Femininity in The Woman Warrior and King Lear
What is femininity? What role should women play in society? These are questions that humanity has faced ever since the first hunter-gatherer tribes developed. Gender roles, at least in the popular imagination, were clear; the men hunted for big game, the women picked nuts and berries. There were clear reasons for this - hunting required the brute muscular strength of the male, while gathering did not. But as humanity invented labor-saving devices, physical strength became less and less important to survival, while "mental strength" - strength of character - played an ever-increasing role. This is a phenomenon that we see played out in Shakespeare's play King Lear and Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir The Woman Warrior.
Any work of literature can be said to make a claim about the nature of femininity; even a work with all male characters would be notable in this respect for the absence of females. But these two works are notable because rather than showing females in their "traditional" passive roles, they are made into active figures. Though the two works are vastly separated in space and time, they both make the same essential claim about the nature of woman. They make the claim that women can, and should, be empowered, and that the idea of the "woman warrior" is not a dream, but a viable reality. In order to show this, the character in each work that best exemplifies this "modern spirit must be considered. In King Lear, this is Cordelia, although the choice is superficially unobvious. In The Woman Warrior, the narrator - Maxine, for the sake of brevity - is the only female character well enough known to the reader for any empowerment to be perceived.
In order to gain a clearer perspective, the dominant background cultures in the works and their views on femininity and gender roles should be examined. The idea of female passiveness in King Lear is best supported by Lear's final words about Cordelia. After her death, he says to onlookers: "Her voice was ever soft,/Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman" (Shakespeare 5.3.328-329). The message implicit within the comparison here is that Goneril and Regan, who seem more aggressive at first glance, are inferior in Lear's eyes - Cordelia is obviously Lear's favorite daughter (Shakespeare 1.1.336-338). Cordelia is, to some modern perspectives (such as the one considered in this paper), more aggressive than her sisters. However, Lear sees her to be passive, and he, not the modern reader, is passing judgment on her character.
Women in the culture of King Lear are defined with respect to their husbands. This is clear from the first line of the play, delivered by Kent: "I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall" (Shakespeare 1.1.1-2). Note that he does not say "I thought the King had more affected Goneril than Regan" or something similar. The daughters are not truly receiving the kingdom - despite...