The Representation of Women in King Lear and The Vicar of Wakefield Essay
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William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, King Lear, and Oliver Goldsmith’s novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, represent the women characters in a similar way, despite the numerous differences in terms of themes and symbol that separate the texts. Significantly, both works are centered on the relationship between the father and his daughters. The patriarchal view that the two texts share is therefore obvious. In King Lear, the primary focus is on blindness, on the contrast between appearance reality and on the rashness of judgment that prompts the great king to commit fatal errors.
Ultimately however, Lear is the one who appears to be most slighted by his daughters. The relationship between him as a father and king and his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan degenerates to the point that it upsets the very order of reality and disturbs the delicate balance of the universe. It is not accidental that Lear actually dies at the end of the play, since the behavior of the two ungrateful daughters is the equivalent of a murderous and unnatural act.
While Goldsmith’s Sophia and Olivia are not actually degenerate and evil like Goneril and Regan, they are nevertheless equally frail and superficial.
The story seems to be told by a loving and caring father, but it is also obvious that he blatantly as weak and unfit for any clear reasoning. The two works share in their direct, patriarchal view through which women are portrayed as inherently flawed and deficient in reason and morality. The patriarchal character is set out against this background as one capable of superior reasoning and understanding. King Lear commits an obvious and fatal error of judgment in the beginning of the play.
Despite the fact that Lear is obviously condemnable for his unjust rejection of Cordelia, he is represented as a great man who is ‘more sinn’d against than sinning. ’(III. ii. 59-60) As in many other Shakespearean plays, the king and the father figures are perceived as grandiose and almost divine characters. The main focus of King Lear is the two older daughters’ failure to honor their father properly and to allow him the position he deserves in the universal hierarchy of things. Goneril and Regan are represented as evil and scornful but also fickle and weak.
The fact that they are both adulteresses and secretly pursue the same man, Edmund, shows that they also lack decency and prudence. One of the most conclusive scenes in the play for the patriarchal representation of women in the play is the scene of the fictitious but highly symbolic trial set up by the almost mad king for his daughters. The injustice and sinfulness of the daughters’ behavior towards their father appears here plainly to view: And here’s another, whose warp’d looks proclaim What store her heart is made on. Stop her there! Arms, arms, sword, fire! Corruption in the place! False justicer, why hast thou let her ‘scape?
(III. vi. 53-56) The ‘warp’d looks’ of the woman clearly point to her inherent falseness and deceitful nature, in Lear’s view. His two older daughters are beautiful but all the more wanton and superficial. Their perfidy comes into full view when they not only act against their father but also against each other and their husbands, fighting over the same lover. The characters of the two daughters appear to be truly appalling and treacherous. In the trial scene, Lear puts his daughters even below nature and its proper function. They seem to be unnatural beings that have nothing of the nobleness of man:
Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts? (III. iv. 75-77) Goneril and Regan have a series of flaws that make them substantially inferior to almost every other character in the play. The patriarchal view of women expressed by King Lear is therefore that the female characters can posses some of the basest characters. They attract through their beauty and apparent innocence only to be more revengeful in the end. Oliver Goldsmith reveals a similar view of the female characters in The Vicar of Wakefield.
The story is told from a somewhat unusual point of view: not that of a main character or a mere witness but someone who is actually involved but plays a secondary role. The vicar of Wakefield is the father of a somewhat numerous family which includes two daughters and recounts the tortuous story of each member. The focus is on the two daughters, their behaviors and their eventual marriages. Sophia and Olivia are not actually degenerate in character, but they are portrayed as infinitely weak and superficial. The first allusion to these features is the choice of their names.
The vicar attempts to give a full history of his family and their adventures and includes all details that are relevant. Under the veiled tone of a caring father, he indirectly criticizes the women in the story, especially his two daughters. The names of the two girls are chosen by his wife and by relatives, against his particular wish. The fact that the two women end up with names that were associated with popular romances at the time is extremely significant. These names seem already to capture the essence of their portrayal as beautiful but unintelligent and unwise characters.
Although the vicar seems to speak only in loving terms of his family, there are numberless allusions to the contrary with respect to the women. The wife already appears to be denigrated for her lack of intellectual capacity. The vicar seemingly praises her qualities, while actually pointing to her faults, to her lack of intelligence and understanding: To do her justice, she was a good-natured notable woman; and as for breeding, there were few country ladies who could shew more. She could read any English book without much spelling, but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her. (Goldsmith 25)
The two daughters are equally flawed. They are clearly focused on romance and do not have any other interests. With respect to romance moreover, they are interested by appearances and superficial aspects. Olivia seems to be inclined towards having as many lovers as possible, while Sophia wants to be certain of one: ‘Olivia wished for many lovers, Sophia to secure one. Olivia was often affected from too great a desire to please. Sophia even represt excellence from her fears to offend. ’ (Goldsmith 36) Most of the story revolves around the family’s sudden impoverishment and the girls’ hunt for lovers.
Mr. Burchell and Mr. Thornhill, who will become eventually the husbands of the two daughters, develop a flirtatious and superficial relation with the two girls. This view of the daughters is accentuated by the father’s profession as a vicar. Despite their education, the women are unable to adapt to their humble conditions once the family is suddenly deprived of fortune. The father is openly disappointed to see that, ‘they still loved laces, ribbands, bugles and catgut; my wife herself retained a passion for her crimson paduasoy, because I formerly happened to say it became her.
’(Goldsmith 49) Like Goneril and Regan, these two women seem to revolve undecidedly around the same men. Their admiration for the two suitors is also judged by the patriarchal narrator in the novel. In his view, women are so formed as the love appearance in their own person, being inclined to spend a lot of time on frivolous embellishments for their bodies or faces. In this way, they appear to become thoroughly superficial and unable to judge profoundly. When Mr.
Thornhill appears to win a dispute with Moses, the younger brother of the two women, they admire him without being able to perceive his actual faults: ‘It is not surprising then that such talents should win the affections of a girl, who by education was taught to value an appearance in herself, and consequently to set a value upon it in another. ’(Goldsmith 54) The father underrates any ability that the girls may have to judge for themselves. When the character of Mr. Thornhill is put to doubt, Olivia vows she would be able to convert him, professing that she has read enough to make her pertinent on the subject.
Her father indirectly mocks her, interrupting her speech and sending her instead to the kitchen and make the gooseberry pie instead: ‘Why, my dear, what controversy can she have read? ‘ cried I. ‘It does not occur to me that I ever put such books into her hands: you certainly over-rate her merit. ‘ ‘Indeed, pappa,’ replied Olivia, ‘she does not: I have read a great deal of controversy […] ‘Very well,’ cried I, ‘that’s a good girl, I find you are perfectly qualified for making converts, and so go help your mother to make the gooseberry-pye. ‘ (Goldsmith 68)
Goldsmith’s view of women in The Vicar of Wakefield is obviously very critical. Women are inherently preoccupied with appearance and conjecture rather than with essential matters. Moreover, they are actually unfit for serious judgment and cannot be credited with common sense or reason. They are not left to act independently or even think, since their principles are considered to be superficial and flawed from the beginning. The two works, King Lear and The Vicar of Wakefield, essentially tell the stories of two fathers and their daughters.
Goneril and Regan and corrupt and unnatural, far surpassing their husbands in malignity and deceitfulness. Sophia and Olivia, on the other hand, are not evil but simply unintelligent and superficial. The patriarchal view of women thus places the female character on a inferior step in the hierarchy, making them seem inherently flawed. ? Bibliography Goldsmith, Oliver, The vicar of Wakefield (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of King Lear (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975)