Gender Issues in Dora and King Lear

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Gender and Sexuality in Freud’s Dora and Shakespeare’s King Lear

The central aim of Sigmund Freud’s work is to characterize and treat hysteria. In Freud’s theory, homosexual desire comes to prominence in every person’s life, and the role it plays differs in cases of typical and atypical development. In order to evaluate the symptoms and motives of a hysteric patient, Freud emphasizes understanding the role of homosexuality and homosexual desire in a patient’s life. In Freud’s psychoanalysis of Dora, it is clear that he would consider it reductionist to view Dora simply as an object with self-contained symptoms and hysteria. To the contrary, he examines her hysteria with respect to her personal relationships, motives, and desires. In result, Freud’s Dora reflects many of his beliefs about gender and sexuality. Similarly, Shakespeare’s King Lear is rich with themes of gender and sexuality. The purpose of this paper will be to examine Freud and King Lear’s respective presuppositions about gender and sexuality. To examine this, Freud and King Lear’s projections regarding Dora and Cordelia’s gender and sexuality will be of particular interest.

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As the symptoms of hysteria have not been classified into a clinically recognized mental disorder, it is fair to say that Freud was dealing with issues of his time and providing input into the two-way street that characterized the patient-analyst relationship. By this model, the actions of the analyst and the expression of symptoms influence one another. Neither the development of psychoanalysis or the expression of hysterical symptoms occurred in a vacuum. Each was influenced by the other, and each was heavily influenced by the broader societal context in which they existed. In the same way that the expression of schizophrenic hallucinations reflects the input of the environment, so it is assumed that the expression of other mental disorders reflects the input of the environment. In this respect, the analysis of Dora exemplifies what Michel Foucault calls a discourse (Parker 271). In the two-way street that characterizes Freud and Dora’s relationship, it is Freud’s input that is of particular interest. The purpose of this analysis will be to examine Dora, and to describe what, specifically, Freud supposes to know with respect to gender and sexuality. In another sense, it will examine how Freud “produces the gender that it (he) purports to describe,” (Parker 271). Freud’s views of Dora’s agency with respect to her relationships and alleged desires betray his presupposed knowledge about gender and sexuality and will create the basis of this analysis.

From a feminist point of view, there is a nearly unlimited number of ways in which someone can exhibit gender (Parker 185). Similarly, in queer studies there are a nearly unlimited number of ways in which someone can exhibit sexuality (Parker 185). Freud’s perception of sexuality plays a significant role in the way that he sees patients. Freud alleges that Dora has both a strong homosexual attraction to Frau K, and a heterosexual attraction to Herr K.

In Dora, Freud’s view on sexuality seems to vacillate. It is unclear whether Freud views homosexuality in itself as a problem. Although his view on homosexuality isn’t necessarily accepting, he doesn’t seem to condemn it in itself, or view homosexuality in a grown person as anything other than a symptom of an overarching problem. In Dora, Freud writes that, “We shall also expect to find a stronger disposition to homosexuality in the nature of a neurotic. Indeed, this must be so, because I have never psychoanalyzed a man or a woman without noting a very significant homosexual current in my patient,” (Freud 51). From reading this, one gets the sense that Freud does not view homosexuality as anything other than a common symptom of a neurosis. In asserting the commonality of homosexuality, Freud goes so far as to say that, “It has long been known, and often pointed out, that in boys and girls who have reached puberty clear signs of attraction towards their own sex are normally observed,” (Freud 50). Freud’s statement does imply that homosexual attraction is a natural phenomenon. The implication that same-sex attraction is a natural tendency was likely seen as progressive in Freud’s time. Freud even states that his audience likely found homosexuality “repulsive” (Freud 42). In order to calm those of his readers which may be repulsed by his discussion of homosexuality, Freud writes that, “We must not forget that what seems to us the most repellent of these perversions, sexual love between men, was not only tolerated in a people as culturally superior to us as the ancient Greeks, it also performed an important role in society,” (Freud 42). By placing homosexuality in a historical context, Freud gently encourages his readers to be wary of their own negative assumptions regarding homosexuality. While in some places Freud seems refreshingly open minded about homosexuality, his association between homosexuality and mental disorders has likely had a stigmatizing effect. Additionally, Freud makes a major assumption about Dora in regards to her attraction towards Herr K. When Dora discusses the scene in which Herr K attempted to kiss her, it is Dora’s word against Herr K and her father’s word. Freud assumes that not only did Dora want this to happen, but it is a total fantasy. These two assumptions serve as expressions of Freud’s heteronormative assumptions. Because he figured Herr K to be a healthy and attractive man, it seemed unimaginable to him that there is a possibility that Dora was not aroused by him and did not desire his advances. Freud’s views on sexuality seem to assume both homosexual and heterosexual attraction almost indiscriminately. All things considered, Freud’s analysis of Dora seems to be heteronormative in part.

When compared to Dora, King Lear seems overwhelmingly heteronormative. If, “The naturalization of heterosexuality is the assumption, typically made without thinking, that everyone is heterosexual unless labeled otherwise,” (Parker 186), then arranged marriages are an expression of heteronormativity. In scene 1, act 1 of King Lear, the king of France and duke of Burgundy arrive to discuss their arranged marriage with Cordelia. However, arranged marriages are only a single expression of the strict, heteronormative conventions and social structure present in King Lear.

As with King Lear’s dynamic with Cordelia, Freud’s dynamic with Dora is one which is rooted in a power inequality. In effect, Freud reduces Dora’s ability to disagree to a nonexistent level. Likely, this occurs for Freud’s convenience and the continuity of his narrative. Ironically, Freud writes that “In reality, however-and I am anxious to describe reality here,” (Freud 50). Freud creates the smooth continuity that characterizes his writings and persona by removing the ability for anyone to disagree with him. To the contrary, disagreement only emboldens Freud in his hypothesis and theories regarding the patient’s personal life. He is not ignorant in his own use of this tactic, as he writes, “The denial that you hear from patients after you confront their conscious perception with repressed ideas confirms the repression and its firm establishment, and so to speak tests its strength,” (Freud 49). Freud is clearly using this logic to reinforce the unequal power dynamic. The less ability Dora has to protest, the more secure Freud’s position. In a similar fashion, King Lear holds his influence over the head of Cordelia in an attempt to limit her expression to a narrow range of possibilities. It is not Cordelia’s expression that King Lear is interested in, but in meaningless flattery. Cordelia does not present her love in the extravagant way that Lear expects, but instead says “nothing” (Shakespeare 164), and that she loves him only “according to my bond, no more nor less,” (Shakespeare 164). King Lear responds by refusing to give Cordelia any land. This exchange illustrates that King Lear evaluates the relative value of Cordelia and her sisters not according to their love for him, or his love for them, but by their propensity to flatter and adorn him in what ultimately amounts to a display of submission. To conclude, there are striking similarities in the way that gender is viewed in King Lear and Dora. In both, autonomy of a woman’s expression is denied by a male, who occupies a position of inequitable power.

Furthermore, King Lear tends to use his daughters, and women in general as punching bags for his misfortune. For example, in act 3, scene 2, King Lear blames his daughters for his misfortune, and accuses them of somehow being the cause of the storm that he is in the middle of. Lear seems to shout the following lines at nature itself.

“Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!

Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.

I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.

I never gave you kingdom, called you children;

You owe me no subscription. Then let fall

Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,

A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.

But yet I call you servile ministers,

That have with two pernicious daughters join

Your high engendered battles 'gainst a head

So old and white as this. O, ho, 'tis foul!” (Shakespeare 264)

In lumping his daughters in with the natural elements that are assailing him, King Lear shows the depths of insanity that he will go to justify his irrational belief that not only is the world against him, but that it is the fault of women. The play concludes on a particularly weak note as no women are left alive at the play’s close. In refusing to flatter her father, Cordelia bravely refuses to accept her expected role as a woman in spite of the consequences.

To conclude, the role of sexuality and gender are integral to both Sigmund Freud’s case history, Dora, and Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. In Dora, Freud’s views on both gender and sexuality heavily influenced the narrative that he developed, and the way in which he saw Dora and her relationships. In regards to commonalities, both Shakespeare and Freud use gender and sexuality as an explanatory style. Dora wanted Herr K’s advances because she is a young woman. King Lear is a in the middle of a storm because of his daughters. While in King Lear, social roles regarding sexuality are static, Freud views sexuality as more fluid. Although Freud is slightly more ‘modern’ in his views on sexuality, both works could be considered heteronormative. In King Lear, heterosexuality is assumed through the process of an arranged marriage for Cordelia. In Dora, heterosexuality is assumed in Dora’s feelings towards Herr K. In both works, the existence of an inequitable power dynamic resulted in a woman’s expression being confined to a set range of possibilities. In Dora, this took place when Freud disregarded her ability to say “no”. In King Lear, this took place when King Lear refused to listen to anything besides overblown flattery from Cordelia. From a feminist perspective, denying the agency of someone because of their gender could be seen as worthy of condemnation. In the sense that the expression of a certain gender is confined to a set range of possibilities, both King Lear and Dora reflect gender as a static entity, as opposed to an entity with agency. This view is diametrically opposed to the Poststructuralist view of gender, in which, “People may suppose to know that women move, talk, and dress in a certain variety of ways and men move, talk, and dress in a different variety of ways, but the discourse of gender (including the ways that people move, talk, and dress) constructs that knowledge through repeated actions and expectations,” (Parker 271). In comparing the views of gender and sexuality in King Lear and Dora to the theory of gender inspired by Poststructuralism, Freud and King Lear’s respective presuppositions about gender and sexuality become clear.

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