Gender roles play a HUGE role in the storyline of King Lear. From the emasculation and takedown of King Lear resulting in a major loss of power to him to the ultimate, untimely demise of every strong, or even just, every female character, this work truly highlights sexism that was alive and prospering during the time period in which Shakespeare wrote it.
At the beginning of the play, in Act 1, Scene 1, Lear is furious at the fact that Cordelia states she will love her husband when she marries him in the future, and will thus not be able to afford every drop of her love and devotion to her father, for now, and forever. He states, “I loved her most and thought to set my rest On her kind nursery. Hence and avoid my sight!(I, i, 137-139). Here it can be seen that unconditional love is only expected of women in this play. Lear banished Cordelia because she would not love him unconditionally for her entire life in the way he expected. While parents are supposed to love their children unconditionally, Lear abandons his daughter, the one he loved the most, because of gender roles.
According to Lear, his other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, aren’t much better than Cordelia. Both of his daughters have stated that if he wishes to live with them, then he must reduce his worldly possessions to almost nothing. In this grand act of emasculation, Regan states, “What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five, To follow in a house where twice so many Have a command to tend you? What need one?”(II, iv, 300-303). Here, Regan is completely overpowering Lear. She is “stripping” him of the last few things he has power over, to allow him to stay and be cared for by her. Lear sees this as a complete and absolute reduction of his power, which he refuses to stand for. Instead of being reasonable and giving up his men, he leaves her castle as an insane storm rages on.
At the end of the play, all three of Lear’s daughters end up dying in the battle that rages on for power and total control of the kingdom. Regan was killed by her sister, Goneril. According to the Gentleman, “Your lady, sir, your lady. And her sister By her is poisoned. She confesses it”(V, iii, 268-269). Goneril poisoned Regan over Edmund, a man, for fear that she would have stolen him from her. By having these women die over a man, Shakespeare is reinforcing the gender roles that women are petty, and exist purely for men and to fight over men. He does not even afford them their own, unique deaths. Rather, deaths by one another, grasping for a man they cannot both have. Cordelia is mourned the most by her father. He is overcome with grief when he finds her lifeless body and, in response, states, “Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in a woman”( V, iii, 328-329). Even in her death, Lear enforces patriarchal ideas of what women can be. He liked that she was quiet, subservient, and gentle, and in her death, that is what he is choosing to remember. Not the times she controlled an army, or stood up for herself, using her voice. He never chose to acknowledge her power.