The Villains of King Lear
“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.” -Agnes Repplier
What makes a villain a villain? Some people might say that it is maniacal laughter and a personal vendetta against the protagonist in a story; others may say that it is just someone who is evil. It is actually much more complex than that and no one really stops to think about what makes that villain truly interesting. Villainy can usually be summed up under five main categories; powerful, intelligent, immoral, determined and wounded. A villain must be powerful, in that he or she has a way of making situations and people bend to his or her will; intelligent, though not specifically an evil super-genius. He or she must in some way be immoral; not necessarily sociopathic, but he or she must be willing to violate their morals to either get what is wanted, or in order to achieve what is perceived as “the greater good”. A villain must be determined, or willing to do almost anything in order to attain his or her goals; determination is a key aspect in creating a “proper” villain. Finally, a villain must be wounded: not necessarily physically, but emotionally. This supports the idea that no one is born evil; rather, villains are made that way by circumstances or events in their lives. Villains who are multidimensional and exhibit all five components to their character are by their very complexity, interesting. “King Lear” exhibits three villains: Goneril, Regan and Edmund, who portray many of the main characteristics of villains. Although all three are quite villainous, Edmund is definitely the most interesting of them. One of the villains in “King Lear” is Goneril, the eldest of Lear’s three daughters. She is introduced in the first scene when King Lear is asking that his daughters prove to him how much they love him. She is the first of the three sisters to speak of her “love” “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much which I love you.”
Goneril speaks as though she loves her father more than such things as eyesight, freedom and even her own life. However, as soon as Lear grants her and Regan each half of his kingdom, she goes against everything that she originally said, and truly becomes a villain. She is an extremely aggressive character, especially for a woman. During the time in which the play was written; she would have been shocking to audiences. This is demonstrated by how direct she is in challenging Lear’s authority and the fact that she attempts to take hold of military power over her husband. Another good example of Goneril’s aggressiveness is the fact that she initiates an affair with Edmund. This eventually leads her to plot the murder of her husband, the Duke of Albany, and to poison her sister, Regan, who is also interested in him. Goneril is also incredibly selfish. A good example of this fact is at the end of the play, when she kills herself. Many may argue that this is out of remorse for what she had done to her family, but a likely explanation for this act is that she does so because she knows that her plans have been destroyed, and she will likely be killed, either by her husband out of vengeance, or be put to death for her crimes. Although these characteristics make her quite villainous, she does not comprise all five qualities of villainy. She does assert power in her aggressive nature towards both her father and her...
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[ 1 ]. Shakespeare, William, King Lear I.ii.55-61
[ 2 ]. ibid. 71-77
[ 3 ]. ibid. 371-373
[ 4 ]. ibid. 19-21
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