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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: Does Shakespeare overstep the bounds of the natural of human nature in Goneril and Regan?

Answer: The scene of this play was laid in a time when the peculiarities of men were less subjected to the stamp of a common impression than now. Eight hundred years before the Christian era, human nature was allowed to develop in all its elements. Less restrained than now by religious influences, the prevailing tendency must have been towards crime. With little or no parental training and under such circumstances did Goneril and Regan form their characters. Perhaps they will seem rather monstrosities than women in the combination of all evils. But we are not to crush art down to the level of every-day experience. Its business is to teach us moral truths, and we must take them as they are. Besides, the wickedness, which seems to us so horrid, is not peculiar to art. The existence of the words "fratricide," "matricide," "patricide," and "suicide" is a sufficient indication of actual crimes which they represent.

These things are of daily occurrence, and such atrocities as are attributed to these women come under most people's observation. Within my limited experience I have known a mother driven from a son's door when she was begging for food and shelter for the night. Goneril and Regan have, no doubt, often been annoyed by the passionate exactions of old Lear; they have restrained their inclination to an outbreak on account of their worldly interest, and when, by Lear's abdication of the throne, the power passes into their hands, they begin to use "checks as hindrances" to his unreasonable conduct. Lear resists; they increase their demands until they exceed the limits of justice and of Lear's patience. Lear flies into a passion, and then comes the throwing off of the assumed kindness.

The daughters, who have "hit together" in the beginning to restrain their father, have but one step to make before they reach a state of depravity in which they will protect themselves against the blind fury of that father by exposing his white head to the rage of a storm. They do not murder him. Perhaps they would shrink from that. I cannot think that Goneril actually concurred in the writ for Lear's execution, though Edmund knew that her sense of right was not strong enough to make her countermand his order. The murder of a sister is not unknown to civilization, and the firm conviction that even a beautiful, accomplished and, in other respects, lady-like woman is capable of murdering her husband, is illustrated by the case of Mary Stuart. Shakespeare does not exceed the natural. Endowed with strong, natural impulses, actuated by desire for power, incited by an unholy love, and provoked to envy and hatred, these women do nothing for which we cannot find a parallel in our own day. Art is founded on actual life.

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How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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