Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare explores gender roles through his female characters and believes that women are incapable of having positions of power because they will become corrupt. Right at the beginning of the play, Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, is banished because she goes against his word. Immediately it is clear women are seen as disloyal, and this same pattern is carried on later into the play, when Lear’s other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, betray him as well. Lear feels a deep hatred for his daughters, and although they are his blood, he cannot see past the fact that they betrayed him. He feels he has been emasculated by his daughters after giving them his kingdom, and feels threatened that his daughters have enough power to take away his dominance. This idea goes against stereotypical gender roles at the time, as women were expected to not be in positions of power at all unless accompanied by a husband.
At the time, and even today, women have to work much harder to be seen as authority figures. Because of the stigma that men are not supposed to show emotion, Lear’s daughters have to work to hide their emotions while surrounded by men, “It seemed she was a queen O’er her passion, who, most rebel-like, Sought to be King o’er her” (Act four, 14-16). Cordelia is pushed to “think like a man and not like a woman”, and act like a king, rather than a queen. Any shown emotion makes her seem weak, and in order to stay in power she must defy the stereotypical woman’s gender role.
This defiance of gender roles is also seen with males in the play as well. When France invades Britain, the Duke of Albany goes against norms when he doesn’t fight back against France: “France spreads his banners in our noiseless land, with plumed helm thy state begins to threat, Whilst thou, a moral fool sits still and cries” (Act four, 57-59). Instead of becoming aggressive and asserting power, Albany sits back and watches it happen in defeat. The word “fool” makes it clear his actions and emotions are highly frowned upon. Because he has failed to tae up the traditionally masculine role, Albany is seen as a feminine character in this point in the play as he is thinking with his emotions and not his head.
Gender roles are widely explored throughout the play, however it is clear Shakespeare believes women are inherently worse in positions of power than men are. Even when men slip out of their stereotypical roles, their actions are seen as feminine and therefore weak and frowned upon. This is an interesting play to read, especially now, because there is so much talk about women in positions of power in the world today. Many of the themes present in the play are still assumed about women and men today, and it just shows how much work needs to be done in todays society.