How do you approach feminism and femininity in an essay on Shakespeare’s 'King Lear?' (OCR marking criteria)

Assessment objectives

AO1: Argument

Points that you could mention in your essay could include:

- A land divided between 2 daughters

- The sexist way in which Lear speaks of Goneril

- The fragility of Lear’s masculinity, with references to Lear’s maternal instinct

- Cordelia’s representation of femininity and female purity 

- Patriarchy restored at the end of the play

Be sure to clearly separate different viewpoints into each paragraph, outlining each of your arguments clearly in your introduction and settling on a well-articulated stance for your conclusion.

AO2: Analysis

“Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear: Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend/ To make this creature fruitful.” – A1, S4

“… you unnatural hags” –A2, S4

Think about these two quotations and their connotations of nature. Shakespeare’s use of the adjective ‘unnatural’ suggests that Lear’s older daughters’ taking power from him has upset the order of things. From this you can bring in context by referring to the ‘chain of being’, which existed in Shakespeare’s time, where a man was of much higher status than a woman.

You should also play close attention to the misogynist nouns used to describe Goneril and Regan, such as ‘creature’ or ‘hags’, effectively conveying the distain that Lear has for his daughters’ rebellious behaviour.

Search the text for other such quotations that can support both the argument claiming the sexist attitudes in King Lear, but also the counter-point of masculine vulnerability and female strength. Include analysis of language (e.g. imagery and hyperbole), structure (e.g. foreshadowing and dramatic irony) and form (e.g. the use of prose and poetry).

AO3: Alternative interpretations

You should aim to include one alternative interpretation per paragraph. If you do not feel confident integrating critical opinions into the text, begin the paragraph with a critic’s opinion.

Example: Kathleen McLuskie argues that there is only a sexist form of justice in the final scene of King Lear, where “Cordelia’s saving love… works in the action less as a redemption for womankind than as an example of patriarchy restored.” We can once again refer to the chain of being in order to understand how a Shakespearean audience may believe that it is righteous that the powerful female rulers that had authority over male subjects are dead by the end of the play; this is can be viewed as nature and justice being restored in an Elizabethan context.

As well as quoting critical material, it would be wise to also refer to at least on production of the play, describing how one director’s interpretation may differ from another.

Example: In Michael Elliott’s 1983 film production of King Lear, the final scene concludes with the servants gather around the characters in a circle; they carry flaming torches and kneel. The bright flames could represent the hope of order being restored, and therefore demonstrates the way in which Shakespeare depicts the return of patriarchal rule in a positive light.

AO4: Context

Once again, you should try to incorporate your contextual knowledge into each paragraph. In terms of femininity and feminism in the Shakespearean times you should consider the following:

The Chain of Being: The idea that there was a hierarchy and order of importance for everything in the universe

Sexually devious widows: An idea at the time that widows had a veracious sexual appetite (see Regan’s behaviour towards Edmond)

Female monarchy: When Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Queen Elizabeth 1st sat on the throne

Shakespeare’s theatre: Women were not allowed on stage; theatres were seen as unseemly and on the same level as the bear fighting pits

Limited rights: Women could not own property or earn keep money from their husbands. The exception to this rule was for widows, who were allowed more responsibility.

You should also do some research of your own to further your knowledge of Elizabethan attitudes and beliefs, in order to have enough knowledge to cover any theme that might come up in the exam.

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