By Cheryl Hogue Smit
Goneril's effusive public declaration of love for her father at the outset of King Lear, though clearly calculated to elicit as much land as possible from the old man, contains enough tragic foreshadowing to predict the outcome of the entire play, especially as it concerns the dual themes of love and loss:
Sir, I love you more than word can yield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you(1.1.55–61).
As a result of the above words, Goneril receives her ample geographic inheritance. Regan, Lear’s second daughter, when given the same question of how much she loves her father, tells him that her sister’s sentiments fall “too short” (1.1.72) because Goneril cannot possibly love her father as much as she does. When Cordelia, the youngest and most favored daughter, is asked to describe the quality of her love, she answers, “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.87), because she knows the declarations of her sisters are insincere, and therefore she cannot participate in such artificial pronouncements. To do so would, in Cordelia’s mind, actually diminish the love she genuinely feels for her father. While Goneril’s speech seems an innocent declaration of love for her father—that is, until Cordelia recognizes her words as disingenuous—it is, in fact, actually more than a calculated attempt to amass more wealth, for if audience members pay close attention to the “love” Goneril feels for her father, they can see that her lines provide great insight into the heart of this play.
Goneril’s speech works in two ways, the first of which foreshadows the subsequent loss that Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar must endure. The second line, for example, speaks directly to all three of these characters: “Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty” (1.1.56). Literally, Gloucester loses his eyes, Edgar and Lear lose their “space” in the world, and all three characters lose their liberty in some way or another. Specifically, Lear loses the privilege of a home and army, while Gloucester and Edgar both lose their right to remain in the kingdom after they are declared traitors. Figuratively, Lear and Gloucester also lose their eyesight because they are blinded by their evil children’s lies against their virtuous children.
Another of Goneril's lines that that foreshadows later events in the play is “No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor" (1.1.58). In the end, Lear loses his grace, health, beauty, honor, and finally his own life as a result of his evil daughters' manipulations. The same is true of Gloucester and Edgar. Gloucester loses his health, his beauty, and his honor, while Edgar exchanges his beauty for his lowly disguise and forfeits his honor when he flees. Similarly, line 60 foreshadows literal losses in the play: “A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.” Lear’s speech begins to betray the loss of his mind, and Edgar begins to speak as a madman of the hills. So Goneril’s speech, supposedly laden with declarations of love, is actually filled with platitudes that forecast major losses in the play. Ironically, it also sets up many of the major themes running throughout the play.
The first line of Goneril’s speech, “Sir, I love you more than word can yield the matter” (1.1.55), for example, establishes the idea that language will be an important element of the play. This is evident in Cordelia’s refusal to speak in the wake of her sister’s lies, in the letter Edmund uses to frame Edgar and the subsequent letter Edmund uses to betray Gloucester, and in Lear's speech as his dementia grows. Two lines later in Goneril's speech, the idea of "values" is introduced into the play: “Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” (1.1.57). Goneril, Regan, and Edmund value wealth and power, while Cordelia, Lear, Gloucester, Edgar, and Kent all are rich in honor—values that are certainly unfamiliar to Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, whose wickedness precludes their understanding of any type of honorable behavior. Just as the above two lines set up major themes, so too does Goneril’s fifth line, “As much as child e’er loved, or father found” (1.1.59), which clearly introduces the major theme of father/child relationships: Lear with Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and Gloucester with Edgar and Edmund. Finally, the last line of Goneril’s oration shows the hypocrisy of her speech, especially in light of how the first six lines foreshadow the downfall of Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar: “Beyond all manner of so much I love you” (1.1.61). When she says “beyond all manner” that she loves Lear, she is referring to “beyond” a heartfelt love to the kind of self-interested love that can only produce the loss she predicts. In these words, professed through false expressions of love, Goneril is telling her father that she “loves” him in ways that will eventually destroy him.
King Lear is, above all, a play about love and loss, and if audience members pay close attention to Goneril’s speech about the “love” she feels for her father, they can see that she foreshadows the immense "loss" that three noble characters must endure. Goneril's hypocritical words, therefore, do indeed "wield the matter" of the entire play, despite her protestations about the limitations of language in expressing emotion.