Study Guide

King Lear Gender

By William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 1
Earl of Gloucester

Sir, this young fellow's mother could [conceive],
she grew round-wombed, and had indeed,
sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband
for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it
being so proper. (1.1.13-18)

This is an awfully strange way to open the play, don't you think? Just a few lines into King Lear, Gloucester begins to crack dirty jokes about the mother of his illegitimate child, Edmund. When he asks Kent if he "smell[s] a fault," he's referring to his son, who is standing right there. Gloucester's use of the term "fault" means a couple of things: 1) a sin—Edmund was conceived out of wedlock and, as we soon see, Edmund also turns out to be wicked ; 2) female genitals-Gloucester's implying that Edmund "smells" like his mother's vagina.

So, why are we talking about this crude joke? Well, it turns out that, in King Lear, Edmund is frequently associated with the female body. At 5.3 (see passage above), Edgar associates Edmund with the "dark and vicious place" where Edmund was begot. This also echo's a statement Lear makes when he's angry at his daughters – below women's "waist[s]," "there's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit (4.6.123-130).

In other words, the female body is associated "sin" and "hell."

Act 1, Scene 4
King Lear

I'll tell thee. To Goneril. Life and death! I am
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
Th' untented woundings of a father's curse
Pierce every sense about thee! (1.4.311-318)

When Goneril reduces Lear's posse of knights (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. Yowch.

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 honor 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! (1.4.289-303)

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?


No, no, my
This milky gentleness and course of yours,
Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
You are much more at task for want of wisdom
Than praised for harmful mildness. (1.4.362-367)

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.

Act 1, Scene 5
King Lear

[…] I can tell why a snail has a
Why, to put 's head in, not to give it away to his
daughters and leave his horns without a case. (1.5.27-31)

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?

Act 2, Scene 4
King Lear

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 embossèd carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood. (2.4.253-258)

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.

O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow!
Thy element's below!—Where is this daughter? (2.4.62-64)

When Lear's daughters betray him, he's outraged and full of grief. Here, he says he suffers from "Hysterica passio," a medical condition that was thought to afflict women. 

Fun facts: 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.)

Act 3, Scene 4
King Lear

Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air
Hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters!
He hath no daughters, sir.
Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters. (3.4.73-77)

When Lear encounters Poor Tom (Edgar disguised as a poor, naked, beggar), he concludes that Poor Tom's terrible state must have been caused by Tom's "daughters." When the Fool points out that "Poor Tom" has no children, Lear insists that there's nothing in the world that could have reduced a man to such a lowly state… except "his unkind daughters." For Lear, it seems that all the problems of the world are caused by women.


Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling
of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy
foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, (3.4.101-103)

Disguised as Poor Tom, Edgar warns Lear not to be seduced or "betray[ed" by women, to stay out of the brothels, and to keep his hands out of "plackets" (slits in the skirts of petticoats). "Foot," by the way, is Edgar's way of punning on the French word "foutre" (f*@k). 

Edgar's never been betrayed by any women in the play, so what's the deal with this nasty little diatribe against women? Does Edgar hate women as much as King Lear? Or, are we meant to read this passage as the insane ramblings of a (supposed) madman? In other words, is Shakespeare implying that this kind of attitude toward women is crazy?

Act 4, Scene 6
King Lear

Down from the waist they are centaurs,
Though women all above. But to the girdle do the
gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends'. There's hell,
there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit; burning,
scalding, stench, consumption! Fie, fie, fie, pah,
pah! (4.6.140-145)

Women, Lear claims, seem pretty normal from the "waist" up but, down below there's "hell" and "darkness" like a "sulphurous pit." Lear's sexist description of female anatomy calls to mind the symptoms of a very unpleasant venereal disease—"burning, scalding, stench," and so on. It seems that King Lear associates all women with a very unpleasant STD, especially his daughter, Goneril, whose name, as you may have guessed, sounds a whole lot like "gonorrhea."

Act 5, Scene 3

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (5.3.204-207)

Here, Edgar has mortally wounded his evil brother Edmund. As if to explain, Edgar says "the gods are just" because they punish humans for their wrongdoings. This seems to suggest that Edmund deserved what he got (a stab to the guts) and it also suggests that Gloucester, Edmund's father, got what he deserved for having an affair with Edmund's mother. (Gloucester's eyes were plucked out after he was accused of treason and, he fathered a wicked child, Edmund, who betrayed him.)

What's significant about this passage is the way Edgar refers to the body of Edmund's mother as a "dark and vicious place where" Edmund was begot. It seems to imply that all the bad things in the world (like the wicked Edmund, for example), spring from the loins of women. Gloucester implies something similar at the play's beginning, which we discuss in the following passage (1.1).

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