“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
With these words King Lear, determined to shed himself of the cares of state and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, settles back to bask in the fulsomeness of praise. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, do not disappoint him. “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,” Goneril begins.
“Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
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.”
Regan, an excellent poker player, sees her sister:
“Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love.”
And then raises her:
“Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.”
These hyperbolic phrases come from the mouths of two daughters who will prove to be among the cruelest of Shakespeare’s characters. After Lear has turned over all his kingdom to them, they will bar the castle door against him, forcing their father to spend the night battling a raging storm.*
Lear then turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and asks her: “[W]hat can you say to draw/A third [part of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”
Cordelia’s answer is “Nothing.”
We will come back to King Lear, but let’s move on to Hamlet for a little bit.
In Act V, Hamlet has returned to Denmark, unbeknownst to all but his faithful friend Horatio. In the graveyard they spy an approaching funeral party and hide themselves. It is the interment of Ophelia, but before the burial can be completed, Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, leaps into the open grave, embraces his sister’s coffin and exclaims:
“Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.”
Hamlet reveals himself, then leaps into the grave and grapples with Laertes, until they are pulled apart. But what exactly is it that impels the Prince to come out of hiding and make his return known to all the court?
“What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? . . .
Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'It mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.”
The important words, I think, are the verbs “prate,” mouth,” and “rant.” Hamlet, who has proclaimed, “I loved Ophelia,” is offended by the hyperbolic prating, mouthing, and ranting of Laertes. And so he mocks Laertes: “forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum.”
The hyperbolic, then, is always suspect: it can be the resort of insincere and hypocritical persons to cover up their real feelings; or if expressed by one with true feelings, it will undermine those very feelings. As Hamlet well knows, true feelings must be matched by proportionate words and deeds.
Back to Cordelia, who will remain faithful to her father until her death.
After refusing to match her sisters’ hyperbole, Cordelia is finally impelled to enlarge upon her answer of “Nothing”:
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less. . . .
Good my lord.
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.”
The true daughter’s proportionate response reminds us of the Commandment:
HONOR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER.
*Cordelia later remarks about her sisters’ cruelty:
“Mine enemy's dog,/Though he had bit me, should have stood that night/Against my fire.”
(Adaptation of a speech not given)