Women Characters in King Lear

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Jornades de Foment de la Investigació


Autor Benjamín Donat Rubio

Are the female characters stereotyped in king lear as demonised or sanctified women?

Before analysing female characters in King Lear, we will comment on the main critical approaches to this play and we will see how these affect our reading of King Lear. From the beginnings of the twentieth century up to the sixties there are two main interpretations. The first of these understands King Lear as a “Christian Play.” This is fully understood in the last act where Cordelia heals Lear’s madness. Moreover Lear names her “a soul in bliss” 1, a name which clearly makes reference to Cordelia’s sanctity. On the other hand, a second approach refuses King Lear being a “Christian Play.” Why evil goes so long unchecked? Why such a bleak ending? Characters such as Cordelia seek to do good, but they are unprotected by the Gods, and they are surrounded by the chaos created by the evil characters. Man is alone in a godless world. He has to look for his own fate. From the 1980s onwards, other different interpretations of the play can be found. On one hand, authors such as John Dollimore assert that this is a play about power, property and inheritance. He asserts that Lear loses his mind when he loses his social status. He is not longer a powerful king, and he has also lost power over his daughters. According to him, Shakespeare focuses on what happens when there is a catastrophic redistribution of power. He sees a total collapse. Edgar and Albany want to recover the old order, but there is a black future before them. Another critic, Leonard Tennenhouse thinks that King Lear shows us the dangers of not following the old ways of the patriarchal order. Apart from these two critics we have another view, that of feminist critics such as Coppelia Kahn and Kathleen McLuskie’s. According to Kahn, Lear goes mad because he is unable to accept his dependence on the feminine, his daughters. Thus, this would be a play about “male anxiety.” However, he is redeemed by means of a loving non-patriarchal relationship with Cordelia. McLuskie, on the other hand, thinks this is an anti-feminine play. She refers to an audience accepting the identification of human nature and male power. So, according to her, we are forced to sympathise with the patriarchs and the masculine power structure that they represent. In her opinion, any movement within the fixed family relationship is seen as destructive, and she also views Cordelia’s “redeeming power” in another light. For her it works less as a redemption of womankind than as a restoration of patriarchy. Thus, women are made either to submit- Cordelia - or must be destroyed- Gonerill and Regan. When reading King Lear, we may ask ourselves: Are female characters stereotyped? Do we have to ascertain Cordelia as the representative of goodness and her sisters as evil women? At the beginning of the play, Lear’s daughters behave in very different ways. King Lear wants to divide his kingdom in three parts. But to decide which part will correspond to each daughter he proposes a love-test. The better part will correspond to the daughter who tell him he is the most beloved for her. Gonerill and Regan flatter Lear by means of complex, long and exaggerated speeches: “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty; Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare; No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour; 2

Are the female characters stereotyped in king lear as demonised or sanctified women?

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.” 2 “I am made of that self metal as my sister, And prize me at her worth. In my true heart I find she names my very deed of love; Only she comes too short, -that I profess Myself an enemy to all...
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