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King Lear's Tragedy Can Teach Us About Estate Planning

In King Lear, which has been called “the best of all Shakespeare’s plays,”1 and the “most tragic of tragedies,”2 Shakespeare wrestles with humanity’s greatest issues: What is it to be human? What is the meaning of family? What is owed to one’s family? What is owed to one’s father? What is power? What happens when a person loses power? What happens when a person gains power? Are individuals inherently good or evil, or do they change? Does no good deed go unpunished?

In A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992, Jane Smiley wrestled with the same issues in the context of an American family in the twentieth century. The storyline of A Thousand Acres paralleled the storyline of King Lear, but, using the novelist’s omniscient voice, Smiley introduced details of the motivations and actions of her characters that Shakespeare, the playwright, left unexplained.

The unhallowed hands of trusts and estates attorneys should not dare touch any of Shakespeare’s plays, let alone King Lear. Those same hands should generally refrain from commenting on prize-winning fiction. However, we find ourselves drawn to King Lear and A Thousand Acres because – when two great observers of human behavior addressed the same fundamental human questions – each chose to tell the story of an estate plan gone horribly wrong. This, then, is a lawyer’s analysis of two fictional estate plans, with the hope that the analysis reveals lessons that can benefit modern trusts and estates attorneys.

I. King Lear Plans His Estate

A. Lear’s Estate Plan and His Darker Purpose

The first words of King Lear inform the audience that King Lear plans to divide his kingdom, that the King’s advisors, Kent and Gloucester, are generally aware of the plan, and that the advisors believe that the King will divide the kingdom equally without playing favorites:

KENT I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.

GLOUCESTER It did always seem so to us, but now in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most, for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either’s moiety.3

Shortly thereafter, Lear sweeps onto the stage, preceded by the call of a trumpet and the announcement, “the King is coming.”4 A servant bears his crown. He is accompanied by courtiers, his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, the youngest and his favorite), two Dukes (Goneril’s husband, Albany, and Regan’s husband, Cornwall) and the lords of France and Burgundy (“great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love”).5

The audience knows nothing about these characters. It does not know who is good or bad, who is selfish or generous, who is kind or cunning. The audience knows, though, that Lear is a king with authority.6 Lear introduces himself by announcing, mysteriously, “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose,”7 leaving the assembled courtiers and family members (and the audience) wondering what this “darker purpose” could be. Is it secret? Is it wicked? Is it both?

Holding a map aloft, Lear – as planned – announces that he will make lifetime gifts of his kingdom to his three daughters. He will then retire in peace in the assurance his gifts will avoid strife within his family. Lear’s announced plan is consistent with the plan Kent and Gloucester discussed briefly and without concern at the outset:

Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state — 8

Lear then conducts a public “love test”9 to determine which of his daughters loves him the most. Goneril, the eldest, goes first, and flatters Lear by telling him that, among other endearments, he is “Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.”10 Regan, next in line, is not to be outdone. Although, like Goneril, she is married, Regan tells Lear that he is her one and only, “I am alone felicitate in your dear Highness’ love.”11

In exchange for these declarations of devotion, Lear gives each daughter a share of his kingdom, using language familiar to trusts and estates practitioners. His gift to Goneril is “To thine and Albany’s issue . . . perpetual.”12 His gift to Regan is “To thee and thine hereditary ever.”13

B. Lear Reveals His Darker Purpose and
Prophesies That Nothing Will Come of

Lear’s public love test stimulates absurd and unseemly flattery, but – so far – everything seems to be going according to his plan. The public test appears to have been part of his “darker purpose,” which was both to require public declarations of love and, more importantly, to play favorites by giving his youngest daughter, Cordelia, the best of the three sections. After making his gifts to Goneril and Regan, Lear asks Cordelia, “What can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”14 Cordelia responds, “Nothing, my lord.” Lear responds, “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”15 Cordelia then repeats, “Nothing,”16 and explains that she loves Lear as a daughter, but reserves love for others, including a potential husband, “Sure I shall never marry like my sisters/To love my father all.”17

Cordelia’s words thwart Lear’s authority and his expectations. His instantaneous and extreme reaction is to disinherit Cordelia and banish her from the kingdom (again using language known to trusts and estates practitioners):

Let it be so. Thy truth, then, be thy dower,
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
. . . . .
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity, and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.18

Burgundy, one of Cordelia’s suitors, immediately declines to marry Cordelia, “now her price has fallen,” and her dowry is “Nothing.”19 France, though, sees Cordelia’s quality and agrees to marry her, “that art most rich, being poor.”20 Exiled, Cordelia leaves the kingdom with France.

In his rage, Lear impulsively alters his intended plan and divides the share that previously would have gone to Cordelia equally between Goneril and Regan. He gives them his troops, his “power” and his “majesty.” He divides his crown between them. He has the foresight to reserve the right to name himself “king” with one hundred knights, to be housed with him at the castles of Goneril and Regan on an alternating monthly basis, announcing:

Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughters’ dowers digest the third.
Let pride, which she [Cordelia] calls plainness, marry
I do invest you jointly with my power,
Preeminence, and all the large effects
That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustained, shall our abode
Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain
The name, and all th’ addition to a king:
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Belovèd sons, be yours; which to confirm,
This coronet part between you.21

Kent, one of the advisors who opened the play revealing his knowledge and acceptance of the planned division of the kingdom, attempts to stop Lear’s rash actions. Kent argues that Lear’s darker purpose has led him to do evil and asks Lear to revoke his commands. Lear, having never revoked a command, refuses. He then banishes Kent for getting in the way:

. . . . .Revoke thy gift,
Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,
I’ll tell thee thou dost evil.

Hear me, recreant; on thine allegiance, hear me!
That thou hast sought to make us break our vows—
Which we durst never yet—and with strained pride
To come betwixt our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Five days we do allot thee for provision
To shield thee from disasters of the world,
And on the sixth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom. If on the tenth day following
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death. Away! By Jupiter,
This shall not be revoked.22

Gloucester, the other advisor who opened the play revealing his knowledge and acceptance of the planned division of the kingdom, is astonished that Lear’s rash decisions have so upset the plan:

Kent banished thus? And France in choler parted?
And the King gone tonight, prescribed [limited] his
Confined to exhibition [an allowance]? All this done
Upon the gad [spur of the moment]?— 23

Lear’s original plan had been to live the rest of his life with Cordelia on that better share that he would have given her: “I loved her most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery.”24 If he had followed that plan, he would not have given up his crown, nor would he have “prescribed his power.” Now, though, Lear has given up his crown and his power in exchange for what he believes are irrevocable licenses to spend his remaining time with his knights – alternating between the properties he gave to Goneril and Regan. However, Goneril and Regan accepted his transfer of Cordelia’s share to them but did not actually agree to house Lear and his knights. Lear’s “darker purpose” has gotten away from him.25 Echoing Humpty Dumpty, his Fool provides a devastating evaluation
of Lear’s actions:

FOOL —Nuncle, give me
an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.

LEAR What two crowns shall they be?

FOOL Why, after I have cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown i’ th’ middle and gav’st away
both parts, thou bor’st thine ass on thy back o’er
the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown
when thou gav’st thy golden one away.26

There will be no putting the kingdom back together again.

II. The Consequences of King Lear's Estate Plan

A. Lear Loses the Outer Trappings of Kingship

Lear takes his one hundred knights to spend the first month of his retirement with Goneril and Albany. In less than two weeks,27 Goneril has had it with his high-handed kingly actions and the riotous behavior of his knights. Learning that Lear has struck one of her retainers, she complains of his behavior and refuses to see him.28 When she finally deigns to see him, she tells him to reduce the number of his knights, retaining only those who befit his age.29/small>

True to character, Lear responds with rage, calls Goneril a “detested kite” and rages that she is worse than a “sea monster.”30 He then takes his knights and rides off to “kind and comfortable”31 Regan, expecting to be treated as he thinks he deserves as a king. Taking his leave of Goneril, he shouts a lament recognized by many parents:

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child.—Away, away!32

Although Lear doesn’t know it, Goneril and Regan are in cahoots, and Goneril, too, is on her way to Regan’s castle. When the three meet in a sadly humorous scene,33 Lear’s two daughters gradually reduce the number of knights he can keep from one hundred, to fifty, to “five and twenty,” to ten, to five, to zero. Goneril and Regan conclude the process with the following:

GONERIL Hear me, my lord.
What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?

REGAN What need one?34

B. Lear Realizes He is No Longer a King, but
Only a Man, and Experiences Madness

Things with Regan deteriorate just as rapidly as they did with Goneril, and Regan shuts Lear out of her castle. Lear is left on the heath with his Fool. Willfully exposing himself bareheaded35 (without his crown) to a violent storm, he comes to understand that he cannot blame the elements or the gods for his condition. He has lost not just the trappings of kingship, he has lost his kingly identity and is now only a man:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.36

In a powerful and famous scene, others join Lear and the Fool in a hovel on the heath, and Lear’s “wits begin to turn.”37 Although he should recognize the others, they are disguised, and Lear cannot see who they are. They are mad and foolish or pretending to be so. The storm rages and the motley group finds two stools and, indicting one stool as Goneril and the other as Regan, proceeds to try Lear’s daughters in absentia for their mistreatment of Lear. After the madness and chaos, Lear finally sleeps.38 As he sleeps, the newly-arrived Gloucester asks Kent (in disguise) where the King is, Kent replies, “Here sir, but trouble him not, his wits are gone.”39 Gloucester then reveals that Lear’s daughters are plotting his death and urges the others in the hovel to take Lear away to Dover, where France and Cordelia have landed.40

C. The Bad Become Evil

Having shown King Lear’s loss of crown, power, and reason, Shakespeare continues the kingdom’s downward spiral.

Regan and Cornwall, on the one hand, and Goneril and Albany, on the other, have begun fighting. Their dispute encourages France and Cordelia to invade England. Both Regan and Goneril are wooed by Gloucester’s evil son, Edmund, who has been pulling strings in the background throughout the play. France’s invasion causes the two daughters and their husbands to combine against their common enemy.41 Goneril, though, explains in an aside that she would rather lose the battle than lose Edmund to Regan.42

Gloucester, Lear’s old retainer, attempts to protect Lear, but when he does so, he is treated as a traitor. Acting on Regan’s demand, “Pluck out his eyes,”43 her husband Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes to punish his loyalty to the former king.44 Regan then sends Gloucester, sightless and bleeding, out of the
castle, ordering, “Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell his way to Dover.”45 A servant, recoiling at Cornwall’s evil, kills Cornwall.46

Cornwall’s death leaves Regan, now a widow, free to marry Edmund,47 but Goneril does not give up on her pursuit of the same man. As Goneril’s husband, Albany, sees the evil being done by Goneril, Regan, and Edmund (but not yet the various love affairs), he rejects it. Goneril then reviles Albany as not man enough to do what needs to be done. In his disillusioned response, Albany reveals that, in his eyes, Goneril has changed:

Thou changèd and self-covered thing, for shame
Bemonster not thy feature. Were ’t my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones. Howe’er thou art a fiend,
A woman’s shape doth shield thee.48

D. Nothing Comes of Nothing

As the play ends, the forces of England defeat the invading armies of France, led by Cordelia. In the process, Regan and Goneril kill each other, Cordelia is hanged on Edmund’s order, Edgar kills Edmund, and Lear dies with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms. The entire English royal family has destroyed itself.

The few remaining characters exit “with a dead march.”49 Albany, who had married into the royal family, tells Kent and Edgar, to rule “the gored state.”50 Kent declines. Edgar then reluctantly assumes the duty of ruling the kingdom, “The weight of this sad time we must obey.”51

“Lear’s prophecy has been fulfilled: Nothing has come of nothing. There is no revelation; nature again drifts back to chaos.”52

III. Jane Smiley Brings Estate Planning Tragedy into the 20th Century in A Thousand Acres

In A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley reimagines King Lear in twentieth century America. She places a family dominated by “daddy” Larry Cook on an immense, unmortgaged farm in Iowa which seems to the narrator, as a child, to have been “the center of the universe.”53 Lest there be any doubt that Smiley wanted to hearken to Lear: (i) Larry is a commanding presence, “well over six feet and two hundred thirty pounds”;54 (ii) Larry’s daughters are Ginny, Rose, and Caroline; (iii) Larry’s favorite daughter,55 Caroline, is disinherited; (iv) Larry’s daughters were raised without a mother; (v) Harold Clark, a man who was something of an advisor to Larry is blinded; and, (vi) Larry’s family and farm are destroyed after Larry gives the farm to Ginny and Rose.

Smiley selects one daughter, Ginny, as narrator and, as Ginny reveals her memories, the story ponders how a man obtains his power, how and why a family can be destroyed, the role that a gift can play in that destruction, what happens when a man gives away his power, and why a man’s seemingly loyal daughters might rebel against him. As in King Lear, people and things are not what they appear to be. As in King Lear most of the characters die never having discovered knowledge and never having received relief from the gods. The Iowa farm is not Lear’s kingdom, but human nature remains consistent.

IV. Larry Cook Plans His Estate

A. Larry Makes an Announcement and Ideas
Immediately Become Realities

Larry, the owner of an unmortgaged thousand-acre farm, announces his estate plan publicly at a homecoming party for Jess, Harold Clark’s son. Jess, a Vietnam War draft dodger, had just returned to his father’s farm after thirteen years in Seattle.56 As Ginny cleans up paper plates left on the tables, she hears Larry say to a group of people, “That’s the plan.”57 When Ginny inquires, “What’s the plan, Daddy?” Larry replies:

We’re going to form this corporation, Ginny, and you girls are all going to have shares, then we’re going to build this new Slurrystore, and maybe a Harvestore, too, and enlarge the hog operation… You girls and Ty [Ginny’s husband] and Pete [Rose’s husband] and Frank [Caroline’s husband] are going to run the show. You’ll each have a third part in the corporation. What do you think?58

Like Lear, Larry points out that he is getting old. Unlike Lear, Larry is worried about taxes, commenting, “Anyway, if I died tomorrow, you have to pay seven or eight hundred thousand dollars inheritance taxes.”59

Hearing Larry’s plan, Ginny feels an “inner clang,” and thinks that her father has had too much to drink, but also thinks “He is holding it out to you, and all you have to do is take it.”60 “In spite of an “inner clang,” Ginny tries “to sound agreeable,” saying, “It’s a good idea.”61 Rose then says, “It’s a great idea.” Caroline says, “I don’t know.”62

Immediately after Caroline expresses the slightest doubt about his plan, Larry declares, “You don’t want it, my girl, you’re out. It’s as simple as that.”63 Ginny is amazed at the suddenness with which everything changed. “The fact was, it had taken mere instants for [Pete and Ty], and Rose, too, to take possession, in their own minds, and mere instants for Caroline to detach herself. Disbelief, or even astonishment, on Harold’s back porch had turned with marvelous suddenness into intentions and plans.”64

V. The Consequences of Larry's Estate Plan

A. Larry is No Longer the Boss

Though he has always worked every day on the farm, just days after announcing his plan and just a day after the papers are signed, Larry stops working and instead spends hours sitting in his front room looking out his window. Both Rose and Ginny notice it, and Rose comments, “This is what his retirement is going to be . . . . . Perfecting that death’s head stare will be his lifework from now on, so we’d better get used to it.”65

B. Who's the Boss?

A few days after the transfer, Larry gets drunk and drives his pickup into a ditch.66 When Ginny takes him home from the hospital, she lays down the law, telling him:

Well, this is your warning, and I expect you to pay attention to it. And another thing, you’re fully capable of helping around the farm, and I can tell that you are bored without it. Rose or I will give you your breakfast at the regular time from now on, and you can just go out and work afterwards. We aren’t going to let you sit around.67

Ginny’s new-found ability to instruct her father was a revelation. “It was exhilarating, talking to my father as if he were my child.”68 “This laying down the law was a marvelous way of talking. It created a whole orderly future within me, vistas of manageable days clicking past, myself in the foreground, large and purposeful.”69

A key to Larry’s success had been that he had never had to mortgage his farm. However, Larry knew that his plan would require Rose, Ginny and their husbands to mortgage the farm, so that the gift included a seed of its own destruction. As the new owners, Rose, Ginny, and their husbands promptly start changing farm operations. While footings for a new hog barn are being poured, Ginny takes her father to lunch. As they are eating, Ginny suggests a walk down Main Street. Larry refuses. “I can walk it. I don’t want to. I walked plenty in my time, and now I want to ride.”70 When Ginny tries out her new forcefulness to insist on walking, Larry responds, “You shouldn’t talk to me like that, I’m your father. . .. You think because I gave you girls the farm, you don’t have to make up to me anymore. I know what’s going on.”71 Ginny argues that Larry never saw things from his daughters’ point of view. Larry responds:

I bust my butt working all my life and I make a good place for you and your husband to live on, with a nice house and good income, hard times or good times, and you think I should be stopping all the time and wondering about your, what did you call it, your ‘point of view’?72

Ginny “could, of course, read by his demeanor that he was displeased, but how this displeasure would incubate [she] could not and did not know.”73

C. How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth

When Ginny returns home from the lunch with her father, a violent storm is brewing. That evening, Ginny and Rose discover that Larry has driven a truck into the storm and has disappeared. When found, Larry screams at Ginny:

You don’t have to drive me around anymore, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house. . .. Or tell me what I can do and what I can’t do. You barren whore! I know all about you, you slut. You’ve been creeping here and there all your life, making up to this one and that one. But you’re not really a woman, are you? I don’t know what you are.74

Ginny tries to persuade her father to get in out of the storm and go to his house, but he refuses and continues:

It’s you girls that make me crazy! I gave you everything, and I get nothing in return, just some orders about doing this and being that and seeing points of view.75

Rose, who “stood like a fence post, straight, unmoved, her arms crossed over her chest,”76 then steps into the breach, addressing her father:

We didn’t ask for what you gave us. We never asked for what you gave us, but maybe it was high time we got some reward for what we gave you! You say you know all about Ginny, well, Daddy, I know all about you, and you know I know. This is what we’ve got to offer, this same life, nothing more nothing less. If you don’t want it, go elsewhere. Get someone else to take you in, because I for one have had it.77

“Her voice was low but penetrating, as deadly serious as ice picks.”78 Ginny joins Rose in “a united front,” and exclaims, “You don’t deserve even the care we give you. As far as I’m concerned, from now on you’re on your own.”79

Larry then curses his daughters and disappears into the storm.

D. More Sinned Against Than Sinning?

During the storm, Rose confronts Ginny about their past as teenagers in their father’s house. Rose says:

“He went into your room at night.”80 When Ginny says that she is sure that she was asleep, and that Larry “was like checking the hogs or something,”81 Rose replies, “It wasn’t like checking the hogs with Daddy. . .. . He was having sex with you.”82 Ginny denies it, but Rose insists it happened, “Because after he stopped going in to you, he started coming in to me . . .. we had sex in my bed.”83 When Ginny again denies it, Rose responds:

I thought you knew. I thought all these years you and I shared this knowledge, sort of underneath everything else. I thought if after that you could go along and treat him normally the way you do, then it was okay to just put it behind us.84

Rose says that she kept Larry interested to keep him away from Caroline, “But I was flattered, too. I thought that he’d picked me to be his favorite, not you, not her. On the surface, I thought it was okay if he said it was, since he was the rule maker.”85

Days later, when Ginny visits her childhood room, she realizes that Rose was right; Larry had raped her in her childhood bed.

E. An Estate Plan as a Tool of Humiliation

Larry’s friend and advisor, Harold Clark, uses his own estate plan to harass his sons. Jess, the prodigal son, had dodged the draft, leaving Loren, the loyal son, at home to work the farm with Harold. When Jess returns, Harold starts to talk openly in front of his sons and around town about changing his will to include Jess. “One farm, two boys,” Ginny heard him say to a store clerk, “there’s no fair way to cut that pie.”86 Still speaking to the clerk, Harold continued that he had to give an equal share to Jess, because Scripture says that “everybody gets the same days wage, whether they show up late to the vineyard or early.”87

Jess shows a new interest in farming and seems to be prepared to settle back in Iowa. Then, at another church supper, this one after the storm, Harold loudly calls Rose and Ginny “bitches.”88 When Jess tries to stop him, Harold yells, “I got your number, too, you yellow son of a bitch. You got your eye on my place, and you been cozying up to me for a month now, thinking I’m going to hand it over.”89 Jess then punches his father in the face. As Harold falls, Ginny notes: “Daddy shifted his chair out of the way and looked straight at me. A look of sly righteousness spread over his face.”90

Ginny thinks that Harold has simply changed his mind about Jess. Rose, though, took “a darker view: that Harold had been plotting to humiliate Jess for a long time.”91 Earlier, when Ginny had told Jess that Rose believed that Larry had raped both her and Rose, Jess had replied, “Oh, Ginny, they have aimed to destroy us, and I don’t know why.”92 Ginny replied, “Maybe they have, Jess. Maybe they have aimed right for it,”93 a statement that resonates with the new mortgage on the thousand acres and Larry’s sly righteousness.

F. A New Evil Is Seen in the Kingdom

Not long after Harold openly repudiates Jess at the church picnic, Rose’s husband, Pete, thinking that Larry would be using a certain tractor, booby-traps it so that anhydrous ammonia will spray into the user’s eyes causing blindness.94 But instead of Larry, Harold uses the tractor and is blinded. Pete then gets drunk, drives his pickup into a pond, and dies.

After finally realizing that her father had raped both herself and Rose, Ginny learns that both she and Rose (now a widow) have fallen for Jess, and that both have had sex with him. Ginny had fallen first and had told Jess that she loved him. Rose, knowing that Ginny had fallen for Jess, began a sustained affair with him. Ginny then carefully makes a can of poisoned sausages and gives it to Rose, fully intending to kill her.

G. The Battle for the Kingdom

Informed that Larry had met with a lawyer and a banker in an apparent plan to take back the farm, Rose responds, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”95 Before work on the new farm buildings could be completed, the lawyer and the banker stopped construction.96 Although it had appeared that Larry and Caroline had become estranged, in fact, Larry had met secretly with Caroline (who is a lawyer) and the two of them had filed suit, arguing that a “mismanagement or abuse clause” in the paperwork gave Larry the power to rescind the transfer of the farm.

Ginny, Ty, and Rose hire a lawyer, who advises them, “appearances are everything with a clause like this. . .. If you look good, they won’t be able to touch you.”97 Emphasizing appearances was natural to Ginny who was “so remarkably comfortable with the discipline of making a good appearance!”98

During the trial, Caroline tries to testify to her sisters’ mistreatment of their father, saying that they had sent him into the storm. The judge, though, rules her testimony irrelevant because the mismanagement and abuse clause refers “to the farm properties only.”99 The judge rules against Caroline and Larry, commenting that the suit had been close to frivolous and orders them to pay costs and fees.

Ginny concludes:

One thing was surely true about going to court. It had marvelously divided us from each other and from our old lives. There could be no reconciliation now.100

H. The Aftermath

Ginny and her fellow victors “couldn’t tolerate the verdict.”101

Right after the trial, Ginny, leaves the farm and her husband and becomes a waitress in a distant town, without telling anyone where she has gone.

Five days after the trial, Larry dies of a heart attack.

Ty and Rose split the farm, with Ty keeping the responsibility for all of the debt. Shortly thereafter, Ty loses his portion of the farm to the bank. Ty and Ginny divorce officially, and Ty moves to Texas.

Rose never eats the poisoned sausage, but she dies of cancer. Her share of the farm, too, is lost.

Ginny is left with some farm debt and Rose’s children. Finally, “Rose left me with a riddle I haven’t solved, of how we judge those who have hurt us when they have shown no remorse or even understanding.”102

VI. Cautionary Notes for Modern Estate Planners

A. Transferring Property and Power Can Lead
to Catastrophe

Seen from our perspective as trusts and estates practitioners, the lessons of King Lear and A Thousand Acres include the fundamental lesson that a transfer of power from the older generation to the younger generates its own energy and can lead directly to chaos and catastrophe. What a lawyer outside the family may see as a simple and wise transfer of control can destroy the kingdom, the farm, and the family itself.

Both works show that, when a family goes to war against itself, there are no winners.

B. Plans Can Be Destroyed by a Client's Darker Purposes

Both Lear and Larry planned the divisions of their kingdoms in advance. Neither plan was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Both had advisors who were aware of the plan. This requires us to understand that the resulting tragedies rest on human responses to the plan, not on the plans themselves. If either Lear or Larry could be seen as having acted without thought, the resulting stories would be real, but not tragic.

Lear’s plan was not spontaneous, but Cordelia’s reaction to Lear’s test and Lear’s reaction to Cordelia were both spontaneous and were both fundamentally human. Similarly, Caroline’s questioning of her father’s gift and Larry’s reaction to her question were both spontaneous and were both based on human relationships. The human reactions were irreversible because humans act that way, and the human reactions resulted in the devastation that followed.

A modern estate planner might have approved Lear’s plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, or something close to it. The planner would not have known, though, how Lear would use the plan, i.e., that he would use the plan to test the love of his children and then, secretly, decide to sweeten the pot for one of them. Even if the planner had somehow known of the love test and the sweetened pot, the planner could not have known how the family would respond to the client’s actions.

Larry’s lawyer knew that Caroline would not be receiving a share of the farm, but he did not know that Larry had raped Ginny and Rose. Larry’s seemingly generous decision carried its own poison, and Larry’s slightly righteous glance at Ginny after Harold abused Jess, strongly suggests that Larry shared his friend Harold’s joy in causing distress to his children, a darkness that is not present in Lear.

C. Transfers of Money and Power Can, By
Themselves, Cause Drastic Change

a. What Made Goneril and Regan Evil?

When King Lear begins, Goneril and Regan are not obviously evil, and there is no indication that they would become evil. Shakespeare’s language at the outset of Scene 1 does not require that Regan and Goneril be portrayed more darkly than as sycophants. If Regan and Goneril were known to be evil at the outset, then, presumably, Lear and his advisors would not have given shares of the kingdom to them. They may not have been the favored daughters, but they were not known to be evil.

An intriguing way to direct the play would be to begin by making it absolutely clear at the outset that Goneril and Regan are essentially good daughters who are just willing to engage in a little flattery to humor the old man.

But no matter how Goneril and Regan are portrayed at the outset, the play leaves open the question: If Goneril and Regan are not evil in the beginning, what makes them become clearly evil over the course of the play? Regan’s husband, Cornwall, too, is not obviously evil as the play begins. However, by the time Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes at Regan’s urging and by the time that Goneril and Regan seek their father’s death, it is clear the three of them are the personification of evil. Not just bad; evil.

The play strongly suggests that the gifts, and the consequent power, themselves transformed Goneril and Regan from flattering daughters to evildoers. Nothing in the play suggests that anything else caused their transformation. Lear’s gifts were the agents of change. When Lear made his gifts, he became powerless and passive. In Kent’s words, he did evil. Goneril and Regan no longer needed to honor Lear, and they ceased to do so. When they became wealthy, they attracted the attentions of Edmund, a locus of evil in the play, who “seeks status through power and is more than willing to betray his father to Cornwall’s brutal plucking out of Gloucester’s eyeballs.”103 Having each received half a kingdom, and having become Edmund’s lovers, Goneril and Regan battle each other for more power and property, thereby exposing the kingdom to a foreign takeover and destruction.

Larry’s family in Iowa goes through the same transformation as his family members battle, as his son-inlaw tries to blind him, as one daughter tries to kill the others, and the farm is lost.

Shakespeare and Smiley warn us that any time a plan calls for a parent to transfer control of a complete family enterprise to a child or children, something evil – not just bad – can result.

b. Larry’s Evil Past Is Revealed, While Lear Considers Himself Innocent

When Goneril and Regan sent Lear into the storm, they were in the process of committing great crimes, while Lear complained that he was “more sinned against than sinning.” Ginny and Rose did not sink to the depravity that engulfed Goneril and Regan. Instead, when Larry went out in the storm, the chaos caused Rose to expose the reality of Larry’s evil – that he had raped both while they lived in his house. Rose was surprised by Ginny’s initial denial of the rapes, commenting that Rose had acted nicely to Larry largely because she thought that if Ginny could treat him well despite his actions, she could too.

By clearly placing the locus of evil in the older generation instead of the younger as Shakespeare did, Smiley makes us understand that when estate planning goes bad, the fault can lie with the older generation, not just the younger. There is every possibility that Larry pursued his estate planning with the knowledge that he was acting destructively. Larry, after all, knew that the plan called for a significant mortgage, knowing that mortgages had led many farmers in the area to disaster.

While intentionally setting up an estate plan in a way to cause one’s children to fail may not sound familiar to trusts and estate practitioners, it has undoubtedly happened. Just as engineers must plan structures so as not to encourage suicides, estate planners should always be aware that family dynamics can be significantly different than they seem and should consider whether a plan that seems wise technically will work well in the real world.

D. Better Advice Would Not Have Saved the
Succession Plans

King Lear contains no suggestion that better advice or communication could have made King Lear’s succession plan a success. He arrived with what objectively looked like a good plan, and his advisors were aware of it. The plan went from apparently-good, to bad, to horrible because people acted in ways that were not expected. Lear’s angry reaction toward Cordelia began the destruction of his plan. Goneril and Regan tore what was left of it to pieces. As the Fool reminds Lear, once the egg was broken, there was no putting it together again.104

When Kent repeatedly tried to stop Lear from following through with the Cordelia’s disinheritance, Lear exiled him from the kingdom.

Larry, on the other hand, received good advice from his lawyer, who advised against the plan before Larry announced it. Larry simply ignored his lawyer’s advice.

E. Disinheritance is a Dangerous Thing

Typically for a human, and especially for a parent, Lear did not see his children fully. What parent does? As a King, he bargained for flattery, and he got it. “Lear’s love test is no stratagem; rather it is a pro forma confirmation of each daughter’s worth, what each one merits in exchange for her share of his kingdom.”105 Viewed as an auction, it makes a sort of sense that Cordelia, having said nothing, receives nothing. As Lear says, “Nothing will come of nothing.”106

Lear’s nothing, though, ultimately brings Cordelia’s return at the head of the armies of France. Although she might have appeared as the passive and honest daughter who refuses to gain a kingdom by flattery in the first scene, she ends up trying to retake her inheritance by force.

There is no indication that Larry made any attempt to see Ginny and Rose as individual humans. He had abused them, he knew it, and he continued to demand their obeisance, never apologizing or seeking forgiveness. When Rose confronted him with the knowledge of his sin, he made an alliance with Caroline, who may not have been abused as a child. Together, they sought to recover the kingdom by the modern war of litigation. However, like Cordelia, they failed, and no one could put Humpty together again. When Larry went to live with Caroline after the trial, he died in just five days.

In both stories, the disinherited daughter returned to “save” the kingdom but ended up contributing to its destruction.

F. Nothing is Perpetual

Lear intended his gifts to be perpetual. His gift to Goneril is “To thine and Albany’s issue . . . perpetual.”107 His gift to Regan is “To thee and thine hereditary ever.”108 Lear also intended his exiles of Kent and Cordelia to last forever.

Nothing of the sort happened. The members of the kingdom destroyed themselves within a matter of months.

Various states are now extending the rule against perpetuities in ways that suggest that we moderns are beginning to think that we can make plans that will last forever. Shakespeare reminds us that even kings cannot accomplish this feat.

VII. Conclusion

Although King Lear and A Thousand Acres are incredibly layered and powerful, we can justifiably conclude that one of the many things that the authors tell us is that transfers of wealth and power can seem generous but can also be destructive, sometimes intentionally so. When wealth and power are transferred to an individual, no one, not even a parent, can predict what the recipient will do with that wealth and power. No family member knows all the family’s secrets. No one can predict what the loss of wealth and power will do to the person who gives them away. No one can predict what gaining wealth and power will do to the person who receives them. Transfers of wealth and power create their own environments and sometimes those environments include chaos, madness and murder.

Both works of art suggest that trusts and estates practitioners should approach transfers of wealth and power with exceeding care. Transfers of wealth and power are not just technical tax saving maneuvers. We can never know how the people affected by our estate plans or settlement agreements will react. There is a temptation to think that words on a page or on a screen can govern the actions of people, but they cannot always do so. Tempted to advise a gift to avoid a tax, or to transfer wealth or power for any reason, we should tread carefully, because we cannot know what changes the transfer will cause. Shakespeare and Smiley have told us in no uncertain terms that transfers of wealth and power include the possibility that the transferor will be left on the heath and the transferees will be destroyed.

We cannot let ourselves forget Albany’s sad conclusion:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.109

This article was published in the California Trusts and Estates Quarterly, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2021, copyright Trusts and Estates Section of the California Lawyers Association, printed with permission.

1 Harbage, Alfred, William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, Penguin Books, 1969, p. 1061 (quoting Hazlitt.)
2 Bloom, Harold, Lear, the Great Image of Authority, Scribner, 2018, p. 40.
3 Shakespeare, William. King Lear from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library, act I, scene 1, lines 1-7. The Folger Shakespeare (as of September 9, 2021).
4 Id. act I, scene 1, line 33.
5 Id. at act I, scene 1, line 50.
6 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 34-35.
7 Id. at act I, scene 1, line 37.
8 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 38-55.
9 Shapiro, James, The Year of Lear, Simon & Schuster, 2015, p. 15.
10 Shakespeare, William, King Lear, supra, act I, scene 1, line 62. (Eyesight, space, and liberty are all important concepts as the play develops.)
11 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 83-84.
12 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 72-73.
13 Id. at act I, scene 1, line 88.
14 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 94-95.
15 Id. at act I, scene 1, line 99.
16 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 96-98.
17 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 114-115.
18 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 120-128.
19 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 225, 283.
20 Id. at act I, scene 1, line 290.
21 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 144-155.
22 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 188-203.
23 Id. at act I, scene 2, lines 24-27.
24 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 137-138.
25 See Bloom, Harold, Lear, the Image of Authority, supra, at p. 9.
26 Shakespeare, William, King Lear, supra, act I, scene 1, line 99.
27 Id. at act I, scene 3, 308-309.
28 Id. at act I, scene 3, lines 4-9.
29 Id. at act I, scene 3, lines 244-259.
30 Id. at act I, scene 3, lines 270-275.
31 Id. at act I, scene 3, lines 322-325.
32 Id. at act I, scene 3, lines 303-304.
33 Id. at act II, scene 4, line 251.
34 Id. at act II, scene 4, lines 200-303.
35 Id. at act III, scene 4, line 65.
36 Id. at act III, scene 2, lines 16-22.
37 Id. at act III, scene 5, lines 16-23.
38 Id. at act III, scene 6, lines 1-89.
39 Id. at act III, scene 6, lines 91-92.
40 Id. at act III, scene 6, lines 93-103; at act III, scene 1, lines 22-45.
41 Id. at act V, scene 1, lines 33-35.
42 Id. at act V, scene 1, lines 21-22.
43 Id. at act III, scene 7, line 6.
44 Id. at act III, scene 7, lines 82-101.
45 Id. at act III, scene 1, 113-114.
46 Id. at act IV, scene 2, lines 89-94.
47 Id. at act IV, scene 2, lines 31-35.
48 Id. at act IV, scene 2, lines 76-82.
49 Id. at act V, scene 2, line 396.
50 Id. at act V, scene 1, line 389.
51 Id. at act V, scene 1, line 392.
52 Bloom, Harold, Lear the Great Image of Authority, supra, at p. 4.
53 Smiley, Jane, A Thousand Acres: A Novel, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, p. 1.
54 Id. at p. 19.
55 Id. at p. 125.
56 This mirrors King Lear. Shortly before King Lear announced his estate plan, Gloucester told Kent that Gloucester’s “bastard” son, Edmund (who becomes the source of much evil), had returned to the kingdom after having been away nine years.
57 Smiley, Jane, A Thousand Acres: A Novel, supra, at p. 18.
58 Id. at pp. 18-19.
59 Ibid.
60 Id. at p. 18.
61 Ibid.
62 Ibid.
63 Id. at p. 21. Both Lear and Larry are stubborn old men who cannot change their minds, even when they have made a bad decision. Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair, Penguin Classics, 2003.
64 Smiley, Jane, A Thousand Acres: A Novel, supra, at p. 30
65 Id. at p. 66.
66 Id. at p. 143.
67 Id. at p. 147.
68 Ibid.
69 Ibid.
70 Id. at p. 174
71 Ibid.
72 Id. at p. 180.
73 Id. at p. 177.
74 Id. at p. 180.
75 Id. at p. 182.
76 Ibid.
77 Ibid.
78 Ibid.
79 Id. at p. 183.
80 Id. at p. 188.
81 Ibid.
82 Ibid.
83 Id. at p. 189.
84 Ibid.
85 Ibid.
86 Id. at p. 156.
87 Ibid.
88 Id. at p. 218.
89 Id. at p. 219.
90 Ibid.
91 Id. at p. 230.
92 Id. at p. 196.
93 Ibid.
94 Id. at p. 231.
95 Ibid.
96 Id. at p. 263.
97 Ibid.
98 Id. at p. 284.
99 Id. at p. 323.
100 Id. at p. 325.
101 Id. at p. 327.
102 Id. at p. 369.
103 Bloom, Harold, Lear the Great Image of Authority, supra, at p. 21.
104 Shakespeare, William, King Lear, supra, at act I, scene 4, lines 159-169.
105 Shapiro, James, supra, at p. 58.
106 Shakespeare, William, King Lear, supra, act I, scene 4, lines 159-167.
107 Id. at act I, scene 1, lines 72-73.
108 Id. at act I, scene 1, line 88.
109 Id. at act IV, scene 2, lines 60-61.

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