'King Lear': Albany and Cornwall

King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia. SuperStock/Getty Images

You would be forgiven for thinking, in the early scenes of King Lear, that Albany and Cornwall appear to be little more than extras. Initially acting as little more than consorts to their wives, each soon comes into his own as the plot evolves.

Albany in King Lear

Goneril’s husband Albany seems oblivious to her cruelty and does not appear to be party to her plans to oust her father;

“My lord I am guiltless, as I am ignorant of what hath moved you” (Act 1 Scene 4)

In his case, I think that love has clearly blinded him to his wife’s despicable nature. Albany appears weak and ineffective but this is essential to the plot; if Albany intervened earlier it would interfere with the deterioration of Lear’s relationship with his daughters.

Albany’s warning to Goneril at the beginning of the play does suggest that he might be more interested in peace than in power: “How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell. Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (Act 1 Scene 4)

He recognizes his wife’s ambition here and there is a hint that he thinks that in her efforts to ‘improve’ things she may damage the status quo – this is a massive understatement but he is currently unaware of the depths she will sink to.

Albany becomes wise to Goneril’s evil ways and his character gains momentum and strength as he becomes reproachful of his wife and her actions. In Act 4 Scene 2 he challenges her and makes it known that he is ashamed of her; “O Goneril, You are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face.” She gives back as good as she gets but he holds his own and we now know that he is a trustworthy character.

Albany is fully redeemed later in Act 5 Scene 3 when he arrests Edmund denouncing his behavior and presides over a fight between Gloucester’s sons. He has finally gained back his authority and masculinity.

He invites Edgar to tell his story which enlightens the audience about Gloucester’s death. Albany’s response to Regan and Goneril’s death shows us he has no sympathy with their evil cause and finally demonstrates that he is on the side of justice; “This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble, Touches us not with pity.” (Act 5 Scene 3)

Cornwall in King Lear

Conversely, Cornwall becomes increasingly ruthless as the plot progresses. In Act 2 Scene 1, Cornwall is drawn to Edmund demonstrating his questionable morality. “For you, Edmund, Whose virtue and obedience doth this instant so much commend itself, you shall be ours. Natures of such deep trust we shall much need” (Act 2 Scene 1)

Cornwall is keen to be involved with his wife and sister-in-law in their plans to usurp Lear’s power. Cornwall announces Kent’s punishment after he investigates the altercation between him and Oswald. He is increasingly authoritarian allowing power to go to his head but harbors contempt for the authority of others. Cornwall’s ambition for ultimate control is clear. “Fetch forth the stocks! As I have life and honour, there shall he sit till noon” (Act 2 Scene 2)

Cornwall is responsible for the most repugnant act of the play – the blinding of Gloucester. He does it, having been encouraged to by Goneril. This demonstrates his character; he is easily led and hideously violent. “Turn out that eyeless villain. Throw this slave upon the dunghill.” (Act 3 Scene 7)

Poetic justice is realized when Cornwall’s servant turns on him; as Cornwall has turned on his host and his King. Cornwall is no longer needed in the plot and his death allows Regan to pursue Edmund.

Lear appears at the end of the play and Albany resigns his rule over the British forces that he has briefly assumed and respectfully defers to Lear. Albany was never a strong contender for a leadership position but acts as a pawn in the unraveling of the plot and as a foil to Cornwall.

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Jamieson, Lee. "'King Lear': Albany and Cornwall." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/king-lear-albany-and-cornwall-2985000. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 26). 'King Lear': Albany and Cornwall. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/king-lear-albany-and-cornwall-2985000 Jamieson, Lee. "'King Lear': Albany and Cornwall." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/king-lear-albany-and-cornwall-2985000 (accessed May 29, 2023).