Regan is no less a sympathetic character than Cordelia.
Despite the immediate clearness of the plot of King Lear, it would be untrue to classify Regan and Cordelia as two characters two dimensional or singularly driven; categorizing Cordelia “benevolent” and Regan as “malevolent” is an interpretation too simple for characters so complex. Indeed, although Cordelia is portrayed as the restorational character and Regan as a destructive one, the proper characteristics, aims and nature of the characters must be explored in order to properly evaluate the degree to which they appear sympathetic. Arguably, although responsible for the actions that they carry out, it would perhaps be most accurate to say that they are victims of their own father, and that their doings and fate throughout the play are potentially unavoidable products of the circumstances they find themselves in due to their treatment by Lear.
It is in the opening scene of the play that the characters of Regan and Cordelia are defined. Upon Lear’s arbitrary, egotistical and wholly unnecessary “love test”, Regan produces a speech of artificial eloquence and superficiality- “I am alone felicitate in your dear highnesses’ love”. Amongst the deceitfulness of Regan, there is however an underlying reason as to why she must feel the need for the expression of such superficiality. Lear establishes his favouritism of Cordelia early in the play- “I loved her most”. Cordelia acts as the ‘spoilt’ youngest child, and Regan, as middle- child, feels repressed and entrapped in the family. Given that the result of the love-test is pre-determined, there is therefore no real reason for it, and the products of the test will be unavoidable jealousy, falsehoods and rivalry. Thus, from a psychoanalytical interpretation of the play, Regan’s deceit can perhaps be excused for the parental tyranny and she had endured. (What is notable from a dramatic point of view is how Judi Dench felt it appropriate to stutter the early lines of Rgean due to this ‘tyranny’.) In Victorian society, women were marginalized and men held a strong sense of power and command over women. Regan’s actions can therefore be seen as a manifestation of the injustices endured by women in this period: to use a basic analogy, while her actions are undeniably cruel, how else is a caged animal supposed to act? Dramatic presentation is also noteworthy- Edmund’s actions are equally malevolent, but the audience are not as shocked by them purely because he is a man. It is, however, certainly questionable whether such endured ‘tyranny’ warrants the formulation of a plan to kill her father- although a result of Lear’s vanity, it is tough to justify her actions on the basis of parental mistreatment, and this aspect of her character should be put down to her personal, malign nature.