When attempting to read criticism of Shakespeare plays one idea is clear: if the review was written more than five or ten years ago the essay is likely to be exclusive when it comes to the women in Shakespeare. Little attention had been given to the women of Shakespeare prior to the seventies feminist movement. The women in King Lear deserve attention just as women in every Shakespearean play do. A common idea among critics is that the women perpetuated evil and were not worthy of acknowledgment for anything else. Goneril and Regan are believed to be vicious, evil women and Cordelia the small, sweet daughter and while this interpretation may be true there are other aspects to consider which are not typically presented when reviewing these female characters. Each of these women is worthy of acclaim for her strengths of character as well as in opposition to the male characters and various subplots within Lear.
A common interpretation of Lear is one of the juxtaposition of good and evil within the play. Many traditional critics have made this idea their primary focus in interpretations which often ignores the feminist and class conscious theme that are also present in King Lear. Most recent critical essays of King Lear do make note of the class struggle within the play; however, critics tend to ignore the gender struggles which upon thorough reading are clearly as obvious as the class issues. I have chosen an interpretation of King Lear from 1960, by Irving Ribner and set it in contrast with a 1991 review by Ann Thompson. There are some interesting points made in both essays and some stark differences in 'what and who' are the important themes and characters in Lear.
In Irving Ribner's essay, "The Pattern of Regeneration in King Lear," Ribner focuses on Lear's regeneration as a result of the "suffering" he must undergo(Ribner 116). In the opening section of his essay, Ribner makes clear that he will approach his interpretation of King Lear from the perspective of Lear's spiritual rebirth. Ribner focuses attention on the suffering of Lear and of the process of rebirth through suffering that Lear is able to do. Lear is indeed the tragic hero but must go through great pains to achieve such notoriety. As Lear's madness progresses he is able to come closer to his epiphany. Lear becomes humble and succumbs to the fact that perhaps he is imperfect as father and king(Ribner 127-129). Humility is necessary for Lear's regeneration and it is through his process of pain that he is able to achieve rebirth(Ribner 128).
In Ribner's introduction to his study of Shakespeare, he states, "Tragedy is an exploration of man's relation to the forces of evil in the world. It seeks for answers to cosmic problems, much as religion seeks them, for it is a product of man's desire to believe in a purposive ordered universe"(Ribner 1). From this introduction it seems clear that Ribner will be examining the forces of good and evil within Shakespeare. Later Ribner states in his Lear essay that, "if Shakespeare is to assert the power of man to overcome evil, the forces of evil must be shown in their most uncompromising terms"(Ribner 116). Ribner proceeds to present the forces of evil in terms of the behavior of Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril and Regan. Ribner goes on to state that the primary focus of the play is on Lear himself with the other characters serving "secondary supporting functions, each symbolic of some force of good and evil"(Ribner 117). Ribner views the behavior of Cordelia, Edgar, Kent and the Fool as the antithesis to the evil doings of the other characters. In Ribner's study of King Lear the forces representing evil are most clearly examined through the behavior of Goneril and Regan with occasional references to Edmund and Cornwall. While Ribner does use Edmund as a representative of evil, he also excuses Edmund based on his background of illegitimacy. Ann Thompson later criticizes the critics who let Edmund 'off the hook' based on his background.
Ribner places his critique in historical context of the Jacobean response to the play. He is careful to note what 'would be' reactions in specific instances may have been vastly different than contemporary reactions. Ribner makes it clear that in Jacobean England the political reactions to Lear's resignation of the throne would have resulted in turmoil for the audience and that they would have been far less influenced by his banishment of his daughter, Cordelia(Ribner 118-119). A political interpretation of Shakespeare is what Ribner seems to be driving towards. He makes clear what the historical and political interpretations would have been when King Lear was first staged.
Ribner pays little attention to the women of King Lear other than to accuse Goneril and Regan of villainy(Ribner 119). There is little reference o Cordelia other than the impact of her final scene with her father. The reconciliation with Cordelia is noted by Ribner with this scene being the most notorious scene for a female character in Lear. Ribner does not ignore the women completely but repeatedly refers to Goneril and Regan as vicious, cruel women(Ribner 123-125). Ribner primarily focuses his attention on the traditionally visible ideas when criticizing Shakespeare--the patriarchal values presented therein. Ribner's essay is representative of the patriarchal front and does not give adequate attention to the female experience in Lear. In his essay, Ribner completely ignores the possibility that Cordelia has undergone her own process of rebirth and regeneration. He presents quite an insightful essay on regeneration and rebirth--a commonly feminine ideal but has left out the female experience of that ideal.
Ann Thompson's essay, "Are There any Women in King Lear?," is centered around the debate of the relationship between various forms of historical and materialist criticism and feminist criticism of Shakespeare texts. Thompson has divided her essay into three important sections, each focussing on a different aspect of King Lear. First, she begins with "The Family Quarrel Revisited" which is an analysis of the relationship between feminist criticism and various forms of historical and materialist criticism of late. In this section of her essay, Thompson does not mention any specific characters from Lear. Thompson makes a point of mentioning that the critics most intent on analyzing the polarization of these forms of criticism are women and that male new historicist critics have been reluctant to respond. An argument Thompson brings up is that while feminist critics acknowledge the value of history in regards to criticism, historicist critics are accused of ignoring gender in their studies(Thompson 117-118).
In the second part of Thompson's essay she asks the question, "Have Women Been Erased?" She focuses on whether it is in fact critics who have erased the women from studies of the text or if it was Shakespeare who did not want the women to be visible in Lear. Thompson is obviously coming down on 'cult-historicism' as being exclusive in its study of politics and power and in the process leaving out readings of female characters. She goes on to question whether these omissions are "the inevitable fact that critical arguments are selective" or that readings concerned with class and economics may in fact, ignore gender(Thompson 120).
Thompson's essay does in fact note this inequality on the part of prior critics. She goes on to criticize critics for their removal of the women from their essays. Thompson makes a point of questioning whether it is the critics who have attempted to erase the women from Lear or if in fact, Shakespeare wanted a study of Lear to be so obviously focused on the male characters. She criticizes other critics for focusing on "male-centered politics" while almost altogether ignoring the "gender component"(Thompson 120). Thompson is careful not directly criticize 'cult-historicism' but makes clear that her understanding of early class-conscious readings of Lear "focus attention on male power relationships, class and property and give due weight to the fact that Shakespeare actually chose to represent generational conflict most intensely in the father-daughter relationship"(Thompson 120-121). Thompson does criticize those critics who specifically mention the relationship of power to gender as not being the issue of the play (Thompson 121).
Several critics Thompson mentions directly have glamorized Edmund's behavior for "creating a new kind of reality" while condemning Goneril and Regan as "wicked, ugly sisters" when in fact the three characters are committing the same acts and often together. Edmund's marginalization as been noted as being "potent and glamorous while that of the women is either impotent or evil"(Thompson 121). Thompson questions this distinction as perhaps being the fault of "the author or the critic"(Thompson 121)?
In the third section of Thompson's essay, "Can Women Be Restored?" she begins by acknowledging the fact that no male character has been as condemned in Lear criticism as Goneril. In this section, Thompson refers to several critics, most of whom are female to point how the women can be restored and in some cases how women who are absent from the text such as the mother-figure can be reinstated(Thompson 123-124). The ending of King Lear is a notable scene for feminist critics. Feminist scholars have been quick to compare Lear's attachment to Cordelia as the desire for a daughter-mother figure. Thompson does go on to present ideas by the male feminist critic, Peter Erickson, who attempts to "bridge the two sides" of feminist and materialist criticism(Thompson 125). Erickson also presents an enlightening view of the male issues presented in Lear. She criticizes Leonard Tennehouse for noting that the political chaos in Lear can be related to evil women. Thompson also goes on to note that "feminists do consider the relationship of power to gender and are troubled by it"(Thompson 123).
Thompson's essay is a much more progressive read of King Lear than has been done by Shakespeare scholars throughout history. Few critics other than recent feminist scholars have taken notice of the women in Lear other than to recognize Cordelia as the daughter Lear longed for and Goneril and Regan as evil, demon-women. Goneril and Regan are not ideal images of women; however, they are no worse than the characters Edmund and Cornwall. Critics generally focus on Edmund's "right" to be so ruthless since he is the bastard son of Gloucester but to recognize the background of the women is virtually unheard of in criticism. In fact, little information is given as to the background of Goneril and Regan other than the reader knowing there is the absence of a matriarchal figure other than their sister Cordelia.
Thompson's essay presents the women of King Lear in a clear context. She makes clear that politics and economics are largely absent from her essay. Thompson has incorporated some well-versed critics viewpoints in her criticism of King Lear. She does not believe that a feminist review of Lear is to be written off. Though she believes there are other Shakespeare plays in which issues of gender are more obvious than King Lear, Thompson is clear that her intention is not to isolate feminist criticism from historicist and materialist criticism(Thompson 126-127).
When studying the behavior of Goneril and Regan one question might be whether they resemble their father in their behavior patterns. Goneril and Regan are the characters most associated with evil in readings of Lear. These two women are rarely viewed as demonstrating positive characteristics; however, their behavior should not be merely a demonstration of a wicked, licentious female but a deeper investigation is certainly warranted. Criticism generally focuses on their behavior as being much more offensive than Edmund when in fact they are very much the same. Cordelia is often viewed by critics as being selfless, weak and dependent when in fact she is an archetype to be revered.
There are many aspects of King Lear to understand from a contemporary viewpoint. A close examination of the many relationships within Lear would be interesting. The father-daughter relationship between Lear and Cordelia is especially interesting when understanding the text from a feminist perspective when so often this relationship is compared with a woman's understanding of her masculine self. The lack of a mother figure but the replacement of matriarchal characteristics in Goneril, Regan and Cordelia open the doors for a feminist revisionist understanding of King Lear. In both essays there are absences which are important to the text. Ribner's essay is lengthy and filled with redundancies about the suffering of Lear himself while ignoring the fact that every other character has lived their own process of suffering and rebirth as a result. Thompson's essay is brief but concise in the area of investigating where are the women have been placed in or out of King Lear. A feminist review of Lear is by no means impossible and perhaps upon deeper understanding may in fact prove to enlighten an audience.