The first sign of ageism in King Lear is evident in the First Act when he decides to divide the kingdom among his daughters. Such a thoughtless decision eventually leads to havoc and Cordelia’s banishment. Regan and Goneril are insulting Lear’s unwise judgment and age. They call Lear their foolish old father: ‘You see how full of changes his age is’ (Act 1, Scene 1). Lear’s daughters are questioning his poor decision and relate it to their father’s old age: ‘The observation we have made of it hath not been little. He always loved our sister [Cordelia] most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly (Act 1, Scene 1). Regan further questions Lear’s decision and his rationality that has worsened over the years. She attributes Cordelia and Kent’s banishing to Lear’s uncontrollable tempers that have intensified with ageing: ‘Such unconstant starts are we like to have from him as this of Kent’s banishment’ (Act 1, Scene 1).
Lear’s childish behavior during the first Act assumes dire consequences for Regan and Goneril throughout then play. ‘Dear daughter, I confess that I am old. Age is unnecessary’ (Act 2, Scene 4). With these words, King Lear is on his knees responding to Regan asking him to get forgiveness from Goneril and ask her forgiveness. With that, Lear acknowledges his old age that serves him as a great inconvenience. He realizes that due to ageing, he can no further fit the expectations of his daughters. The only things he cares now are basic necessities: ‘On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food (Act 2, Scene 4). With these words, Lear still treats his daughters as children and wants to make them happy.
Shakespeare emphasizes ageism as the generation gap between old king and his daughters. With age, his daughters refuse to be with him and regard him as a mad man. Goneril and Regan even let him into the raging storm as the way to get their father away from the castle. Shakespeare’s main point, however, is that Lear’s ageism is about his old age rather than due to losing his mind.
- Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994.