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Psychoanalytic and Psychosocial Interpretations

Coppelia Kahn- ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear’

 In this essay, Kahn provides a psychoanalytic
interpretation of the “maternal subtext” found in the
 According to her, Lear’s old age forces him to regress
into an infantile disposition, and he now seeks a love
that is traditionally satisfied by a mothering woman.
 But, in the absence of a real mother, his daughters
become the mother figures.
 Lear’s contest of love between Goneril, Regan and
Cordelia serves as the binding agreement: his
daughters will get their inheritance provided that they
care for him, especially C, on whose “kind nursery” he
will greatly depend.

 Cordelia's refusal to dedicate herself to him and love

him as more than a father has been interpreted by
some as a resistance to incest, but Kahn also inserts
the image of a rejecting mother.
 The situation is now a reversal of parent-child roles, in
which Lear's madness is a childlike rage due to his
deprivation of filial/maternal care.
 Even when Lear and Cordelia are captured together,
his madness persists as Lear envisions a nursery in
prison, where Cordelia's sole existence is for him.
 It is only with Cordelia's death that his fantasy of a
daughter-mother ultimately diminishes, as King
Lear concludes with only male characters living.

Sigmund Freud- Writings on Art and Literature
 Freud argued that Cordelia symbolizes death.
 Therefore, when the play begins with Lear
rejecting Cordelia, he is rejecting death: Lear is
unwilling to confront is mortality, the finitude of
his being.
 The play's poignant ending scene, wherein Lear
carries the body of his beloved Cordelia, was of
great importance to Freud. In this scene, Cordelia
forces the realization of his finitude, or as Freud
put it, she causes him to "make friends with the
necessity of dying".
Stephen Reid- ‘In Defense of Goneril and Regan’
 "Lear's actual rejection of a daughter, Cordelia,
awakened in both Goneril and Regan dim memories of
their past and long repressed bitterness at his rejection
of them, a bitterness they had never been able to
express or come to terms with."

Stanley Cavell- ‘The Avoidance of Love’

 "She has no ideas of her own, her special vileness is
always to increase the measure of pain that others are
prepared to inflict; her mind itself is a lynch mob.”

Unlike her father and sisters, Cordelia is able to

differentiate love from property.
 First decries his stereotype, then conforms to it
 Rejects the laws of state and society in favour of the
laws he sees as eminently more practical and useful:
the laws of superior cunning and strength.
 desire to use any means possible to secure his own
needs makes him appear initially as a villain without
a conscience.
 However, Edmund has some solid economic impetus
for his actions, and he acts from a complexity of
reasons, many of which are similar to those of Goneril
and Regan.
 To rid himself of his father, Edmund feigns regret and
laments that his nature, which is to honour his father,
must be subordinate to the loyalty he feels for his
country. Thus, Edmund excuses the betrayal of his own
father, having willingly and easily left his father
vulnerable to Cornwall's anger.
 Later, Edmund shows no hesitation, nor any concern
about killing the king or Cordelia. Yet in the end,
Edmund repents and tries to rescind his order to
execute Cordelia and Lear, but it is done too late:
Cordelia has already been executed at Edmund's
 If Lear, Cordelia, and Kent represent the old ways of
monarchy, order, and a distinct hierarchy, then
Edmund is the most representative of a new order
which adheres to a Machiavellian code.
 Edmund's declaring Nature as his goddess undermines
the law of primogeniture and legitimacy, which have
deprived him of inheriting anything from his father. It
is his way of asserting his own agency, and the right of
the more deserving over birthright.
 It is notable that when he speaks to Goneril and
Regan, he does not speak well, whereas in other
situations he speaks very well – this is partially due to
his trying to conceal his involvement with both of