In King Lear, Shakespeare (unintentionally) explores gender roles, particularly women, and their pertinance to animals. I use the word unintentionally because I believe that Shakespeare, in this time period, was not even thinking about the excessive animal imagery in this play used to describe women. Gender roles and stereotypes were not on Shakespeare’s (or anyone’s) radar at this time. As much as we love to think of literature being a commentary on society, the use of animal imagery was not a commentary, but simply more of “how it be.” We also see a parallel between animal comparisons and power, a motif that was most definitely intentional. Men in the play are constantly putting these women down, dehumanizing and disrespecting them. As Lear states, “O Regan, she hath tied Sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here” (II.IV.150-151). Lear is comparing his daughter to a viscous bird, which in my opinion was completely unwarranted and only provoked by Lear’s power insecurities brought on by his daughters.
Later in Act III, Gloucester is speaking with Regan, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs” (III.VII.69-71). Again, we see this animal imagery manifesting. Gloucester essentially calls Regam viscous by describing her “boarsih fangs.”
Circling back to power relating to women, Shakespeare had a difficult time letting a woman in power live. Cordelia’s death seemed random when I first read the scene, however, after reflection, her death was not random at all. Our society now, and of course back then, has trouble with the idea of women in power and therefore the only way to rectify the issue is to kill them off. As a society, we have seemingly made strides in the right direction, but we still need to change the mindsets of people who believe that women are emotional and unstable monsters with a hidden agenda, and unfortunately reading King Lear enforced that idea.