The Male Gaze in Lear

“Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

This is an excerpt from film critic Laura Mulvey’s paper Visual Pleasure and the Cinema in which she establishes the idea of the Male Gaze. In essence, Mulvey argues that in film, women’s role in film is to develop the character of the male protagonist through their (often romantic or sexual) relationship. The female character alone experiences no character development and is characterized solely by the relationship she maintains with her male counterparts.

This theory has gained traction in recent years due to its applications in modern film and the general western canon of the arts. Examples of the male gaze can be viewed in everything from the James Bond movies where the female character functions as a sexualized damsel in distress for Bond to save, or in classical artworks from the Rococo movement where women were frivolously depicted for the sake of their male viewers (see the Swing by Fragonard). Recent conversations about the Male Gaze center upon the theory that because the majority of the western canon, whether it be Disney or Shakespeare, maintains elements of the male gaze, it subliminally reinforces misogyny throughout modern culture. This portrayal may lead to self esteem issues and internalized misogyny on the end of young female viewers. As Objectification Theory asserts, if women grow up engaging with media that presents other women solely as objects, they in turn will see themselves solely as objects. As it relates to the Male Gaze, if women see other women being valued only for their relationships with men, then women will only value themselves for their relationships with men.

While I do believe Male Gaze is deeply embedded into our culture and media, I don’t think we should ignore works that are emblematic of this theory. Instead, the Male Gaze must be factored into our understanding of the peice.

While there are many interesting feminist theories and ideas that can be used as a framework for unpacking the female characters in King Lear, the Male Gaze seems to rear its head in each of the female protagonist.

For one, each of the female characters is defined by her relationship with men. Most obviously, the three sisters are each characterized as good or evil based on their treatment of their father whom deems them good and evil. While I’m not arguing that Goneril and Regan were moral uncorrupt, there protrayals as power hungry monsters rested solely on their father’s view of them. Cordelia, conversely, was characterized as innocent due to her submission to her father. Additionally, Goneril and Regan are further portrayed and lustful objects in the wake of Edmunds rise to power. Rather than focus on the effects of the immense power they have acquired, Shakespeare choose to focus their characters (in the second half of the play) on their quest for Edmund’s love.

It is also wort noting that none of the female character show any dynamism throughout the play. Gonerial and Regan remain villainous and in the pursuit of power and sex until they die (might I add that they die due to the relationships they had with a man). Similarly, Cordelia remains submissive and uncorrupted until she dies (again due to the relationship she had with a man). Where characters like Lear and Gloucester are constantly changing and growing throughout the play, the women stay the same. None of them come to any revelations or experience any hardships apart from their relationships with male counterparts. These portrayals altogether lead to the idea that women are little outside of their interaction with men.

What wouldst thou do, old man?

Kent’s speech (I.i.161) in which he steps forward and openly protests Lear’s rash decisions represents some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent prose about loyalty, honesty and standing up for what’s right. Prior to this passage Kent is attempting to be gracious in his criticisms of Lear. When Lear asks him to be direct Kent shifts his tone, and does not hold back his opinion.


The bow is bent and drawn. Make from the shaft.


Let if fall rather, though the fork invade

The region of my heart.

Shakespeare continues an extended metaphor here. Lear asks Kent to be direct by getting out of the way of the “arrow” or the opinion he intends to express. By beginning with this Kent expresses his discontent in sharing Lear’s ignorance with him. He realizes the arrow must “fall” or the truth must be unleashed but saying it still hurts him greatly. There also seems to be another implied meaning in this exchange. Lear insists that Kent must get out of the way of the arrow, implying that Kent is shielding Lear from something he knows he does not want to hear. With close reading, we begin to understand the extent of Kent’s loyalty. It’s difficult for him to express his concerns to Lear because he wishes to protect him from his own ignorance. Kent decides that when Lear is mad or crazy he must disregard his manners. He continues:


What wouldst thou do, old man?

Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak

When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s


When majesty falls to folly.

The tone and audience shift here, causing the actor or reader to imagine Kent raising his voice and confronting Lear for his foolishness. He began this passage speaking to himself but switches to Lear addressing him bluntly and rudely by calling him old man. Perhaps trying to help him realize how his power is diminished in age. From there Kent speaks his words of wisdom, advising Lear not to fall to flattery an foolishness. He compares two situations with a rhetorical question, hoping Lear will see his own error. He begs him to see that the binds of both his and his daughter’s duties will not be held if his power bows to flattery. The “dread” of duty is not so looming if Lear’s subjects recognize he is easily swayed by sugary words. He justifies his blunt words in the next line. It is written in the same form or syntax as the line before implying a parallel there. When power falls to flattery or folly, duty weakens and plainness is required to remedy the situation. Kent both speaks his mind and justifies speaking his mind in a play on words.

Kent continues, begging Lear to control his rash decisions and to save his state/kingdom in doing so. He affirms his intentions and his virtuous nature. Even though Lear has already warned him about criticizing his decision, he does so anyway, hoping that Lear will not destroy his own blessings. At Kent’s own risk he makes these observations out of loyalty and love to the person he serves. He is a model of good servitude. His wisdom continues onto another observation, where Shakespeare masterfully employs foreshadowing.


Answer my life my judgement,

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,

Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds

Reverb no hollowness

Kent continues by swearing on his life the words he is about to speak are true, reinforcing his intelligence and loyalty yet again. He begins his observation plainly, insisting that Cordelia does not love him less than his other daughters, but it is the final line of Kent’s speech that is most moving an thought-provoking. He draws up a metaphor, where a vessel or object like a vase represents a human being. His proverb implies a few things. Completely empty or “heartless” vessels make the loudest or most full noise, because there is nothing to interrupt their “reverb”. He is clearly referencing both Regan and Goneril, pointing out they have the loudest “reverb” or they proclaimed their love the loudest and most passionately. Following this interpretation we come to understand that Kent is implying Goneril and Regan can profess their love so exuberantly because they really have no love for their father at all. They are empty. The other portion of this metaphor implies Cordelia can not proclaim her love because her vessel or her heart is full. Because Cordelia truly loves her dad she can not flatter him with untrue or over dramatic proclamations of her feelings. Cordelia has no reverb and therefore she is full. Through this metaphor Kent shrewdly points out that Cordelia does not love him least, or even equal to her sisters. She loves him the most.

This passage reveals much about the themes of the play and the characters of Kent, Cordelia, Lear, Regan and Goneril. It establishes Kent’s unwavering loyalty, as he stands by his words until banishment. It recognizes Cordelia’s genuine love and brave stance as well as her sister’s contrasting low morals and fake feelings. Perhaps most importantly, it uses Kent’s wisdom to establish a crucial theme of the play: love can not be measured in flattery or words, it is measured in actions and what you hold in your heart. Failure to recognize this can be disastrous.

The Illusion of Power

I am always a little confused when I read about a struggle for power. I have never understood its allure, and why the quest for power seems to always triumph over logic and reason.

I suppose that I have always believed that the people who strive for power are the same people who are completely ignorant of their humanity and mortality. Once you understand what it means to be human, and what it means to live among other humans, you realize that power is often an illusion, and is just as often a paradox.

Take Lear, for instance. As soon as he relinquished his land to his daughters, he was no more than a haggard old man to the people of the kingdom. I would go as far as to say that even when he did control the land, his power was far less than he thought it to be. Power is a fickle mistress, and Lear learned that in a rather unpleasant fashion.

Today, people say that they want to have power so that they can make a difference. The fact that people believe this concerns me. Hoping for a better future, trying to put the right people in charge. “That’s but a trifle here.” People want to have power because they want to have power. Democratic Senators vote against ending the filibuster because they are more concerned with retaining their seat than they are concerned about allowing people to vote. Perhaps that is a segue to another discussion altogether

This constant struggle for dominance bores me. There will always be bad people, there will always be good people, and there will always be people who are lucky enough to have more than others who are better people than they are. Trying to change this is a waste of everyone’s precious time, and by partaking in the struggle, you only succeed in perpetuating the issue you were trying to solve.

King Lear Poems

Howdy. I am going to write a few poems inspired by King Lear.

This poem is a golden shovel and a double Haiku. It follows the typical golden shovel form, yet is in a 5–7–5, 5–7–5 format. This is inspired by Edmund’s speech at the beginning of King Lear, where he laments his place in society as a bastard, but makes a wish at the end to topple his legitimate brother. The POV of this poem is Edmund speaking to fellow bastards before his rebellion.

they all see us now
the world’s armpit. the gods
don’t call us wrong. stand
up proud, tall, lift up
our true real names, for
they just use “bastards”

The POV of this next poem is a speech from Edgar to Edmund as Edmund dies. It has greater themes of revenge and triumph.

You, Edmund, I call you a fool
But you don’t wear a hat with bells
You told our dad that I was cruel
From our kingdom, I was expelled
I’ve seen many things since
Including father, no eyes on his face
But even the blind could see this:
That you could never take my place
And now you lay beneath my sword
A dying man, a thing to savor
I hope the history books record
What happened to you, you bastard traitor

King Lear and the Corruption that Comes with Status

King Lear, throughout the play, exhibits behaviors that correlate to his relationship to power and status as king. Lear first exhibits traits of narcissism and lack of empathy in the first scenes in the play, while his self-righteous personality subsides a little by the end, he continues to display crazed and erratic behavior.

It is from Chaya Bhuvaneswars, “The Madness of King Trump: On Being Unfit to Serve” That I noticed that the characteristics that make up an eighth-century BCE King and a modern-day political differ very slimly. Bhubaneswar introduces the reader to the comparison between Donald Trump, former U.S president, and Lear. In this article she highlights unfitness and self-serving, controlling behavior, she references the two impeachment trials of Trump which suggest his unfitness to be president, while Lear is continuously being pronounced as unfit by his daughters. I believe that in this way the two of them are similar, Trump is old and on multiple occasions was deemed inept to do his duties properly as president, he has had signs of decaying intellect and functionality for the duration of his term, as stated by observers in the white house. King Lear was similarly written off as too old to have any say as King, the royal court thought he was crazy and senseless. Both leaders display narcissism and almost cult-like behavior, working not for the people, but praise. We can see this through the former president’s incitement in the January 6th insurrection to possibly make a point and feel powerful despite his recent loss. The King does this by requesting to keep a posse of knights even though he has no use for them as he is no longer in power, he simply wants to keep his dignity and perceived status. He also demonstrates selfish actions when making his daughters use praise to gain his land even though he had already decided on how he would divvy it up at the beginning of the play.

I believe this connection between the President and the King is an interesting discussion, however, I find it obsolete. We the readers of King Lear can find a connection between the King and a large group of politicians and public officials/figures. I believe the correlation is not between two narcissistic politicians but rather should be a discussion of how holding power morphs one’s traits and morals. Power builds ego and a superiority complex, it taints the people who obtain it. This can be spotted in all areas of our society from a president’s demeanor and motives changing after their election or students with a new group of friends. I believe that having a newfound perception of importance alters a person and their awareness of others well being, they lose empathy. King Lear fits in this mold but in a different way than other examples, while most individuals climb the social/political ladder, he began at the top as King. After he fell from power he had a realization about his selfish and apathetic nature because he had a limited perspective of the citizens he was serving and the world he was ruling over, as seen when he is in the storm. Politicians on the other hand go into the race to the top fighting for power and authority, as much as they say they are for public sovereignty, they are at their core selfish no matter their demonstrated cause. If we look at Politicians in this way, Edmund or Goneril better reflect their behavior.

The Complexity of Identity Among Characters

In Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear, there is a bulk of characters who take on multiple roles in the play. Lear, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Edmund are all examples of multidimensional characters. In the storyline, their characters evolve and change rapidly, which brings forth the struggle and complication of identity. One of Shakespeare’s many dramatic elements in King Lear is the dynamic portrayal of characters in different settings that makes a profound statement of the human condition. Humans, in their own distinct lives, have the capacity to change and showcase themselves differently according to the situation for better or worse. There is flexibility and agency in identity.

Lear and Gloucester bear the brunt of betrayal in the play. Both of them as fathers, men, and men of power share similarities in their struggle. They symbolize royalty, but also embody the height of manhood and what it means to be a parental figure in the scope of that manhood. Lear and Gloucester are overtaken by their children and the impact on them reflects their multifaceted identities. Lear and Gloucester are utterly blindsided by the schemes of their children because Lear and Gloucester are used to being entitled to respect and reverence, especially Lear. The lines get blurred because Lear and Gloucester fail to separate fatherhood and their roles in society as men of power. As a result, their children treat them and overthrow them as if they were distant roles of power because there lacks a parent/child relationship. On the other hand, it’s not completely nonexistent because you see instances where Goneril, Regan, and Edmund do recognize Lear and Gloucester as fathers. Similarly, Lear and Gloucester tend to remind their children and the audience of their fatherly role.

As full of grief as age, wretched in both.

If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts

Against their father, fool me not so much

(II.iv.314-316) Lear

All dark and comfortless! Where’s my son

Edmund? –

Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature

(III.vii.103-105) Gloucester

Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are most complex because they test the fluidity of identity in order to fulfill their personal agendas. Goneril and Regan are representative of being women, sisters, daughters, wives, and mistresses. They both exercise these different roles to their advantage to get what they want. Although they seem heartless to the characters and audience, what makes Goneril and Regan strong is their sisterhood. It’s strong enough that even their own husbands fall victim to their alliance when they both set their eyes on Edmund. This alliance is dismantled at the end of the story since they turn on each other because of Edmund, but it still speaks about their greed and malicious intentions. Not to mention, gender is a major factor in why Goneril and Regan are viewed as vicious. They act out of character for a typical female role because of their aggressive and cutthroat nature. Additionally, the father-daughter relationship is usually an adored one, but here Goneril and Regan flip that narrative to heighten the drama. Edmund is a man, a bastard, a brother, a son, and most of all a player. His entire scheme is for the purpose of defying his social standing as “bastard.” To contradict being considered base, he gets in Albany’s good graces and Regan and Goneril’s too because he knows they have power. He betrays his brother and father as acts of jealousy and envy because his goal is to take what he feels he deserves. Along the way, Edmund also deceives Goneril and Regan just because he can. For Edmund, it’s about breaking free from the title he feels has been holding him back.

Pray you, let us sit

together. If our father carry authority with such

disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will

but offend us.

(I.ii.350-353) Goneril to Regan

Lag of a brother? Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base,’

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous and my shape as true

(I.ii.6-8) Edmund

Ultimately, these characters highlight fluidity in identity and emulate the idea that you can be whoever you choose to be. The use of various personas is proven to be a tool and a weapon for the characters in King Lear.

Albany and Gender

Although Albany’s weakness throughout King Lear seems to break gender stereotypes, his moral character growth subtly preserves them in the minds of the audience.

Albany is a foil to his wife Goneril; she is power-hungry and pragmatic, while he is cowardly and collected. When Albany constantly does not make strategic moves using his power, Goneril insults him and claims he is not manly. Goneril is portrayed with male stereotypes, while Albany is portrayed with female stereotypes.

However, Albany’s moral strength becomes apparent in the second half of the play. After dealing with Goneril’s antics for most of the play, Edgar convinces Albany that his wife and Regan are terrible people. But even after Albany vows to avenge the wrongs committed against Gloucester, he still agrees with her and forms an alliance with Edmund and Regan out of his patriotism to England. Although he is indecisive, through his dedication to his morals, Albany’s strength is developed throughout the play.

Regan and Goneril’s malicious actions come full circle; they both end up dying. Cordelia, who becomes a symbolic angel throughout the play, is tricked and killed. All women still lose at the end of the play, while Albany’s character undergoes moral growth and survives. He is a cowardly hero who becomes an enlightened saint. While Albany’s personality seems to break gender norms, this is not the case. He is still a man who ends up “winning” at the end of King Lear.