The Role of Women in King Lear

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Category: Culture
Date added
2021/03/08
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King Lear is a well renowned play about the patriarchal atrophy of a kingdom ruled by an impulsive king who decides to divide his power amongst his three daughters. As a sign of the times, the women in the play are held to a particular standard while the men are held to a laxer set of expectations. After viewing the play, I argue that the female characters are oppressed to fit into a mold that was seen as acceptable of women during the Renaissance era. It is as if the story teaches a lesson to young girls that if they do not act a certain way then they will be categorized as one type of female character over the other; ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Through the actions of the three daughters (named Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril) and the behavior of the male characters, this misogynistic theme perpetuates from the beginning to the end of the play. From the very beginning, girls are shown that what they say and how they feel does not really matter. What seems to matter, according to Shakespeare, is the power that the men have.

In Act 1 King Lear asserts his dominance over his daughters by making them profess their love to him- a love test. Goneril and Regan gladly comply with Lear’s wishes and tell him what he wants to hear. Jessica Murphy, a writer who has analyzed multiple early modern English literature, discusses in her piece that during this era, “…Early modern women were not taught to be unquestioningly obedient, but rather that they had a responsibility to be virtuous, which requires performing submission so that they could reform others” (Murphy 260). In this scene they are a prime example of what ‘proper’ women were supposed to say when asked a question. Goneril gives a response of, “Sire, I love you more than word can wield the matter” (1.1.60-61). Regan tries attempts to transcend her sister’s response by saying, “Only she comes too short, that I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys” (1.1.79-80). It can be seen very quickly that these two conspirers do not have pure intentions at heart.

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King Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, was also expected to flatter her father by stating her immense love for him. Instead, she voices against the boundaries that prohibit her from expressing her own beliefs. In this case, her father is the enforcer of these boundaries. Cordelia has an aside where she explains her discontent with the situation: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (1.1.68). While reading this line, the reader can easily picture the sarcastic tone that she uses in order to ridicule Lear. When it is her turn to respond to her father’s demand, she answers: “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.96). King Lear becomes irate over this, so much so that he banishes Cornelia from the kingdom and takes away her dowry leaving her undesirable. Richard McCoy, who has published essays on topics regarding King Lear, asserts that the relationship between Cordelia and Lear, “…have shown how the “bond of love” can become a form of bondage and oppression for women and children and other underlings in the traditional family” (McCoy 46). This oppression can be seen from the relationship between parent and child (Lear and Cordelia).

Because Lear is without a wife, he is attached to Cordelia more intimately than his other daughters, thus it can be argued that he revokes her dowry so that she can be unwanted and stuck with him. As a result, this, “…story shows women…that feminine virtue has power and is thus desirable” (Murphy 260). Since Goneril and Regan act submissively and cooperatively when their father asks for their profession of love, it appears that being submissive to a male’s request will result in the female being rewarded. Lear ultimately provides both sisters with the entire power of the kingdom. Cordelia, on the other hand, chooses silence to “show modesty” and prove that she is the right choice for the power of the kingdom (Murphy 264). McCoy argues that, “…Cordelia’s real transgression is not unkindness as such, but speaking in a way which threatens to show too clearly how the laws of human kindness operate in the service of property, contractual, and power relations” (McCoy 56). Through Cordelia’s resistance towards her father, the reader is allowed to see the issue in how her father is treating her. If she would not have made an example of herself, the reader would simply read over the situation without a thought, but due to the amplified statement of Cordelia’s feelings, it requires the reader to stop and think about why she used the dialogue that she did.

After Cordelia is banished from the kingdom, the King of France decides that even though she is dowerless, he will accept her as his wife. Some readers may have viewed this act as ‘romantic’, but McCoy points out that, “…France proceeds to exult somewhat patronizingly in his own largesse toward the hapless outcast” (McCoy 47). He calls her, “That art Most rich, being poor / Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised” (1.1.290-91). The king of France uses a series of oxymorons to emphasize the point that Cordelia is unwanted and without many options. He also seems surprised that he is taking her up when he exclaims, “Gods, gods! ‘Tis strange that from their cold’st neglect/ My love should kindle to enflamed respect” (pg 25 lines 294- 295). By saying this, it makes the reader wonder if the King of France genuinely cares for Cordelia, or if he is just accepting her for his own benefit. He could be using Cordelia as an outlet for control, or as a way to unite his and Lear’s kingdoms. Overall, there is still evidence that the King of France uses his male dominance over her. Even in the way he talks to her, his speech is short and commanding. He says, “Bid farewell to your sisters” (1.1.310) and “Come, my fair Cordelia” (1.1.328).

Another example of women being oppressed is when a gentleman saw Cordelia coming home to rescue Lear. He describes her emotional appearance to Kent as:

“Not to a rage. Patience and sorrow [strove]

Who should express her goodliest. You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears

Were like a better way. Those happy smilets

That played on her ripe lip [seemed] not to know

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamonds dropped. In brief,

Sorrow be a rarity most beloved

If all could so become it” (4.3.19-27).

When the gentleman and Kent discuss how Cordelia maintained control over her actions, she is described as being beautiful through metaphors comparing her to pearls and diamonds. It seems that she is given this comparison because she is oppressing herself and not allowing the emotions to get the best of her by not acting ‘unladylike’. Cordelia is viewed as being an attractive woman because she displays the stereotypical characteristics of being feminine. This shows the reader, especially a female, that, “…being a woman means performing obedience, which in turn is necessarily part of being considered a woman” (Murphy 262). While reading this, a woman may develop the idea that if she shows emotion or acts out in some way, she is deemed unattractive or mentally disturbed. To an extent, this ideology is still present in today’s society through books, movies, and the media.

At the conclusion of the play, Lear is reunited with his beloved Cordelia. Cordelia decides to come back to rescue her father and, “…understands her father’s tragic errors and their fatal consequences, but she remains willing to die for him anyway” (McCoy 53). Despite his disownment of her, Cordelia still loves Lear and cares enough about his well-being to come to his aid in his hour of need. In the final scene of the play that contains both Cordelia and Lear, Lear’s misogynistic view comes over Cordelia once again. A writer who has analyzed Shakespeare, Catherine Cox, comments that, “It is little to no irony, then, that Lear praises the dead Cordelia by focusing on the correlation between her gender and her voice” (Cox 156). Lear carries her body into the scene and lays her on the ground. At this point he realizes that she is dead and says, “…What is’t tho sayst? – Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman…” (5.3.328-29). By commenting on the lack of words that Cordelia has, Lear epitomizes her most, “desirable feminine attributes” (Cox 156). The idea of women having the characteristics of being quiet, gentle, and dainty appears once again. In this state, Cordelia is completely powerless with no possibility of pressing back against the sexist shackles that oppress her; the optimum position of what the males in King Lear want.

Shakespeare categorizes women into two types: virgo and virago. The term virago means a woman with sinful, masculine characteristics while virgo coincides with a woman who is pure and has more feminine qualities. An example of a virago woman would be Eve, and an example of a virgo woman would Virgin Mary. Catherine Cox asserts that, “Because the virgo represents a gendered ideal embodied in the Virgin Mary, the feminine at its best, women choose to emulate the Virgin attempt to observe a code of behavior well defined within patristic tradition and social applications” (Cox 145). On the other hand, Cox discusses to the virago as a more “troubling” and “ambiguous” figure for theologians to define (Cox 145). This relationship is evident between Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. Cordelia clearly represents the Virgin Mary, the ‘good’ daughter who only has good intentions with her father. She recognizes early on that she does not want to be entrapped by the ploy that her father is thrusting upon her sisters and herself. Cordelia exudes many strong, virgo characteristics by withholding her emotions, even when her father neglects her. A strong example of this is Cordelia’s decision to, “Love, and be silent” (1.1.68), which “appropriately adheres to the traditional patriarchal code of womanly silence…the passive, feminine behavior Lear admires” (Cox 150). I speculate that Cordelia realizes her value to her father even after their falling out, otherwise she would have no intuition for coming back for her father. She embodies, for female readers, the truly ‘perfect’ daughter who is loyal, caring, and quiet by disregarding the neglect that Lear put upon her. Cordelia puts her own life in danger to not only to preserve the life of Lear, but to preserve his reputation and kingdom as well.

On the other hand, Goneril and Regan show that they are the representation of Eve; the ‘bad’ daughters that only want power and control over their male comrades. Lear terms them, “unnatural hags” (2.4.278) because of their villainous, power-hungry personalities. Although they contribute significantly less to the overall plot of the play, “…their own embodiment of gendered stereotypes contributes to the establishment of Cordelia’s ultimate identity as martyr” (Cox 154). They are important, however, into the rising action of the play that leads to the deaths of Cordelia and Lear, which can be attributed to, “…the malign behavior of Goneril and Regan, a pair of scheming viragos who demonstrate just about every negative stereotype of gender and gendered identity” (Cox 155). The sole reason that the sisters submit to Lear’s love test is to obtain power from him. As if handing power over to them was not sufficient enough, they continue to take away what is left of Lear’s authority and pride. The sisters do this by limiting the number of knights he has in his party, an attempt to switch the roles of who is “obedient” and who is “in control.” Both women also treat characters poorly. Goneril instructs Oswald, her servant, to be rude to her father and his servant when he arrives for a night of refuge. Then Lear goes to Regan’s house, searching for open arms and reassurance. Unfortunately, she gives him neither sympathy nor loyalty. Also, they are quick to suggest the punishment imposed upon the traitor, Gloucester. Regan suggests to, “Hang him instantly” (3.7.5) while Goneril says to, “Pluck out his eyes” (3.7.6). They end up following through with Goneril’s suggestion which leaves Gloucester eyeless and blind. As they do end up becoming successful in overthrowing their father, they also seek the power of lust and sex. Goneril and Regan both have a sexual attraction for Edmund. Ironically, Edmund swears his love for both women, and they vie for his attention. However, they ultimately die at the hands of one another due to the conflict of their selfishness.

Both virago and virgo characteristics are needed for a balance within the story. It can be asserted that, “The comparative effect of the sisters’ demonstrated stereotypical villainy is that Cordelia’s positive feminine attributes are obviously enhanced” (Cox 155). Without the destructive and cunning nature of Goneril and Regan, the importance of Cordelia would not have as nearly much of an effect on the reader. The distinction between good and evil would not be as discernable as it is. A female reader can clearly see what actions were seen as appropriate for a woman during this era, and what actions were considered ‘unnatural.’ Even with all of the good and virtuous actions that Cordelia had done, she had always been the, “subject of both praise and contempt in Lear’s world…” and would never truly resemble the Virgin Mary in his eyes. This shows that no matter how much a woman abides to the male’s socialistic structure surrounding passiveness and obedience, they are never truly seen as such – a woman will always have the urge to transgress this oppression.

At the end of the play, the only characters to have survived are male. The ending is not surprising, however, for, “The play’s resolution is predicated upon the possibility and desirability of restoring “natural” order” (Cox 157). This “natural” order consists, of course, of a man being at the head of power while the women are submissive and complying to the patriarchal tradition. In this case, they are dead. With all the instances of oppression occurring throughout the play, it would be hard for any female reader to not feel as though they are placed into a category, as well as stereotyped. Shakespeare made it very evident that women are not the subject to be focused upon in this play, they are simply there to help the male characters progress through the plot. Unfortunately, this can parallel today’s society. The social norms have not changed as much as we would like to believe. Even to this day, the women that simply ‘sit there and look pretty’ are the ones that unfairly get the upper hand. King Lear is a prime example of how women are viewed from a male’s perspective – if a woman is not behaving in a way that is expected, she needs to simply be written out of the story.

Works Cited

  1. Cox, Catherine S. “‘An Excellent Thing in Woman’: Virgo and Viragos in ‘King Lear.'” Modern Philology, vol. 96, no. 2, 1998, pp. 143–157. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/439241.
  2. McCoy, Richard C. “‘Look upon Me, Sir’: Relationships in King Lear.” Representations, vol. 81, no. 1, 2003, pp. 46–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2003.81.1.46.
  3. Murphy, Jessica C. “Feminine Virtue’s Network of Influence in Early Modern England.” Studies in Philology, vol. 109, no. 3, 2012, pp. 258–278. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41511148.
  4. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Annotated Bibliographies

  • Cox, Catherine S. “‘An Excellent Thing in Woman’: Virgo and Viragos in ‘King Lear.’” Modern Philology, vol. 96, no. 2, 1998, pp. 143–157. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/439241.

In “An excellent thing in woman”: Virgo and Viragos in King Lear, Catherine Cox argues the play shows that Shakespeare clearly categorizes women in the play. Cox uses Virgo and Virago, the Christian tradition’s stereotypes for femininity, to support this theory. She also asserts that Lear uses the characters of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia to show the oppression that women had to endure in order to be patriarchally acceptable.

This text will support the strength and importance of Cordelia in the play. Even though she is only seen in four out of 26 scenes, she makes immediate impact in the opening scene which can be felt throughout the rest of the play. The text also discusses Goneril and Regan, thus I was able to use the analysis of them to compare it against Cordelia. They submit to the expectations by having the desire to flatter Lear in his love test, however, Cordelia also submits to Lear in her initial response which appropriately fits into the feminine passive behavior by only speaking when called upon. It also supports the insecurity of Lear when Cordelia assumes the ‘virago’ appearance when she does not flatter him. By displaying both virgo and virago characteristics it establishes Cordelia’s identity of a tragic hero.

  • Murphy, Jessica C. “Feminine Virtue’s Network of Influence in Early Modern England.” Studies in Philology, vol. 109, no. 3, 2012, pp. 258–278. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41511148.

This text pulls together a variety of works to show how women were expected to submit and reform to authority in order to make a man happy. Jessica Murphy argues that feminine virtue has power and is desirable because they can influence people through her good character and can produce change after her death. Women must give themselves up entirely in order to be rewarded with marital happiness and influence over others.

Murphy’s text provides insight on the status of women during the time period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. She discusses how women had to be reformed in order to be good wives which relates a lot to how the women were treated in King Lear. They were expected to put their husbands and father’s happiness before their own. Cordelia is an example of a woman who uses her silence to influence others’ behaviors.

  • McCoy, Richard C. “‘Look upon Me, Sir’: Relationships in King Lear.” Representations, vol. 81, no. 1, 2003, pp. 46–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2003.81.1.46.

Richard McCoy analyzes multiple relationships in the play, King Lear. It discusses the effects that these relationships have on the plot. It also discusses the importance of Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan and the stereotypes that they encounter.

“‘Look upon Me, Sir’: Relationships in King Lear” discusses many instances in which Cordelia is exposed to sexism throughout the play. It also analyzes the relationship between Cordelia and her father, Lear, and the oppressiveness that she feels being in that relationship. McCoy also asserts that the King of France also shows evidence of being one of Cordelia’s oppressors in the few lines of dialogue that he says to her in Act 1 Scene 1. All of this information helps build evidence for the thesis which is that the women in King Lear are oppressed and stereotyped by the male characters.

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The Role of Women in King Lear. (2021, Mar 08). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/the-role-of-women-in-king-lear/