Power and Identity in King Lear

“King Lear” is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare that explores the themes of power, gender, identity, and performance. Through the characters and their actions, the play examines how these themes interrelate and affect the lives of the people around them.

Power is a central theme in “King Lear.” The play illustrates how power can corrupt even the most virtuous individuals. At the beginning of the play, King Lear is a powerful monarch with three daughters. He demands that they profess their love for him, and he plans to divide his kingdom among them based on their responses. However, he becomes increasingly irrational and paranoid as he loses his power. His daughters Goneril and Regan also become corrupted by power, mistreating their father and each other in their quest for control.

The theme of gender is also explored in “King Lear.” Women are portrayed as powerful and influential figures who can manipulate men to achieve their goals. Goneril and Regan use their sexuality to manipulate their husbands and gain power over their father. However, the play also highlights the limitations placed on women in society. Cordelia, Lear’s daughter who refuses to play along with her sisters’ games, is punished and ultimately killed.

Identity is another central theme in “King Lear.” The play explores the idea that identity can be fluid and changeable. Lear’s identity is tied up in his role as king, and he struggles to adjust to life without power. His journey throughout the play is a struggle to find his identity outside of his role as king. The Fool also represents an ambiguous identity, as he uses humor and wit to mask his true thoughts and feelings. The character of Edgar also embodies the idea of fluid identity. He disguises himself as Poor Tom to escape persecution and assumes different identities throughout the play.

The theme of performance is also explored in “King Lear.” The play features a number of instances where characters are performing or putting on a show. Lear’s demand for his daughters to profess their love for him is one example, as is the performance of Edgar as Poor Tom. These instances highlight the idea that people often play a role in society and may not reveal their true selves to others.

In conclusion, “King Lear” explores the complexities of power, gender, identity, and performance. The play illustrates how these themes interrelate and how they affect the lives of the characters in the play. The play provides insights into the human condition and how these themes are still relevant today. Shakespeare’s masterpiece challenges us to consider the relationship between power, gender, identity, and performance, and how we can use these concepts to understand ourselves and our place in society. The characters in the play are not simply figures from a bygone era but embody struggles and issues that continue to exist in our contemporary society. By engaging with these themes, “King Lear” encourages us to reflect on our own experiences and the complexities of the world we inhabit.

Edgar the Shapeshifter

In the beginning of King Lear, Edgar is established as a legitimate son and Edmund as a bastard son of Gloucester. This forms a conflict of power between the two brothers that ignites after Lear gives away his land and begins his slow demise. Edmund convinces Edgar that he has been banished by Lear, then accusing Edgar of a violent crime in order to receive inheritance.

Before this, Edgar had been trying to find purpose as a loved and wanted person as opposed to his brother according to societal standards, motivated by the promise of money. Because Edgar does not have any control over Edmund’s inheritance, Edmund sees no other alternative other than to kill his brother.

“Who gives anything to Poor Tom … that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inched bridges to course his own shadow for a traitor?”


Then, disguised as Poor Tom to avoid being killed, Edgar clearly sees the shadow of power his brother has lived in and how he has been taken advantage of by Edmund. As someone born into wealth, he would be deemed a traitor and judged. However, disguised as a beggar, he is pitied and free from judgement or societal expectations.

While Edgar is in disguise, he plays the role of a peacekeeper amidst the conflict started by Lear. He helps his father, Gloucester, who was condemned as a traitor and had his eyes plucked out for his compassion towards Lear, die at peace.

By the end of King Lear, Edgar is able to take revenge for the suffering Edmund has caused him. He escapes the shackles of societal expectations and is able to save himself while other characters perish. This gives him the opportunity to get a second chance at approaching life with a fresh perspective on the impact of power and social constructs such as class.

King Lear and King Richard

I’d like to preface that although I’m interested in medieval history, I’m not at all a medieval historian, so I’ll probably get at least a few things wrong.

Reading King Lear reminded me of the story of King Richard I of England, as it shares a couple parallels with the one told in Lear‘s. I’ll give a brief summary here.

Richard was the son of Henry II, and brother to Henry the Young King (his elder), and Geoffrey II. He grew up like a son of the king, in wealth and luxury, and received a good education. Though, being a younger son of King Henry II, he was not expected to take the throne.

When Henry II fell seriously ill in 1170, he began planning to divide his kingdom among his sons, but wanted to retain overall authority over his sons and their territories, as they were not yet old enough to rule by themselves (starting to see the similarities?). Richard’s brother, Young Henry, was crowned as the heir apparent in June.

A few years later, the three brothers, Richard, Geoffrey, and most of all the eldest Henry the Young, began to grow unsatisfied. Their father still controlled their territories officially, and his power over them was still intact. For this reason, Henry the Young instigated a revolt. It also should be mentioned that it was rumored their mother pushed them to take this action, though for what reason I’m not sure. The brothers all joined Henry the Young against their father, Henry II, and took refuge under the protection of the French King Louis VII while they mounted their forces. Jordan Fantosme, a poet of the time, described the rebellion as a “war without love.”

The French forces were very successful in their advances, but the English were biding their time. An army was growing in Brittany.
The brothers were getting more confident in their victory, and made promises to French barons for land and gold. This would soon turn on them, though, and the English began rapidly retaking territory with a massive force of 20,000 mercenaries. Eventually, Louis VII would seek peace with Henry II, and leave the brothers out of the treaty.

The brothers had no other option than to ask for mercy from their father, who gave it to them. Though the terms they were given from their father had taken away most of their lands, and they were not again able to challenge their father. Richard, though, seemingly got off easier than his brothers, and was left with enough land for him to amass his power again. He again scuffled with his father and brothers a while longer, until Henry the Young died suddenly, leaving Richard next in line to be heir to the throne. His father commanded him to cede his territory to his mother (who had formerly been imprisoned by Henry II, for some reason?), to which he refused. Henry II later died, and it was suspected that Richard had somehow caused his death, though this has never been proved either way. Richard then was crowned King of England.

I hope you enjoyed my summary of that very short period of King Richard “Cœur de Lion”‘s life, and I’m sure you can see how it has some similarities with the Tragedy of King Lear, especially relating to the father/child power relationships, though I wouldn’t call it either a tragedy or a comedy. It may seem more like a tragedy from Richard’s perspective, as he tried to get power over his over-controlling father with his two brothers, lost, and was removed from much of his power, though this still is an imperfect comparison. It is interesting how in this example (from which Shakespeare may have taken inspiration?), Henry II, the father, retains his power and authority over his sons, and manages to win a war against them, while in Lear, he loses all power. This may cause this story to be seen more as a moral lesson, saying “don’t rebel against your father,” while in Lear, it’s a tragedy from the father’s perspective. I can also see this as being compared to Edmund’s story, though here the son’s treachery didn’t succeed, and wasn’t quite as morally bankrupt. There can also be some comparisons between Richard’s mother and the women in power in Lear. It’s quite interesting how she was rumored to have done many things to influence the brothers, when none of it could have been proven.

Overall, I think this story and Lear’s are an interesting comparison to make, when it’s possible Shakespeare took inspiration from this story, or any number of other monarchical dramas.

The Role of Women In King Lear

Female characters helped King Lear and the readers understand what true love is. Cordelia demonstrates the consistency of true love by not rejecting it, even when her father implemented cruel actions against her. Lear was mislead by his inability to realize that Cordelia was the only daughter that showed true love to him. The king, who had good traits appeared to be a victim by the wrong development from his own conscious. King Lear trusted his daughters and thus made them rule the kingdom. But his daughters open his eyes to the flawed love Regan and Gonerail showed. It is Lear’s daughters that made the king make the greatest mistake of his life that ends up killing everyone at the end of play. The role of women is a personification of wisdom to Lear, which he realizes in the end, but unfortunately, too late.

The Fool and The King: The Role of The Fool in King Lear

The character of the Fool in King Lear plays an inherently critical role in both the development of Lear’s character and the progression of the story as a whole. From the very beginning of the play, the Fool’s position is unique in that he is the one person in the kingdom who can talk back to the king, as long as he does it through jokes and rhymes. As a result of this unique position, the Fool is the first character to tell Lear he made a mistake in banishing Cordelia and giving his power to Goneril and Regan. He acts as an unofficial advisor and conscience for Lear, while adding an element of comic relief to the play. As the story continues, the Fool leaves with Lear when he runs out into the storm at the end of Act II, and he continues to act as a physical manifestation of Lear’s internal self-criticism via color commentary throughout Act III. But then, in the middle of Act III, The Fool disappears and the audience doesn’t see him for the rest of the play. That could represent Lear’s madness—he no longer needs an advisor once he reaches the point of no return—or it could be a sign of Lear accepting his daughter’s betrayal and thus no longer needing the Fool to narrate his mistakes. Either way, The Fool seems to act entirely in relation to Lear. He has no visible agenda of his own; he acts almost as more of a symbol than a character. That detachment allows him to act as reflection of Lear’s character development throughout the play, giving the audience insight into the King that wouldn’t be possible without the addition of the Fool. 

The Many Tragedies of King Lear

King Lear is a unique tragedy insofar as it tells the tragic story not only of King Lear, but also several others characters in layers of baked narrative. Like a fugue with several different lines of melody, King Lear is inlaid with several stories of tragedy–and the complex relationships and themes explored in them can leave you in a fugue state. I’ve noticed several tragedies within the tragedy (tragedyception), and I’m sure there’s an argument to include more. For example, the story of Gloucester can be seen as a self-contained tragedy; stemming from his fatal flaw of ignorance, in short succession, Gloucester betrays his faithful son, loses his eyes, and dies a miserable death. He checks all the boxes: he is of noble stature, his downfall is tragic but not pathetic, and his end is not fully just. The main themes and motifs explored and used in this mini-tragedy are some of the most pervasive and powerful throughout the tragedy. Edgar’s clever usage of societal binaries between unnatural and natural and supposed links of family make one of the the broader play’s most pervasive themes that those who trust blindly in power binaries are often betrayed, manipulated, and discarded as more savvy and aware actors ruthlessly dispose of them. And Gloucester’s arc reflects the most clearly in the entire play the motif of sight vs blindness. Furthermore, the conflict within a supposedly happy family clearly reflects the broader thematic dynamic of familial conflict and the ultimate subjectivity of the family concept. Gloucester’s tragedy is a small tragedy enclosed in a larger whole: and the combination of his tragedy with that of others (Lear, Albany, arguably France too) is perhaps one of the reasons for the powerful catharsis that the play yields and the profound themes explored.

King Lear: A Tragedy?

Questions have been raised that begin to doubt that King Lear should be defined as a tragedy. Some would argue that Lear does not have the adequate display of morality that a protagonist in a tragedy traditionally has. For instance, the play starts with Lear’s questionable method of how to divide up his land and give it to his daughters: having them tell him how much they love him. And it is implied that no matter the eloquence of the daughters’ professions of love, Lear would likely favor Cordelia. Being shallow is seldom a characteristic of a protagonist. However, I do not believe such arguments are strong enough to discredit Lear as a proficient protagonist for a tragedy. I feel that Lear is an excellent protagonist of a tragedy because he is imperfect. This allows Lear to grow in integrity as a character as the play progresses. It also allows the audience to better empathize with Lear, given that no one is perfect. Furthermore, the way Shakespeare characterized Lear sends the message that people can grow stronger and wiser in the face of extreme hardship. I just think there would have been less of a point to the story if Lear had been a perfect person with little character development, at least in opposition to the Lear we were given.

Juggling Power and Chaos

King Lear is a story of authority and familial roles and dynamics. Lear is a king where is power and authority make up his identity, so when he gives away his kingdom to his daughters, who have nothing but evil intentions. By doing this, this sends himself and all his kingdom into chaos, we are able to see how seeking control is able to destroy a person as well as those around them. In the beginning Lear represents the hierarchy found within society, however, when Lear loses all of his authority it warps all the binaries known in the play. This allows disorder and madness to become leading themes of this play.

These themes come to a head when Lear is put out into the storm by his daughters, he is able to reflect and all his power yet how little he had done for others who did not have much. Being in the force of the storm Lear is humbled and now understands how insignificant himself and the power he had was. This is a revelation not only of his loss of social control but also the need to re-evaluate the things valued and found significant, this then allows for the character development of becoming more compassionate and sympathetic. Once Lear fully understands this he is able to understand himself, after confronting the chaos and letting go of the need for power he allows himself to find peace and sanity amidst what is continued to go on around him.

Age & Power in King Lear

Age and old age play an important role in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, as it acts as a framework for a character’s power. The main character, King Lear, is an aging monarch who has to come to terms with his own mortality and the end of his reign. Throughout the play, Shakespeare emphasizes Lear’s old age to display his lack of wisdom and to create more emotion as he suffers. 

Goneril and Regan, Lear’s eldest daughters, respect his old age, but view it as a way to manipulate his power. Regan and Goneril consistently use Lear’s age and lost sanity as an excuse to keep him away from any power they were given. Lear’s age and the ambition of his daughters lead them to become enemies, rather than work together. 

His youngest daughter, Cordelia, does the opposite of Regan and Goneril. Throughout the play, Cordelia offers the truth to Lear. From the very beginning, when she would not accept the land, Cordelia has been trying to protect Lear from his downfall. The contrast between Lear and Cordelia’s age and the fact that it was Cordelia with the power to help fix Lear’s poor judgment further illuminates the significance of age in the play. 

In both instances, age directly correlates with power. From this, the play highlights the fleeting nature of both one’s age and power.

Caricatures In Media

The Tragedy of King Lear is a simple tale for any audience to follow as it reflects human nature and the many aspects of greed that can overtake someone in a position of power. We have all experienced a case of this with our former president Donald Trump. We characterize him and make him into some kind of caricature that has strikingly exaggerated features and actions. The play is heavily dramatized as it is fishing for a reaction from the audience, however, we have seen from our former president and other people from our own human history, that people like this do exist and can be characterized like a character in a story or a play in this instance. The story of Lear may be simple to follow but difficult to break down as people have many layers to their own personality, beliefs, etc. Behavior changes over time no matter who you are. We learn, adapt, and change who we are with age and circumstance. Lear is old, he has experience as a ruler which can add onto his character. We don’t see him as a ruler before he gives everything away to his daughters, but we can understand that a social structure and system with his kingdom was there as everything was intact when we are introduced to it. Was that system just? Make of it what you will. We see a similar approach to characters in cartoons as the best characters are always those who show many fragments of humanity, even the bad ones.

Edmond in ‘King Lear’: The Perfect Villain?

Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ has been replayed, reread, and studied for centuries, and one of its most infamous characters is the troublemaker behind much of the conflict, Edmond. Born illegitimately to the Earl of Glouster, Edmond lives his whole life under the shadow of his brother, Edgar. Until the events that transpire in the play, Edmond perfectly plays the role of an obedient and subjugated bastard child, gaining the trust of his father and brother. This is until he spends the whole play manipulating those around him, resulting in the deaths of Regan, Gonoril, and his father Glouster. This is what makes Edmond such a cunning and well-crafted villain. His struggle against societal expectations allows the audience to initially empathize with his struggle, only for him to gain their distaste slowly throughout the play as he cunningly turns family members against each other. Edmond is the perfect villain because he contrasts well with the Shakespearian idea of a flawed hero; he uses the way society treated him and his role as the illegitimate son to motivate his villainous rise and fall from power. The role of Edmond as the ideal villain is only enhanced more by his death when his antagonisms come full circle as he is slain by his brother Edgar, allowing good to triumph over evil while also using the conflict of family members against each other to develop the narrative of a tragedy.

Women in Power in King Lear

Something worth noting in Shakespeare’s play King Lear is the way that women, more specifically women in power, are represented. Regan and Goneril, 2 of Lear’s daughters in which he gives his land and power to, are portrayed as corrupted and vile as they plot against Lear and end up dismissing him out into the storm at the end of Act 2, Regan going as far as stabbing and killing a servant without hesitation in Act 3. This feeds into the idea that women in power become malicious and only desire that given power for evil reasons. Cordelia, on the other hand, was the only daughter who wasn’t given land after being banished for refusing to declare her love for her father. Though a naturally kind character, Cordelia is portrayed as precious, forgiving, and pure, who is coincidentally the only powerless daughter.

Another example is at the closing lines of Act 3, Sc. 7, 122-124:

Third Servant

If she live long

And in the end meet the old course of death,

Women will all turn monsters.

The servant claimed that if Regan was able to get away with killing the other servant, then all women would supposedly “become monsters”, portraying the future of all women as corrupted just by the actions of one. The servants see it as a threat if women start to yearn for power instead of just letting the men receive all the power and not intervening, and the play in general seems to only focus on the power/land given to Lear’s daughters when the other men are present, more specifically their husbands.

Servitude by Serve-a-tude

While King Lear houses many characters and motifs to delve into conveying some serious themes around identity, power, and family, one of the most notable moments of the play exists early on in the play during the fight between Oswald and Kent within Act 2 Scene 2.

While the fight itself serves as a fun and intense moment in the play as Kent curses Goneril’s servant in Shakespearean tongue, what makes the moment profound is the distinction between Kent and Oswald as characters throughout the play, and the overall question of what makes a good servant?

Upon Kent choosing to attack Oswald initially, the surrounding characters along with the audience are under the misconception that he is in the wrong for doing so, when in reality his aggression towards Oswald can be dissected far further. Kent, as seen in Act I, is a loyal subject of Lear. His servitude extends beyond simply doing what the King asks, as we see him challenging Lear banishing Cordelia, and harboring his best interests in mind. Upon being banished, Kent still chooses to serve the Lear in disguise in order to carry out his duties but also to try and help support his status as his power remains in limbo between him and his daughters. Finally, we see the greatest extent of Kent’s loyalty at the end of the play when upon Lear’s death, Kent takes his own life in a noble fashion, exclaiming that his journey as a subject of Lear is far from over and that his master calls upon him in the afterlife.

Oswald on the other hand represents a different type of servitude which conjures a conflict between the two characters. While, similar to Kent, Oswald is the right hand man of the Kings eldest daughter Goneril his servitude revolves around the ideology that by obeying every command given, he will later be able to position himself in a higher power. This type of “servitude” so to speak is seen upon Oswald attempting to end Gloucesters life in Act IV in hopes of being recognized for his loyalty and valeince in doing so.

Understanding these two personas of a servant helps to better contextualize the reason for Kent and Oswald brawling it out during the second act. Oswald willingly chooses to deceive the king by carrying out Goneril’s will, attempting to deliver letters that would be used against the king in order to gain himself a promotion. Kent’s response to this is taking on Oswald in order to maintain his morality and loyalty to the king. In the end, despite his short-coming in Act I serving a ‘tude to the King, Kent can be understood as the definition of pure servitude, with no other motives or outside interests than to serve Lear throughout the story, while Oswald can be perceived as a yes-man to most of the characters in the play, while in reality he uses his servitude as a tool for subliminally gaining power.

The Realist in King Lear (Cordelia)

The Tragedy of King Lear is the story of how King Lear lost his power by giving it to his ungrateful daughters. King Lear wants to know if his daughters are in the right enough to be able to control the land and Britain. But by giving the two ungrateful daughters the power they throw England into chaos. Two of the daughters Regan and Goneril both show their love to Lear by talking about their love to him. But in reality they didn’t and were just faking and the only one who saw that was the youngest daughter Cordelia. When asked by Lear about her love for him she didn’t say anything and said “nothing”. At the time Lear was upset at Cordelia for not respecting his wishes and not loving him. Lear banishes her for not saying what he expected like her sisters would but Cordelia saw their fake love and knew she loved her father unconditionally. Unlike her sisters who were power hungry and selfish.

As Cordelia gets banished she comes back towards the end of the play and Lear is sorry and realizes that she was right. That Cordelia was the only daughter who truly loved her father. She is much younger than her sisters and is seen as perfect and pure in almost every scene she is in. In the play she barely speaks and it makes her so that she is seen as one with good morals and does everything right because people with a lot of lines are seen as bad or not as good as others who don’t speak and are in line with the roles of their lives. Regan and Goneril are seen as monsters and inherit the power and they have a lot of problems because they aren’t prepared to be in a position of power because they don’t really know what their doing. While Cordelia knows most of the time what to do when she is in a problem. But she is never the cause of the problem because she is operating on what she thinks is right not what she wants. Which makes Cordelia a Realist in King Lear.

Misogyny in Shakespeare (Spoiler: There’s a Lot)

Shakespeare is extremely notable and that is an undeniable fact. But it also remains true that while his works contain female main characters, something that was not common in his time, they fall short of having any substance outside of men or are portrayed as the most monstrous things known to men. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, a lot of people die in the end, to put it simply. But what makes death different for women in Shakespeare is that when it happens, it is primarily portrayed as their fault and when the men die, it somehow is still the woman’s fault.

In these plays, everything a woman does is wrong and men can do no wrong, and when they miraculously do, it’s seen as honorable.

Although it’s my personal favorite, Shakespeare manages to incorporate nearly every female stereotype in Hamlet. Gertrude is the betraying, selfish whore and Ophelia is the over-emotional and naive crybaby who ultimately commits suicide because there is no man for her. Not only are the women reduced to very crude stereotypes, but they are also portrayed as the personification of evil. From the start of the play, it’s clear that Hamlet resents his mother for remarrying to her husband’s brother but Hamlet actually directs most of his hatred toward Gertrude than Claudius, despite him being the one that manipulated the whole situation. It’s also clear that Hamlet has a general disdain for women because of how he treats Ophelia, even though she is as a woman “should” be: sensitive and submissive. Hamlet delights in tormenting Ophelia, often making blatantly sexual jokes to her that are also directed at his mother, frankly a whole other issue. Overall, it’s clear that women cannot win in Hamlet; unknowingly remarry your husband’s killer and you’re the devil incarnate, or do everything you’re supposed to but receive the most awful treatment that drives you to suicide. Take your pick?

Macbeth, another profound play does the same thing to women in Hamlet, but arguably worse. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as the opposite of what a woman should be; not motherly, cold, domineering in the marriage, and is therefore a villain. Lady Macbeth is ambitious and gets what she wants but she still kills herself in the end (what is it with Shakespeare and marrying women to suicide). In the beginning, it’s obvious that Lady Macbeth does not believe her cowardly husband will be able to pull off the task of killing Duncan so she calls upon spirits to give her the power to do it by “unsex”ing her and stripping of femininity. Enough said there. Throughout the play, she taunts and emasculates Macbeth, making her Shakespeare’s ultimate ball-buster, if you will. Even when Lady Macbeth gets what she wants, she suddenly can’t handle the guilt, which is not to say female characters can’t feel guilt for doing bad things, but Shakespeare doing that to Lady Macbeth felt cheap.

I would consider the portrayal of women in King Lear to be more of a commentary on misogyny than stereotyping of female characters but it ultimately is still quite flawed. While King Lear does a pretty good job of critiquing the way men view women in power, the way in which the story ends just falls back on what Shakespeare always does to women. Goneril and Regan, while obviously having done bad things to gain power, receive much worse treatment than their male counterparts. Though, the snide and disgusted comments from side characters do a better job as a societal critique than a writing failure. But, while the argument that the nasty Goneril and psycho Regan had it coming could be made, the same could not be said for Cordelia. Shakespeare portrays her as the perfect woman: sensitive, compassionate, emotional but not overly emotional, loves her father, blah, blah, blah been there and done that. Had she been left standing in the end, I think Cordelia had amazing potential as a character but Shakespeare effectively rendered her a useless woman by killing her off and it felt like the ultimate cop-out. Whether Shakespeare did this intentionally or not, he still heavily reinforced the notion that women cannot be in power, even if they are “perfect”.

Another awful honorable mention would be The Taming of the Shrew, aka the famous 10 Things I Hate About You, which I don’t think needs much more commentary (taming a headstrong and extremely intelligent woman because that is somehow revolting and undesirable, come on, seriously?)

So while Shakespeare wrote complex and compelling male leads, he had a nasty habit of writing his female characters as heinous bitches. Entertaining, yes. Profound? Definitely not.

Disguise Can Be Seen in Different Ways

When someone says they are in disguise or you hear the word disguise you normally think of a physical disguise that hides the person’s physical appearance. As shown in King Lear, Edgar goes in a physical disguise of a beggar known as Poor Tom to hide his identity from everyone. Just like Kent who pretended to be a peasant. However, disguise can be more than hiding your physical appearance, it can be used to hide who a person really is and their personality. Disgues are a very prevalent part of King Lear. Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all ut up a disguise of their personality throughout the play to manipulate the people around them. Edmund has a facade of being very innocent, however, this is all an act. He goes on to betray both his brother Edgar, by making it seem that Edgar wants to kill their father causing Edgar to run away and have to hide. He also goes on to betray his father Gloucester, Edmund tells Albany and Goneril of Gloucester’s involvement with the France army causing him to be punished by having his eyes ripped out. Goneril and Regan also put up a disguise throughout the play. Both daughters put up a facade of being caring daughters but later turn against their father. At the beginning of the play, both daughters showed their affection to their father, however after they got want they wanted, they turned on their father and took everything away from him. Disguise reinforces the theme of authority and identity in the midst of chaos. Many characters throughout the play are either in a physical disguise or a disguise of personality, which influences the power they have.

A Father’s Daughters

There are only three main female characters in King Lear, all of who are defined by their relationship to men. Each one has their own unique story and participates in their own play. Through Shakespeare’s lens powerful female characters are not seen this way. Instead, women with power are portrayed in Shakespeare’s tragedies as evil. If they are not evil their story is downplayed to fit in the male storylines.

Goneril and Regan are portrayed as distinctly evil and cutthroat throughout this play. They begin by immediately conning their father and pushing him out onto the street. They are constantly referred to as animals by Lear and other characters, dehumanizing them. They later both cheat on their husbands with the same man, becoming labeled as unpure, although Glouster has obviously also cheated on his wife due to the fact that he has a bastard son and is not labeled in that manner. I could personally appreciate their characters as villains if they had been fully fleshed out in that storyline. Although I can not do this because their villain stories simply exist to further the stories of male characters. Their outcasting and disrespect of Lear exist as a way to develop his madness and expedite his dissent. The audience never sees how they came to this decision, they are not complex characters but rather Shakespeare’s definition of two-dimensional evil women. We as readers or viewers very rarely see the behind-the-scenes of Goneril and Regan or their relationship with each other, making them seem even less like well-rounded characters.

Cordelia is the one main female character who starts off strong, with an immediate test of power against her father. This is empowering until she promptly disappears for almost four acts and it becomes obvious that her rebellion was simply a part of Lear’s dissent into madness. Lear’s first questionable act seen in the play happens after Cordelia goes against his wishes. Lear immediately responds with a crazy decision and his description as mad begins. Cordelia finally returns at the end of act four, immediately forgiving her father and coming to his aid. We see none of Cordelia’s healing process or reasoning behind forgiving her father. In the end, her death is off-stage and Lear continues to talk about her appearance and insult women as he mourns her. Her death furthers the power structure between parent and child that Lear struggles with. Lear’s madness comes from his struggle with power and when he is able to release that obsession with the power it allows him to begin understanding the world in a more sane way. Cordelia’s, as well as Goneril and Regans’s deaths exist not as their own but as a way for Lear to release part of his obsession with power.

Turmoil in King Lear

One of the most notable characteristics of King Lear himself is the strong emotions, especially anger, that he expresses throughout the play. What makes the play tragic to me is that instead of realizing that his daughter Cordelia was right for the first 3/4 of the play, he struggles internally, too stubborn to realize that his daughter may have been right, not just some ‘unruly women’ for speaking up. In the end, Cordelia was simply trying to protect him by warning him that maybe dividing up a kingdom based on her sisters’ cheesy, exaggerated speeches would not end well for him.

His arrogance worsens his madness because after losing Cordelia, his daughters with their newly-gained power are trying to ‘dethrone’ him. He has no idea how to deal with his ongoing loss of power, and eventually, we see King Lear wandering through a storm and shouting in rage. If King Lear had Cordelia while Regan and Goneril were still trying to strip him of his power, he would not have gone as mad as he did. King Lear’s only support system was his court jester, and while he is someone who is honest with King Lear, he isn’t someone who can have a somewhat normal conversation with him. King Lear’s arrogance and his initial mistake leading to his downfall combined are what make him such a frustrating yet tragic character.

Powerful Women In King Lear and the American Political System

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, women gain power which upsets the men around them. Power is first gained when Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, stands up to her father and says that she only loves him as much as is due. She uses her voice and stands up for what she believes. This also helps to strip Lear of his power because it reveals that he only has power because his subjects give it to him. It also shows that Cordelia has agency. Her sisters take power after Lear steps down by treating him poorly. After Lear steps down as king and gives his land to his daughters, they treat him badly and eventually throw him out. They become aggressive, needlessly harming Gloucester and pushing people out of their way to achieve power. The play essentially villainizes powerful women through its portrayal of them as aggressive and careless towards the well-being of others. Powerful women in politics are villainized in much the same way. For example, during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the presidency his wife, Michelle Obama, was portrayed in many cartoons as the force behind Obama’s campaign; Shown in one cartoon as carrying a gun and a string of bullets as Obama sports more peaceful attire. Additionally, Hillary Clinton was shown in several cartoons looking both angry and crazed. Both the women in King Lear and American politics seem to be villainized once they receive power. Powerful women are made out to be crazy and careless towards others, taking power in any way that they can and stomping on anyone that gets in their way. This contributes to the thought that women shouldn’t be in power because they are too emotional and will let their emotions get the better of them. However, this is sexism disguised as American politics. 

Hot Take- We Need More Female Villains

Historically, books, especially children’s books, have been filled with female characters playing the damsel in distress. Think of all of the fairy tale stories that are traditionally read to children at bedtime- the Cinderellas and the Rapunzels, always the prey of an evil queen or wicked witch, and always saved by a handsome prince charming. As a result of these stories, little girls all around the world are taught that talking to birds and squirrels is normal, and that true love’s kiss is the ultimate salvation. Luckily, these traditional stories have largely been regarded as out-of-date, both because of the restrictive example they set for young girls and because of the villanization of powerful women as snarl-toothed, long-nosed wicked witches and evil queens.

Of course, I believe that the dreams of little girls around the world should not be limited to true love’s kiss and Prince Charming. I also believe that there are not merely two types of female in the world- the princesses and the wicked witches. However, while I am okay with decreasing the amount of books that revolve around princesses and princes, I have a hard time totally erasing evil queens and wicked witches from the narrative. My reasoning is as follows: Is it really always necessary for women to be altruistic in their endeavors? Why is it so taboo for a woman to be strong, independent, and powerful, if not a little cruel-hearted? It’s normal if men are, after all. If we are to totally eradicate female villains, then we are only reinforcing the gender norms of women to be selfless, and upholding the patriarchal mirroring of women focusing their existence on others, rather than themselves.

If we are to increase the amount of female villains in literature, there are a few caveats:

  1. We must begin to view female villains less as villains, and more as anti-heroes. Take Goneril and Regan from King Lear, for example: if we viewed these two sisters as villains, we’d be missing out on much of their characters’ substance. However, if we view them as anti-heroes, central characters who lack conventional heroic and altruistic attributes, we open doors to analyze them as developed and complex characters. Rather than merely viewing them as power-hungry and evil, we can see that they are extremely calculated and witty women who are able to unhinge (and rehinge) the social framework to flip the gender binary and gain power. They began the play with very limited power, but by understanding the weaknesses of those conforming to power binaries, they quickly became the puppet masters controlling those who had once been considered superior to them. If you can empathize with Cordelia, who is a much more conventional heroine than her sisters, you must also be open to empathizing with Goneril and Regan, who have just as complex of an arc.
  2. Furthermore, it is important to understand that when I call for more female villains, I do not necessarily mean that we need more of the traditional female villains, such as the wicked witch/evil queen stereotype, or the more recent addition to the list, the femme fatale. Female villains (anti-heroes) cannot be boxed into categories because of their appearances. Not all independent and powerful women are green with long noses and pointed caps. While some very possibly might be, most women with these characteristics are normal people. It isn’t a woman’s looks that make her who she is, it is her wits, confidence, drive, and values. In order to continue having a platform for non-altruistic women vying for power, we must separate the woman from her appearance.
  3. Finally, we need to have more female villains prevail! Why should so much potential go to waste, time and time again? Again drawing from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the play’s two primary female characters, Goneril and Regan, were killed off before they could even truly gain the power that they had won. Their fight to shatter the male dominance of society was wasted with their untimely deaths. While some might believe that Regan and Goneril would not have been any better in power than a man, due to their cruelty, and thus are better off dead, I find this argument hard to believe. Who is to say that the sisters wouldn’t have changed the system from the inside, once they acquired power? If they were smart enough to nearly overthrow the entire framework of a society, surely they could have been smart enough to merely use cruelty and savagery as a tool, knowing that it had worked in the hands of the men before them. Why root against women whose acquisition of power sets a new norm for girls and women everywhere, that it is possible for a woman to have power?

In my opinion, female villains are the best type of villains. This is because female villains are feminists working against the patriarchy, rather than with it. Beneath the seemingly cruel surface lies their motivation- a justified bitterness towards the patriarchal system which has time and time again oppressed independent and power-seeking women. While ultimately it is necessary to destroy the underpinnings of patriarchy, which lie in the core values of what it means to be a good leader, in the meantime it is vital for women to have leadership positions. It is impossible to put an end to male dominance, male centeredness, and male identification, the roots of patriarchy, if women are never in power. Therefore, it is important to celebrate and uplift the female villains who represent the driven and power-hungry women out there, unwilling to patiently wait their turn for the spotlight.