'King Lear': Kinder Casts for Goneril and Regan

Phillipa Kelly


This essay considers ways in which readings and performances of King Lear can respond to some of the insights made available by feminist perspectives. Passages from the play are placed in context with early seventeenth century opinions about women in order to enable challenging possibilities for interpreting the roles of Lear’s older daughters, Goneril and Regan. Studies of King Lear have historically been preoccupied with Lear and his doppleganger, Gloucester. Does Lear really grow, or does he remain deluded to the end? And what of the impact and significance of Gloucester’s blindness? Does his heart indeed ‘burst smilingly’, or does he die in despair over the loss of belief in ‘spherical predominance’ and the realisation that in relation to the gods, we humans are ‘like flies to wanton boys’? In puzzling over scenarios in which to interpret the actions and fates of the two elderly patriarchs, it is tempting to relegate the women in the play to fairly stable positions. This has conventionally been done by drawing on the Cinderella myth of the one true victim and her wicked sisters. (Mothers have never posed interpretive problems for King Lear either, as both Lear and Gloucester, with varying degrees of disgust and relish, refer to them only as spawning bastards.) However, if we consider Lear’s daughters not as cameos but as characters who might themselves take centre stage, the focus can be diverted from the plight of ‘universal man’.

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