The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and King Lear

Kathleen Mcluskie’s essay about King Lear insists that there is no proper reading of the play that does not recognize the play’s inherent misogyny. This essay approaches the text from a feminist theory perspective, paying special attention to the role of patriarchy and how Shakespeare reinforces that system with this play. Ultimately, Mcluskie’s assessment of the play from that perspective holds that King Lear supports the notion of patriarchy and that Shakespeare must be subverted in order for alternatives to misogyny and patriarchy to be possible. Mcluskie’s argument that the play reinforces patriarchal values is well-supported by the text of the play itself, particularly through the play’s treatment of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, but she falsely asserts that Shakespeare endorses patriarchy as a preferred social order because he addresses “permanent, universal and essentially unchanging human nature” in a patriarchal setting.

In this essay, Mcluskie uses ample evidence from the text of the play to support her claim that the play reinforces values of a patriarchal system. She correctly points to the treatment of Goneril and Regan throughout the play as women who attempt to disturb the order of that system, only to suffer and be punished. Their disruption of traditional gender roles results in chaos, but Cordelia’s willingness to accept her role in that patriarchal structure serves to reinforce order and peace. While Mcluskie correctly demonstrates how these relationships support patriarchy and a sort of misogyny in the play, she steps too far when she suggest that the play can only avoid that sexism by not reconstructing it “with its emotional power and its moral imperatives intact.”

Mcluskie rightly points out that the play’s sexism can be undermined through production choices, but her essay essentially argues that, in order to retain its grasp on Shakespeare’s interpretations of universal truths about human nature, it must continue to reinforce that sexism and patriarchy. When the play is staged in such a way that the patriarchy is undermined, it loses some of its emotional power and moral imperatives. But this seems to suggest that patriarchy is one of the moral imperatives that must remain intact. The play sprang from a world of patriarchy and misogyny, but simply because that is the setting of the play’s action does not necessarily mean that it is among the universal truths that the play aims to illustrate or support. The sympathetic characters in this play might happen to be the characters whose roles reinforce patriarchal order, but that does not necessarily mean that they are sympathetic because they do so. Certainly Mcluskie would recognize that the role Goneril and Regan play in undermining the patriarchal order is not necessarily productive, so why must the roles that Lear and Cordelia play in reinforcing order be construed as counterproductive simply because that order is patriarchal. I think that the force of Shakespeare’s argument is not that patriarchal should be preserved, but rather that any form of order should be preserved when the moving force behind undermining that order is greed and self-interest, as in the case of Goneril and Regan. After all, these women were not undermining the order of the time in the interest of equal rights, they simply wanted to take what they could get.

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