This quote is part of a more extended rant King Lear delivers at the beginning of the play. He is cursing his daughter, Goneril, for her ungratefulness and betrayal of him. In response, Goneril dismisses him and calls him senile.
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Meaning of “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”
This quote is spoken by King Lear about his daughter, Goneril. He’s comparing the pain he feels having her—a thankless daughter—to a snake bite.
He says that the pain she causes him is “sharper” or more painful than any snake bite.
His eruption, which can be read below, is inspired by the fact that Goneril and Regan went back on their promise to continually treat him like a King and allow him to host and train knights. Goneril has just objected to the knights’ actions (something that is leading up to her disbanding the small army Lear keeps around him). Lear uses the below quote in regard to how ungrateful he feels his daughter is, especially after he turned power over to her. Rather than blame himself for how his daughters are treating him, he turns on women and procreation more generally.
Where Does Shakespeare Use this Quote?
Here is the quote in context:
Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful. I
nto her womb convey sterility.
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child.—Away, away!
To break down this longer quote, Lear is addressing “Nature… dear goddess.” He asks Nature to change her plans if she ever intended for Goneril, Lear’s own daughter, to ever have children. He asks that she become sterile and for Nature to “dry up in her the organs of increase,” or make it impossible to become pregnant. If he adds, she must give birth, he asks that the child is a bad seed who is going to make its mother’s life painful and tormented. He hopes that she is going to cry until her tears “fret channels in her cheeks.”
In the last lines of the quote, Lear says that he hopes the child is wicked and mocks its mother. Then, his daughter will feel what it’s like to have an ungrateful child. It’s a pain that hurts worse than a snake bite.
After Lear departs, Goneril uses the following lines:
Never afflict yourself to know more of it,
But let his disposition have that scope
As dotage gives it.
Here, she suggests that King Lear is senile or is losing his mind and that no one should bother themselves thinking about why he says what he says.
Why Does Shakespeare Use this Quote?
Shakespeare uses this quote as a way of furthering the image of Lear’s daughters as snakes and villainous figures in the play. Goneril and Regan are considered antagonists in the story, the former in particular. She is obsessed with overturning her father as the ruler of Britain and taking the throne entirely for herself. Her character is believed to have been based on Gonorilla from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae.
From the beginning of the play, it’s clear that Goneril does not care for her father. She professes her love for him half-heartedly when he asks her to, and she treats her father with neglect when he comes to stay at her castle. She believes that her father is an old, mad man and that she should rightfully take what is his. This quote is only one part of a longer speech (which is only one rant that Lear delivers about his daughters) in the play.
Goneril kills herself at the end of the play after poisoning her sister, Regan.
King Lear speaks this line in Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. It is part of a rant in which he discusses how upsetting his children are to him. His three daughters do not respect or love him as he’d like them to.
Some of the most famous lines include: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”
Lear banishes Cordelia, who actually loves him, and gives his kingdom over to his two unloving daughters, Regan and Goneril. They mistreat him, banish him from their homes, and have him neglected by their servants.