With Cordelia in His Arms: The Impact of Gender Roles in Shakespeare's King Lear

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Georgia Southern University

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Yow, Charles J.
ETD; Shakespeare; King Lear; Gender roles; Gender reversals; Renaissance; Masculinity; Femininity; Gender; Early modern English society; Cordelia; Goneril; Regan; Play; Women in literature; Classical Literature and Philology; English Language and Literature; Jack N. Averitt College of Graduate Studies, Electronic Theses & Dissertations, ETDs, Student Research
thesis / dissertation description
Audiences and critics, spanning from the play's debut to modern renditions, find Cordelia's death at the end of Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Lear to be both troubling and unjust. Despite original sources for the plot's happy ending and Cordelia's survival, Shakespeare consciously chooses to kill her. The question remains: why? I propose that due to the play's overt saturation with language and themes directly pointed toward a discussion of gender, Shakespeare reflects Renaissance society's fear of gender reversals and, as such, must kill off what could be the play's most virtuous character. Through a study of both general gender studies and Shakespearean criticism, I plan to explore the gender roles of early modern English society which asserts that men must behave like men and women like women. By distilling the basic components of masculinity, military and political authority and rationality, and by consequence the concept of femininity, meekness and subjugation, I will show how the play's tragedy is bound up in the reversal of standard gender roles. Lear exhibits little rationality and loses all grasp on military and political authority. By contrast, his daughters, Goneril and Regan, take up the masculine position as the play's politically dominant characters. Equally, Cordelia, despite her intentions to restore her father to his "proper" place, violates the gender system by defending it. She must assume the masculine qualities of authority and reason in order to combat the obviously malevolent actions of her sisters. It is because Cordelia subverts the standard gender roles set forth by patriarchal society that she must be punished. Shakespeare, reflecting the anxiety of early modern English society, deliberately chooses to kill her, despite her virtue. While shocking, her death is necessary due to the play's obsession with gender roles and Renaissance society's fear of their reversal.