Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Romantic Jealousy in King Lear | Love Triangle of Edmund, Goneril and Regan

Falling for Edmund is the beginning of the
end for Lear's eldest daughters
In the words of Irvin Berlin, "Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man." Indeed, Lord help Goneril and Regan, who destroy each other over their infatuation with Edmund.

To be fair, calling the Edmund, Goneril and Regan subplot a ‘love triangle’ is probably inaccurate. A ‘lust triangle’ may be a more appropriate description of the emotion that the women have towards Edmund and, likewise, he has towards them. Although, of course, this could be debated

Regardless of how this facet of the play is labelled, it is undoubtedly a key turning point in terms of the outcome.

In addition, it tells us a lot about the characters of Goneril, Regan and Edmund.

The Relationship Between Goneril and Edmund

During Act IV, Scene ii, Goneril makes her feelings for Edmund abundantly clear. Before sending him back to Gloucester’s castle, (where her sister and brother-in-law, Cornwall, have taken up residence since the blinding of Gloucester), she offers him a ‘favour’, “Wear this; spare speech;”(IV.ii).

This is reminiscent of the tradition of a lady giving a favour to a knight, which is popular in the medieval European concept of courtly love. This favour is a token of admiration, affection and is supposed to offer good luck (the more personal the item given, the greater the luck bestowed).

Lust might be a more accurate way of describing
the emotion between Goneril and Edmund
According to the traditions of ‘courtly love’, the romance between a lady and her knight (or other nobleman besides her husband) is not focused on the physical, but the emotional. In other words, loving pure and chaste from afar. The erotic desire is said to be present, but is not acted upon.

Therefore, if we assume that Goneril and Edmund have a ‘courtly love’, then it could be argued that their feelings are deeper than a mere physical attraction.

As Edmund leaves, Goneril says, “O, the difference of man and man!/To thee a woman's services are due:/My fool usurps my body.” (IV.ii) Here, she is comparing Edmund and her husband, Albany.

Clearly, she finds Albany wanting, referring to him as “My fool.” On the other hand, she deems Edmund worthy of a “woman’s services.” This certainly suggests that, if the two have not yet consummated their relationship, she certainly wouldn’t be averse to the suggestion.

The Relationship Between Regan and Edmund

Unlike her sister, Regan is ‘available’, thanks to her husband being wounded during the blinding of Gloucester and subsequently dying. In Act V, she makes her stance known, “Now, sweet lord,/You know the goodness I intend upon you:” (V.i) However, she has seen her sister give “…strange oeillades and most speaking looks/To noble Edmund.”(IV.v) and, therefore, asks Edmund outright if he loves Goneril.

Edmund skirts the issue slightly by replying, “In honour’d love.”(V.i) She clarifies her line of questioning by asking if he has “…found my brother’s way/To the forfended place?”(V.i) When referring to her ‘brother’, she means her brother-in-law and the implication of ‘forfended’ (meaning forbidden) place needs no further explanation.

Would Regan and Goneril have been able to
defeat Cordelia's troops if they'd kept their
eyes on the ball?
Again, Edmund refuses to answer directly and merely responds, “That thought abuses you.” (V.i) This is a statement rather than a question, which could be used to argue that he is getting a real kick out of playing the sisters against each other.

It certainly seems that he is aware of, and enjoying, the manipulative power he has over both women. This is demonstrated in his dying breaths, “Yet Edmund was beloved:/The one the other poison’d for my sake,/And after slew herself.” (V.iii)

However, eventually he does provide Regan with an answer, “No, by mine honour, madam.” He insists that he has not known Goneril in the biblical sense, which, if the courtly love view is taken, could be true.

But, of course, the ruthless manipulation and deceit demonstrated where his father and brother are concerned does not make him the most trustworthy of characters.

Jealousy, Murder and Suicide

It is particularly interesting to note the timing of the love/lust triangle. As Goneril and Regan should be focused on the mounting threat of Cordelia and her French troops, they are completely distracted by Edmund. In fact, Goneril goes as far as to say, “I had rather lose the battle than that sister/Should loosen him and me.”(V.i)

"The one the other poison'd for my sake
And after slew herself"
Subsequently, rather than waging battle against their mutual enemy, they are engaged in a war with each other. The very clear jealousy is demonstrated in Regan’s insistence that Goneril “…go with us.”(V.i) rather than allow her to be alone with Edmund.

Just like Edgar and Edmund throwing down their gloves in challenge later in the act, this marks the challenge that has been thrown down between the sisters.

The intense jealousy leads Goneril to murder her sister with poison. Then, when Albany reveals the letters that were transported between Goneril and Edmund by Oswald, she realises that the jig is up and kills herself.

Edmund believes that both acts were done for the love of him. While he might be right about the first, the second could be debated.

It is interesting to consider what the outcome of the play may have been if the sisters had not fallen head over heels in love with Edmund. Perhaps if they had been focused on their goal, they might have succeeded.

However, as the ‘baddies’ of the piece, it is, of course, necessary for them to come to an unpleasant end.

If you'd like to read more about all three sisters, check out King Lear's Girls.

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