"The Sulphury Pit"

Yet again, in another Shakespeare play, the masculine and feminine roles seem to be switched.  We have two very strong female characters in King Lear who seem to break the barriers of what is lady-like.  Both Goneril and Regan become power hungry when they get a taste of what it’s like.  They shower their father with flattery, just so to get the bigger piece of his kingdom, and the competition only starts there.  Women are traditionally viewed as passive and motherly.  They value family and love above anything else.  However, this idea is thrown out the door in King Lear.
 Goneril and Regan choose power over family when they attempt to strip Lear of the little control that he has left as King.  They go back on their word, refusing his knights, which ultimately causes him to leave both of their homes and begin to lose his sanity.  Because of their actions, Lear feels undermined and angry at his decision to disown Cordelia.  He resents the way he has been treated by his controlling daughters.  They seem to not care at all about their aging father and only think about what more they can gain.  This switches the traditional role of the man having land and power over women.
 Another idea that relates to men is sex.  Men are commonly seen as lustful and always thinking about women; however this is flip-flopped in this play, as well.  Lear has a very interesting speech in 4.5 to Gloucester, where his rage toward his daughters come out in a very strange way.  He begins by discussing adultery, and then his train of thought brings him around to his daughters and the female sex.  He says, “Let copulation thrive,/For Gloucester’s bastard son/Was kinder to his father than my daughters/Got ‘tween the lawful sheets” (109-112).  We spoke in class about the theme of custom and tradition, and how many of these characters were throwing this idea away in order to get what they want.  Lear, however, always tried to stick to what he knew was right.  But here, he seems to be finally throwing away custom by coming to the conclusion that Gloucester’s bastard son is behaving better than his own legitimate daughters.  He goes on in great description, saying that women may appear to be pure and uncorrupted, but are actually extremely horny and deceitful.  He refers to a woman’s privates as belonging to the devil.  “There’s hell, there’s darkness,/There’s the sulphury pit, burning, scalding,/Stench, consummation” (121-123).  And in a way, he is proven correct.  Both Goneril and Regan seem to value sex over love.  Now that Edmund is beginning to show some importance and power, Goneril is willing to cheat on her husband with him and Regan instantly is interested in him right after Cornwall dies.  It’s just another competition to them.
In conclusion, King Lear goes against custom and reverses many of the traditional gender roles.  We see this the most in Lear’s oldest daughters who seem to take up many male features as they gain more power, and Lear, who is King, slowly loses all power and influence.  I’m interested to see how this play concludes.
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3 thoughts on “"The Sulphury Pit"

  1. natgiuliano

    I feel that women are mostly passive and motherly because there are no options for them to move around in this society without latching onto husbands or family. Their power is derived solely from the statuses of males in their lives.. they do all they can to nurture them because that is the only way they can look out for themselves. This violation of the norm (in which Goneril and Regan attain power) began with Lear directly handing over a huge amount of power to women for wishy-washy reasons. The disorder began there, and I think part of why Goneril and Regan became so extreme was because they were desperate to keep this once in a lifetime offer. Also, Shakespeare is obviously calling human nature into question, as he usually does. In a way, he is making the statement that greed/hunger for power are truly innate and dangerous human qualities if they can be so prevalent in women too. This was probably a unique view during his time.

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  2. molly

    I might be veering a little off topic with this, but I think it's interesting that you say "Lear…always tried to stick to what he knew was right." So much of what Lear does is not right at all, but he certainly seems to think he's following his own kind of code. I think the same goes for Goneril and Regan. Their ultimate goal is power, and it's very easy for them to justify their actions on the path to meeting that goal, whether they murder, commit adultery, or deceive their father. You say Lear does what he knows is right, not what he thinks is right, and I think you make an important and necessary distinction. Sometimes thinking feels like knowing.

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  3. Cyrus Mulready

    The post and discussion here raise many interesting questions about gender in this play. I am always struck by the profound misogyny of the lines that Megan quotes here, and how shocking it is for Lear to be treating his daughters' sexuality in such frank and repulsive terms. This may be another way we can see the undoing of nature and the corruption of the Lear family.

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