Shakespeare, often a victim of his time who offers proto-feminist ideas, creates quite the opposite in his brutal and honest King Lear, a play full of lust, lies, and manipulation, all of which are performed by women. Though it challenges the established 8th Century gender roles, it creates misogynistic views of women, especially in the portrayal of Regan and Goneril, King Lear’s evil stepsisters of Cordelia. Throughout the play, Shakespeare displays women as inferior to their male counterparts in many scenes whilst portraying men not only as superior but socially more mobile.
Early in the play, women are objectified by their father when he creates a love contest for the division of land; the gilded act backfires on King Lear for all three of his daughters outsmart him, originally portraying early stages of feminism within the strict 8th century. Throughout the play, the women of King Lear suffer from the acts of misogyny directly from their male counterparts and must overcome the battle of the view that is placed upon them. Lear, in a conversation with Kent, degrades women for crying and calls tears a “woman’s weapon” (2.4). King Lear’s actions force the reader to view him as a sexist for he sees his daughters as less than anyone else in the play and begins to hate them not only for what they did to him but also for being women. He describes the image of a woman as a horrible creature and believes they are only here for man’s pleasure.
Shakespeare makes his male characters view powerful women as a threat. Albany, Goneril’s husband, turns against her when he realizes her intentions, and becomes the conscience of King Lear as he denounces his wife in act four. The threat of Goneril’s mind of power stirs Albany into anger and hatred for her and women. With the men of King Lear on a power trip, the women overcome the harsh realities of their time and begin to individualize as the play unfolds. Cordelia is forced to France after being exiled by her father because of not participating in his “love test,” and though the most polite, or the ray of hope in King Lear, she’s the first character to show individualism. Despite being deemed unethical and manipulative early in the play, Regan and Goneril challenge traditional gender roles, often being more masculine than their father, King Lear. Shakespeare allows the reader to realize he can be a victim of his time due to his feminist ideas via Regan’s actions: in the scene with Gloucester and Cornwall, Regan quickly learns her husband is unable to deal with the torture of Gloucester by himself and takes the situation into her own hands.
Her actions prove that she is not a persecuted maiden but an aggressive female lead throughout the play. Though with misogynistic undertones, Shakespeare offers an opportunity to bend gender roles for the demanding Goneril. She swiftly establishes reversed gender roles, taking control of her husband, the Duke of Albany. In act four, she realizes she must allow herself to take control of her situation and remove herself from the housewife position when she says, “I must change the arms at home, and give the distaff into my husband’s hands” (4.
2). With Regan and Goneril’s actions, Shakespeare creates a lens through which the reader views them as horrible human beings yet forward-thinking female characters.