'The presentation of female characters in Lear is shockingly unsympathetic"


Unsympathetic portrayals of Goneril and Regan

  • Flattery ("dearer than eyesight, space and liberty", "I am alone felicitate in thy dear highness' love") to prose in 1.1 immediatetaly sheds light on their deception. Their secret talk of "infirmity of [Lear's] age" is malicious, lacking compassion, reinforced by their instigating of arbitrary violence towards Gloucester ("pluck out his eyes!")
  • Portrayal as unnatural: "unnatural hags", "wicked", "depraved" (all Lear), because they go against family/social patriarchal order. (Context of patriarchal Jacobean society) 
  • Stripped of humanity: "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/ To have a thankless child", "sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture" (Lear), they "tigers not daughters", Goneril is a "gilded serpent" (Albany). If they are not obedient they are not real women.
  • Part of this is being stripped of ability to conceive; "into her womb convey sterility". Woman's humanity is conceiving? 
  • In Oedipus, Jocasta's (we could say) abuse of this duty to conceive results in cruel punishment on city that "babies are born dead, or decay in the womb". Persistent association of cruelty with women and the womb.
  • Illuminates an underlying hostility towards women in Lear,  Coppélia Kahn says absence of mothers in the play, points to talk about Edmund's mother that begins the rest of the play's hostilites + drives the sub-plot. Also "Hysterica Passio!"
  • R + G portrayed as wrongfully lustful, pitted against each other "each jealous of the other as the stung are of the adder" (also biblical Eve imagery here). This jealousy ends in death. 
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Alternative readings of Goneril and Regan

  • Reversal of family/patriarchal order could be seen as fighting back against unjust social order of primogeniture that condemns them to insignificance. 
  • Flattery, once seen as deceptive could be read as highly intelligent and aware.
  • Efficiently taking control of Lear represented in their cutting down his train: "fifty followers?" - "bring but five and twenty" - "what need five and twenty? ten? or five?" - "bring but one". Lear's followers = his power so Shakespeare dramatises their taking control. 
  • Some fem. critics like JACQELINE DUNISBERRE see Lear + Renaissance drama as 'feminist in sympathy' b/c invites criticism of patriarchy (BUT does admit is dependent on performance and unlikely this would have been done in Jacobean times
  • Goneril is strong in relations with Albany: "milk-livered man!", "the cowish terror of his spirit" and "I must change names at home and give the distaff/ Into my husband's hands" (however this insinuates being powerful and feminine not possible - calling him "vain fool".)
  • In the end any sympathetic portrayals are counteracted by their deaths, which are offstage + given no dramatic significance. 
  • Jocasta's attempts to defy prophecy ("Forget it. The whole thing. Don't pursue it.") are admirable but ultimately futile. Suicide is most passive form of defiance. Takes place off-stage AND "behind the locked door" therefore arguably doubly insignificant.  
  • Maybe illuminates that in Lear sympathetic portrayals slightly more accessible that Oedipus.
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Sympathetic but problematic portrayal of Cordelia

  • Portrayed as the one source of hope for a restoration of order, "that things might change or cease", e.g in Kent + Gentleman's discourse in 3.1.
  • Associated with natural healing: "spring with my tears: be aidant and remediate". 
  • Given biblical qualities and associations: "the holy water from her heavenly eyes", almost compared to virgin Mary, particularly important in highly religious Jacobean society.
  • This is why contemporary critics found her death so unacceptable, Nahum Tate's rewrite got rid of her death and this was printed and performed for over a century after. They echo the shock of characters in play ("is this the promised end?" "or image of that horror?")
  • Some fem. critics find wholly angelic and pure portrayal problematic, that it perpetuates dangerously mystifying and romanticising stereotypes of women as pure and innocent. 
  • Psychoanalytic readings of Lear see him wanting to be mothered by Cordelia (he talks of her "kind nursery"), whereby combining those two roles. 
  • Similar stereotypes are reinforced in Oedipus; aside from Jocasta only women reffered to are "the girl wife and the grey-haired mother" who suffer in Thebes; highlighting that sympathetic portrayals often only accessible to a certain type of female character. 
  • Indeed Cordelia arguably only gets a sympathetic portrayal because she represents female passivity and duty: this 'duty' being to "love and be silent", and finally "for thee, oppressèd king, I am cast down".
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