Goneril

(How awkward! The first time round, this post was a draft from 2004, not the newest version. You mightn't tell the difference. Here it is again.  What follows is revised version.)

by Gwen Adams (c.) 2010

“I’ll kill Orual, too.”
—Orual in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

Were they dragon’s tears too, these last she shed watching Regan’s corpse? Goneril had not cried real tears in years. Not since that winter afternoon in the silence of her cold gray room in the castle, when she had been so angry and so sorrowful. She had thrown a chair—picked it up and thrown it across the room and vowed never to weep again.

Goneril was born beautiful and intelligent, brown-eyed, brown-haired, mouth like an apple, a girl of passionate desires. Early on, she found that things came easily to her; whatever she tried her hand at, she mastered. She pleased her parents and the court with her wit and delighted in their praise. But one thing did not come easily to Goneril, and that was being good.

For all the praise and affection she won, she could not earn anyone’s commendation for being good. She would try in fits and starts to be good, but eventually did some naughtiness and had to be punished. Her lack of success troubled her, but nothing discomfited her so much as when Regan was born naturally good. At least so it seemed to Goneril. She was enraged to hear the adults compliment Regan on being a good child. Such comments made her feel ugly and destructive and once in such a mood she tore a doll of Regan’s to pieces. This offence was one in a long line that winter, so her nurse brought it to the attention of her parents. They were stern and disappointed, and Goneril stood before them writhing, wretched and bitter beneath their gaze. There was a great fire in the hearth of the main hall and Goneril’s twelve-year-old face glowed in its heat. Her parents decided to send her to bed without supper; Goneril’s eyes flooded with angry tears. How she hated to show weakness before them, but try as she might, she could not stop the flood. She turned her head away. “Why are you crying?” said Lear sternly. Goneril did not know why these words came to her mouth, but she said them; they sounded nobler than the truth. “Because I’m so ashamed!” she exclaimed and was astounded to see her parents melt before her. They embraced her in tears; all was forgiven.

Goneril stood stiffly, let herself be embraced, looked over her parents’ shoulders, her eyes like slits. She was to find her tears useful later on and used them when it seemed advantageous.

The next year was satisfactory for Goneril. She found ways to stay in her parents’ good graces. More importantly, she began to learn how to make everyone do what she wanted, first the servants, and then to her great delight, Regan. For Regan was a follower and soon shared in Goneril’s schemes and designs. Goneril never ceased to scorn Regan, but found her less irksome as Regan became more like her. Goneril found she had power over almost everyone she knew. She spoke, and moved, and feinted emotions, like someone feints a weapon before he uses it.

Albany, first her betrothed and later her husband. He truly loved her and admired her spirit; she could manipulate him, too. Goneril sometimes sat up late before a looking-glass, combing her dark hair and playing with her jewelry. She would liked to have pricked Albany’s view of her with a pin, like that on her hard diamond brooch. She had taken to wearing such things and dressing in a manner that made her appear beautiful and terrible when Cordelia was born.

For Cordelia turned out to be the one person over whom Goneril had no power. And Cordelia was truly good, though whether she found this easy or not was another matter. Goneril’s old rage awakened. Once passing through the hall, she stopped on the other side of a woven green curtain covering the doorway. Albany was speaking with her father:

“Cordelia is a good daughter,” said Lear.

“She will make a good wife and mother,” replied Albany.

No one had ever said that of Goneril, in or out of her hearing. Albany loved Goneril, but he admired Cordelia, and this drove Goneril to cut Cordelia in all sorts of little ways that only Cordelia would feel. She borrowed and ruined or lost Cordelia’s things, manipulated Regan to side against Cordelia in any family controversy, and picked at Cordelia’s conversation to make her appear foolish before company. In all this, Goneril’s rage grew, not only because Cordelia knew her for what she was and so was beyond duping, but more so because she was beyond hurt. Try as she might, Goneril could not really, truly, permanently roil her. Once Goneril purposely seduced a suitor who had come for Cordelia’s hand and made sure Cordelia knew of their liaison. Albany was, of course, never the wiser. The suitor soon left in some confusion. Goneril mentioned his departure lightly at breakfast one morning and took pleasure in Cordelia’s rising color and in her tears. To everyone’s astonishment Cordelia fled the table saying, “Goneril, how can you be so cruel?” Goneril finished her meal with relish, despite Albany’s tedious conversation. She had three helpings, she felt so ravenous.

Her pleasure was short-lived. In the evening, Goneril went to her rooms to dress for dinner. Outside the long red sunset wove long shadows over the snowy heath. A bunch of dried lavender tied with a bit of wool lay on Goneril’s bed. She knew it was from Cordelia, Cordelia who dared to love her. Cordelia who always forgave her and would not be made an enemy. This was like acid to Goneril. This was the night she threw the chair in angry tears, cursed Cordelia, herself, and everything and emerged that night as beautiful and as hard as a diamond.

Cordelia she hated and those she could manipulate she scorned. Edmund was the first who had ever intrigued her. In the year she became queen in name as she had been so already in truth for a while, she found it curiously exciting to be manipulated by Edmund. She had her dragon’s tears and he his dragon’s kisses.

But everything came to naught in the end. Goneril had gained power, exiled Cordelia, rejected her father. She was determined to win the throne and Edmund into the bargain. This meant contriving Regan’s death, which she managed competently. But she had barely poisoned Regan when Edmund was mortally wounded, and her own doom came.

Her own consolation was the knowledge that Albany—what a fool!—now knew her for what she was. Goneril had lost hope of success, but she tried once last time to manipulate some mercy out of her husband. He was not moved by her tears, so she brushed them away and fled to the tent where they had laid dying Regan. To her own annoyance she found she was still crying. Goneril had not wept real tears in a long time and felt foolish weeping these. Regan’s body lay on a pallet by the entrance. For a moment Goneril, cursing herself, longed to find Lear and Cordelia and finish their lives, too. But then she was suddenly and insufferably weary. There was a dagger in Regan’s belt. For Goneril, to whom so much had come easily, death came easily, too.

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I just finished teaching Henry IV, Part I to the students in Thomas More College's Catholic Leadership Institute. Besides provoking excellent discussion, it reminded me of this piece I wrote about Goneril for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time. It may or may not be a reflection on the readings coming up.

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