In King Lear, why does Lear's plan to divide his kingdom seem both sensible and foolish?

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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.

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In William Shakespeare’s tragic play King Lear, the title character decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Dividing property among children while the parent is still living can be seen as a sensible idea—if it is done with the best interests of the recipients in mind, and if the property remains in the parent’s possession until death. King Lear, however, wants to pass on his property during his lifetime in a way that is self-serving. His desire for admiration leads to a foolish twist on the practice.

Lear’s announcement that the daughter who most lavishly declares her love for him will receive the largest portion of the kingdom sets him up to be deceived by words spoken out of greed and not out of genuine love. His ego is bruised when the youngest daughter, Cordelia, declares her love for him in a very simple way. Instead of being able to see through the flattery of the two older daughters and to appreciate the honesty of the youngest, King Lear goes so far as to disinherit Cordelia and suffers the tragic consequences of his foolishness.

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For a king to divide his kingdom before he dies is fraught with danger. Although in the case of Lear it's supposed to prevent his kingdom from falling into civil war, it has the exact opposite effect. The main problem here is that once Lear has bestowed his kingdom upon his daughters, the authority starts draining away from him immediately. Yet Lear foolishly, and unrealistically, expects to continue being treated like a king, even after he's given up his kingly territory.

Lear's fateful decision to divide his kingdom is one of those ideas that looks good on paper, but turns out to be disastrous in practice. Looking back at history, there are numerous examples of kingdoms falling into chaos and ruin because of a lack of certainty in relation to the succession. So from that standpoint Lear's plan appears perfectly reasonable. But Lear hasn't factored himself into the equation. He hasn't given any serious thought as to what will happen to him once he's no longer king, what future role he might have. It's also tragically obvious that he doesn't understand the true nature of his two evil daughters, Regan and Goneril, and that it's the daughter he foolishly banished—Cordelia—who was the one who really loved him all along.

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In Shakespeare's time, women didn't have the same legal rights to inheritance as men. Usually, after a father died, a daughter's husband would receive the inheritance and not the daughter. King Lear devises a plan to coordinate his will before he dies since he has three daughters. Regan and Goneril are the first two daughters with husbands, but Cordelia is the third and remains to be wed. Lear's will is to divide the kingdom evenly between the daughters out of fairness, but also to make sure that everything is in place before he dies to prevent the children from fighting over the kingdom.

This seems logical and a good way to control the situation after death. However, King Lear forgets that this is not a good legal decision for himself because once he gives away his land, title and money, he has nothing! Then he has to live under his daughters' control and will. He thinks this will be fine because he assumes that his daughters love him so much that they will obviously take care of him until he dies. Sadly, he is mistaken. He does try to make sure that his daughters will take care of him before he divides up his land by asking them who loves him the most. But this is foolish because the nature of human beings is very competitive and the girls fight over the idea of loving him the most. The only honest one, Cordelia, is the one he misreads and misunderstands, thereby solidifying one of his tragic flaws.

Summarily, it was a nice idea for Lear to try to avoid a family fight after he died by dividing up the kingdom beforehand, but it only resulted in leaving himself with nothing for retirement as well as blinding himself to the real character of each of his daughters.

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