We tend to focus so much on the daughters in King Lear (and rightly so) that we may not be paying enough attention to their marriages and their husbands. After all, the very first line of the play questions Lear’s preferment of Albany or Cornwall.
Yes, I know this is one of the so-called quiet beginnings, one that allows an audience to ease into the play, one that doesn’t announce its presence with authority (some might say, “to talk over the dialogue before settling down”), but the words are still there, and even in Lear’s opening speech, he speaks of Cornwall and Albany before mentioning his as-yet-unnamed “daughters” (I.i.43). It’s not until the end of that opening speech that we get an name of one: “Goneril” (I.i.52).
After that daughter’s speech of professed love, Lear verbally links Goneril to Albany, but only as potential parents (“to thine and Albany’s issues” [I.i.65]), with their marriage assumed; it’s the legal transference of property that’s at the root of Lear’s discussion of their relationship. Before this speech is over, however, the king refers to his second daughter as “Regan, wife of Cornwall” (I.i.67).
As the scene progresses, though Lear talks of his love for his youngest daughter Cordelia, it becomes apparent that much of his focus is on the negotiations for her hand in marriage. The discussion of dowry and offers to France and Burgundy distills the concept of marriage to a legal compact.
So if that’s the case, how much love or affection is involved?
Goneril certainly confides more in Oswald than in her husband Albany, complaining to her servant of her “wrongs” (I.iii.3) at the hands of Lear, and even giving Oswald permission to disrespect the king by “weary negligence” (I.iii.12). This conspiratorial tone is much more familiar than her exchanges with her own husband Albany. In just the next scene, when she answers his request for information, it’s with a dismissive “Never afflict yourself to know more of it” (I.iv.273). And that dismissal is relatively romantic compared to the responses to her husband that follow: a terse “Pray you content” (I.iv.295) and the exiting “Nay, then–” (I.iv.330).
When they next meet on stage, Goneril has already begun her relationship with the bastard Edmund (with a kiss to “stretch [his] spirits up into the air” [IV.ii.23, and for the bawdy implications of that, click here]); if that’s evidence from her side of the decay of their marriage, then his greeting to her is more blatant evidence: “O Goneril, // You are not worth the dust which the rude wind // Blows in your face” (IV.ii.30-2). He even calls her “devil” (IV.ii.35). It truly is a hellish, “hateful life” (IV.ii.54).
On the other marriage hand, Regan and Cornwall at least seem to be a cohesive, working unit. When they arrive together at Gloucester’s estate, they tag-team the announcement of the rationale behind their visit:
You know not why we came to visit you?
Thus out of season threading dark-eyed night:
Occasions, noble Gloucester, of some prize,
Wherein we must have use of your advice.
And just as Regan buttresses Cornwall’s question to Kent with an answer of her own, later–while devising a punishment for Kent–when Cornwall says that the punishment will last until noon, Regan goes further saying, “Till noon? Till night, my lord, and all night, too” (II.ii.134). This cooperation goes both ways, as when Lear begins to verbally insult the absent Goneril, Cornwall defies Lear with a defending “Fie, sir, fie” (II.iv.155). And by the end of the scene, it is Cornwall supporting Regan’s orders to leave the king out in the storm: “Shut up your doors, my lord; ’tis a wild night // My Regan counsels well. Come out o’ th’ storm” (II.iv.301-2).
The support they lend each other does not end with mere words. When Cornwall removes Gloucester’s eye, it is Regan who spurs him on to remove the second by saying, “One side will mock the another; th’ other too” (III.vii.70). When a servant attempts to stop Cornwall from doing so, Regan moves from words “How now, you dog!” (III.vii.74) to action, calling for a “sword” (III.vii.79) then putting it to use, killing the servant.
But even this togetherness has its limits; quickly upon Cornwall’s death, Goneril fears, “But being widow, and my Gloucester with her, // May all the building in my fancy pluck // Upon my hateful life” (IV.ii.52-4). It might seem like paranoia, except for the fact that within two scenes we hear Regan tell Oswald, “Edmund and I have talked // And more convenient is he for my hand // Than for your lady’s” (IV.iv.31-4). And that quickly her husband is forgotten.
After the victory on the battlefield, Regan announces her intention to make Edmund her new “lord and master” (V.iii.72) by making him her “husband” (V.iii.64). Albany, though, throws this plan into disarray when he announces what he’s learned (conveniently) from Goneril’s captured letter to Edmund; he tells Regan,
‘Tis she is subcontracted to this lord,
And I her husband, contradict your banns.
If you will marry, make your loves to me.
My lady is bespoke.
It is doubly easy for Albany to use such objective, cold, and legal terms to describe what we consider to be an act of love (marriage). There’s no passion or affection in his marriage to Goneril, and as we saw earlier with France and Burgundy, that’s all marriage is, in the land of Lear: a legal compact. After all, even after France proclaims Cordelia to be “herself a dowry” (I.i.240), he abandons her before the battle begins so that he can return to his country because of “something he left imperfect in the state” (IV.iii[a].3; Quarto/History text).
Cordelia doesn’t complain of his absence. A contract can only be expected to go so far.