King Lear - feminist perspective

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King Lear may be valued within a feminist context in 1st C as a representation of female roles in early times as compared to contemporary society. In the 1st C female insubordination, and assertiveness is a concept, which is slowly celebrated due to increased concentration on equal rights of all. At the end of the play no women are alive, however in today’s society women are reaching high positions in fields such as business and politics.

The play could also been see from a family based reading demonstrating the complexities of family dynamics. King Lear is a conflict ridden and possessive father. Goneril and Regan are products of Lear’s bullying as shown through animal imagery. The imagery of sea monsters applied to Goneril and Regan by Lear “struck me with her tongue, most serpent-like, upon the very heart” reinforces the idea of Goneril and Regan becoming predators. Lear’s bullying has become a cycle of violence and abuse where Goneril, a victim of her father’s tyranny, bullies her husband “O vain fool! … Marry, your manhood � mew” and Regan calls for the blinding of Gloucester “One side will mock another; th’ other too”. Cordelia, however as the favoured daughter has through a more balanced treatment, developed a more ration approach to life.

The dysfunctional family dynamics could be highlighted on stage through the opening Act 1 scene i. The elder daughters would be portrayed as ambitious and eager to break through the glass ceiling to take the place of the patriarch who has given them no power as yet, costumed in scarlet and crimson tailored women’s suits they would display their strength through these strong colours. Meanwhile, Cordelia would be dressed more simply in casual clothing showing her down to earth attitude. When Lear reveals that he is saving a “third more opulent than [Cordelia’s] sisters”, the sisters’ animosity is aimed by look and tone towards both Cordelia and Lear.

Another scene which holds great potential for the exploration of familial ties, is Act scene iv - Goneril and Regan’s confrontation with Lear. In the Royal Shakespeare company production in 176, Judi Dench played Regan with a stutter, challenging stereotypical divisions between the saintly and demonic sister. Performing Regan stuttering only in Lear’s presence, and Lear displaying impatience at her disability through gesture and tone of voice, implies that Regan’s “filial ingratitude” is a result not from monstrous nature, but from parental tyranny. Through this family / psychological reading it is evident that there is potential violence and harm inherent in the relationship between father and daughters and the dangers of favouritism. Through Lear’s unequal treatment of the daughters and his blindness to the elder daughters’ good qualities, Lear has created an atmosphere of competition among the siblings For a contemporary audience family issues that are explored in King Lear remain applicable and relevant.

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Critic Jan Kott saw the play as an “enquiry into the meaning of the journey from cradle to the grave, into the existence or non-existence of heaven or hell”. Since the aftermath of WW I & II, current threat of terrorism and disease pandemics, the fears and anxieties of the 1st C audience have increased. As a result a pessimistic interpretation of King Lear has become increasingly popular. As Frank Kermode observed, the 1st C audience live in an age where they “defamiliarise violence”. A pessimistic interpretation stems from a Nihilistic/ Existentialist reading where there is no meaning in life, no framework, no pattern, and no divine plan/justice to contain the cycle of vehement and malicious destruction once it is released. Existentialism rejects reason, moralilty and rationality as the driving force of humanity and argues that the Universe lacks inherent order. There is confusion in the belief of divine justice throughout the play. Gloucester thinks the gods are spitefully unjust “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport”, he then revises his opinion “You ever gentle gods”. It seems there is no poetic and divine justice in the play only negate existence. This is confirmed in both the main plot and sub-plot where innocent Cordelia has died cruelly and Gloucester’s blinding and menal suffering hardly fit his crime of fathering the bastard Edmund.

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