King Lear is known as one of Shakespeare’s best plays with complex characters and a timeless exploration of personality flaws and the human condition. However, it’s also deeply misogynistic and treats its female characters as one dimensional.
One of the early examples is the treatment of women as inferior to men. Even Lear reduces his youngest daughter as an object to be traded by men. Cordelia is offered as a “prize” to her suitors based on her dowry and not on any of her qualities. When she is banished and left with nothing, one of her suitors drops her instantly. The women are spoken to and treated by the male characters. The female characters in the play are regularly spoken down to, belittled, and dismissed. They are not given the same respect or agency as their male counterparts, and their opinions and desires are often disregarded.
King Lear also reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. Women are portrayed as manipulative, deceitful, and untrustworthy, while men are portrayed as strong and virtuous. This is especially true of Goneril and Regan who are cunning, but also portrayed as heartless and cruel, with little to no reason for their behavior. There is no real explanation for their actions, and they don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. This reinforces many of the inaccurate gender stereotypes of the age instead of trying to counteract or challenge those ideas
Another issue is the play’s portrayal of women as deeply sexualized. Women are reduced to their bodies and are often described in objectifying terms. For example, Goneril is described as “a whore” and a “siren,” while Regan is referred to as a “wolf” who will “devour” her prey. This sexualization of women is deeply troubling and reinforces harmful ideas about women and their bodies. Even Gloucester refers to Edmund’s mother as an object in front of him when he says “there was great sport in his making”
King Lear is unfortunately filled with misogyny. While it’s important to acknowledge the play’s artistic and cultural significance, it’s also crucial to recognize its shortcomings. Understanding the general treatment of women at the time, we can still expect great artists to challenge these notions and not just be part of the problem.