“Let not women’s weapons, water-drops,/Stain my man’s cheeks!”(II.iv.304-305)
Among other things—mainly being narcissistic, self-pitying, and selfish—King Lear is sexist. He frequently rejects weakness, claiming it is a woman’s trait. He also expects nothing from his daughters other than unwavering love, loyalty, and servitude. He gives them nothing, no respect nor benefit of the doubt, even his gift of his land came with the condition that he would be welcome into their homes with one hundred other mouths to feed whenever he chose. Essentially, Lear passed on the duties of the crown just so he could live in luxury with no responsibility, while his daughters housed him and his retinue. He didn’t even give them love, as he mentions repeatedly that Cordelia was his favorite, directly in front of his other daughters, insinuating that they are less than. Lear is the biggest portrayer of the MALE+STRENGTH/female+weakness binary in the play. He loses his power, partially because of his daughters, and partially because of his insanity. Because of this loss, he feels a loosening in his grip of his masculinity. In his world, the two are one in the same, he only feels like a man when he is powerful and invulnerable.
Although Goneril and Regan are seen as the antagonists in King Lear, I see them as their own kind of protagonists. Where they are portrayed as conniving and traitorous, I see two women taking advantage of whatever they are able in order to make themselves a better life. Their main evil deed was supposedly lying to their father about their love for him. I don’t really see the issue. If a family member I didn’t like that much asked me to describe my love for them—which is pretty self-centered in the first place—I wouldn’t tell them that I didn’t like them. That would be cruel. I would give a white lie, in order to avoid giving unnecessary offense. This might not have been Goneril and Regan’s incentive, but just the same, telling their father they had no love for him would have been much more cruel. Later on in the play, both women do become violent and plan to harm others. However, they are made the villain before any of that occurs. Albany says his wife is “not worth the dust which the rude wind/blows in your face” just because of her actions to her father (IV.ii.32-33). All the daughters did was deny welcome to a hundred rude and rowdy men into the homes that were legally and rightfully theirs. Lear treats this denial as betrayal, but I see it as completely reasonable. They locked Lear out in the storm, but it was right after he said absolutely horrid things to and about them. And, to be fair, he walked out into the storm in the first place, with no intention of returning. To be clear, I do not believe that Goneril and Regan are good people, but I also don’t think they are monsters.
When reviewing the actions of the two villainous women, personally it’s hard to find a true, unforgivable fault. The factor that seems to direct their portrayal as antagonists seems throughout to be their disloyalty. They both deny to give the loyalty expected from them due to their gender. Adultery committed by men is completely acceptable, yet Goneril is a monster because she does not blindly love the man who says her female body is the only reason he doesn’t kill her (IV.ii.64-68). The characters in this play all expect women to be loyal servants they can either receive admiration from, or have sex with. Since Goneril and Regan refuse to complete those duties, they are the villains of the play. Women in this world are expected to be vulnerable and emotional. When the men are faced with powerful women, women who are strong and unafraid, they title them monsters in order to deny their own fear at not being inherently superior.