King Lear Gender Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.
O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element's below! Where is this daughter? (2.4.9)
When Lear's daughter's betray him, he's outraged and full of grief. Here, he implies he suffers from "Hysterica passio," a medical condition that was thought to afflict women. Literary critic Coppélia Kahn explains that "From ancient times through the nineteenth century, women suffering variously from choking, feelings of suffocation, partial paralysis, convulsions similar to those of epilepsy, aphasia, numbness, and lethargy were said to be ill of hysteria, caused by a wandering womb." In other words, because Lear is so upset or "hysterical," he compares his excessive emotions to that of an ailing woman. (The implication is that Lear is not acting like a "man" and that women have no control over their feelings.)
We'll no more meet, no more see one another:
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood. (2.4.29)
When Lear goes off on Goneril, he insists she's more like a "disease that's in [his] flesh" than a daughter (his "flesh and blood"). Goneril, he says, is "a boil, a plague-sore," a nasty little "carbuncle" and so on. In other words, Goneril, whose name sounds a lot like "gonorrhea," is kind of like a venereal disease. In this way, Lear associates Goneril's disloyalty with the unfortunate consequences of sexual promiscuity.
[…] I can tell why a snail has a house.
Why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his
daughters, and leave his horns without a case. (1.5.7)
After King Lear gives his kingdom away to his daughters, the Fool chastises him for giving away all his land and power. (After all, Goneril has just kicked Lear out of her palace and Lear is about to become homeless.) Here, the Fool cracks a joke, comparing Lear to a snail that has given away his shell and has no home.
What's most interesting to us about this passage, however, is the Fool's suggestion that Lear is a cuckold. A "cuckold" is a common Elizabethan term for a man who has been cheated on by his wife and, in Shakespeare's plays, horns are a pretty common sign that a man has been cuckolded. So, why does the Fool imply that Lear has "horns"? (Lear's wife is dead.) The Fool seems to equate the betrayal by Lear's daughters with like sexual infidelity – it's as though Lear's daughters, Goneril and Regan, are no better than a cheating wife. That's a pretty odd thing to imply, don't you think?