Women, Sex, and Lust in Shakespeare’s King Lear

March 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

As the audience gears up for King Lear’s death, as they bite their nails at the coming sword fight between the two separated brothers, they notice that within all this royal drama a silly cat fight has developed between Regan and Goneril. We can trace it all the way back to the beginning. After Goneril claims that she loves her father “more than words can wield the matter,” (33) a formulation that could never be topped, Regan professes that her sister “comes too short.” (34) They come together when it is convenient for them and for the plot. They are equally willing to throw their father to the winds, when he demands his humanity. And when each sees the opportunity to satisfy her feminine drive, each is willing to do anything – to poison or stab the other – to win the prize.Indeed, Regan and Goneril are hardly characters at all. Shakespeare sketches them as easily as he does the obsequious servant Oswald, imbuing them with all the motives, nuances, passions as would befit a tigress or a two-year-old. Nor are they really different from each other. At the end of the play, only the Shakespeare scholars could tell you who claimed Edmund first, who stabbed whom, or who dies when. The reason is, of course, that it makes no difference to the play. They are interchangeable. They are bad sisters, bad wives, bad daughters. And that’s all.Compare them to the other evil force in the play, Edmund. Regan and Goneril serve essentially the same function as he does: to trick the father for their benefit, at the cost of his sanity and his life. Edmund, however, offers us all the intricacy of a developed character. When we meet him, he reveals to us what it is that is bothering him. He asks the heavens, “Wherefore base?” (44) He shows later the workings of a philosophic mind when he tells us that he does not believe in any “heavenly compulsion,” (47) and therefore “should have been that [he is].” We know exactly why he resents his brother, exactly the nature of his drive to power, exactly why he has so much confidence in himself. We even like him against our will. He is what Regan and Goneril should be if Shakespeare had wanted to make them come alive.The third sister is no more real than her elders. She is good, pure and simple. Again, we see that in the first scene of the play, as her opening lines are, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” (33) This fairytale princess is clearly contrasted against her “oily-tongued” evil sisters. Then, when the evil ones are tossing their father back and forth, propelling the story forward, Cordelia is in France, as absent as ideals are in that murky middle of the play. When she returns, she is the heroine, the friend, and the martyr all in one. When Lear calls her “a soul in bliss,” (146) it is both an truism and a premonition. She is an angel on the stage, and an fallen angel in death. In short, she is entirely unambiguous, totally single-minded, and, as characters go, uninteresting.Edgar, her counterpart in goodness, has so much personality that he is forced to split himself in two. He is not supernatural, as Cordelia is. Though he too is banished from his father, he does not disappear into a distant land. Instead we follow him through his struggle, into his beggar’s clothes. We feel his agony as he realizes his father is blind. We let him lead us as he leads his father to the edge of reality in the world of metatheatrics. We wonder why he keeps his identity secret. We see him lose himself in his made-up character. We learn from what he learns, awe at what he awes at. He is a true human, perhaps even more an audience member than a character in a play. He is unpredictable. He is the opposite of Cordelia in all ways except that they are both on the same team.The good son and the bad son are flesh and blood. The good daughter and the bad daughters are quick strokes of the pen. What this does is dichotomize the plot from the subplot, making Lear’s tragedy more mythic and larger in scale than Gloucester’s. More importantly though, it puts up a gender fence: The men of the play think and struggle and suffer, while the women bicker and die. Granted, this is an oversimplification, but it is an oversimplification that Shakespeare invites the audience to make. We are never once asked to examine the motives or the ideas of the women; they merely are. They direct the plot forward like guideposts. It is the men who are of interest to us.All this begs the question: What about Lear’s wife? What about Gloucester’s wife and lover? They are both remarkably dead and gone. Surely, had they been in the play, they would have moderated their partner’s folly, restricting, in some sense, their ability to enact their characters. But we do not even have mention of their names. Lear makes reference to his wife directly only once, when he says to Regan that he would “divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, sepulchering an adulteress,” (84) if she had not been glad to see him arrive at her door. What Lear implies here is that no proper daughter of his would turn him away. And implicit within that idea is that his wife, or lover, is responsible for Regan’s actions. We see here that Lear, at least early in the play, believes that fate is determined in part by the relation between the mother and father. Gloucester, for his part, refers to the mothers of his children briefly at the beginning, comparing his two children. Through the course of the play, of course, the “base” shows himself to be “base,” the “legitimate” to be good. It makes sense to think that Gloucester comes to believe what Lear earlier implies when he realizes that “Edgar was abused.” (116) He even pleads, “Kind gods, forgive me that,” the word “kind” implying that the gods rule rationally, which itself implies that “base” is base.If the women are either nonexistent or plot-centered or both, then it is only a very small jump to say that all the determinants – and by that what is meant is the inevitable movements of the play and, therefore, of life – are female in nature. Lear has no power to change what Regan and Goneril are anymore than he can persuade Cordelia to abandon her virtues and speak lies. These elements are the “givens” of the play, as are Edgar’s and Edmund’s positions in respect to one another, which were determined long ago by the status of their mothers. To risk further abstraction, Fortune is herself a woman, and yet another cause of unavoidable suffering. Nature too is referred to as a “goddess.” Furthermore, the number of sisters in the play is hardly arbitrary: in this pagan world, it is impossible to avoid comparing them to the three Fates, who hold in their hands the strings of all the other characters’ lives. Is not abandoning Lear to the wind merely a way of cutting his string? If “man’s life is as cheap as beast’s” (90) when he has no more than what “nature needs,” have not Regan and Goneril stripped Lear of his life as a man when they leave him with only the clothes on his back? Beyond this idea of Woman as Cause, though, looms one of Shakespeare’s favorite topics, sex. These two ideas are brought together brilliantly by Edmund in the monologue where he rails against convention. He mocks those who believe that we are what we are because of a “divine thrusting on.” (48), the phrase “thrusting on” bringing to mind that act in the human drama when we “thrust.” Then he goes on to say that it makes no difference when his father “compounded” with his mother. Thus we see that to act against what appears to be divine law is to act against the determinacy of Sex.The Fool jests to the same effect. One of his riddles ends with the parable, “Leave thy drink and thy whore,/ And keep in-a-door,/ And thou shalt have more/ Than two tens to a score.” (55) Since a score is by definition two sets of ten, it follows that it is impossible to leave the drink and the whore. We have no choice, according to the fool, but to copulate. In another parable, the Fool teaches that when “bawds and whores do churches build…/ going shall be used with feet.” (97) Since “going” is always done with the feet, this means that whores do build churches. Whores, the symbol of sex, are metaphorically responsible for constructing the buildings in which we admit our lowliness in the face of a greater power, in which we surrender our will to Another. Also, the Fool had earlier referred to Fortune as an “arrant whore.” (81) We can see, according to the Fool, how sex rules the cosmos.In the same vein, Goneril attributes the bad behavior of Lear’s knights to “Epicurism and lust,” which makes her palace “like a brothel.” (59) She uses this as her excuse to cut down Lear’s “train,” which causes Lear to seek refuge in his other daughter’s home. Lust, then, could be said to be the first cause of Lear’s insanity, since it is apparently lust that must separate Lear from his beloved knights, and lust that separates Lear from his eldest daughter.When Edgar invents an insanity, he attributes it in part to lust as well. He says that he “served the lust of [his] mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with her.” (102) He advises Lear not to allow “the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks” to take over one’s “heart” as it has his own made-up character. The fact that Edgar imagines lust as one of, if not the main, cause of his madness is particularly interesting and relevant because throughout there is a definite parallel between Edgar and Shakespeare. Edgar, for example, lays out the scene on the cliffs of Dover to his father much in the same way that Shakespeare lays out the dialogue of that scene. Edgar also creates a totally fictional character in Tom, just as Shakespeare has created a whole cast of characters. And just as Shakespeare has made lust the prime mover behind the scenes, so too has Edgar.So far, “woman” has led to “sex,” and “sex” to “lust,” without any unifying idea. That idea must be fertility. Without fecundity there can be no life. Without life, there can be no King Lear. Fertility is the grand precondition. If we have any ability to override the natural forces, then we can steer clear of the “brothel,” as Edgar advises. If we cannot, as the ending of the play seems to suggest (taking the popular, modern, negative reading of it), then that precondition is as good as fate. It is this wheel that turns; evil “breeds.” (45). It is the cycle of years.A classic symbol of fertility is the egg, where the power of life is stored. In Lear, the egg is referred to twice. The Fool mocks Lear for having divided his kingdom between his two daughters. He says that he can make two crowns out of an egg by cutting up “the egg i’ th’ middle and eat[ing] up the meat.” (56) This implies that Lear’s meat was his kingdom, that his life, in fact, was his kingdom. Sadly, this must mean that he has unwittingly sacrificed his own life, a fact that proves to be true in the final act. This whole analogy is operating under the greater metaphor of fertility, which means that when Lear’s now-absent wife gave birth, she also gave birth to Lear’s death, so to speak. Production is self-defeating. Fertility is the Death’s brother. The second time “egg” is used, it carries the same negative undertone. Edgar says that Gloucester “shivered like an egg” (133) as he plunged to his theoretical death from the heights of the cliffs of Dover.The “egg” though is a roundabout way of explaining what Lear himself makes clear in the famous monologue he delivers to Goneril after she demands the removal of his knights from her palace. Lear begs Nature to “convey sterility” into Goneril’s “womb” (60). It is as if he wants to end the cycle of life that brought him to such a low point, much like Hamlet when he says, “It would be better my mother had not born me.” He does not want from her a grandchild; he does not want to continue on through her. “Or,” he says, “if she must teem,” she should have a child who will teach her that it is “sharper than a serpent’s tooth… to have a thankless child.” He either wants her never to have any “eggs,” or, if she must, to have an egg wherein all the meat is “eaten i’ th’ middle.” Later, when Lear is travelling through the mad labyrinth of his own mind, muttering to Gloucester his new ideas, he says to “Let copulation thrive.” (136) This positive outlook though is tempered by a very harsh depiction of the female: “But to the girdle do the gods inherit,/ Beneath is all the fiend’s./ There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption.” On the one hand then is the realization that there is not much we can do about rampant fertility – so let it be. On the other hand is the unequivocal horror of sexuality. It is fitting that Lear immediately following these lines asks Gloucester, whom he has confused with a doctor, for a “civet” or musk perfume. This would enable him to escape for a moment that eternal contradiction.No such contradiction exists though if we can avoid being like the “fitchew,” if we can avoid the call of fate, of instinct, of woman. (The sexist perspective is appropriate here, because the question of choice does not apply to any of the women of the play: they lack any real alternatives.) The cards, Shakespeare seems to say, are stacked against us. The “lusty stealth of nature” was exactly what ended the hopes of Edmund, as his fate was determined the moment his mother and his father slipped into bed together unthinkingly. He, like Lear, suffers an Oedipus-like downfall, in that by going out of his way to avoid his seeming fate, he walks right into it. There are Edgar’s fiends fighting against us, bringing us to similar fates, the first of whom is Obidcut, who is “of lust.” (120) And we often cannot fight back against such a fiend, because, as Albany says, “Howe’er thou art a fiend,/ A woman’s shape doth shield thee.” (123) Even if we try to “lash that whore,” we still “lust to use her in that kind/ For which [we] whip her.” (138) Sex and lust without the whip, without convention, must lead to chaos. And chaos, in Lear as in life, is the same as fate. What about Cordelia? Is she not the salvation, the Christ figure? She is no match for the pair of devils that are her sisters. She dies, “never, never, never, never, never” to return.If the “eternal feminine draws us ever upward” in Faust, it draws us ever in circles in Lear. In one of Shakespeare’s wittier sonnets, he says that “lust in action” is “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” But then he goes on to say that, “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/ To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” Lear evokes the tragic, not the witty, half of this couplet. It is in part this terrible circle that Lear rails against to the deaf winds of the world when he says to the air, “Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,” so that “all germains spill at once.” If all the speeds were spilled simultaneously, the human race would end. Lear is yelling for an end to the cycle of fertility, as it only breeds and then defeats itself.In one way the cycle does end; Lear’s line dies with him. But Gloucester’s line, the more – shall we say – human line, continues past the end of the play. And as long as humans are around, there will always be the “divine thrusting on.” We can either “Let copulation thrive” or ask to gods for it all to end, but it seems that the circle is as inescapable as it is deadly. Lear seems to be the object of the gods; even his pride at the beginning is something over which we believe he has no control, as he cannot conceive of anything else. All he can do is slowly come to learn from it all.

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