When I started grad school, I was hit with insecurity and uncertainty. Am I good enough? Will I do well? Can I do this? I know deep down that I can do it, but these are just doubts that hit me when I’m trying something new that I really want to accomplish. The doubts lasted a short while since I quickly got comfortable in the classroom. And, look, I got an A on my paper for my Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Romances class. Check it out below. It’s on my favorite of the Bard’s plays: King Lear. I could go on forever on King Lear , but I was limited to five pages. Also, please mind the formatting, I copied and pasted from Word and I tried to fix it as much as possible.
The Lustful Centaur of King Lear
King Lear depicts a kingdom where the natural order is disrupted by poor leadership, both on the part of its aging king and the daughters whom he depended on to guide him through old age. Lear, determined to keep only the perks that accompany being king, divides his kingdom in half, and leaves the management of it to his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, Albany and Cornwall, respectively, while leaving a third daughter dowryless for failing to stroke his ego. His two eldest daughters, who are not ordinary tame, submissive women as was custom during Shakespeare’s time, attempt to capitalize on Lear’s old age and increasing madness by trying to exert their power on their father and the men around them. This paper will discuss the misogynist theme Shakespeare presents in King Lear, how Shakespeare sets up the play depicting Goneril as a powerful woman who subverts gender conventions in a quest for dominance, only to readily turn on her sister and lose her position of power in pursuit of her sexual desires.
Goneril, the eldest of Lear’s three daughters, is the play’s most masculine female. She exerts her influence on her father, her sister, and her own husband. We see many instances where Goneril is shown as a singular entity who is independent from the men to whom she is supposed to be, according to social norms, dutiful and submissive. Shakespeare shows Goneril’s personality through stage directions and through her speeches and that of other characters.
Through stage directions, we see that Goneril is not bound to her husband like her sister, Regan. Throughout the play, Goneril comes and goes as she pleases. Of her seven entrances in the play—Regan has eight—her first and last entries are with her husband, Albany. Of those two, the first is with a group of people and the last is in Act 5, Scene 3, where Albany finally establishes himself as head of his wife and leader of the kingdom since Cornwall is dead. Otherwise, Goneril’s entrances are with her steward, Regan and Cornwall, and Edmund. She also has two entrances, Act 1, Scene 4 and Act 2, Scene 4, where she enters by herself.
Regan, on the other hand, is married to a man who does assert himself as head of the household—instances of which can be seen in scenes where Regan attempts to take control and Cornwall reins her in, e.g. .Act 3, Scene 7, lines 52-53. In contrast to Goneril, Regan’s stage entrances are almost always with her husband. Three of her eight entrances do not include Cornwall: Act 4, Scene 5, where she enters with Oswald; Act 5, Scene 1, where she enters with Edmund, to whom she is engaged; and Act 5, Scene 3, where she enters with Goneril and Albany. All of Regan’s entrances without her husband, however, occur after his death, thus making Goneril’s entrances without Albany more blatant.
The speeches and actions of the characters in King Lear also show Goneril’s identity as separate from her husband, whom she is supposed to be bound to. In Act 1, Scene 1, Lear addresses her as “Goneril, our eldest born” whereas he addresses Regan as “Our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall” and Cordelia as “Our last and least, to whose young love the vines of France and milk of Burgundy strive to be interest” (1.1, 55, 70, 85-87) Both of the younger daughters are described in relation to their husband or potential husbands in Cordelia’s case, but Goneril is seen independently of her relationship to Albany.
Goneril’s autonomy is seen in the way she addresses those around her. Although she tells Cordelia, “Let your study be to content thy lord”— in other words, France, whom Cordelia is going to marry—Goneril’s behavior towards Albany shows that her husband’s contentment is not a priority for her. Whereas the man is supposed to be the head of the household, just like the king is the head of the kingdom and its subjects, Goneril sets out be head of them all. She runs the affairs in her estate. In Act 1, Scene 3, she enters with her steward, instructing him to mistreat the king and his nights. She does not consult her husband about the situation, and when Albany inquires about the disagreement between Lear and Goneril, she responds, “Never afflict yourself to know the cause” (1.4, 298). Exasperated with Albany’s attempts to mitigate the situation, she says, “Pray you, content,” essentially telling him to shut up and let her handle the situation, which, according to her, requires something other than his “milky gentleness” (1.4, 320, 348). The dynamic of their marriage is reveled in this act: Goneril is the active, dominant wife while Albany is the passive, submissive husband; that is, until he reverses the roles later on in the play. Even when Albany begins to reassert his masculinity in his marriage, Goneril mocks him, calling him a “milk-livered man” (4.2, 50). It is not until Act 5, Scene 3, that Albany fully assumes control of the marriage and the country. “Shut your mouth, dame or with this paper shall I stop it,” he says as he presents the letter addressed to Edmund, proof of Goneril’s plot to kill him and marry Edmund (5.3, 157-158).
Goneril is forceful with her father and sister as well. She requests that Lear reduce his train of knights by half, but states that if her request is not satisfied, “she will take the thing she begs” (1.4, 254). She starts to say, “If [Regan] sustain him and his hundred knights when I have showed th’ unfitness” but cuts off when her steward enters (1.4, 339-340). I believe she that, had she continued this thought, she would have said something that implied that she would not tolerate she sister disagreeing with her. We see later on how Goneril behaves when she and her sister are no longer of one mind.
At the heart of Goneril’s power trip, there is no hungry ambition striving to take over the country. Instead, there lies the problem of marital indolence on behalf of a husband and the abuse of power of a bored wife. Going along with one of the themes of the play, which argues that there is an “idle and fond bondage of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered” (1.2, 51-54). Goneril, seeing that her husband allowed her to dominate the marriage and household, sought to dominate the rest of her world as well. When she meets Edmund, it becomes clear that she is not exactly satisfied sexually. Goneril describes herself as a prisoner to her husband, “his bed, [her jail]”, and she asks Edmund to free her from Albany’s “loathed warmth” (4.6, 270-271). That Albany cares for his wife is clear, but his love is tender, and Goneril wants someone to dominate her sexually, which draws her to Edmund, to whom, according to her, “a woman’s services are due: [Albany] usurps [her] body” (4.2, 27-28). This line states that Albany is not the true owner of her body because he cannot satisfy her sexually; but on a closer reading, the line can be interpreted as her suggesting that Albany usurps her body because he acts like a woman in their relationship.
Thus, we see Shakespeare’s message about women: women at their core are just lustful creatures who will do anything to satisfy their passions. In fact, Lear and Edgar both drive in this point. Lear says of women, “Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above” (4.6, 126-127). According to Lear, women are slaves to their sexual urges—the horse is a symbol for passion, and since only their bottom halve are horses, their bottom halves are responsible for the unbridled passion women experience. Edgar notes the “indistinguished space of woman’s will” after reading Goneril’s letter to Edmund (4.7, 276). Goneril’s lust definitely knows no limit.
Overpowered by lust, she plots to kill her husband and marry Edmund. Her plans to dominate everyone are forgotten once she promises herself to Edmund. From that moment, we see the intelligent Goneril, concerned with securing her power, become a murderous, jealous woman concerned only with ensuring Edmund becomes hers. In the first three acts, she is wary of her father’s train being a threat to her home: “He may enguard his dotage with their pow’rs and hold our lives in mercy” (1.4, 332-333). She is a strategist; she knows that decimating her father’s train will make him easier to subdue, so her concern is to ensure that he cannot use his train to reclaim the power he gave away. She also seeks to ensure she and her sister form a united front against Lear’s whims. Then, in the last two acts, she is focused solely on getting rid of Albany and Regan so that she could be with Edmund. Upon hearing that Cornwall has died and that Gloucester is blind and banished, Goneril says in an aside:
One way, I like this well;
But being widow, and my Gloucester with her,
May all the building in my fancy pluck
Upon my hateful life. Another way,
The news is not so tart.—I’ll read, and answer. (4.2, 83-87)
Goneril is immediately suspicious of her sister upon hearing that Cornwall is dead and Edmund is near her. She likes that Cornwall is dead because, being a man’s man unlike her husband, he was a threat to her power; also Gloucester being banished means that Edmund now has his title. She attempts to brush off the suspicion that her sister will take interest in Edmund. However, once she sees that Edmund has become Regan’s first in command, leading her army by her side, She loses all aspirations towards power noting that she “would rather lose the battle than that her sister should loosen him and [her]” (5.1, 18-19). Jealously, she forgets all ties of blood and previous allegiance and poisons her sister so that she cannot have Edmund. In the end, however, all is for naught because her plot is discovered and she cannot be rid of Albany. So, she stabs herself with a knife, the substitute for the phallus she was unable to obtain, the one which she lost everything for: Edmund’s penis.
So, power hungry Goneril was reduced to nothing but a horny centaur. The power she had could have been wielded to set right a kingdom whose king “hath ever but slenderly known himself” and is prone to drastic tantrums when his ego is not flattered (1.1, 295-296). Instead of leading her aging father, she follows her sexual desires, setting up Shakespeare’s theme that, the centaur called woman must be tamed and reined in or else she will pursue her lust to the death, come what may.
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barnet. The Tragedy of King Lear. Four Great Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. New York: Penguin, 1998. N. pag. Print.