Women’s Roles in Shakespeare’s King Lear

King Lear painting

One of my last large essays (final papers here and here) was an analysis of a chosen play for my Shakespeare class, and good god am I ready to finish the semester. I’ve never been a Shakespeare fan because his writings weren’t the focus of my high school classes, so reading through the plays he wrote has been quite difficult, to say the least. I chose King Lear and what their influence was on the piece as a whole as the focus of my essay. I hope you like reading this one! Fun story: I finished this essay at 7:30 am this morning and decided to take a “quick” nap before my 9:30 class. I WOKE UP AT 11:15. I slept through the class in which my paper was due!! I had a severe flashback to my sophomore year where I slept through half of my religion final and it appears that I haven’t learned or matured since then! Thankfully, I found my Shakespeare professor after searching high and low for him throughout the English building and he was kind enough to calm me down and take my essay from me. Thank André 3000!

Shakespeare’s King Lear takes the reader on a journey through the complicated 10relationship between family and duty and what becomes of those who drown themselves in power. Although the play is set in a patriarchal society that concentrates on and celebrates the men who lead both their countries and their families, much focus is placed on the women characters who directly alter the events in the narrative. Examining the characteristics and importance of each of King Lear’s three daughters— Gonerill, Regan, and Cordelia, as well as the nonexistent maternal characters reveals Shakespeare’s view of women and their roles in society at the time. The women in King Lear are unique in their own ways as some are portrayed in a stereotypical male gaze, while others are fully developed characters who reclaim agency over their lives and ultimately hold dominance over even their male counterparts.

Shakespeare introduces the differences between King Lear’s three daughters when the latter assigns the women a love scale in which they must trade their adoration for his bequeathed inheritance. The entrance of the king and his interactions with each daughter provides an illustration of the characteristics he finds most admirable and valuable, while the women reveal their desires, or lack thereof, for dominance and the steps they will take to acquire what they lust. The scene examining the true characteristics of the women in relation to their devotion to King Lear is crucial to establishing an accurate view of who the characters are versus who they appear to be in the eyes of their father. In the first act, King Lear speaks to the women in a group setting as a possible influential tactic that would force each daughter to announce her loyalty to and love for her father. Gonerill’s response to her father’s question of how much she loves him reveals her willingness to lie and cheat the system if that means she will receive her full inheritance and gains a new position of authority when she says, “As much as child e’er loved or father found, / A love that makes breath poor and speech unable. / Beyond all manner of so much I love you,” (1.1.57-59). Gonerill’s distinct ability to invoke profound dishonesty foreshadows her power-hungry spirit that lauds her as one of the strongest characters in the play. Regan, as the middle daughter, is heavily influenced by her older sister Gonerill, though her response to her father is subtly deceitful. Cordelia, the youngest daughter and King Lear’s favorite, instantly illuminates her kindhearted and honest spirit— the exact opposite traits of the sisters who came before her. Cordelia is a woman of few words upon first glance, who answers King Lear’s question of who loves him the most with a simple statement, “And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue,” (1.1.75-76). The youngest daughter refuses to play into the same game over which her sisters obsess, choosing silence over complicated prose answers. In her article “Refusing to Speak: Silent, Chaste, and Disobedient Female Subjects in King Lear and The Tragedy of Mariam,” author Elisa Oh illustrates Cordelia’s sacred choice of remaining silent during a male dominated discussion of praise for her father when she writes, “Her choice to remain silent becomes an act of decisive agency, an act of self-representation calculated to convey meaning and intent better than speech or actions. Her silence is intended to function as a visible, readable, and, above all, honest representation of a constant and authentic filial love,” (Oh 192). Oh’s portrayal of Cordelia’s response to King Lear’s love rankings reveals the critical contrast between the former’s character compared to that of her older sisters. After testifying of their shared love for their father, each woman shows how utilizing their language and personal connection to a man of power is the only chance that women of their time had in seeking authority over themselves and the lives they wanted.

The blatant disregard of motherly roles in King Lear presents an argument of Shakespeare’s plainspoken assertion that mothers are not as important in the overall development of their children. Shakespeare does not disclose where the girls’ mother is or what happened to her, but instead focuses on King Lear’s relationship with the three. Born to an increasingly chaotic and emotionally and mentally distressed father, the women are raised in a single parent home where King Lear is their only source of parental influence. He unabashedly favors Cordelia over the other two, where Shakespeare writes, “Now, our joy, /Although our last and least, to whose young love / The vines of France and milk of Burgundy / Strive to be interest, what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (1.1.80-85). King Lear’s brazen preference for the youngest daughter influences the previous two as they become cruel and power hungry later in the play. Had King Lear’s wife remained in the story, the girls perhaps would not have had the same reaction to their father and could have even avoided their ultimate tragic fates. Author Panjak Sharma discusses the influence, or lack of, a mother figure might have had over King Lear’s daughters in her article “Depiction of Woman as Human: A Reading of Excesses of Feminist Readings of Shakespeare’s King Lear.” In the article, Sharma notes the absence of a maternal influence on the girls drives them into a fate similar to their father instead of seeking a way out of their destructive tendencies. Referencing the missing family link in her article, Sharma explains, “Since a mother was not there to show her daughters how to act and behave like women, they had no choice but to follow in the men’s footsteps,” (Sharma 435). Although Cordelia broke the mold of tyrannical family members, she is the rare case of a child who only experienced one parent’s parenting tactics and grew to become the exact opposite of them. Gonneril and Regan, on the other hand, fell into the trap of greed and implemented similar tactics their father employed after he is exiled from the castle and they take over his position of power. Because women are considered to be more compassionate, empathetic, and nurturing in society, men like King Lear need the opposing qualities to balance their ruthlessness, especially when they are figures of authority. When Cordelia rejects King Lear’s request to profess her love for him, he immediately goes on a tirade and banishes her from the family, despite his immense love for the youngest girl. An included mother might have had the chance to force the King into rethinking his rash decision, which would have altered the story’s path and stopped the tragic ending.

Gonerill and Regan represent new and not yet common versions of women in Britain who were headstrong and powerful, acting as though they were men in a world that saw women as weak and vulnerable. From the moment Shakespeare introduces the daughters, the oldest two present their knack for misleading their father as they offer him spoken love and adoration on a silver platter. They quickly show how they will do and say anything he wants them to if it means they will get what they want in the end. This attitude runs divergent from Cordelia’s perspective of honesty and bravery. As soon as Gonerill’s plan to have her father removed from his place of power is set and put in motion, her inner dangerous tyrant leaps out as if she is another version of King Lear himself. Gonerill most reflects the qualities and goals of her royal father because she plans the majority of the sisters’ actions throughout the play. In the first act of the play, Gonerill has King Lear locked out of the castle and she replaces him as the British leader. Gonerill narrates, “This administration, sir, is much o’th’ savor / Of other your new pranks. I do beseech you / To understand my purposes aright: / As you are old and reverend, should be wise,” (1.4.201-204). This stanza exposes Gonerill’s lack of emotion toward her father and shows how she used her capability of compassion to trick King Lear into giving her access to the throne. Author Philippa Kelly examines this issue in her article, “See What Breeds About Her Heart: ‘King Lear,’ Feminism, and Performance,” where she writes about King Lear’s influence on his daughters and how they used his own tactics against him. Kelly says, “Lear asks his daughters to vie for political power through protestations of love, encouraging the mercenary attitudes he later repudiates,” (Kelly 6). Throughout the article, Kelly wonders if the extreme turn Gonneril and Regan make on their father and sister is tied to how King Lear once treated Cordelia better than the other two. Instead of showing acceptance and love to all three daughters, King Lear’s mistake of placing priority and preference on just one woman emotionally damaged his other two offspring to the point that they adopted a new form of feminism and replaced the men who once ruled over them.

Not only did the sisters banish their father from his own kingdom, but they also used their new political and military prowess to take control of their foreign suitors of France and Burgundy. Regan narrates the connection between herself and her older sister with the men to whom they promise themselves when she says, “Our father, he hath writ—so hath our sister— / Of differences, which I best thought it fit / To answer form our home. The several messengers / From hence attend dispatch… / Your needful counsel to our businesses, / Which craves the instant use,” (2.2.125-131). At the beginning of the play, Gonerill and Regan are not weak characters by any means, but they slowly increase their confidence in their own actions as they attempt to overthrow their father’s kingdom. As the two women find their own voices apart from their father and male suitors, they become truly powerful by separating themselves from the male characters. Both Gonerill and Regan take hold of their relationships and become more powerful than their male partners despite their gender disparities and social norms. Later in the play after both women decide they want to be with Edmond, they strive to be as appealing to the man as possible while also maintaining their newfound power. Gonerill specifically does not address Edmond in an especially formal manner when she says, “Oh, the difference of man and man! / To thee a woman’s services are due; / My fool usurps my body,” (4.2.26-28). By creating a place of authority and reinvented leadership, Gonerill and Regan come into their own and are no longer props in the conflicts between Britain and the other countries. In the article “Feminist Dramaturgy: Notes from No-(Wo)man’s Land” by Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly, the authors discuss the extensive themes shared across King Lear and other Shakespeare plays when they write, “Yet, how can the figure of Lear be universal if women are only written into the play as accessories to the old man’s journey?” (Hope and Kelly 230). The authors also include an argument for empathy directed at Gonerill and Regan who were victimized by their father for years and wanted to return the favor when they forced him out of his home. The image of two women who turned against their ruling father and enticed powerful men into giving them control over the foreign land is a different way of looking at Gonerill and Regan, who may be considered ruthless and following in their father’s footsteps.

Cordelia is written as a stereotypical young woman who is kind, but follows the path set out for her by her father and does not seek any unique opportunities away from the family. Because Shakespeare creates a group of sisters that are extremely different in their plans for their communities and themselves, the character greatly contrasts that of her older sisters in their pursuit of power and independent glory. Cordelia, on the other hand, wants to live a simple life where she is happy and free to do as she pleases. Cordelia’s goodness is fully visible when she discusses the potential of seeing her father after he banished her from the kingdom. Once the tables are flipped on King Lear and he no longer has his two other daughters to depend on, Cordelia’s attachment to her father is even more evident. She mentions, “O dear father… / My mourning and importuned tears hath pitied. / No blown ambition doth our arms incite, / But love, dear love, and our aged father’s right. / Soon may I hear and see him!” (4.3.22-27). Cordelia’s kindness and overwhelming empathy toward even her father reveals the stark contrast between her personality versus the new authoritative ideals of her sisters. She is used as a tool of healing for King Lear despite being wronged by him in a way that society has treated women prior to and after the play. The article “The Nature of Gender: Are Juliet, Desdemona and Cordelia to Their Fathers As Nature is to Culture?” by Gordana Galic Kakkonen and Ana Penjak discuss how “Cordelia is the one who reminds him [King Lear] of two facts: firstly, of his place in the social order; and secondly, of the fact that affection is not in first place when he is building and securing his kingdom and firming his position using family connections,” (Kakkonen and Penjak 27). The authors explain how Cordelia was doing her job as a hackneyed daughter who wanted to follow society’s rules while pleasing her father, but without being treated as property.

Despite the three daughters’ self-created accumulation of power throughout the play, they still face a patriarchal society that wants to force them into marriages and traditional households, no matter what their plans. King Lear focuses closely on how his three daughters require a dowry and who, among the men, is worthy of his children. The play does not specifically recognize whether King Lear is worried about his daughters finding men they will love and who respect them, but infers that the King’s main priority is pairing his children up by class. Shakespeare reveals the process of matchmaking King Lear’s daughters with potential suitors when the ruler addresses Cornwall and Albany, saying, “With my two daughters’ dowers digest the third. / Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her. / I do invest you jointly with my power, / Preeminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty,” (1.1.125-129). King Lear’s statements about his daughters and his willingness to fork them off foreign rulers in exchange for shared capital is appropriate for the time frame, but his daughters all fight back against the men he would have them marry. The only daughter he does not want to share, however, is Cordelia. Author Claire McEachern discusses the purpose of patriarchy in this aspect of the play as she writes, “Women are celebrated (if domesticated) in comedy; marginalized (if excused) in history; empowered (if destroyed) in tragedy— and are a subversive presence in each mode,” (McEachern 287). The article further explains how King Lear never wanted to give Cordelia away to another man because he considers her the joy of his life. King Lear goes as far as to wish that Cordelia marry someone she wants to marry, not just someone he picks for her. However, the societal rules of patriarchy force Cordelia into uncomfortable romantic scenarios that other women at the time were experiencing as well. Toward the end of the play, Cordelia’s character is as blameless as she was in the beginning of the story, but with more grace and compassion as she defends and takes care of King Lear prior to her death. In “‘Look on Her, Look’: The Apotheosis of Cordelia,” author Janet Bottoms writes with tenderness about Cordelia, “Cordelia’s heroism is ‘more passive and tender— it melts our heart.’ Her truly ‘feminine nature’ is proved by her power of ‘feeling and inspiring affection,’ shown not only in her own actions in the second half of the play but by the testimony of Lear himself, Kent, France, and even the Fool,” (Bottoms 111). Despite Cordelia’s untimely and unnecessary death, the goodness of her character would be perpetuated by all of the people who knew and loved her.

King Lear represents a cautionary tale about the troubles of power and who makes the decisions that affect marginalized groups of people. The play features unique women characters who are unabashedly themselves and who make mistakes at every turn to become well-rounded people rather than simply ideas. Although King Lear centered women in roles of power and authority, the deaths of all three of the King’s daughters, including Cordelia’s undeserved dissolution, forces the story’s return to a patriarchal system that no longer values women or the roles they play in society.