and deceit. Not surprisingly, it divides his kingdom and sets the older daughters against him once they have gotten what they want, and it ultimately leads to tragedy.
In act 1, scene 1, which takes place in King Lear's palace, Lear announces to his daughters his plan to divide his kingdom among them. He asks them which one loves him the most. Specifically:
And here are to be answer'd. Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
Goneril, the oldest daughter, answers that she loves him more than words can say and “not less than life.” The next eldest, Regan, answers that her feelings are similar to those of her sister, “Only she comes too short [of the love]: that I profess.” Cordelia, the youngest daughter and the most honest and honorable, tells herself that she will not follow her sisters’ example and flatter their father.
She is assured that her “love's More richer than my tongue.” In other words, she believes that her actions and the sincerity of her truly deep feelings for their father will assure him of her love for him without insincere expressions of emotions. However, King Lear is short-sighted and does not see that Cordelia is the only child who is really expressing her feelings and who loves him sincerely. He tells her:
How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
Cordelia’s honesty and unwillingness to flatter her father angers him. In turn, Lear rejects her even though he acknowledges that he loved her most. The two older daughters who flatter Lear obtain his kingdom, while the honest and righteous daughter, Cordelia, is banished.
Once her inheritance is in hand, Goneril criticizes her father. Upset at her treatment of him, King Lear goes to his daughter Regan, but she rejects him as well. Lear eventually realizes his own foolishness and goes mad.