The idea of women as one of two extremes in literature and religion is one of the most discussed themes in modern history. The comparisons began with early religion, like that of Ancient Greece, but most commonly in the Bible. Children in Christian households grow up going to church and hearing stories about every type of man – good, evil, strong, kind, etc. As for women, they only hear about women who are “pure” and “untainted” or women who are the opposite/evil. King Lear, though the play never mentions the Christian God, displays these undertones throughout interactions of the different women with each other and others.
Cordelia represents the pure and loving ideal of women throughout the play. This role begins in the beginning of the novel, where she speaks with honesty and acts with other characters’ best intentions at heart. She accepts the King’s anger and leaves him be, standing by her choice to tell him the truth. She is absent for the middle acts, but her role is fathered when she re-enters the plot line in Act 4. In Act 4, Scene 3, a gentleman tells Kent of Cordelia’s reaction at the update on England’s chaos from Kent’s letter. The letter detailed Lear’s treatment by Cordelias sisters. The man claims that she “shook the holy water from her heavenly eyes” in her sorrow (4.3.35). Cordelia is idolized as a figure of purity and goodness in her actions and appearance. Her character seems to parallel the Virgin Mary; she is spoken about by a random gentleman in terms that paint her as a “heavenly” figure or an angel, which implies that the greater population that the gentleman belongs to shares this belief.
Contrarily, Regan and General are foils to Cordelias character: they are portrayed as base and cruel compares to the beauty and light emitted by their sister. Tension between Lear and the sisters builds, eventually reaching a turning point in Act 2, scene 4. Lear wants to stay with one of his daughters, but they take away all of his men and servants, vowing to make his life at either of their homes miserable. Since his power and happiness is stripped from him, Lear leaves the castle to gather himself in the outside storm. The sisters’ real cruelty is revealed then, as they lock him out of the palace to suffer in the dangerous storm alone. Regan demands, “O sir, to willful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors. / He is attended with a desperate train….” (2.4.346-349). Goneril agrees with Regan’s request, and so do most of the men there. The act of shutting out their senile father to a storm where he could die seems inhumane of the sisters, and futher’s the portrayal of them in Act 1 as negative, base, and borderline evil.
The very action of shutting Lear outside the palace is what so deeply upsets Cordelia; These actions juxtapose each other, making the negative versus view of Regan and Goneril / Cordelia that much more extreme. Within the context of the whole play, these women create the general sense of gender roles – like the Bible, women are either pure and good or evil and sexual (also due to the sisters infatuation with Edmund). Women are not shown like men are – they must be one of two destructive stereotypes.