When I started preparing for this role, the most important factor I considered was summed up by a quote from George R.R. Martin:
“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We're all the heroes of our own story.”
It was important to me that Regan believes she’s doing what’s right. She’s not plotting her course to power in a dungeon lair while cackling and torturing kittens. She certainly does horrible things and makes terrible choices, but playing her as someone who was evil from the start and hated her father for no reason is boring. I wanted to find reasons for her anger toward her father, and I wanted to understand the thought processes that led her to violence. As with every play, especially Shakespeare, I started with what’s in the text.
Lear makes it painfully clear that Cordelia has always been his favorite child. As the youngest, she would always be the sweet “baby” of the family. Goneril commands respect and attention by the mere fact that she is the oldest. So where does this leave Regan? I explored a lot of feelings of neglect and inadequacy, because I could imagine a lot of her bitterness and jealousy stemmed from feeling like she never came first with her father.
The text also shows us that both Lear and Cornwall have dangerous tempers. In the opening scene, we see that Lear’s temper flares easily when his ego is damaged. Growing up with a father like that, I imagined that Regan and Goneril, and to a much lesser extent Cordelia, had suffered through many such diatribes and insults as they were growing up. That kind of verbal abuse has long term effects on a person’s psyche. Similarly, Cornwall’s temper flares when his orders to Gloucester are disobeyed, and the consequences he inflicts are horrifying. While there’s no evidence that Cornwall ever directs his anger toward Regan, having a husband with a similar temper to her father can only prolong the constant sense of fear and anxiety she must live with.
With this as a foundation, I began exploring Regan as a character who has suffered at the hands of her father. She was always passed over for one sister or the other, and a small misstep could earn her a harsh verbal lashing from her father. However, by the time of the events in the play, Lear is old, and his health and mental faculties are decaying. The scene where she and Goneril confront Lear is a key point in her story. The text showed me that Regan was a bit reluctant to take power over her father and I don’t think she wanted to turn him out of her home. She does what she thinks is best but knows he won’t take it well. The insults that Lear hurls at her and Goneril in this scene are particularly hurtful, and I believe she feels real pain because of the state her father is in.
Unfortunately, this is when things start to take a turn for the worse for Regan. I think both she and Cornwall get a little drunk on power, and when Gloucester betrays them their extreme punishment has dire consequences for Gloucester and for them. Cornwall’s death leaves Regan panicked and completely alone. Her desperation for a supportive partner is apparent in her pursuit of Edmund, which leads her to a final conflict with Goneril.
Out of desperation, Regan takes actions she thinks will lead her to what she wants but which instead cause things to spiral out of control. She doesn’t know she’s a villain. She never sets out with the intent of betraying family members or committing violence, but the choices she makes do lead her down those paths.
I tried to portray Regan in this way; a woman who slowly loses control because she subscribes so strongly to the idiom, “the ends justify the means.” The audience has the benefit of objectivity to see the folly in her actions, but in her mind, she is only doing what is necessary. Over the course of the play, you see Regan start to unravel as she is pushed into increasingly challenging situations in order to do what she believes is right.