King Lear is a story of an old headstrong king who is often blind to his frailties. This king decides to divide his empire among his three female offspring. However, the division is based on a love recital that the daughters are supposed to make. The daughter who makes the best recital gets the biggest chunk of their father’s kingdom. The three daughters are Goneril, Regan, and Cordelier. The first two daughters are very selfish and they treat their aging fathers very cruelly. However, the third daughter, Cordelier is not as selfish as the first two and treats the king with respect but the king confuses her honesty with insolence when she refuses to participate in the recital. He later disowns her as her daughter and banishes her.
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King Lear is one of the most popular Shakespearean plays but there have been conflicting views about the women characters in this tragedy because the playwright has written the tragedy so ambiguously. There is a possibility of multiple interpretations of this play. One of the most common interpretations is that women are less than human. Most critics feel that Goneril and Regan are too bad to exist in a sober society and they do little to represent the women. The same critics argue that Cordelier is the most perfect representative of women because her symbolism of femininity is quite real. Her character in the play when juxtaposed with the character of her sisters creates a fairy tale-like symbolism of dramatic Cinderella. The two elder daughters are evildoers and Shakespeare does not in any way create multi-dimensional characters out of the two bad sisters.
However, most critics feel that the two daughters behave in such a cruel manner in response to the treatment they got from their father. Cordelier is the fairest of all the three daughters and she has very many positive characteristics. Her main characteristics are honesty, kindness, and devotion. She is completely the opposite of her two elder sisters, Goneril and Regan who are cruel, inhuman, and selfish. She is also beautiful and kind and some of her positive qualities create some problems for her.
Throughout the book, she is contrasted with her two sisters who are dishonest and cruel. The two sisters are manipulative and they exploit their aging father for their own selfish ends. At the beginning of the play, King Lear designs a love test that he uses to determine how he will distribute his wealth. Cordelier, who has been his father’s favorite daughter refuses to take part in that love test because she feels that her love for her father is so genuine that it cannot be expressed using such subtle tests. She is being very honest but the father does not see this honesty. He feels that the daughter is being insolent by refusing to declare her love to him like the other two daughters. By refusing to participate in such a superficial contest, Cordelier establishes herself as a reservoir of virtue and makes a point that her love for her father is too authentic to be expressed using such shallow means. The father does not understand her authenticity and honesty and ends up disinheriting her (Shakespeare 11). He later banishes her.In the play she is offstage most of the times and Goneril and Regan take the center stage in the play.
However, the audience identifies more with Cordelier despite her heavy absence from most of the action because of her physical and intrinsic beauty that is juxtaposed with the inhumanity of her elder sisters. Though she is banished by the father because of refusing to take part in a love test, the two later are united and their reunion restores order in this kingdom that had been facing deep problems. Cordelier brings the play to a devastating finale which appears to be unjustified because it is almost impossible to understand why a person who personifies virtue and kindness is sacrificed through injustice and subtle love shows.
There nothing positive about the two elder daughters of King Lear. Regan and Goneril epitomize spite and villainy and they are direct opposite of the more humane younger sister. The two are however clever because despite having fallen out with their father at the start of the play due to their unbecoming behavior, they manage to flatter the father in the same opening scene and are able to inherit the kingdom at the expense of their virtuous sister. Despite getting the share of the father’s kingdom, they continue mistreating their father and their unbecoming behavior towards the old man seems to be matched by his own sense of pride and temperament which is his main undoing.
The audience cannot in any way sympathizing with the two inhumane daughters of King Lear especially because of the way they throw their father into the storm at the end of the second act. The two daughters are quite inhuman. In act three, they put out the eyes of a character called Gloucester and this personifies their devilish nature.
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The two women have a deep appetite for possessions and will do anything to attain something; however they do not have even have an iota of conscience. The two daughters are very greedy and have selfish ambitions that drive them to crush everything that tries to impede these selfish ambitions. They establish themselves as the mistresses of the United Kingdom after crushing their opponents. However, their greed and selfish ambitions are the vices that bring them down. They have a great desire for power and they both want to sexually exploit a man called Edmund. Their rivalry over Edmund leads to their ultimate destruction. The evil that they have been meting on others turns against them.
The problem that faces the two daughters at the end is started by their own dad at the beginning of the play. The competition that he sets so that he can establish the daughter who loves daddy most creates a very shaky stage for the development of the two daughters. This competition sharpens their ingenuity and this ingenuity is used throughout the play to engender evil in the society. The exercise by King Lear was a very arbitrary exercise whose outcome dominates the entire play leading to its tragic ending.
At the start of the play, the king makes no secret that Cordelier is his favorite daughter and he knows that the girl also loves him. That is why the relevance of this test still remains an unanswered question. The exercise ends up casting away the virtuous daughter and rewarding the evil ones. The outcome of this exercise is hatred, resentment and rivalry and the question most critics ask is whether the king or the two daughters are to blame for their own actions.
In works of literature where women are the main characters, the women are usually representative of the entire female society but in King Lear, the only woman who represents the good women in the society is Cordelier. The two others are evil characters whose characters put a blemish on the profile of the women in the society. Are Goneril and Regan evil or are they misunderstood by critics and the audience? The audience of this play really hates Goneril and Regan. This hatred emanates from their evil schemes and their apparent greed and lust for power. This trait is very common in male characters and Shakespeare himself has created such male characters in his earlier works. One of the greediest characters that this author has ever created in his works is Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. This trait in a male character is not very distasteful because greed and power struggles are masculine frailties. However the trait becomes very distasteful when it is inherent in a woman. Therefore, it is almost impossible for the audience to reconcile the marriage between femininity and power because this is one of the rare scenarios in an ordinary society. This is evident even in the modern society and the situation in King Lear becomes more interesting because the book was written after the death of Queen Elizabeth the first (Hall 220).
The main problem that the audience of this book has is that it is not used to women openly showing her ambitions and succumbing to the same ambitions violently. The audience is used to such scenarios involving men. What Goneril and Regan display is completely masculine and the audience cannot identify with the fact that the two have abandoned their femininity. This is why the two characters are fascinating and repellant at the same time but the main point is that these two characters are the most misunderstood Shakespearean characters because of the ambiguous way that the playwright weaves the whole scenario.
For Cordelier, her own virtuous behavior is her main Achilles heel. She is a very authentic lady living in a very superficial society and her authenticity clashes with the superficial nature of her father and the inhumanity of her elder sisters. She is a fairly tale character who cannot easily survive alongside the evil sisters. Ideally, her virtue is eclipsed by the ingenuity, lust and greed of her elder sisters though she remains the darling of the audience because of her physical and intrinsic beauty (Hall, p. 109).
In conclusion, I do not believe that Goneril and Regan are too bad to exist in a sober society and that they do little to represent the women. The two are just misunderstood because they are doing things that no women have done before. The only thing that they have done is abandoning their femininity and this is one thing that the audiences of this book from time immemorial have not reconciled with. The two elder daughters are evildoers and Shakespeare does not in any way create multi dimensional characters out of the two bad sisters. The audience fails to connect with the author who creates one sided characters intentionally.
- Hall, Kim F. A critical analysis of Shakespearean tragedies: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.
- Shakespeare, William, King Lear: Broadview Anthology British Literature.London: Norton Books, 1979.