A sense of entitlement can arise from the way a person is treated or from their temperament and as such, it is a dangerous attitude to acquire or encourage because it may lead to disparaging outcomes. Feelings entitled to something without having an associated sense of responsibility can lead to destructive behavior and choices. In King Lear, there are a number of characters who reveal a clear sense of entitlement. This behavior leads them to do horrible and ultimately self-destruction. The two faithless sisters Goneril and Regan have grown up expecting a life of royal privilege and as such feel entitled to their inheritance. This is without an accompanying sense of responsibility for their father’s care. Edmund, on the other hand, feels that even though he is known as a bastard, he has no legal right of inheritance. King Lear also feels that he is entitled to an easy and smooth-running early retirement from the bothers of kingship. A sense of entitlement leads each of the characters to devastating actions. Thus the play becomes an expression of the fact that to avoid the severe consequences that result from the feeling of entitlement, good fortune should be welcomed as a delightful surprise rather than the inevitable.
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Feeling entitled, even to something that is to be expected or which has been promised such as an inheritance from a loving parent, can potentially distort behavior in many negative ways. Even in the most reasonable of people, feeling entitled to something can lead to such negative behaviors as greed. Greed further leads to others for rude, hurtful, and destructive deeds. At worst it may lead to violence. This assertion is reflected in daily occurrences especially news items on the media. Most of the stories that make headline news involve such negative accomplishments as politicians accepting bribes or even family feuds such as inheritance squabbles in wealthy families. The perpetrators of these woeful exploits behave and sometimes even assert explicitly that they are warranted special treatment. In King Lear, the princesses feel that they are entitled to not only the property that he has allocated to them but the chance to enjoy it without any respect due to him. The sisters also want to be free from his care. This is evidenced by the resentment Goneril expresses when she wants her father to feel unwelcome and ignored by the serving staff of her castle. She expresses a most un-loving attitude in the following quotation:
“Put on what weary negligence you please,
You and your fellows; I’ll have it come to question:
If he dislike it, let him to our sister,
Whose mind and mine, I know, in that are one,
Not to be over-ruled. Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away! Now, by my life,
Old fools are babes again; and must be used
With cheques as flatteries,–when they are seen abused.
Remember what I tell you” (Act I. Scene III.)
Goneril asserts that if her father was stupid enough to give up his property, he should not expect to retain his kingly authority as well. They lock King Lear, their father out in the cold when they were supposed to give him shelter. As an additional evidence of her inhuman ambition and greed, Regan kills the servant who objects to the cruel damage of Gloucester’s eye. She also encourages the blinding of the other eye and adds horror by letting Gloucester know that Edmund has betrayed her thereby betraying Edmund in the process. This demonstrates that there is no loyalty among the entitled. Finally, Regan is perfectly willing to discuss adultery with Edmund, in spite of her husband’s blameless behavior. Thus, these daughters from hell are willing to kill, injure and commit adultery with Edmund, who seems aligned with their ambitions. The two sisters feel entitled to the lands and power associated with their father’s kingdom, and thus no obstacles should thus come in their way. In addition, the fun of a new sex partner, adds to the excitement. There seems to be no limit to the selfish behavior they will engage in to get what they feel entitled to enjoy: power, privilege, sex, property and freedom from responsibility.
Feeling entitled to something for which one has no reasonable expectation can motivate awful behavior as well. Edmund is clearly one of those people who feel entitled to things that he has no reasonable expectation of getting. This happens sometimes in estate cases when a distant relative feels left out after nothing is left to them. They had no reason to get anything, but they feel a considerable level of resentment. Stories about the kids from wealthy families are heard demanding forgiveness for such misdemeanors as sexual misconduct or unsafe driving. Tabloids news shows pictures of movie stars punching photographers. The media also report the wealthy and influential people carrying guns into nightclubs. The current economic depression even seems to have been caused by people who think that they deserve to be millionaires no matter the cost to others. Edmund is someone who feels entitled to something. As a bastard, and “whoreson”, he has been raised outside his biological father’s social circle and has not been legally recognized. He has no legal expectation of an inheritance. As a bastard, he has no expectation of being included in the family or in his father’s life and plans in the same way as Edgar does. In fact, his father is very clear that he is going away again almost immediately rather than staying and becoming a part of the family. However, as he makes it absolutely clear, he feels that he deserves to have it all. He wants money, favor, power and connections, whether he gets them through dishonesty and betrayal. He expresses his ambition in a sort of prayer to Nature in the very first act of the play. Rather than the standard Greek gods that the other characters call on and refer to, Edmund calls on Nature, a sort of faceless deity that is not really part of the household of the gods. He makes his intentions clear in the following quotation:
“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (Act I. Scene II.)
Later in the same scene he explains how he will manage this:
“I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit:
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.” (Act I. Scene II.)
Edmund feels entitled to everything that his brother Edgar has, just because he is as “compact…generous…and true”. This leads him to commit awful deeds. He tries to turn Gloucester against his legitimate son through deception and lies. He uses dialogue and byplay to mislead his father about Edgar’s intentions and actions. In a stunning demonstration of his complete lack of morals, he betrays his own father to Cornwall, thus precipitating Gloucester’s blinding. All this while, he is flirting with each of the sisters and planning to enjoy their property. He could, instead, have behaved in an honest and loving way with both the father and brother, and counted on Gloucester’s basic goodwill with Edgar. There was a strong probability that Edmund could have honestly and authentically integrated himself into their good graces. He and Edgar could have been allies. His father could have been the mentor he wanted to be. Both Edgar and Gloucester seem to be relatively decent. He might well have been able to earn their goodwill and potentially share in the good fortune of the family (e.g. introduction to a share of their wealth, and a position in the household, for example) legitimately, despite his legal illegitimacy. However, his sense of being entitled to all this without any sense of earning it prevents him from even thinking about such a course of action. He launches into vicious plotting as soon as he is introduced in the play. Additionally, Edmund could have pursued an advantageous match for marriage amongst the ladies in and around the court by simply presenting himself as the attractive young man his father describes. If Cordelia was able to secure a husband through her personal charms alone, with absolutely no prospects for an inheritance, then there would definitely be a chance for him to marry respectably as well. However, this is not Edmund’s way because he feels entitled to what others have or are expecting. If he cannot get what he feels entitled to by simply ‘being’, as he feels that the legitimately conceived Edgar has gotten, then he plans to get what he wants any possible way. The results of his sense of entitlement are disastrous for his father, his half-brother, and the two sisters.
King Lear feels entitled to a comfortable life, without regard to how it affects others. There are suggestions throughout the play that he may always felt entitled throughout his life as king. He acknowledges that he did not pay enough attention to the needs of his most vulnerable subjects. As we see him in the first act, he feels he is entitled to a retirement with all the honors of his position. He wants to be able to enjoy a royal life. He wants to be free of maintaining a household. He would, no doubt, like to be shut of governing the kingdom with all those tiresome audiences, law-making sessions and boring wars. However, this is a complete failure in the most literal sense of the word. The king should have considered very carefully before handing over his property to his two horrible daughters. It was irresponsible not to prepare for possible outcomes. Even if he had trustworthy daughters, he was unknowingly including their husbands in his legacy. As the King, he had an obligation to his people not to leave their leadership in such an irresponsible way. He could have prepared for the worst but he didn’t. It is not that hard to believe that individuals, including people he loves, are willing to turn their backs on him when money and other materialistic desires take over. Furthermore, he was irresponsible in feeling that he was entitled to a simplistic hand-over of the kingdom. This is unrealistic in the extreme. This was not a minor matter of dividing the family furniture. Moreover, he should have considered all the inputs that were available. He could have reasoned with Cordelia and listened to her comments about her two evil sisters. If he had done so, none of this would have happened. If he had not felt so inconvenienced by the complexity of having to puzzle out what his youngest daughter felt, he would have listened to her. If he had not felt so inconvenienced by the complexity of having to puzzle out what his youngest daughter felt, he would have listened to her. King Lear’s Fool also pegs his problem accurately. The Fool tells Lear that he has made himself into a child to be spanked by his two daughters and made them into mothers, when he should have continued to be the father of his family and of his country:
“I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy
daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them
the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches,” (Act I. Scene IV.)
It is wise to contain the feeling of entitlement as well as not giving others the impression that they are entitled to anything. A sense of entitlement leads so readily to warped and anti-social behavior. Thus it should probably be avoided. In King Lear, this is certainly visible in many of the main characters.The sisters, feeling entitled to property and power without responsibility destroy lives to get what they feel entitled to. Edmund, feeling entitled to what Edgar has, destroys his own family and is responsible for Cordelia’s death. The king, feeling entitled to lay down his scepter and kick up his heels, behaves unwisely and brings down his whole house. The devastating events of King Lear offer a warning to us all: Better to welcome good fortune as a surprise than to assume that one deserves it.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2005. Print.