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Feminism and King Lear

OCTOBER 2, 2012 BY BSKAHAN88

Feminism and King Lear In her article entitled, “The Absent Mother in King Lear” Coppelia Khan makes the case for the woman inside the man. She argues that by the plays end Lear is completely emasculated and to quote Dr. Watson “understands the woman within himself.” It is an interesting premise to say the least and well argued for by Kahn but still I don‟t quite buy it. Khans criticisms of the patriarchy are well founded but I fear they are too modernly feministic. While she views Lear‟s emasculation as a critique of the place of women in the royal aristocracy I see it as a criticism of the monarchy itself. Lear vocally announced his abdication of power and childishly challenged his own children to a competition of flattery. Immediately his two eldest daughters side with one another in order to gain his favor and ultimately the control and power of his kingdom. A king is supposed to be selected by God, to rule with authority but in the case of Lear all it took was a simple acknowledgement of resignation and all his power was void. From the time he decides to divide his kingdom amongst his eldest daughters he, ironically, damns himself in the most shakespearean way. He betrays his youngest daughter, whom truly loves him most and therefore will receive his due for his injustice. This seems more of a critique of the childish way in which a monarch holds authority than a transformative emasculation. Regardless, Khan interprets it differently stating, “what the play depicts, of course, is the failure of that presence: the failure of a father‟s power to command love in a patriarchal world and the emotional penalty he pays for wielding power. Lear‟s very insistence on paternal power, in fact, belies its shakiness; similarly, the absence of the mother points to her hidden presence . . . . When Lear begins to feel the loss of Cordelia, to be wounded by her sisters, and to recognize his own vulnerability, he calls his state of mind hysteria, „the mother,‟ which I interpret as his repressed identification with the mother. Women and the needs and traits associated with them are supposed to stay in their element, as Lear says, „below‟ – denigrated, silenced, denied. In this patriarchal world, masculine identity depends on repressing the vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for feeling which are called „feminine.‟” Indeed Lear does learn the error of his ways but this does not in fact make him a woman. It makes him a fool which is ironic because the Fool often gives Lear sound advice which he, naturally, ignores. Khan goes on to argue that Lear‟s emasculation is really a learning process that leads to the transformative identity Lear inherits, claiming, “Despite a lifetime of strenuous defense against admitting feeling and the power of feminine presence into his world, defense fostered at every turn by prevailing social arrangements, Lear manages to let them in. He learns to weep and, though his tears scald and burn like molten lead, they are no longer „women‟s weapons‟ against which he must defend himself.” In the scenes where Lear weeps he is learning of his humanity and what it is to be helpless in a society dominated by monarchical hierarchy. It helps to develop his character to give him a better sense of depth. By developing his depth and making him more round Shakespeare teases the reader into empathizing with Lear as human not just a man. In her article Khan calls our attention to the reunion with Cordelia, “These are the tears of ashamed selfknowledge, manly tears caused by a realization of what his original childish demands on his daughters had led to.” In this scene, which I want to compare with the next scene with Cordelia, Lear comes closer than he ever does later to a mature acceptance of his human dependency.” Once again I do not fully disagree with Khan. I agree that this does show the inescapable consequence of society: i.e. human dependency and Lear‟s acceptance of it. But we must ask ourselves who doesn‟t depend on other humans for survival? With the rare exception of extreme survivalists there is no one on his planet that does not depend on some one for something. Even survivalists need the knowledge of those who came before them in order to survive in a wild and untamed world. I just can‟t buy into the idea that this somehow makes Lear more feminine. Lear‟s downfall is his childish and

he lost his daughters. his identity and his mind.selfish need for external validation from his own daughters. . In the end Lear is a fallen king who lost more than the power to rule.