Regan and Goneril are two of the most abhorrent and subversive characters to be found in all of Shakespeare’s work.
The two elder sisters, Regan and Goneril, may at first inspire a little sympathy from an audience not being ‘favorites’ of their father. They may even garner a little understanding when they fear that Lear may easily treat them in the same way he treated Cordelia (or worse considering that she was his favorite). But soon we discover their true natures – equally devious and cruel.
One wonders whether this unrelentingly unpleasant characterization of Regan and Goneril is there to cast a shadow over Lear’s character; to suggest that he in some way has this side to his nature. The audience’s sympathy towards Lear may be more ambiguous if they believe that his daughter’s have partly inherited his nature and are mimicking his past behavior; although this is of course balanced by the portrayal of his ‘favorite’ daughter Cordelia’s good nature.
We know that Lear can be vain and vengeful and cruel in the way that he treats Cordelia at the beginning of the play. The audience is asked to consider their feelings towards this man considering that his daughters’ cruelty may be a reflection of his own. An audiences’ response to Lear is therefore more complex and our compassion less forthcoming.
In Act 1 Scene 1 Goneril and Regan compete with each other for their father’s attention and assets. Goneril tries to explain that she loves Lear more than her other sisters;
“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 I love you”
Regan tries to ‘out do’ her sister;
“In my true heart I find she names my very deed of love – Only she comes too short…”
The sisters are not even loyal to one another as they constantly vie for precedence with their father and later for Edmund’s affections.
The sisters are very masculine in their actions and ambitions, subverting all accepted notions of femininity. This would have been particularly shocking for a Jacobean audience. Goneril denies her husband Albany’s authority insisting that “the laws are mine, not thine” (Act 5 Scene 3). Goneril hatches a plan to oust her father from his seat of power by undermining him and ordering the servants to ignore his requests (emasculating her father in the process). The sisters pursue Edmund in a predatory way and both take part in some of the most horrific violence to be found in Shakespeare’s plays. Regan runs a servant through in Act 3 Scene 7 which would have been men’s work.
The character’s unsympathetic treatment of their father is also unfeminine as they turf him out in to the countryside to fend for himself having previously acknowledged his infirmity and age; “the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with him” (Goneril Act 1 Scene 1) A woman would be expected to care for their ageing relatives. Even Albany, Goneril’s husband becomes shocked and disgusted with his wife’s behavior and distances himself from her.
Both sisters participate in the most horrific scene of the play – the blinding of Gloucester. Goneril suggests the means of torture; “Pluck out his… eyes!” (Act 3 Scene 7) Regan goads Gloucester and when his eye has been plucked out she says to her husband; “One side will mock another; th’other too” (Act 3 Scene 7).
The sisters share the ambitious traits of Lady Macbeth but go further by participating and reveling in the violence that ensues. The murderous sisters embody a frightening and unwavering inhumanity as they kill and maim in the pursuit of self gratification.
Eventually the sisters turn on each other; Goneril poisons Regan and then kills herself. The sisters have orchestrated their own downfall. However, the sisters appear to get away quite lightly; with regard to what they have done – in comparison to Lear’s fate and his initial ‘crime’ and Gloucester’s demise and previous actions. It could be argued that the harshest judgment is that no one laments their deaths.