Shakespearean Comedy Versus Tragedy: Challenging The Patriarchy In King Lear And The Taming Of The Shrew Lit 519 Final Paper

3999 words - 16 pages

Women play many crucial functions in Shakespearean dramas, and many of these female characters have untraditional roles for the Elizabethan era. The Tragedy of King Lear exemplifies a range of female ideals and values by including powerful female characters: namely Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan. The story is one of an archetypal patriarchy, with the overbearing King Lear holding the ultimate authority over his three daughters. Cordelia is more classically feminine for the Elizabethan era; but Lear’s other daughters, Goneril and Regan, exhibit more traditionally masculine traits, as they attempt to win their father’s contest and thus gain political power. In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio does everything possible to “tame” his headstrong, outspoken wife Kate, seemingly succeeding in the end. While the play is presented as a comedy and thus the outcome positive, by today’s standards it contains darkly misogynistic elements; and ultimately one has to wonder how Kate’s mistreatment by Petruchio affected her livelihood and well-being. Scholar Peter Barry states, “The representation of women in literature, then, was felt to be one of the most important forms of 'socialisation', since it provided the role models which indicated to women, and men, what constituted acceptable versions of the 'feminine' and legitimate feminine goals and aspirations” (Barry 85). The female characters of Goneril, Regan, and eventually Cordelia in King Lear, and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, continually challenge these “legitimate feminine goals and aspirations,” which ultimately upsets the established patriarchy and challenges the validity, sanity, and femininity of each of these women.
Before applying gender theory to either play, an analysis of modern feminist theory and the ideals behind the theory is beneficial in understanding the portrayal of these female characters. In her groundbreaking work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously asserts, “One is not born a woman; rather, one becomes a woman” (de Beauvoir). These words can have entirely different meanings, depending on their application: From a second-wave feminist’s standpoint, they can be read as liberating and celebratory of what it means to be a woman. However, when applied to King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew, they only convey how isolated characters such as Kate, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan are, as they do not meet society’s expectations to be seen as true virtuous women. Instead, they are described as shrews, likened to the devil; and at one point Goneril is even accused of “shaking [Lear’s] manhood” (I. iv. 313). Peter Barry says, “The concern with ‘conditioning’ and ‘socialization underpins a crucial set of distinctions— that between the terms ‘feminist,’ ‘female,’ and ‘feminine.’ As Toril Moi explains, the first is a ‘political position,’ the second ‘a matter of biology,’ and the third ‘a set of culturally defined characteristics” (Barry 117). According to feminist theory, women who do...

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