For all of its good qualities, the Henriad tetralogy suffered from a noticeable lack of compelling female characters. All four plays were entirely dominated by the male characters, with any and all women possessing incredibly small roles that did not have a great deal of influence (if any at all) on the primary events of the stories. This lack of gender balance is understandable; the history behind the plays is likely largely defined by men, leaving Shakespeare little room to include many significant females in the stories. Still, it was difficult to go through those plays without noticing the gross imbalance between men and women throughout. As such, it was refreshing to instantly see that this issue would not repeat itself in King Lear, as we are immediately introduced to female characters with a level of agency and relevance that none of the women we saw in the previous four plays possessed.
Much of the conflict in the play is the result of Goneril and Regan’s schemes to manipulate their father. Whether through their over-the-top proclamations of love for him in order to be given part of his wealth or their dual efforts to establish power over him, the two are constantly proving themselves to be strong, intelligent, and cunning characters. Shakespeare is also not afraid to fully embrace the cruelty of these women, such as in the concluding scene of Act Two when they leave their father out in the storm: “O, sir, to willful men,/The injuries that they themselves procure/Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors./He is attended with a desperate train; And what they may incense him to, being apt/To have his ear abused, wisdom bids fear.” (2.4 297-302). Both women show little genuine care for their father, and are willing to do whatever they have to in order to secure and maintain their wealth and power from him. After seeing so many of Shakespeare’s female characters solely defined by their relationships with men, it’s a nice change of pace to see these two attempting to actively seek to shape their own destinies through any means necessary, and their attempts to do so provides a compelling conflict for the play.
Shakespeare takes a very different but equally effective approach with Cordelia; while we don’t see her nearly as much as Goneril and Regan in the first two acts, what we do see of her in the first scene of the play immediately establishes her as the most admirable female character that we’ve seen from Shakespeare in the plays we’ve read thus far. Whereas her two elder sisters are more than happy to tell their father whatever they have to in order to secure their wealth, Cordelia refuses to tell him anything but the truth: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/According to my bond; nor more nor less.” (1.1 90-92). She knows that refusing to flatter her father with lies will result in his rejection and the loss of all that is promised to her, yet still she speaks her mind openly to him and willingly accepts the ensuing consequences. Her rejection of personal gain in favor of sincerity is one of the strongest displays of moral integrity that we’ve seen from any character in the plays that we’ve read. The fact that it comes from a woman is a bit of a surprise, given the plays that we’ve read from Shakespeare thus far, but it’s a pleasant one. It’s easy to see that Lear will come to regret his rejection of Cordelia, the only one of his daughters who loved him enough to not manipulate him for her own personal gain, and we’ve already begun to see this regret develop in the first two acts of the play.
Lear may be the eponymous character of the play, but his fate is largely going to be defined by his interactions with his three daughters. After reading the Henriad and experiencing the dominating masculine perspective throughout those plays, it’s refreshing to see a play with a more balanced display of the genders. It also doesn’t hurt that these three female characters are stronger and more compelling than any of the other women we’ve seen in Shakespeare’s plays thus far.