Upon the beginning of scene one of King Lear, the readers are introduced to the king himself. While many if not all of the kings presented in Shakespeare’s plays can be characterized as slightly egotistical, King Lear can be viewed as the epitome of an egotistical ruler.
The play begins with King Lear about to discuss how he is going to divide his land. He is to divide his land between his three daughters. However, prior to deciding who will receive what land, the King instructs each of his daughters to profess their love and respect for him. This idea seems like a completely conceited and an almost narcissistic command for the King to request. Despite the ridiculous command, two of King Lear’s daughters rise to the challenge in order to earn the most land. Goneril voices her feelings for her father by saying: “A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;/ Beyond all manner of so much I love you” (1.1 58-59). Another daughter of King Lear’s describes her love for her father when saying “…I profess/ Myself an enemy to all other joys,/ Which the most precious square of sense possesses,/ And find I am alone felicitate/ In your dear highness’ love” (1.1 71-74). Both Regan and Goneril’s statements can be viewed as almost laughable. In today’s society, it is normally assumed that a daughter has a great amount of love and respect for her father. It is usually not deemed necessary that she goes to these lengths in professing her love for her father. However, King Lear apparently sees this as a completely appropriate and necessary event to occur. After Goneril and Regan voice their feelings, it is assumed that Cordelia, who is described later as King Lear’s favorite daughter, will duplicate her sister’s speeches in some way. However, this is absolutely not the case. Cordelia surprises the characters as well as the audience by doing the exact opposite. When King Lear asks Cordelia to voice her love, she simply responds with “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/ According to my bond; nor more nor less” (1.1 90-92). This response completely shocks and angers the King. Despite Cordelia being his favorite daughter, he cannot move on from her response and demands that she leave. After Cordelia’s response, King Lear even compares her to Hecate, a goddess connected to Hades.
Cordelia’s refusal to fuel her own father’s ego can be viewed as a very respectable and admirable quality. Although she must have considered the repercussions that her refusal would have resulted in, she risked that in order to do what is more admirable. Her actions very much contrast the actions of her sisters, who were simply concerned with earning the most land. King Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s refusal is almost comical. It is absurd that he became so angered with his (favorite) daughter after her unwillingness to dote over him that he sees no other option but to banish her.