How sharper than a serpent's tooth
If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur'd torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
King Lear has cut a deal with the two more flattering of his
three daughters: he will turn power over to them as long as he can
keep the name and respect due to a king, and so long as they
alternately host him and his train of a hundred knights. Once
they've got the power, of course, Regan and Goneril renege on their
part of the bargain. When Goneril, as prelude to disbanding Lear's
miniature army, objects to the group's rowdiness, the king is
furious. Her ingratitude is to Lear "sharper than a serpent's
tooth." He demands that Nature render Goneril infertile, or, if his
daughter must "teem" (give birth, like an animal), that her child
be a "thwart disnatur'd (unnatural and perverse) torment to her, as
she is to him. He vividly imagines a monstrous infant stamping
wrinkles in Goneril's brow, and burning her cheeks with its
"cadent" (falling) tears.
Later, Lear complains to Regan—who will turn out to be, if
anything, worse than Goneril—of Goneril's "Sharp-tooth'd
unkindness" and her "serpent-like" tongue (Act 2, scene 4). His
snakelike daughters represent the bestiality of all women: "Down
from the waist they are Centaurs. . . Beneath is all the fiends'"
(Act 4, scene 6). As he plunges from indignation into madness, Lear
becomes more and more horrified at the act of generation, and of
his spawning such monstrous children; but he deflects
self-criticism into vilification of women.