King Lear

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Goneril Character Analysis

Lear's vicious older daughter, who is the first to flatter him in the power-transfer ceremony and the first to insult him afterwards, throwing him and his knights out of her house. Goneril's ruthless temperament contrasts with that of her husband, the Duke of Albany. In the end, she plots against Albany, and even against her former ally, her sister Regan, out of lust for Edmund.

Goneril Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below are all either spoken by Goneril or refer to Goneril. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of King Lear published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"Old fools are babes again."
Related Characters: Goneril (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.3.20
Explanation and Analysis:

During Lear’s visit, Goneril becomes increasingly frustrated with her father. She complains about how elderly people regress to a stage of seeming infancy.

This passage corroborates the selfish qualities of Goneril’s character. As with her earlier observations on Lear’s aging, these comments are highly uncharitable considering Lear’s generosity—and they explicitly conflict with the kind words Goneril offered at the onset of the tragedy. Shakespeare presents her character as deeply opportunistic, motivated only by self-advancement as opposed to genuine love.

Her comment also clarifies the tragedy’s presentation of old age. Claiming that age makes men “babes again” defines a cyclical model of time, in which people revert back to their infancy—as opposed to, say, becoming wiser and more esteemed. This model helps justify Goneril’s command over her father. Furthermore, the phrase “old fools” implies that age brings a particular brand of madness that deviates from rational control and which thus mimics the behavior of children. The question of the fool will become increasingly important as Lear slowly looses his mind, and Goneril’s comment here prefaces the way age can intersect with and mimic insanity.

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Act 4, scene 2 Quotes
"The nature which contemns its origin
Cannot be bordered certain in itself."
Related Characters: Albany (speaker), Goneril
Page Number: 4.2.41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Albany has realized the deceitful way Regan and Goneril treated Lear. He condemns them, here, for turning against their own father.

Shakespeare plays once more with the complex term “nature,” here used to refer to both Goneril’s disposition and to her blood-linked relationship to her father. In the first sense, Goneril’s “nature” means her cruel personality that has acted independently of any filial compassion and thus lashed out brutally against her father. But by selecting the possessive pronoun “its” for “its origin,” Albany implies that nature is inherently linked to the “origin” of one’s parents. Goneril’s actions against her father have thus both been characteristic of her nature but also have betrayed that nature because she “contemns”—sees with contempt—her father.

Albany brings these two meanings of nature together in the second line. That something cannot “be bordered certain in itself” means that it cannot have a secure sense of its identity or disposition. That is to say, it is a nature that cannot be sure of its borders and thus can never know just how it will react. Albany implies that turning against one’s heritage is a kind of self-abnegation—a violation of one’s own nature. Thus Shakespeare plays with the dual meaning of nature as identity and origin to differentiate between those who value heritage and those who belittle it.

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Goneril Character Timeline in King Lear

The timeline below shows where the character Goneril appears in King Lear. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Lear enters with Albany, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and their attendants. Having sent Gloucester to fetch Cordelia's suitors, the lords of... (full context)
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
...Lear calls upon each of his daughters to state how much she loves him. First, Goneril insists that she loves her father "dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty" (1.1.61); Lear awards... (full context)
Act 1, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
At Goneril's palace, where Lear has been spending his first month after giving up power, Goneril complains... (full context)
Act 1, scene 4
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Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
At this point, Goneril storms on stage, irritated. She blows up at Lear, criticizing the Fool and all of... (full context)
Act 1, scene 5
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Lear explains what happened with Goneril to Kent (who is still disguised as Cauis), and then sends Kent to deliver a... (full context)
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...himself, Lear is teased by his Fool, who predicts that Regan will be as like Goneril as "a crab […] to a crab" (1.5.18). Meanwhile, Lear begins to rave, fearing that... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...each other, waiting for responses to the letters that they brought Regan (from Lear and Goneril, respectively). Kent picks a fight with Oswald, calling him a "son and heir of a... (full context)
Act 2, scene 4
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...freed Kent from the stocks, Cornwall and Regan receive Lear. Lear explains his grievances against Goneril. However, Regan takes her sister's side: "O sir, you are old." (165). Insisting that he... (full context)
Act 3, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...inside, Gloucester confides in Edmund that he does not like the "unnatural dealing" (3.3.2) that Goneril and Regan have shown to their father. Edmund agrees. Gloucester then tells Edmund that there... (full context)
Act 3, scene 6
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...down, announcing that they are the jury for an imaginary trial of the "she-foxes" (24) Goneril and Regan, which he persists carrying out as Kent entreats him to rest and Edgar... (full context)
Act 3, scene 7
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Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Cornwall enters with Regan, Goneril, Edmund and servants. Handing Goneril the letter with news that the army of France has... (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
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Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Having traveled from Gloucester's—now Edmund's—castle, Goneril and Edmund arrive at Goneril's palace. Oswald emerges, reporting that Albany is "changed" (2.1.4) and... (full context)
Act 4, scene 5
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Back at Gloucester's former palace, widowed Regan questions Oswald about Goneril and Edmund. She pauses to explain that Edmund himself has gone to kill Gloucester—whose pitiful... (full context)
Act 4, scene 6
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...Gentleman for an update. He reports that the battle between the British forces of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan and the French force led by Cordelia is imminent. (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
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...join theirs. Regan, meanwhile, pesters Edmund about whether or not he has ever slept with Goneril. Edmund tells Regan not to fear, just as Albany and Goneril approach. Goneril remarks to... (full context)
Act 5, scene 3
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Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...taken away to prison. Cordelia, speaking with Lear, wonders if they should ask to see Goneril and Regan. But Lear, delighted to be with Cordelia again, says no. He says that... (full context)