It interested me to note how, in giving away his responsibilities and reign to his daughters, King Lear also finds a way to see how much of his personality is reflected in their subsequent actions. For example, Regan and Goneril both reflect the bossy and egocentric attitude that Lear first has when requiring them to say how much they love him just to receive flattery. It is a mock trial, a redundant way to figure out who gets the land. They go on to throw him out in the rain, one of many plots against his authority, reflecting the old proverb, ‘give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.’ Once Lear gives up just part of his power, a mere crack in his authorial foundation, his position as King crumbles and falls as other characters see his weakness developing. Edgar and Cordelia respect power, however, and do not resort to deceit and corruption to win over their elders. Cordelia won’t play Lear’s game because she realizes that he just wants flattery in his old age, and perhaps sees this as a sign that he is giving up on ruling the kingdom and his interest in living in general. In her loyal eyes he will always be King and any course of action that is taken, even by him, to deny the fact should be shot down. She denies death its power over him by encouraging him to stop the inappropriate tricks and be the best King that he can be, even as he becomes withered and possible depressed.
King Lear’s intentions in giving away his kingdom are originally “To shake all cares and business from our age…while we/Unburthened crawl toward death.” It is ironic that he intends to avoid the hostility of his daughters fighting over his inheritance but ends up causing it to an extreme, convoluted degree. Lear, being a King must have been a soldier at some point in his life, but now acts not out of chivalry but as a coward. Seeing his own death approach he throws his responsibilities onto his offspring to avoid it himself. This mainly contributes to his turn to insanity in Act 3 and lies to himself saying, “I am a man/ More sinn’d against than sinning…My wits begin to turn” (3.2.49-59). He intended to separate his land according to how much each daughter loves him, but actually ends up giving away his power to those who love him least, which turns his world upside down and causes his mind to become more broken than it already was.
Similar to Cordelia wanting her father to repel death and live in vitality for the rest of his life, Edgar as well has a change of character and helps his father see his own life to its end in as encouraging a way as possible. Edgar’s father Gloucester wants to die because of how deceived he had been by Edmund and how brutally blinded he had been by Cornwall. Edgar mirrors Cordelia in denying him the easy way out saying, “How fearful/And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!” (4.5.11-12). Edgar of course does not let his father commit suicide in front of him, stating, “Why I do trifle thus with his despair/Is done to cure it.” (4.6.32-33). Even after this event, however, he still fears (as the footnote 5 on pg. 2549 reveals) that his “conceit may rob/The treasury of life, when life itself/Yields to the theft.” (4.6.42-44). In these ways it is morally instructive for both Cordelia and Edgar to be saviors of their fathers who have given up on life. They won’t let their elders fall into despair or loneliness (no wives to keep them company?) because of the danger of having leaders who don’t show the conviction and earnestness that they should.