William Shakespeare is one of the most famous playwrights in world history who has created many vivid images, the negative characters of which take a special place. In King Lear, there are four key villains, including Regan, Goneril, Edmund, and Cornwall. Regan and Goneril are two greedy and contemptible daughters of King Lear, whom he bequeathed the kingdom (Degünther 18). After deceiving the kingdom by dishonesty, they pursue their father and want to kill him.
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While selecting the measure of punishment for Gloucester, a nobleman committed to Lear, Regan states “hang him instantly”, and Goneril adds “pluck out his eyes” (Shakespeare 665). They also kill Count Gloucester, Lear’s friend, tearing his eyes out and their younger sister Cornelia by strangling her. When their crimes become evident to people, Goneril poisons her sister and kills herself with a dagger. Both of the mentioned villains want power, authority, and manipulation to achieve their goals by any means.
The role of Cornwall, Regan’s husband, does not have a self-sufficient value and performs essentially a supplemental function. He’s disgusting and sadistic cruelty is of interest not on its own yet merely as a way of allowing Shakespeare to show that Regan is no less cruel than her spouse (Linley 256). Cornwall wants to depose King Lear and intentionally ignores him by refusing to speak.
In his turn, Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, is a character who would never commit crimes and cruelty to admire the results of villainous actions. At each stage of his activity, he pursues rather specific tasks, the solution of which should serve his enrichment and elevation. For example, Edmund says about the death of Cordelia and Lear that “the battle done and they within our power” (Shakespeare 665). This villain tries to manipulate everyone, yet he is murdered by his brother, Edgar. It is evident from the piece that he is jealous of his brother and rejects the fact of being a bastard:
Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base’?
When my dimensions are as well compact (1.2.6–10).
However, it should be stressed that before his death, this character attempts to prevent the killings of King Lear and Cordelia, yet unsuccessfully.
Each of the characters that make up the evil remains brightly individualized in an artistic way. Such an approach to characterization gives the images of evil a special realistic persuasiveness. Nevertheless, in the behavior of individual actors, particular features that are indicative of the entire group of characters can be distinguished. All the villains represent the relationship between parents and heirs turned into a serious problem that worried the most diverse circles of the English society of that time.
Speaking of the motifs that led the characters that are discussed above, one should emphasize that they overlap to some extent. Namely, the king’s daughters are driven by the same idea of receiving full power and liquidate their father (Shurgot 44). This motif partially coincides with that of Cornwall who is told by Regan to perform violence towards others. He would probably avoid severe cruelty if his wife was less authoritative and persistent.
The motifs of Edmund are much more complicated since he uses intelligence, manipulation, and control to slander the legitimate son of his father and takes his place. Thus, the theme of fighting for power and making others unable to compete is the key motif that integrates all villains in King Lear, while each of them also has specific goals to achieve.
Degünther, Alina. Good and Evil in Shakespeare ́s King Lear and Macbeth. Anchor Academic Publishing, 2014.
Linley, Keith. ‘King Lear’in Context: The Cultural Background. Anthem Press, 2015.
Shakespeare, William. Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
Shurgot, Michael W. Shakespeare’s Sense of Character: On the Page and from the Stage. Routledge, 2016.