Women and King Lear

Women in power are often characterized in one of a few ways to diminish their power (All of which are experienced by powerful female characters in King Lear). Here are a few of many examples from the play along with modern examples…

  1. Women in power are portrayed as scary, wild, and animal-like.

Lear, when upset with Regan and Goneril for denying him all his guards, called them “unnatural hags” (II.iiii.275). This depiction of them portrays them as not fully women for acting in a forceful manner. It describes powerful and demanding stances as a masculine role that is only “natural” for men. When women show power, they are crazy and “unnatural.”

Similar to the treatment of Regan and Goneril, Michele Obama was on the cover of a magazine with the headline, “What’s So Scary About Michelle Obama.”

2. Women in power are portrayed as mentally ill.

Goneril, after criticizing Albany and his ability to handle control, is accused of being, “most barbarous, most degenerate, have you madded” (IIII.ii.53-54). The play sees no plausible reason for women to be acting with power so the default reaction is to accuse them of insanity.

Nancy Pelosi was made out to be mentally unstable in memes explaining her plans to impeach Trump.

3. Women in power are minimized to their femininity.

Cordelia, before returning to see her father, is described in great detail. In act 4, scene 3 words such as “delicate” are used to make her seem innocent and weak. She is described as a queen and portrayed as angelic. Power is most commonly associated with the opposite of these characteristics and masculinity. Therefore extensively pointing out the femininity in a woman is used by men to negate their power.

Currently, this is used all the time when describing women in power. Before all else, they will be described as a mother, a daughter, or a wife.

Shakespeare on Masculinity

Thousands of articles, blog posts, and journals have been written on the subject of how Shakespeare wrote his female characters, and for good reason. Arguably, his presentation of female characters correlates to his feelings about women, but inarguably, they correlate to what a woman’s place in society looked like during Shakespearan times. Looking at the roles Shakespeare gave women can act as evidence of the way women had far less freedom and agency during the Elizabethan era.

Less spoken about is the way Shakespeare’s male characters also reflect the gender roles of the time. Shakespeare’s men have at least double the lines, character depth, and stage time as his women but especially in King Lear- the male characters give an interesting point of view of what made a man in Shakespeare’s time and unveil the ways toxic masculinity has not developed much since the early 1600s when Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

For example, in Gonereil’s argument with her husband she effectively attacks his “manliness” by ridiculing his actions and traits she deems womanly. She tells Albany, “France spreads his banners… whilst thou, a moral fool, sits still and cries ‘Alack why does he do so?'” This quote is indicative of Shakespearean gender roles on two fronts. On one hand, her belittlement of Alabany for not rushing to the battlefront reflects how then and now “bravery” (often disguised stupidity) is deemed imperitive for a man to be “manly”. However, at the same time, Gonereil is reacting to Albany’s evaluation of her power-hungery “disposition” as an affront to nature. This contrast displays the fraught tensions between the genders which remains to this day.

Goneril’s Influence on the Audience

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the first female character to make an impression on the audience is Goneril. She impresses the audience with her superfluous words as she professes her love for her father. Using phrases such as, “A love that makes breath poor, a speech unable” (I.i.66). From the start, Goneril amazed the audience with her remarkable scope of love for her father. Fathers in the crowd are dreaming of love so remarkable. Daughters in the crowd are forced to ask themselves if they love their fathers so great. However, the play sharply shifts to prove that Goneril’s words are all but honest. This swift reveals surely takes the audience by surprise, pressing the people to question the truth of our loyalty to our blood and our elders, and our children’s loyalty to us.

As the book progresses, Goneril gains more power. As a female in power, this plot acknowledges the audience’s discomfort with women in power due to stereotypes and normality that have limited the idea of women in power. This causes the audience to view women as possible to hold positions of power, which can be difficult to believe in the era of this play. Due to that obstacle, Shakespeare wrote Goneril to be vile and sinful. Goneril said to her husband “Milk-livered man, that bear’st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs…” (IV.ii.62-63). Goneril’s brash words give the audience a character to be against. While Goneril could have been an independent, strong-willed, and respectful Queen, the audience is influenced to view Goneril, and other powerful women, as deceptive and sinful. 

Development Through Suffering

Throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear, we see a theme of suffering and the idea that it’s good for a person to suffer to an extent, and I agree with this. I think suffering allows you to have empathy for others who also suffer and this increased understanding that comes from suffering allows you to be a better person towards others. We see this message reflected throughout King Lear.

After Lear is thrown out in the storm he meets poor Tom. Through Lear’s suffering in the storm he begins to become more understanding of poor Toms situation, “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / your looped and windowed raggedness defend you / From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this……. / thou may’st shake the superflux to them/ And show the heaven more just” (III.iv.34-41). After Lear sees and goes through what the poor people in his kingdom go through he feels guilty for not helping them more. He has realized that there is no benefit to having power if others are suffering and that you should you use the power you have and the excess resources you have to help those in need. Unfortunately at this point Lear is no longer in control of the kingdom and is going crazy. Another example of suffering leading to understanding is Gloucester’s similar realization after being blinded, “I have no way and therefore want no eyes. / I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen / Our means secure us, and our mere defects / Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar, / The food of thy abused father’s wrath, / Might I but live to see thee in my touch, / I’d say I had eyes again” (IV.i.19-25). Only after Gloucester has had to suffer the loss of his eyes and his power does he finally realize he was being tricked by his son Edmund. He feels guilty for his treatment of Edgar. After a conversation with Edgar, who at the time is disguised as poor Tom, Gloucester extends this realization to empathize for the poor and powerless under his rule, “Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens’ plagues / Have humbled to all strokes. That I am wretched / Makes thee the happier. Heavens, deal so still: / Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man, / That slaves your ordinance, that will not see / Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly / So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough” (IV.i.74-81). Gloucester, similarly to Lear, feels bad for his mistreatment of the poor. Through his suffering and talking to someone who he believes to be poor, Gloucester has come to realize that a person shouldn’t have excess if others don’t even have enough to live. Both Lear and Gloucester, when reflecting on their time in power, have come to the conclusion that if they were to have power again they would use it to give back to the less fortunate in order to better balance wealth and power. Throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear, we see characters suffering being beneficial to them understanding others as well as themselves.