This essay aims to take a look into the play ‘King Lear’ written by William Shakespeare, using both the feminist and psychoanalytical critical approach. Like most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear can be identified on various levels and from a diversity of critical perspectives, due to its complexity. The result of the play not having one particular meaning leaves the readers vulnerable to feel stunned by the intricacies of the storyline. The typical conflict of good vs. evil is ideally one of the broadest themes to transpire from this work. Shakespeare used the main characters in the play to portray this idea. The evil was exhibited through and established by the humans, which is overshadowed by the good in the world of King Lear. Duke of Albany stated that all evil people will be justly punished (ACT V, iii, 303). Albany indicated that the cause of evil was the people, not the gods. Withstanding that, this paper aims to intensely analyze the play based on two critical literary approaches and to investigate the application of the theories to the play.
Psychoanalysis is the procedure of psychological rehabilitation prompted by Sigmund Freud in which free association, dream interpretation, and analysis of resistance and transference are used to scrutinize suppressed or comatose impulses, anxieties, and inner disputes. The focus is on the author’s state of mind or the state of mind of the characters in the literary text. Freud’s philosophies and multiplexes can be used as an in-depth look at the letterings of certain literary texts. King Lear is a play that is a target of psychoanalytical criticism.
“The symptom in psychoanalysis arises through repression. Systems emerge when strong emotional reactions are repressed,” (Pamela Thurschwell, pg. 28). The darkest secrets, desires, and fears of a human can interfere with a man’s ability to think and respond rationally. King Lear is an example of a man, who adores materialism and possesses poor public relations. The identification of King Lear’s human emotions allows readers to understand his behavioral patterns and his mental stability. Ultimately, it was his pride and temper that leads to his madness.
Analytically, whilst observing the play, an object theorist would look at the destructive performance of the protagonist as indicative due to the absence of appropriate frontiers between himself and everyone who encompasses him. According to the object relations theory, an infant sees the mother as part of itself. However, if the necessity of the conditions is not met for healthy development and there is an unsuccess of separation, the future relations for the child will be characterized by a potent yearning for syntheses with others. The behavior of Lear may be symptomatic of the lack of sufficient maternal care from when he was an infant, which in turn, tainted his attachment to other people with unhealthy emotions. Harold Bloom puts it: “Love is no healer in The Tragedy of King Lear; it starts all the trouble and is a tragedy within itself… Maternal love is kept out of the tragedy” (484). It is evident in the scene in which Lear asks his daughters to express their love for him, that his yearning for fusion with his daughters and the anger fulfilled at the thought of them having independent lives constitute two emotional poles. “Which one of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1, line 50). He doesn’t expect respect and gratitude which normally children would feel for their father, but rather a complete devotion.
The selfishness in King Lear’s behavior demonstrates ID as Cordelia refuses to show her vanity about love towards her father. Another example of being ID-driven is when Edmund’s ID dominates the entirety of his mind. In doing so, it drives him to commit actions that are judged ‘amoral’ by society. “Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed And my invention thrive, Edmund, the base shall top. I grow, I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (1.2.21 – 24).
Being superego-driven means that the ego is unable to break from the learned rules and boundaries of society. In King Lear, the character of Cordelia has a superego-driven mind. This is shown as she is not able to stand up against her father’s actions in the love test. “I love your majesty. According to my bond, no more nor less.” (1.1.91-93)
Accordingly, Feminist literary theorists are principally absorbed upon the depiction of women in texts, as literature is an imperative part of the ethos and within society the distribution of role models. In a lecture carried out about the Feminist theory, the designation of Feminism is stated as “politically motivated movements dedicated to personal and social change” (Koehler-Ridley 2012). The associations, which are viewed as social constructs, amid sexual and gender identification originated in an androcentric hierarchy. Hence, the examination and evaluation Feminists undertake in which a text requires the reader, as members of a precise ethos, to the sympathy of what it means to be female, or male and whether or not it heartens them to contest gender norms (Belsey and Moore 1989). From a Feminist literary perspective, it is evident that King Lear has definite misogynistic overtones. The story challenges traditional gender roles, but it also deems women as demonic, aggressive, and to the root of all issues.
From the start, it is quite noticeable that the female characters in King Lear do not act as typical women of their time. They tend to acquire more “masculine” attributes. Take Goneril for example, she is an extremely controlling woman who has quite the influence on her husband. She plans to take charge of her household and states that she would wear the pants, with Albany playing the role of the housewife. “ I must change arms at home and give the distaff Into my husband’s hands” (4.2.17-18). With her main idea of changing gender roles, she defies the typical feminine role.
Throughout King Lear, there are several situations to which are highlighted as sexist. An example of this is when Lear gives a clearly sexist description of the female anatomy. He claims that all women, from the waist up, seem relatively normal. Whereas, from the waist down, it’s full of “hell” and he sees it as demonic and pure “darkness”. Furthermore, the presence of powerful women by Shakespeare shows them as deformed in both mind and shape. In the following quote, Albany states that powerful women have the shape of a woman but the mindset of a devil. “See thyself, Devil! Proper deformity shows not in the fiend so horrid as in women” (4.2.60-61). This remark puts a notion in place of how women ought to behave beyond certain boundaries.
Throughout the entire play, the two daughters of Lear each displayed their overwhelming urge to have control of the kingdom. To prove they are in control of every situation; they exhibit a few characteristics typically shown by men. Although, in the end, they both do end up dead. It is shown through this that whilst Shakespeare was trying to show his audience that women can achieve whatever men can, he also wanted to show his audience that the power the women got did destroy them in the end.
In the play, several sexual undercurrents do point to Lear’s incestuous yearnings for his “daughters turned mothers”. In Act 1, Scene, Goneril and Reagan’s sermons are inundated with symbolic manifestations, not of a father-child relationship, but rather a paramours’ desire. The type of language they use when indicating sensual actions is described as “A love that makes breath poor” (1.1 8); which, seemingly gives Lear contented. In his essay titled “Psychopathology of Shakespeare’s King Lear”, Paunch describes the Oedipal difficulty in the act. He utilizes the phrase “Lear Complex” when discovering a “ kind of a reverse Oedipus complex, indicating to a father’s being sexually attracted to his own daughter” (358).
Reagan and Goneril’s attitude towards Lear can be construed as the onslaught on his masculine individuality. Owing to Lear granting up the authority he has over his land, which in a patriarchal society was associated with masculinity; he desires to preserve a bit of his manliness by applying regime over his knights. The scarcity of Lear to his knights can be depicted as comparable to castration, and Lear labels it as “I am ashamed, that thou hast power to shake my manhood thus” (1.4.123). And because of the tremendous pressure of his two daughters, of which they act like dominating mothers, Lear deems to be squandering his virility and his comportment develops further to be feminized. His familiarity of hysteria (of which until the untimely contemporary era was considered as an entirely womanly feeling produced by “wandering womb”) and ends up in tears when the brutalities of Goneril and Reagan are put forward. Because of this feminization, anxiety is inspired in him which is evident: “If it is you that stir these daughters’ hearts… No, I’ll weep… O fool, I shall go mad!” (2.4 72-3).
In conclusion, the psychoanalytical and Feminist investigative readings of King Lear have established similarities and differences between the play and the two theories.