Integrity, compassion, and justice are important facets of an effective king. The king ismore than the physical evidence of a strong and united government. The king is God's representative on earth, and as such, serves as a model of behavior for all his subjects, who look to their king for guidance, strength, and hope. If a king lacks the essential components of kingly behavior, and the authority that these traits embody, his subjects will, as Goneril and Regan demonstrate, turn increasingly to deception, treachery, and violence as a method of government. Does Shakespeare's depiction of King Lear offer the audience a portrait of kingship, or in contrast, a portrait of kingly loss?
In his first scene, Lear initially comes across as a strong ruler, although his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters seems rather short-sighted and self-serving. This decision places his two strong sons-in-law, Albany and Cornwall, in charge of protecting the outlying areas of the kingdom. But the single benefit derived from this division creates many problems. Lear is abdicating his purpose and his responsibilities, and he is also creating chaos. To achieve his goal, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia are forced into a love test to determine their inheritance. The division of any kingdom is not without risk, but even before his action has the opportunity to create adversity, Lear establishes a competition, which complicates an already dangerous decision.
Competitions, by their very nature, result in winners and losers. Cordelia loses when she refuses to play the game, but Lear also loses when he "retires" and abdicates his kingly role. He cannot be king without a kingdom, and the country, which is to be divided into smaller principalities, will not have the unity and strength to long survive as separate units. Civil war and insurrection are the inevitable results of Lear's actions. The love test forces Regan and Goneril into competing against the favored younger sister. Ultimately, deadly conflict arises between Lear and his older daughters, and the long-standing competition between sisters creates conflict between ruling factions, further dividing the kingdom.
Even before Cordelia's return, dissent is in the air. In Act II, Curan's report of strife between Albany and Cornwall helps illustrate that Lear's division of his kingdom was a mistake (II.1.10). At this point, conflict doesn't appear to exist between Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia is out of the immediate scene as a result of her banishment. Already, though, Cornwall and Albany show signs of uneasiness, a discord with the clear potential to evolve into conflict, and perhaps, civil war. Goneril and Regan soon unite against a common foe — their own father; but it is reasonable to assume that Goneril and Regan, having disposed of Cordelia, would have next turned their troops and anger against one another. Certainly, Edmund was counting on this event, since he indicates he will marry whichever one survives the struggle for absolute control (V.1.55-69).
Notably, King Lear was not always the ineffectual king represented in the middle and final acts of Shakespeare's play. In the opening of the play, Lear is the absolute ruler, as any king was expected to be in a patriarchal society such as Renaissance England. Lear enters in Act I as the king, evoking grandeur and authority, representing God and the reigning patriarchy of kingship. The audience quickly forgets this initial impression because the love test, in all it absurdity, forces the audience into seeing Lear as a foolish, egotistical old man. But the evidence of his greatness is seen in Kent's devotion, in the love of his Fool, and in Cordelia's love, which is sustained, in spite of Lear's rejection.
By the time Shakespeare was writing King Lear, the English had survived centuries of civil war and political upheaval. The English understood that a strong country needed an effective leader to protect it from civil war and potential foreign invasion. The strong leadership of Elizabeth I had saved England when the Spanish attempted an invasion in 1588, and much of the credit for her success was attributed to her earlier efforts to unite England and to end the religious dissention that was destroying the country. No ruler would have deliberately chosen to divide a kingdom, not after having witnessed the conflicts that had marked England's recent history. The division of a country would have weakened it, leading to squabbles between petty lords and the absence of an effective central government and a capable means of defense. Having only recently achieved stability in their country, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have been horrified at Lear's choice to divide his kingdom, and so, create disunity.
The audience would also have questioned the choice of the French king as a suitor, especially as Lear intended to give Cordelia the choice center section of his kingdom. The audience's abject fear that a foreign king might weaken England (and a Catholic monarch made it worse) would have made Lear's actions seem even more irresponsible. But Lear is doing more than creating political and social chaos; he is also giving his daughters complete responsibility for his happiness, and he will blame them later when he is not happy. All of these events create a picture of King Lear as a poor model of kingship, one who reacts emotionally and without reason.
Lear is very much loved by every good character in the play, with only those characters who are unworthy of kingship hating him and plotting against him. Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund offer a contrasting image of kingship in their animosity and evil, behavior that is brutal and uncaring, rather than loving and paternal. One other important element of kingship is its connection to natural law and the image of kings as anointed by God. Kingship is directly connected to natural law, which is a central force in this play. A king has absolute authority and has no need to question natural law, and yet kings rule as God's representative on earth; thus their very position creates a reciprocal agreement between the monarchy and natural law. A successful king works in concert with nature, as Lear does until the moment he disinherits his youngest daughter.
In King Lear, the King of France stands as a successful model of how a good and proper king should behave. In his acceptance of Cordelia — even without benefit of a dowry — France is conducting himself with reason and conscience. He is also acting within the confines of natural law, with generosity of spirit and a willingness to share his life and country. The model of France's behavior recalls how Lear must have behaved before his decision to divide his land. But instead of seeing this kind father and patriarchal authority, the audience witnesses an absolute ruler, one who refuses questioning, or even the wisdom of his lords. Goneril and Regan equate their share of the land with absolute power of a monarch. They reject any allegiance to God or to any divine justice. Instead, they establish their own system of morality, one based on their father's law rather than natural law. Goneril and Regan can be as absolute in their decisions as Lear chooses to be; their behavior echoes his.
In their choices, Cornwall and Regan remind the audience of Macbeth and his wife. Cornwall and Regan present a ruling couple, — perhaps even more ruthless, but just as ambitious as the Macbeths — willing to murder their way to absolute power. Goneril and Regan dismiss Lear's 100 knights, who are really his small personal army. Their action is reasonable if they expect to seize rule and authority. Although the threat of losing a personal guard warrants remedy, Lear's response to this move precipitates the crisis. No king should allow his army to be disbanded, and so Goneril and Regan's actions are certainly dangerous to the king. But by this time, Lear has waited too late to reclaim the kingship that he has denied.
At the conclusion of the play, Albany appoints Kent and Edgar to restore order, although Albany's rank places him above the other two. But Kent intends to follow his master in death and that leaves Edgar to inherit the kingdom. In spite of the recent events, Albany thinks that Kent and Edgar can rule jointly, but Kent is correct in choosing another future for himself.
Although traditionally, the highest-ranking individual speaks the last lines in a tragedy, Shakespeare gives Edgar the final lines, as Gloucester's surviving son responds to Albany's request. Edgar is clearly uncertain and reluctant to assume the crown. Kingship was never his goal, nor his intent. But circumstances have forced him to consider a position for which he is unprepared.
Shakespeare has not offered the audience much to appreciate about Edgar. For much of the play, Edgar was disguised as Poor Tom, and the audience saw only a poor creature from Bedlam. Edgar really steps forward when he challenges Edmund, revealing that he has the goodness and strength to defeat evil. In winning their duel, Edgar's defeat of Edmund signals the triumph of righteousness over corruption and provides an assurance of God's blessing on Edgar. This act signals his ability to assume the role of king. In Edgar, kingship is exemplified by integrity, compassion, and justice — all the elements that Lear once possessed but which were subordinated to his injured ego.