In this production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a feminist reading of the play has been chosen to be presented to the audience. Certain important factors must be taken into consideration as to how this reading will be reflected on stage. Thus, we will examine, in detail, two important scenes: Act I, scene i, and Act IV, scene iv, their impact on the action and main issues of the play (ambition/ greed, power, corruption, appearance versus reality and growth through suffering) and how the characters, specifically the women roles, are to be portrayed to reflect this particular critical reading.
Act I, scene i, is worthy of our attention as a valid representation of the major issues within the play, an impetus for the play’s ensuing conflict and a display of the nature of the characters. The scene opens with Gloucester and Kent discussing Lear’s plan to retire and partition his kingdom amongst his daughters. The king’s public drama of the love test denotes the insecurity and fear of an old man who requires reassurance of his importance, blindly accepting his elder daughters’ seditious falsehoods. As opposed to a genuine assessment of his daughters’ love for him, the test seems to invite, rather demand, flattery.
Goneril and Regan’s professions of love are banal and insecure, ‘I love you more than word can wield the matter,’ however Lear unreservedly welcomes these trite remarks. Regan echoes her sister by saying, ‘I find she names my very deed of love; only she comes too short.’ In contrast to her sisters, Cordelia, the youngest and favourite daughter responds to Lear’s emotional demands by answering ‘Nothing, my lord.’ Markedly, she has a much greater degree of forthrightness and assurance: ‘Unhappy as I am I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,’ a metaphorical statement that enrages Lear, who thus disinherits Cordelia, triggering the tragic events that are to follow.
A feminist reading of this play could focus on a number of aspects from this opening scene. Consideration could be given to the early dialogue between Kent and Gloucester. Gloucester’s blatant indiscretion to Edmond’s bastardy compels the audience to see reasoning in the character’s subsequent actions, ‘I have so often blushed to acknowledge him.’ Edmond is seen as flawed owing to the flaws of his mother, ‘A son for her cradle ‘ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?’ The metaphorical devices that can be seen in this statement, ‘husband for her bed’, works to both debase the maternal figure and offend the son. Gloucester seemingly disengages himself from any form of culpability and particular emphasis on this aspect of the scene could direct more focus on the ensuing misogynistic aspects of the play. Traditionally, from a feminist perspective, the characters of Goneril and Regan are branded villains; stock characters, conventional representations of ‘evil’.
This ‘evil’ is defined by acts of will, power, desire, and sexuality – acts which disrupt both conventional morality and the patrilineal order’s definition of ‘appropriate’ femininity and consequently must be met with punitive penalties. Feminist perspectives examine the explicit attack on Goneril and Regan as evil, lustful creatures and the savagery of Lear’s curses and harsh judgments, ”Down from the waist they’re centaurs, /though women all above”. Once their fraudulent appraisals of their father secure their powers and demotes his, their villainous agendas come to surface as reverence to Lear is ultimately decimated. Family relations in King Lear are fixed and determined by the patriarchy and any movement is destructive of this rightful order. The actions of Lear’s treacherous daughters are thus seen as not simply cruel and selfish, but as a fundamental violation of human nature. A feminist reading of the play focuses on the propriety of male power – fathers are owed particular duties by their daughters and we must be appalled by the chaos which ensues when those primal links are obliterated.
Furthermore, the abruptness of Cordelia’s refusal to play her role in Lear’s test of love dramatizes the outrage of her denial of conformity, and the fury of Lear’s ensuing appeal to archetypal forces shows that a rupture of ‘propinquity and property of blood’ is tantamount to the destruction of nature itself. Cordelia’s words, ‘I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,’ introduce a conflict into the question of obligations within the family. A feminist reading of the play could consequentially give particular consideration to the prospect of women being regarded a key to property. Burgundy states, ‘Royal king/ Give but that portion which yourself proposed/ and here I take Cordelia by the hand;’ feminist critical reading implies that the motivations are imbedded with misogynous ideas, that females are merely in place to fuel the institution of male power. This is further underscored by the notion that Regan and Goneril control their land through their husbands, Cornwall and Albany respectively.
Following from this, the characterisation of the roles, to reflect a feminist reading of the play in the production, is of particular importance. The characters of Goneril and Regan would need to be portrayed as ambitious, cold and calculating, ruthless in their disloyalty to the patriarchy, as this links both to the major issues within the play of ambition/ greed and the concept of appearance versus reality, and to a feminist reading of the play. The hollow flattery of Goneril and Regan represents the type of service traditionally expected of women. Their actions in the opening scene seemingly facilitate a feminist reading as their contrived accolades and dismemberment of familial links provides for a source of conflict and witnesses the destruction of the patriarchal system.
Cordelia, here, is the first to revolt against Lear’s organizing authority and at the end of the play her saving love is less a redemption for womankind as an example of patriarchy restored. Cordelia is sanctified as angel/Madonna, as Goneril and Regan are demonized as devil/whore. Lear’s description of Cordelia’s voice as ”ever soft and low” establishes images of the conventional patterns of behaviour that are required of women. For a feminist production of the play, an actor portraying Cordelia in this scene would need to place particular emphasis on this aspect of her character, the acknowledged ‘joy’. The imbalance in power between the sexes is clear; women are consistently shown as disempowered by men and the actors playing the role of these three women would be required to make this evident on stage.
In terms of this production, the second significant section of the play worthy of feminist consideration is Act IV, scene iv, where Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. Her part in establishing the terms of the conflict is over by Act I and when she reappears it is as an emblem of dutiful pity. Lear’s metamorphoses takes full form in this scene as the old king, formerly prone to foolish rashness, demonstrates the humility and humanity that was severely lacking in his life, which evokes our pathos and Cordelia’s forgiveness. From the angry autocrat of Act i to the appealing figure of pathetic insanity to a man with new perceptive clarity, Lear’s character evidently comes full circle. The psychological realism of Lear’s decline into madness, specifically in Act II, scene iv, forges the bonds between Lear as a complex character and the sympathies of the audience. The ideological power of Lear’s speech lies in his invocation of nature to support his demands on his daughters; its dramatic power lies in its movement from argument to desperate assertion of his crumbling humanity as the abyss of madness approaches.
However, once again, that humanity is seen in gendered terms as Lear appeals to the gods: ‘let not women’s weapons, water drops/ stain my man’s cheeks.’ In terms of a feminist reading of the play, when Lear condemns Goneril for her treachery, ‘But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter, or rather, a disease that’s in my flesh,’ the emphatic repetition of ‘my’ indicates ownership and although he effectively destroys the filial link to his daughter in this scene, the idea of female subordination remains. In the scene of reconciliation, Act IV, scene iv, Lear discovers that he is to drink not the poison of Cordelia’s revenge as he had expected, but rather her unconditional mercy.
In this scene Cordelia represents the stereotypical feminine quality of healing. The imagery in this scene gives Cordelia’s forgiveness divine sanction and the realism of Lear’s struggle for sanity closes off any responses other than complete engagement with the character’s emotions. When Lear fears that she cannot love him ‘your sisters…done me wrong/ you have some cause, they have not,’ Cordelia demurs ‘No cause, no cause.’ Here, the spectacle of suffering eradicates past action so that the audience, along with Cordelia, will murmur ‘No cause, no cause.’ Rather than a resolution of the action, their reunion becomes an emblem of possible harmony, briefly glimpsed before the tragic debacle.
The portrayal of Cordelia in IV vi is of particular significance in facilitating a feminist reading of the play. Here she acts as a feminine catalyst for the purgation of her father’s evil doings. An actor portraying the role of Cordelia in this particular scene would need to make evident Cordelia’s compassion and exhibit the virtues of patience, forgiveness and familial loyalty.