It’s hard to escape the ubiquitous trope of power-hungry women turning against each other in the pursuit of a man. It haunts English literature across eras and ages; Shakespeare is no exception. He centers his dramatic play, “King Lear”, around the fallacy of women. The daughters of King Lear, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia, become examples of how this fallacy trickles into every character’s life. This play relies on both the trope of the jealous, greedy witch and the pure angelic woman to push the plot along. The caricatures of Goneril and Regan are based on what is referred to in this time as “the natural folly of women”. This concept was a common explanation of the inferiority of women until very recently (and probably still exists today in subtler forms). It claims that women naturally lack virtue, and therefore are dangerous if not kept under the supervision of men. The reader of this era learns that women are not to be trusted with independence or large amounts of power and wealth. Specifically, the men of this era learn to be suspicious of the claims of women and to analyze their motives critically. Cordelia is the good example. She is willing to lose her comfortable way of life seeking virtue and is revered in the end. Her sisters, who sacrifice integrity to inherit Lear’s fortune, are controlled by their ambition. These simplistic portrayals of women become take on a liquidity Shakespeare borrows from to craft the plot of King Lear. Without the assumptions that women are either lacking in virtue, or have divine virtue, and that they cannot exist outside of this binary, the play would not resonate. It also relies on the assumption that women, no matter how powerful, will fight for the attention of a man. Luckily for the success of this play, the patriarchy supports all of these assumptions.
I want to use Regan and Goneril’s dispute over Edmund to address the first trope of powerful women destroying each other for a male’s attention. The sisters resent each other for their mutual attraction to Edmund. Yes, he alone is the reason why the once rich and powerful sisters throw all of their fortunes away. Even with all the wealth in the country, a single woman is still nothing more than an old shrew. However, the sisters do have one thing in common with Edmund, and that is ambition.
Edmund, much like the sisters, tricks his loved ones in his pursuit of power. He sees Regan and Goneril as an opportunity to further his ambition to hold the throne. In more contemporary terms, he plays both of them to get what he wants but knows he eventually has to settle for one. He finds his opportunity as they begin to turn on each other to win his love: “To both these sisters, I have sworn my love, / Each jealous of the other as the stung / Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take? / Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed / If both remain alive…”. This gives him a taste of the power he is craving, as he looks forward to deciding which sister will live and which will die. In a way, he is conspiring to expel one sister by killing her and marry the other. He carelessly shows interest in both sisters, underestimating their cunning nature. In one of the moments that Goneril sees him with Regan, she says, “I’d rather lose the battle than that sister / should loosen him and me”. Thus the seeds of resentment begin to grow, and Edmund’s power to decide who will live begins to wane.
Act 5 of King Lear is when the mistrust between sisters becomes fatal, they take matters into their own hands. Goneril poisons Regan. However, as Regan is dying, Edmund is exposed as a fraud and killed by Edgar. A soldier who finds the bodies of Regan and Goneril reports to Albany, “your lady sir, your lady. And her sister / By her is poisoned. She confesses it.”. The sisters seal their fate the minute they turn against each other, fulfilling a trope that has encaged women for centuries. Sisters are supposed to have a bond stronger than most. They are family, and traditionally, family comes first. What can get in between family? Apparently a mediocre, selfish man can! I consider it satirical that two formerly close sisters are conspiring to murder each other in the pursuit of a man who they have only known for a short period of time. It is such an extreme version of the “women tearing each other down” trope that it seems absurd to me. Yet, this play relies on the assumption that there are only two roles for women, the evil seductress, or the heavenly angel. In this case, that angel is Cordelia.
Cordelia, as mentioned earlier, is willing to sacrifice her way of life in the name of virtue. Rather than lie to her father to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, she prefers to be true. She risks her social standing for integrity; this is made clear by Burgundy’s decision not to marry her after she is disowned. But alas, she is saved by France, who tells her, “‘thou art most rich being poor’”. They marry, and Cordelia is elevated in status when she becomes the queen of France. The implication of this is that good comes to those who are true. This, if compared with the fates of her other two sisters, hints at the duality of salvation and damnation. Cordelia dies an honorable death and ascends to the heavens. Regan and Goneril die as a result of their own envy and weakness and are both thrown into the pits of hell. Cordelia is the model woman, and her behavior exposes the evil of her two sisters. This pure woman trope is another that commonly reoccurs in literature and myth. It is arguably one of the most confining roles, yet it is another role that carries the play.
Cordelia’s tenderness with her father, and willingness to forgive him for banishing her from the kingdom, starkly contrasts the sadistic actions of her sisters. Regan and Goneril become ambitious and power-hungry once they have a taste of their inherited fortune. They lose control of themselves, as the fallacy of women predicts they would. Soon after acquiring their wealth, they exercise power for the first time, by expelling Lear, reminding the reader of when Lear banishes Cordelia and Kent. The sisters are using his former actions against him, but with a higher degree of cruelty.
Regan and Goneril exercise their power over Lear much like how a cat plays with a mouse before devouring it. The sisters recognize that Lear is not of sound mind as early as his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. They even express concern to each other about the “infirmity of his age”. Yet, they don’t give this a second thought as they toy with his fate. They play mind games by telling Lear that he can have no more than 50 of his men at the house. For Lear, this is devastating because he has always relied on his men. Then, noticing his helplessness, they indulge themselves by questioning if he needs any men at all. This is a crushing life change for Lear, who appears to be emotionally and mentally vulnerable in his old age. When the sisters tire of antagonizing Lear, they send him out into the storm. Their actions can be seen as pure evil. They betray their own father, banishing him after he gives them everything they own, and send them out alone and unprepared into the storm.
As Lear is lamenting this treachery, the fool, who acts as a voice of reason to Lear, exclaims, “‘He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.’”. In other words, he is implying that Lear had poor judgment for trusting his daughters earlier proclamations of love and allowing himself to be influenced by the false speeches they make to honor him. Thus we have learned to be suspicious of the words of women.
The only survivors of this ordeal, Edgar, Albany, and Kent, are all loyal to men. They show the ability to resist the will of women. Albany is firm with Goneril, keeping her ‘in-line’. As she grieves Edmund’s defeat by Edgar, Albany orders, “shut your mouth, dame.” She attempts to reassert it by proclaiming, “the laws are mine, not thine”, but he does not give credibility to this threat, and orders a soldier to go after and “govern” her. He is able to keep the power naturally given to him, as a man. He refuses to allow Goneril to be his ruin. The two other surviving characters, Kent and Edgar, devote their time to the welfare of men. Kent disguises himself to support Lear after he is expelled, and Edgar disguises himself as a mad beggar to assist Gloucester. The only men who find themselves able to return to their positions in society are those who stand up to women, and help their fellow men. By the end of act 5, power is swapped back into the hands of men.
The premises of this play would crumble without the assumption that women are either flawed beyond redemption, angelically divine or nothing without a man. The availability of these tropes become assets to the play. The natural folly of women becomes the underlying reason why power is swapped back into the hands of men. This is a cautionary tale where the women who know their place don’t seek out fortune, and those who do are not to be trusted. In the end, it is apparent that women have that place, and that is not in positions of power. Thus power is restored to men, and women are expelled from visibility once again.