King Lear Gender Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.
Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child! Away, away! (1.4.272-286)
This has got to be one of the most bizarre speeches in the play. Here, King Lear is enraged by his daughter's betrayal of him that he curses her with "sterility" (the inability to produce children). If, however, the gods decide she will have children, Lear says he hopes she experiences a painful labor and has a "thankless child" to make her miserable for the rest of her life. Okay, Lear is clearly upset. But why does he lash out at his daughter's fertility like this?
I'll tell thee:
Life and death! I am ashamed
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;
That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee!
The untented woundings of a father's curse
Pierce every sense about thee! (1.4.42)
When Goneril reduces Lear's retinue of knights (thus, reducing any power Lear had left after he divided his kingdom), Lear accuses Goneril of "shaking [his] manhood." Without the kind of power and authority Lear once enjoyed as active king and family patriarch, he feels as though he's been stripped of his masculinity.
No, no, my lord,
This milky gentleness and course of yours
Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
You are much more attask'd for want of wisdom
Than praised for harmful mildness. (1.4.9)
Goneril implies that her husband, Albany, is too mild-mannered when it comes to dealing with Lear. When she refers to Albany's "milky gentleness," she's basically implying he's a wimp for not being harder on Lear when the retired king challenged Goneril's authority. For Goneril, mildness and lack of killer instinct make one feminine. Of course, Goneril goes on to say she forgives her hubby for being a wimp, but she's really not happy about him being such a dummy (he lacks "wisdom").
Brain Snack: "Milky gentleness," as Goneril calls it, is associated with a woman's capacity to nurture children (i.e., breastfeed). In Shakespeare's play Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being a wimp (Macbeth's not hot about killing King Duncan and his wife isn't happy), Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being "too full o' the milk of human kindness" (Macbeth, 1.5.1), which you can read all about in our guide to Macbeth module under the theme of "Gender."