The absence of any mothers in Shakespeare’s King Lear definitely has an effect on both the play and the families in it and it is easy to use the characters’ personalities and actions to analyze the ways in which the play may have differed had Shakespeare included at least one mother. There are many mothers that could have been included in the play. Shakespeare could have used Lear’s wife, Gloucester’s wife, or Gloucester’s mistress, but which would have had the greatest impact on the play?
I. The characterization and actions of King Lear, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia is greatly impacted by the lack of a mother figure in their lives.
A. “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again” (I. i. 99).
1. Lear uses this literally to tell Cordelia that she will receive nothing if she does not pledge her love to him.
2. He also intends it to mean that she, who came from ‘nothing,’ will become nothing to him if she persists. This second meaning is an innuendo referring to her mother who had ‘nothing’ while men have ‘something’
B. “...women as mothers produce daughters with mothering capacities and the desire to mother, which itself grows out of the mother-daughter relationship” (Kahn 2).
1. Goneril and Regan clearly lack the nurturing characteristic they would have had if they had developed a mother-daughter relationship.
2. Cordelia, however does have these nurturing traits, though she has the same mother as Goneril and Regan, it is likely that Lear spent time with her, as the favorite, and she received the love that her sister’s may not have.
C. “I loved her most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery” (I. i. 137-138). “That troop with majesty. Ourself by monthly course,/With reservation of an hundred knights/By you to be sustained, shall our abode/Make with you by due turn” (I. i. 148-151).
1. Like his daughters, Lear lacks the nurturing he would have received from his wife, and so desires it from his daughters.
2. Though he originally wanted to stay with Cordelia, he settles for Goneril and Regan. The demands he makes of them are the catalysts of their actions. If Lear had a wife, he most likely would not have put himself in their care, and thus the play would have been greatly altered.
II. Gloucester’s family is also affected by the absence of both Edgar’s and Edmund’s mother.
A. “But I have a son, sir, by order of law,/some year older than this, who yet is no dearer in/my account.” (I. i. 19-21) 1. Gloucester describes Edgar as in the law, which indicates that he was married to Edgar’s mother.
2. Gloucester also points out that Edgar’s legitimacy means nothing to him, and that he loves him no more, which may be an acknowledgment of the passionate feelings he had toward Edmund’s mother.
B. “His breeding, sir, hath been at my/charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge/him that now I am brazed to ‘t” (I. i. 9-11). “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could,/ whereupon she grew round-wombed and had indeed/sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband/ for her bed. Do you smell a fault?” (I. i. 13-16). “Though this knave came something/saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was/his mother fair, there was good sport at his making” (I. i. 21-23).
1. Edmund’s mother is discussed as beautiful, and Gloucester says that there was passion at his conception.
2. Gloucester does not take blame for the act of fornication, but instead blames the woman and even Edmund, saying that he is ashamed to acknowledge him.
“When my dimensions are as well compact,/My mind as generous and my shape as true/As honest madam’s issue?” (I. ii. 7-9). “Who in the lusty stealth of nature, take the/More composition and fierce quality/Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed” (I. ii. 12-14)
1. Edmund discusses Edgar’s mother being ‘honest’ as opposed to his