“There’s the sulphurous pit:” Female Sexuality in King Lear
King Lear takes a very negative view of feminine sexuality from the first scene. In line 15 of scene 1 when Gloucester asks Kent “Do you smell a fault?” (Shakespeare, 1110), the editor’s notes indicate that “fault” can refer to either wrongdoing or female genitals. Indeed the speech between them is rife with misogyny. Gloucester goes on to say that there was “good sport,” at Edmund’s conception, and goes on to call him a “whoreson,” (Shakespeare, 1110), thus indicating that Edmund’s conception was fun for him, but bad for Edmund’s mother. It is worth mentioning here that neither Gloucester’s wife, or lover are ever mentioned again, and Lear’s wife is not in the play at all. In fact all of the noblewomen who might temper their respective husband’s anger are killed off before the play begins.
The later parts of this scene reinforce the misogynistic views established earlier. When Lear calls Cordelia’s suitors before him and tells Burgundy “her price is fallen,” Burgundy refuses to take her as a wife, wanting Lear to, “Give but that portion which yourself proposed,” (Shakespeare, 1114). She is nothing to him without her dowry.
In 1.4 we get Lear’s curse on Goneril,
“Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend they purpose, if thou didst intend
Top make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her,” (Shakespeare, 1128).
This curse is overtly sexual, and it is an odd response to her behavior. She has just asked him to leave because his knights are beating her servants and asked him to send away half of his knights, and yet he attacks her womb, not her hospitality. The fact that he is cursing his own bloodline also does not seem to matter to him in his fury. What is also odd here as elsewhere is that when he calls on higher powers to curse women he calls on female goddesses....
Cited: Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. M.H. Abrams, General Editor. WW Norton and Company, New York. 2000.
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