The female characters in Antigoneand King Lear can be viewed asfeminists from certain perspectives however they are not. In Antigone, Creon and Ismene affirm genderessentialism while Antigone herself challenges the ideology revolving aroundgender. Conversely, the fixed roles thatare reinforced throughout the play display the fragility of gender and thegender dynamics along with gender essentialism as Creon attempts to regulatemasculinity and femininity.
Throughout KingLear Regan and Goneril’s hypermasculinity challenge the gender essentialistqualities that are expected of females such as respecting their fathers andhusbands. Their complete disregard and lack of respect expose their hypermasculinity and the frail nature of genderessentialism as they emasculate the men in their lives. Catherine S.
Cox traces the stereotypes offemininity, virgo, and virago to”‘gentle’ silence is ‘excellence’ in an ideal woman” (156). The affirmationof Cordelia throughout the play as a character who speaks in a soft gentle toneconveys the ideals of gender essentialism. Cordelia admits “unhappy that Iam, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” (Shakespeare 13), stating she is inthe situation Goneril claimed to be in yet instead of spewing heartlessflattery she admits to just being unhappy. Lear does not realize that hershortcoming is a virtue “the weight of her love is too heavy, too massive, toofirmly rooted in her heart to be mined and turned into verbal currency (Van Domelen133). The inefficacy of language to convey Cordelia’s true affection makessilence her only response. Power is given to words as Lear sets them as thestandard for expressing love while overriding the integrity of his daughterwith his own ego. After the love test, herealizes “I did her wrong” (Shakespeare 67) which coupled with Goneril’sactions prove a warped connection between her heart and her words. Lear seesthat she “struck me with her tongue.
Most serpentlike upon the very heart”(Shakespeare 109). While Goneril uses her mouth viciously, Cordelia’s speechexpresses the feelings of her heart. The contrast to Cordelia’s reserve is theflattery of Regan and Goneril. Lear’s response to Goneril’s argument about himhaving knights demonstrates this idea “the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo solong, that it’s had it head bit off by it young” (Shakespeare 55). Hiscomparison of Goneril to a baby bird eating its mother reinforces herhypermasculinity since it is unnatural to Lear for a woman to stand up and dominatea man. The roles that Goneril and Regan occupy are usually reserved for maleswhile Cordelia’s role aligns with what is expected of a woman.Conventional interpretations of gender essentialism arechallenged by the equivocal female characters in the tragedy of King Lear.
Goneril and Regan arepresented as disloyal daughters who emasculate their father. Lear states thatGoneril and Regan are “not men o’ their words” (Shakespeare 203) which reflectshow they occupy roles reserved for male characters. In The Dynamics of Power in King Lear: An Adlerian Interpretation JohnMcLaughlin acknowledges that “Lear’s three daughters are driven by the need toachieve social.
personal, and sexual power” (37). The masculine characteristicsGoneril and Regan display are evident of the challenged gender roles when KingLear allocates his kingdom to whichever daughter can flatter him the most. In allocating his kingdom in this manner,Lear gives each daughter the ability to determine her own inheritance andindicating that they will receive dominion rather than their husbands. Bothsisters exaggerate the love of their father with Goneril demonstrating herself-assurance by claiming “sir I love you more than word can wield thematter,” (Shakespeare 11) and Regan stating, “I find she names my very deed oflove; Only she comes too short,” (Shakespeare 11). The excessive flattery they show to Lear demonstratesa desire for property. Goneril constantly dominates the males she encountersincluding her husband Albany and the Fool “you, sir, more knave than Fool, after your master” (Shakespeare 63). Thesilencing of Albany after proclaiming his love by Goneril shows an inversion inthe gender roles of Goneril and Albany. Albany is a man who is faithful to hiswife while she is not faithful to him.
Neither Goneril or Regan fit thecharacteristics that theory of gender essentialism states. Goneril and Reganare not soft-spoken women rather they participate in “‘masculine protest,’ arefusal by women to accept the weakness of the feminine role” (McLaughlin 41).Goneril and Regan’s treatment of their father and husbands show that they aredetermined to reduce the men in their lives to inferiors rather than superiors.Gender essentialism distorts the dynamic of Thebes away fromfemininity towards masculinity since “the culture does not normally permitadult moral autonomy to the female agent” (Foley 181). The restrictions onfemale independence can be seen throughout the text Antigone. Creon declaresthat “from now on they’ll act like women. Tie them up, no more running loose”(Sophocles 63). By declaring this, Antigone struggles to assert her will in thepolitical sphere.
She is overwhelmed by various males including Creon, whochastise the women for acting out of line. The defense of her familial right to bury her brother clashes againstCreon’s defense of Theban law and shows the opposition between household andstate. Creon’s declaration that “while I am alive, no woman is going to lordit over me” (Sophocles 59) reveals his belief in fixed roles between genderswhere the prospect of submitting to a woman is perceived as cognitive dissonance.
For Creon, “the mental discomfort one experiences when confronted with newinformation that contradicts one’s entrenched beliefs” (Festinger 93) makes thethought of refraining Antigone from behavior forbidden by criminal law as aloss of his personal dignity. Adriana Cavarero states that “the familiarpolitical structure that identifies itself with a limited group of free menthat has definitively expelled women from its androcentric sphere,” (48) demonstratingthat Creon’s belief in a fixed gender ideology designates the political sphereas masculine and deems women as unworthy of political participation. Creon iswilling to punish Antigone with death to demonstrate his justice and strengthover her. Women in Creon’s worldview are identified with femininecharacteristics such as weakness and when Antigone refuses to conform to thatworldview he finds ways to demonstrate his leadership through fear. Byterrifying the citizens with her death or imprisonment, he could deter any ofthem from strife within the city.
In Antigone, womenare systematically oppressed due to the gender norms that enforce theclassification of gender into masculine and feminine. According to Female Acts in Greek Tragedy by HeleneFoley, “greek conceptions of theself and models of human achievement were also structured in our remainingdocuments from a male point of view, with women, barbarians, slaves, andchildren serving to define less fully human alternatives” (333). The advice Ismene gave to Antigone to”remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men” (Sophocles 50)points to an inferior power position. The gendered assumptions that informcivil obedience and the inferior power position women hold in Theban societyare shown.
This advice reflects gender essentialism while implying that therole a man has is aligned with order and command whilst a woman is obliged tolisten and obey the commands. Ismene concedes that “I’m forced, I have nochoice – I must obey the ones who stand in power” (Sophocles 50). Her resignedconclusion where the state of feeling forced shows that Ismene as a woman islimited by the ideology that put men in power. Her submission to male authorityshows gender essentialism in a framework that is constructed by Creon. A male superioritycomplex that aligns subordination with strength and dominance and femininitywith weakness is revealed upon Creon’s insistence to “never lose your sense ofjudgment over a woman” (Sophocles 63).
Creon’s reaction to the Sentry’s news ofPolyneices’ burial with, “What man alive would dare” (Sophocles 54), he assumesthat the crime is only possible by a man. The assumed acts of disobedience areviewed to be inherently masculine in Antigone. In a passionate outburst, byCreon, he insists “if we fall, we must at the hands of a man” (Sophocles 64)revealing his fear of giving power to a woman which contradicts his belief inmasculine superiority. He believes that men should be the ones to rule whilewomen should submit and obey.
Due to the fixed rolesof men and women, Creon does feel emasculated were he to surrender toAntigone. Creon’s view of what a man should be and what masculinity leaves himwith a view that women need to be owned and controlled by men. The thematic parallels between Sophocles’ play Antigone (441 BC) and King Lear (1608) by William Shakespeare present a skewed power dynamic between theroles of men and women as the conflict unfolds. In King Lear, Reagan andGoneril emasculate their husbands and Lear, while in Antigone fixed roles are reinforced playing out the stereotypes ofmen and women. The displays of gender essentialism throughout each work provides a framework in which to view theseideas. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz explains that “essentialism entails the belief that those characteristicsdefined as women’s essence are shared in common by all women at all times …Essentialism thus refers to the existence of fixed characteristics, givenattributes, and historical functions” (qtd. Shekhawat 9).
While both works present characters that areoften considered feminists, Antigone affirmsgender essentialism while King Lear rebukesthis theory.