Throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear, he sheds light on the gender roles during this time and the differences in power between women and men. During this time, men were the ones that ruled over the kingdoms with great power while women were only there to be their wives or daughters, trapped in the shadow of greedy men. This theme is very prominent in the beginning of the play, when Lear forces his daughters to profess their love for him in exchange for some of his power. When Lear calls upon his daughter Goneril she states,
Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter…A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable. Beyond all manner of so much I love you.Act I, Scene I, lines 60-67
In this statement, Goneril has to exaggerate her love for her father just for the slightest chance to get some type of power. In the same scene, Cordelia chooses not to lie and overstate the love she has for her father and because of this she is ridiculed. With this scene, Shakespeare expresses the idea that women cannot obtain power without the help of a man. This scene supports the construct of patriarchy by portraying the male as the all powerful ruler who must be pleased and obeyed if women hope to receive any sort of reward.
As the play progresses, the women begin to take initiative and gain power for themselves and their own agendas rather than being submissive to the men around them. This can be seen in many instances with the character Reagan such as when she has Gloucester captured and his eyes gouged out and when she grabs a sword to kill one of the servants. This character development is very significant because Reagan was one of the sisters who falsely professed her love for her father in the beginning of the play and now she is taking charge and fighting men.
Another example of a powerful woman in King Lear is Cordelia. From the beginning of the play she did not fake her emotions just to please her father and by the end of the play she became the queen of France and even gave power to her two sisters as well. With these female characters, Shakespeare contradicts the common narrative during this time period in which women were powerless by portraying them as fierce women who were able to overcome the powerful men and gain power for themselves.