Thou hadst better avoid getting teary – and King Leary – this Christmas.
As the year’s major family holiday season arrives, now is a good time to consider how much about dealing with our relatives at Christmas we can learn from King Lear. Geoffrey Rush is currently playing the King for the Sydney Theatre Company, in a fluid, soulful performance that draws the watcher towards him. But is it too easy to give the figure who dominates the family all the sympathetic attention?
King Lear’s treatment of his three daughters is quintessentially toxic. He demands his children, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, make a public show of their love for him. He then goes on, in later scenes, to continue to insist that this love should manifest as unconditional indulgence of his wants.
The eldest two, Goneril and Regan, pacify him with flattery (then later plot to kill him). Cordelia attempts to put sensible limits on what he can expect from her, emphasising that her love for him is appropriate to a father-daughter bond, but that she will need to grow to form other loving attachments.
Because she tells her father (whom she sincerely loves) what he needs to hear, rather than what he wants to hear, Cordelia is cut off, and Lear begins his famous descent into madness.
Traditionally, there has been a clear line drawn in responses to Lear’s behaviour as a parent, that he is at fault when he cuts off his youngest child, Cordelia, but justified when expressing his outrage at his other daughters.
The assignation of blame in family conflicts is rarely so straightforward, and neither is Shakespeare. Lear quarrels with all his children, as the family power dynamics shift around him, and a closer look at this back-and-forth reveals how much of it will be echoed on a less regal scale around the family table closer to home.
Everyone is quick to recognise instability in Lear’s rash casting out of Cordelia, because she fails to give the answer he wants when he demands that she say how much she loves him. As parents age, and become more vulnerable to the various manifestations of dementia, their behaviour can become erratic and self-centred, and the child growing to adulthood must assume the role of the tempering influence.
This is compounded in the case when a parent already shows narcissistic tendencies. A king praised for his wisdom since before he could possibly have acquired any could hardly avoid becoming a narcissist.
They flattered me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there.
But he fails to use this insight to reflect on how that would have affected those closest to him, as they tried to establish their own identities. Each of his three daughters reaches a point where she attempts to draw a line between herself and his controlling behaviour, and each time his reaction is to shatter all possibility of communication.
Lear displays the lack of expectation of consequences that we observe in a spoiled child, but are likely to see equally in parents who have never adjusted to their children having grown up, and therefore being no longer obligated to display subservience.
Parents are not supposed to have their behaviour corrected by children, yet are expected to chastise their offspring. This asymmetrical dynamic does not function as smoothly when carried on into adulthood.