Tuesday, 24 July 2012

King Lear’s Girls | Have Goneril, Regan and Cordelia Been Royally Screwed Up by Their Father?

Cordelia, Regan and Goneril: King Lear's

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's best loved plays, but there are often conflicting views about its female characters. On thing is for sure, Lear girls are breaking the mould right, left and centre.

I’ve written about feminism in Shakespeare - or, more accurately, feminist views  retrospectively attached to Shakespeare’s work in the past. And you could argue that my analysis of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia is verging on the Germaine Greer. However, I do believe that there is evidence within the play to support my view that Lear’s girls are a product of some shockingly bad parenting.

It is evident that Shakespeare has written the women of King Lear in a way that is ambiguous and lends itself to the possibility of interpretation. Goneril and Regan, in particular, are hotly debated. It can, of course, be argued that they are the evildoers of the piece, but Shakespeare never creates two-dimensional characters. And there is some evidence within the play to suggest that the two elder daughters behave as they do in response to their treatment at the hands of Lear.

The Female Characters of King Lear

For example, the commencement of the play is a competition, orchestrated by Lear. He instigates the 'who loves Daddy most?' contest, which from Gloucester’s “…in the division of the kingdom it appears not which of the/Dukes he values most…” we know to be a completely arbitrary exercise.

Lear also makes no secret that Cordelia is his favourite, and we can be fairly sure that he knows she loves him more than her elder sisters. So, why does he put them to the test? Surely, the only outcome from this little exercise can be jealousy, resentment and rivalry?

Therefore, can we blame Goneril and Regan for acting as they do?

Goneril & Regan: Evil or Just Misunderstood Young Women?

Are Goneril and Regan really
all that bad?
It seems to me that an audience’s dislike of Goneril and Regan is primarily created by their lust for power. However, in a male character this trait may not be so distasteful. I mean, we don’t feel quite as badly about Edmund, do we?

So, it seems that it is the combination of femininity and power which is difficult to reconcile with, and that holds true even today. This is interesting, when we consider that King Lear was written approximately two years after the death of Elizabeth I. Perhaps, therefore, it is not simply the notion of a woman in a position of power that is problematic. Instead, the problem seems to arise when a woman is openly displaying ambition and succumbing to it with violent and, sometimes, cruel actions.

These seem to be typically ‘masculine’ behaviours and it appears that it's the abandoning of femininity (or typically held views regarding femininity) that an audience finds both repellent and fascinating in equal measure.

From the outset, we are ostensibly offered a representation of Lear’s two elder daughters as scheming and Machiavellian.

Cordelia: King Lear's Youngest Daughter

Cordelia, meanwhile, appears to redeem womankind. Her honesty is both refreshing and dignified, which is in sharp contrast to her sisters' rehearsed and empty speeches.
Despite her father’s obviously growing anger, Cordelia remains calm and refuses to participate in his perverse game.

In fact, it seems that, of the three daughters, Cordelia has become most like her father. She certainly seems to have inherited his stubborn streak.

Lear's Influence Upon His Girls

King Lear has some unorthodox parenting
techniques | Ian Holm as King Lear
Not only this, but it is evident that Lear can be very cruel as well as mule-headed.

First, we observe an instance of it in his overreaction to Cordelia’s insistence that she will not take part in the charade of dividing the kingdom. Second, there is his callous outburst, this time directed towards Goneril, in which he prays to the gods that she be made infertile.

At this particular point in the play, it seems that all Goneril has done to prompt his outburst is to ask that a portion of his entourage be dismissed. Lear's overreactions, and his cruelty to Goneril over something which is seemingly trivial, could be seen as stimulus for his daughters’ later malice.

Through Lear's rages, and his bizarre way of measuring love, we are offered glimpses of his slightly unorthodox parenting style. Is it any wonder, therefore, that his daughters seem a little less than well-balanced?

It is possible to view all three of Lear's daughters as victims of their father. One thing is certain, though, these women are extremely complex. Shakespeare has written three very full, interesting and diverse characters. The women of King Lear should not be considered as two-dimensional or singularly driven.

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