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.