Ambitious Women in “King Lear”

“Attacking women in power goes back centuries”

– ‘Nasty Woman’: Why Men Insult Powerful Women

Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” is based on the king of Britain, exploring various themes of family, authority, power, and justice. Another prominent theme that struck me was gender roles because it is so common in the current world and in the past.

The article “‘Nasty Woman’: Why Men Insult Powerful Women” by The New York Times highlights the many instances throughout history where women who have power have been verbally harassed, typically in the political field. This is out of the insecurity of men, which comes from stereotypical views of women being weak and not capable of handling power. These insecure men get upset when powerful women don’t fit into the usual stereotype of supportive, polite, and caring, and they become bothered by that and insult these women. This article also explores the idea that these insults toward women can be more subtle on purpose because they play into people’s stereotypes without them even realizing it.

Some examples that this article provides are John McCain calling Hillary Clinton “emotional” or Donald Trump questioning her “stamina.” Both of these insults play into stereotypes of women that go way back in time, suggesting Clinton is too weak to handle a powerful position or as irrational. Another subtle way that people are implying these stereotypes is by saying terms of affection. “Calm down, dear,” David Cameron, Prime Minister, says to Angela Eagle, a politician. Women in power also seem to never be able to win in these stereotypical scenarios. For example, women with children are told they aren’t capable of leading while having to tend to motherly duties, but those without children are criticized for “not living up to society’s expectations of women.” The ambition of women in power has threatened these men and caused them to lash out on powerful women.

Throughout “King Lear,” Shakespeare suggests that women cannot attain power on their own, and if they do, it will not benefit them, but bring chaos and contribute to their downfall. There are many other instances in the play where it is suggested that women are worse when it comes to being in positions of power compared to men. Even when men seem to stray from their stereotypical roles of being strong or mighty, they are seen as feminine and weak. One example is after two of King Lear’s daughters, Regan and Goneril, profess their love to him, his third daughter, Cordelia, refuses, which challenges the gender role of women and Lear becomes unhappy with her. Cordelia gains power and independence by refusing to fuel her father’s ego as the king, and Shakespeare makes his view on gender roles clear when he chose to express the corruption that occurs when women stray from their stereotypes. As Cordelia defends the gender system, she has to use authority to fight the spiteful actions of her sisters.

Despite Cordelia’s righteousness, she had to be punished in the end due to her actions of going against the stereotypical gender roles set by society. The play ends with Cordelia’s death, which Shakespeare decided to include because of the play’s theme of following gender roles.

3 thoughts on “Ambitious Women in “King Lear”


    I liked your take on Cordelia’s role as a woman in this time period. I had never thought of her as breaking gender stereotypes in the play but now I understand that she did right from the opening act when she refused to praise her father.


  2. I enjoyed the connections on women in power from this play being reflected onto the present, and agree how women and power are either seen as too emotional or evil like Regan and Goneril. I Also never considered how Cordelia was breaking gender roles in the beginning and how that ties into her death.


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