Study Guide

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

King Lear Essay - An excellent thing in woman: Virgo and Viragos in King Lear

An excellent thing in woman: Virgo and Viragos in King Lear

"An excellent thing in woman": Virgo and Viragos in King Lear

Catherine S. Cox, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Throughout King Lear, conventional interpretations of gender identity are challenged by ambiguously constructed female characters. The three women inhabiting Lear's world—his daughters Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan—supply the text with culturally and theoretically profound treatments of gender issues. The daughter figures, especially Cordelia, exhibit characteristics germane to Renaissance appropriations of early Christian and medieval (anti) feminist commonplaces, with the distinction between valorization and denigration rendered ambiguous by the subtle incorporation of competing motifs. I shall explicate the polysemous gender constructions of the daughters in King Lear in connection with literary and theological traditions in order to demonstrate that the play's ultimate sense of restoration and order is both contingent upon and betrayed by its rejection of "unnatural" gender.

Goneril and Regan, the two "unnatural hags" (2.4.278) as Lear will decry them, are negatively depicted as familiar virago types, but Cordelia is more complex: a figure of archetypal virgo goodness who simultaneously exhibits diverse characteristics of the virago.1 Cordelia's embodiment of virgo and virago topoi, and indeed Lear's representations of Woman in general, owe much to both Christian and secular intellectual traditions. Many of the prevalent characteristics attributed to the female sex and feminine gender in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England derive from Aristotelian definitions expressed in scientific treatises such as De generatione animalium, De partibus animalium, and De generatione et corruptione, and from such commentaries as those of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.2 The more complex Christian tradition borrows the core positive/negative binarism from the Aristotelian masculine/feminine paradigm, but reframes the status of Woman by way of an additional, competing opposition: Mary, the epitome of the good woman and the archetypal virgo, versus Eve, instigator of sin yet mother of humankind, the original "virago," as she is named in the second Vulgate creation account.3

Patristic writers move uneasily between the two concepts, regarding the Virgin as the feminine ideal yet seeking to elide the problematic issues associated with gender. We might note in this regard the ambivalent declarations of no less a theologian than Saint Jerome, whose opinions on virginity, sexuality, and marriage have a profound and at times controversial influence upon Western Christian tradition. In his Commentarii in epistolam ad Ephesios, Jerome, otherwise known for such polemical treatises as Adversus Jovinianum—which fervently endorses the lauded status of the virgo—here describes a virago ideal: "Quandiu mulier partui servit et liberis, hanc habet ad virum differentiam, quam corpus ad animam. Sin autem Christo magis voluerit servire quam saeculo, mulier esse cessabit, et dicetur vir" (3.28). [As long as woman serves for birth and children, she has difference from man, as body from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be woman and will be called man.]4 For Jerome as for Saint Paul, gender categories collapse in an ideal Christian environment of grace: "non est masculus neque femina" [there is no masculine nor feminine], Paul contends in his epistle to the Galatians (3.28).5 But in an imperfect human world, the taint of gender persists; hence Paul's better-known assertion, "Mulleres viris suis subditae sint, sicut Domino" [Let women be subject to their men, as to the Lord] (Eph. 5.22), which promotes obedience and silence as appropriate feminine behavior, a point to which I shall return. The virgo ideal, based on centuries of devotional practice related to the Virgin Mary, represents redemption and life, the most lauded and desirable status for any woman to aspire to in order to transcend Eve's legacy of sin ("Mors per Evam: vita per Mariam" [Death through Eve: life through Mary], asserts Saint Jerome in his oft-cited Epistola ad Eustochium), while the virago elicits the ambivalent praise accorded the recipient of an honorary title ("dicetur vir") connected to an ambiguous ideal.6

Both 'virgo' and 'virago', then, categorize women in relatively positive patriarchal senses while never fully distancing them from the legacy of corruption and taint derived from the Genesis narrative. Both seek to recuperate woman's place in God's creation: the virgo by valorizing specific aspects of the feminine, the virago by negating femininity itself. As Barbara Newman comments in her recent analysis of the terms, "Although didactic writers liked to pun on these labels as if they were functionally equivalent, their affective connotations diverged widely. The virago was an honorary male, aspiring to the unisex ideal, while the virgin aspired to a highly gendered ideal embodied in the Virgin Mary."7 Because the virgo represents a gendered ideal, the feminine at its best, women who choose to emulate the Virgin attempt to observe a code of behavior well defined within patristic tradition and its social applications. The virago, however, remains more ambiguous and troubling for the theologians, who simultaneously, and paradoxically, both denigrate and laud the same characteristics and behaviors.

Literary representations reflect the complexities and contradictions of the virgo/virago traditions. The depiction of women in early Christian treatises and in the narratives of those women who exemplify desired patriarchal virtues—hagiography, for instance, which describes in vivid detail both the chastity and martyrdom of its heroines—retains a sense of the underlying anxiety, inconsistency, and paradoxical ambivalence of their authors.8 Virginal goodness frequently results in the heroine's torture and death, and viragos are contemptuously regarded for their purportedly unnatural expressions of cross-gendered identity. After centuries of popular interest, these types of heroines become attractive to Renaissance audiences as they are made accessible through both stage performance and written text—the archetypal figure of goodness and obedience, for example, is constructed in the virgo mode; though not purely hagiographic in the strict generic sense, the heroine embodies pseudohagiographic topoi as the subject of such well-known folktales and legends as the Griselda and Constance stories of Petrarch, Boccaccio, John Gower, and Chaucer.

We find reflected in these texts as well the ambivalent attitudes toward virgo and virago types found in the theological tradition: the virago qualities of the heroine, while valorized, are frequently misunderstood by those exposed to them, often provoking, at least indirectly, martyrdom for the otherwise laudably virginal heroine. And yet these very qualities—for example, assertiveness, courage, self-respect—are used concurrently to define female villains, whose manifest distortions of proper gender identity prove problematic or even disastrous for the heroine (e.g., the mothers-in-law of Chaucer's Custance). Indeed, categories of gender identity itself seem to collapse at times, as conventional characteristics and qualities of virgo and virago merge beyond differentiation, effectively challenging the very concept of gender identity and definition, and resisting any simple reduction to the masculine/feminine binarism and its underlying positive/ negative valuation. Such are the patterns of ambiguous gender identity that characterize the daughters of King Lear, and it is to "these daughters and these sisters" (5.3.7) that we now return.

Although Cordelia appears in only four of the play's twenty-six scenes, the impact of her presence in the opening scene is perceptible throughout the entire play. Most significant in relation to the virgo/virago paradigms is Cordelia's silence, for her reluctant participation in Lear's flattery game is remarkable in its ambiguity. Her elusive and evasive speech is interpreted by some readers and viewers as a demonstration of love and goodness, by others as an assertive rejection of patriarchal authority, and by still others as an exhibition of arrogance, a kind of haughty naivete.9 As Gayle Whittier asks in her provocative psychoanalytic study of gender in King Lear, "Is she recalcitrant daughter or wronged saint? Victim of patriarchy or proto-feminist?"10 In any case Cordelia's response, "Nothing" (1.1.87), takes too literally her father's request, "what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters'? Speak" (85-87; my emphasis). When given an opportunity to revoke her words and replace them with language more compliant—"Nothing will come of nothing, speak again" (90)—her deviation from social and filial decorum becomes pointed, even brusque: "Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less" (91-93). Earlier, Goneril, in her eloquent if platitudinous statement, has tellingly declared that her great love for Lear is "A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable" (62); Cordelia's legitimate inability to speak, then, would seem to correspond ironically to the inefficacy of language to convey true affection. If so, silence is Cordelia's only proper response, but it is compromised by her subsequent attempts at explanation and justification.

The play's closing directive will reiterate the ambivalence of both the characters and their author regarding the efficacy and propriety of speech: "The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" (5.3.324-25).11 While overtly connected to Cordelia's performance in the opening scene, Edgar's stated dichotomy between obligation and emotion, between decorum and truth, is a false one. Cordelia, in fact, manages neither: while her "nothing" appropriately articulates the silence befitting the virgo, it is followed by a sequence of scolding remarks that are neither truthful nor decorous, and her attempt at candor thus fails to communicate both "what [she] feel[s]" and "what [she] ought to say."12 Paradoxically, Goneril and Regan succeed in accomplishing both; through their requisite praises, the sisters demonstrate what they feel—their desire to comply with Lear's wishes—and concomitantly what they ought to say, for their speeches are absolutely decorous as responses to Lear's stated request. Unlike the Cordeilla of the Chronicles, who attributes her terse performance to conscience and completely ignores the words of her sisters, Shakespeare's Cordelia takes her sisters' fluent, facile performances as valid indicators of what they wish to convey and chides them for setting such impossible, artificial standards for themselves and for her.

One of her more vexing rhetorical challenges—fraught with connotations of sexuality, language, and decorum—is therefore issued when Cordelia turns her attention toward the institution of marriage: "Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all?" (99-100). Her comments regarding marriage are not inconsistent with the concerns of the immediate situation, her intended betrothal, but they certainly reframe her "nothing" speech.13 Cordelia compares the "love" she would have for a husband to the "love" she has for her father; yet, she is to be married off to the successful "rival," at Lear's choice. In both instances, Cordelia's relationship is defined not by eros or affection, but strictly by "bond," and she plans to divide her "love" in half—half her "care and duty" (102), that is. 'Husband' and 'father' are used interchangeably by Cordelia, who unnaturally collapses the distinction between them, framing each strictly in relation to her own requisite duty. When Cordelia speaks the truth to Lear, then, it would seem that the ill-received words are the result not necessarily of any inhering verbal inefficacy on Cordelia's part, but rather, of the fact that she speaks of the truth in all its blunt pragmatism. Here too her remarks compromise her gender status, for conventionally we would expect a young woman to evince an interest in romance and marriage; yet Cordelia reduces the mythic eros of the union to the strict economic and political particulars that an arranged marriage signifies. There is no hint of desire or anticipation, or even curiosity, for that matter. Yet her apparent resistance to marriage thematically befits a saintly heroine spiritually predisposed to embrace celibacy—for instance, in the (pseudo-)hagiographic tradition, Cecilia's haire or Custance's prayers. Whatever her motivation, Cordelia's scolding remarks trouble some critics who wonder at her belief that love is a fixed commodity, divisible in a zero-sum game.

More important is Cordelia's failure to recognize that the quality of love is not the issue here; what matters is the expression of love, the speech used to communicate emotion—or, more to the point, to construct the illusion of it. Lear, after all, has not asked which daughter loves him most, but rather which will provide the best public rhetorical performance: "Tell me, my daughters . . ." (48; my emphasis). Lear questions Cordelia's intentions only after she has failed to adhere to his directives: "But goes thy heart with this?" (105). Cordelia does not appreciate the distinction between public performance and private affect that Lear, perhaps without even quite realizing it himself, demands. Perhaps Cordelia challenges her father because Goneril is correct that true love defies the capacity of language to communicate it fully, that Cordelia's verbal inefficacy prevents her from practicing "that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not" (224-25); perhaps her own sense of self-respect and pride, not inconsistent with that of conventional hagiographic heroines, precludes participation in such an ostentatious display of glibness.14 In either case, in refusing to speak as expected she places herself in a twofold position of gendered otherness that reifies the virgo/ virago paradigms: an excessively feminized and passive position owing to her initial silence, and, when she breaks her silence and challenges Lear's request, an inappropriately masculine voice.

In view of the governing metaphor of King Lear—Cordelia's speech, or lack thereof—it is significant that the treatment of gender in the canon of patristic writings and the literature influenced by those ideologies is connected, often cryptically and sometimes quite elaborately, to speech and language. With regard to Christian tradition, much has been written on the metaphor of silence and virginity in patristic writings and their commentators, particularly as both virginity and silence are valorized attributes for women.15 The silent woman—virginal, enclosed, uncorrupted, and passive—is privileged as having attained a status closer to the Christian ideal than that of her loquacious counterpart. It is paradoxically through this virginal denial of voice that Woman, in Jerome's terms cited above, "dicetur vir."

Cordelia's saintly persona is called into question when she assumes a masculine voice, for, in speaking like a man she paradoxically compromises the honorary male status that her apparent conformity to Jerome's ideal would signify. Her feminine status is at least temporarily restored at the end of her appearance in this first scene, however, for her tears inscribe her character with the marks of laudable virgo femininity. As she simultaneously regrets her resistance to Lear and instructs her sisters to be kind—"The jewels of our father, with wash'd eyes / Cordelia leaves you" (268-69)—she recuperates her role as daughter and sister. Cordelia thus defies any attempt to limit her to a single gender category; her identity with regard to gender frequently and unpredictably shifts as she takes up and relinquishes a number of gender(ed) positions.

Cordelia's problematic performance aptly corresponds to her ambiguous status in Lear's family and court. She is at once both Lear's youngest daughter and, figuratively speaking, in the absence of male progeny, a stand-in for his eldest son; it is she to whom Lear had hoped to turn in his old age, she who had been designated heir, she to whom Lear had assigned "all cares and business" (1.1.39).16 Lear himself reveals in his lament after banishing Cordelia, "I loved her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery" (122-23); she is simultaneously valorized as designated heir and demoted to nursemaid. In this respect Cordelia is coerced into inhabiting several competing gendered identities—daughter, son, wife, mother—resulting in her own ambiguously gendered status. The hint of incest (daughter as substitute wife?) further problematizes Cordelia's unresolved gender status, though Lear's impulsive decision to banish her suspends the issue until much later in the play. Lear, it seems, relies on his youngest daughter to assume the appropriate gender role when needed.

Cordelia's initial decision, "Love, and be silent" (62), appropriately adheres to the traditional patriarchal code of womanly silence discussed above; this is the passive, feminine behavior Lear admires. But when called upon to speak as a woman and as a daughter, her unwillingness to conform to established and expected codes incites Lear's rage. Her blunt words undermine her virgo image, for she speaks as a daughter but like a son: "I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less" (92-93); "You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I / Return those duties back as are right fit, / Obey you, love you, and most honor you" (96-98). When Cordelia betrays her own silence, she abandons her identity as daughter; apparently affronted at having to compete with her sisters in so ludicrous a game, she exhibits a masculine sense of entitlement, as if the "bond" she and Lear share should rightly ensure her place as Lear's successor and exempt her from public display.

Such forfeiture and substitution of gender identities call to mind the widespread early Christian, medieval, and Renaissance perceptions of the virgo and virago in relation to both silence and exile. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux's Tractatus ad laudem gloriosae Virginis, one of his Marian texts, refers to women who have chosen a life of virginity as exiles—specifically, "in exsilio filios Evae" [sons of Eve in exile].17 The description is, on the surface, rather curious in its confusion of gender labels, for, as current representatives of Eve's legacy and lineage, women would presumably be "filiae," daughters, rather than "filii," sons. This discrepancy may be explained in part by the relative availability of labels for gender identity: by the twelfth century, when Bernard wrote, women are still bearing the misogynistic brunt of Eve's ascribed legacy of sin. As the embodiment of carnal concupiscence and subversive disobedience, or at least the potential for these, women are characterized with mistrust and apprehension as "filiae Evae," the daughters of Eve. Identifying good women—that is, those adhering to pastristic standards, especially with regard to virginity—in laudatory terms, while still acknowledging their physical attachment to Eve's legacy, then, is accomplished by way of Bernard's "filii Evae" label. That the women remain "Evae," "of Eve," is overt and inarguable; that they have somehow transcended her shameful legacy of sin is suggested, albeit cryptically, through their identification as "sons," "filii."

Like the banished Cordelia, women fulfilling the virgo ideal—"filii Evae" overtly committed to a life of spirituality—are in Bernard's words "in exsilio," in a state of exile. Literally, of course, men and women heeding the monastic call have chosen to separate themselves from the world at large and to occupy a cloistered environment in order to facilitate their devotion.18 More important, however, the "exiled" status may be interpreted figuratively as the condition of any individual desiring to serve Christ: the devoted, spiritual individual is "exiled" in the sense of no longer being fully integrated into the secular world once the choice is made to serve a higher spiritual purpose. Such an individual may be socially, politically, and economically exiled as well by those with whom she or he must otherwise coexist, like family members. Ostracism may be imposed as a punishment or corrective measure if such an individual refuses to relinquish his or her chosen position—as in the case of the self-described "creature" of the eponymous Book of Margery Kempe, for instance.

An additional association of speech and exile that may prove enlightening with regard to King Lear also derives from Bernard, who uses an analogy of feminine otherness to guide monks in their interpretive and communicative activities. In his Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, he instructs, "Vobis, fratres, alia quam de aliis de saeculo, aut certe aliter dicenda sunt" [To you, brothers, one should speak of different things, or at least in a different way, than to those in the world].19 As David Damrosch explains, Bernard is interested in images of women for "their otherness from men, and in particular for their ambiguous status as simultaneously essential members of society and second-class citizens, excluded from full participation in social life."20 Thus while Bernard's concern with speech reflects his concern with the monastic life and its appropriate codes of behavior, he identifies a crucial connection between speech and otherness: to be excluded from a manner of speaking confirms one's place outside an established community. If Bernard's remarks are applied to the status of women as "other" in Christian writings and popular perception, we find that women's speech or lack of speech confirms their position with respect to an institutionally circumscribed environment—which, according to Bernard's logic, justifies their being ostracized as "other."

While it is Lear himself who renders Cordelia socially and legally "other" through his fiat of banishment, Cordelia's self-imposed figurative exile from cultural norms marks her as "other" even before Lear imposes his sentence. She is a marginalized outsider or, in the language of Bernard, an "exile," owing to her ambiguous gender status. In other words, Cordelia's banishment is already a given, even prior to the formal pronouncement by Lear; although secular in content, the character's chosen course of moral behavior satisfies traditional hagiographic conventions, and the reader or viewer can predict from the very start that Cordelia will ultimately be sacrificed for her moral principles. When she describes Goneril and Regan to Lear in detached terms—"Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?" (5.3.7)—her preference for categories rather than names signifies her voluntary social and moral estrangement. And when Cordelia situates herself in relation to the tradition of those who have been marginalized, then persecuted—"We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurr'd the worst" (5.3.3-4)—she confirms her identity and fulfills the destiny prepared for her at the play's outset.

But since Cordelia's conventional goodness must be both rewarded and punished by the standards set in virgo topoi, the play requires that Cordelia's suffering be forestalled, that banishment initiate but not wholly constitute her suffering until an even deeper and more profound spiritual commitment is revealed. Thus in the opening sequence, the process of betrothal merges with the process of division, and gender and politics become inextricably enmeshed. Making clear that she understands the economics of politics and matrimony—"Peace be with Burgundy! / Since that respects of fortune are his love, / I shall not be his wife" (1.1.247-49)—Cordelia prepares to suffer the consequences of her commitment to truth. But, as befits her inherent goodness, she will be assigned a spouse for whom Lear's land and power hold less interest than does Cordelia herself—hence France's intervention. While Cordelia's marriage will presumably require that she forfeit her physical, corporeal virgin status, the virgo identity so essential to Cordelia's character is nonetheless maintained, since she embodies a spiritual truth unaffected by physical status. Whether she undergoes legal banishment or sexual consummation, she remains "true" (107).

Once exiled, the virtuous Cordelia bears a striking similarity to the "sons of Eve in exile," remaining committed to the father for whom she was to fulfill the obligations of daughter and son. Just as Cordelia is exiled from her father (at his insistence), so too she is abandoned by her husband, which underscores her quasi-hagiographical status. The idyllic promise of marriage to France—"Be it lawful I take up what's cast away. . . . Thy dow'rless daughter, King, thrown to my chance, / Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France" (1.1.253-57)—is short-lived, and Cordelia is left to face her fate alone. She is not to be ruled by any mortal man, it seems, whether father, husband, or king; exiled from spouse, father, and normal institutions, she is simultaneously excluded from the corresponding social roles of wife, daughter, and woman. Though curiously asexual in effect and behavior, Cordelia is nonetheless gendered—bigendered, we might say, since she embodies the characteristics of both masculine and feminine as formulated by Hélène Cixous, "the presence of both sexes, evident and insistent in different ways according to the individual, the nonexclusion of difference."21

Moreover, while King Lear cannot be described as an explicitly "Christian" play, set as it is in a pre-Christian era, the numerous Christian signs and symbols informing its characters and themes do justify an interpretation that takes into account the time and place of its creation as well as those of its textual antecedents. In connection with hagiographical conventions, Cordelia's poignant assertion, "O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about" (4.4.23-24), strongly suggests that her "business," like Christ's in Luke 2:49, transcends human affairs, and that her profession of loyalty to her "father" typologically testifies to her faith in and duty toward a power far greater than Lear's or her own. Here, as in the first scene of the play, Cordelia's tears mark her feminine identity and, in conjunction with residually hagiographic characterization, emphasize the emotional depth of her faith. Even before the episode of absolution, in which a tearful Cordelia selflessly grants Lear's request that she "forget, and forgive" (4.7.83), we see a Cordelia ready not only to disregard Lear's cruelty toward her but also to risk her own young life in an attempt to preserve her aged father's life and title. Though literally such a reversal seems an affront to nature—and contradicts her earlier evasion of Lear's imposed "nursery" duties—typologically it resonates with an emphatic endorsement of commitment and sacrifice. The saintly virgo respects a higher calling, and will exercise her virago strengths in an attempt to rectify the calamitous disintegration of Lear's world.22 But this valiant virgo/virago, who exhibits the best aspects of the topoi, will necessarily be done to death by malign forces more powerful than her own.23 Her ultimate martyrdom confirms the tradition from which Cordelia derives her place.

Contingent upon Cordelia's enactments of gender and gender identity, the play's resolution is strengthened in its rejection of the "unnatural" by the supporting roles of her two sisters. Though their significance to the play is obviously less than Cordelia's, their own embodiment of gendered stereotypes contributes to the establishment of Cordelia's ultimate identity as martyr. For once the tragic sequence is set in motion, the events leading to Lear's and Cordelia's deaths are facilitated by the malign behavior of Goneril and Regan, a pair of scheming viragos who demonstrate just about every negative stereotype of gender and gendered identity. Despite their many negative similarities, though, Goneril and Regan are obviously neither interchangeable nor redundant; each manifests "unnatural" gender in her own way, and each perpetrates evil in relation to her character's exhibition of gender status. It is fitting therefore that Regan, the least powerful and most socially proper of the daughters, should be the first of the three "unnatural" deaths, and that she should die by her elder sister Goneril's hand, the victim of "unnatural" evil more monstrous than her own. The comparative effect of the sisters' demonstrated stereotypical villainy is that Cordelia's positive feminine attributes are obviously enhanced.

But, as befits the virgo/virago conventions, Cordelia's polysemous gender identity is regarded with an uncomfortable ambivalence in the play. Shakespeare's own audience would, of course, hardly be unfamiliar with the concept of a female in power, given the recent reign of the divina virago, Elizabeth Tudor. As Leonard Tennenhouse observes in his cultural critique of Elizabethan political attitudes, "The female was no less female for possessing patriarchal powers. . . . The idea of a female patriarch appears to have posed no contradiction in terms of Elizabethan culture."24 Despite Elizabeth's political position, her private sexual status and alleged behavior were targets of scrutiny and gossip; socially, the virago was regarded with apprehension and disdain.25 Other works of literature in the Elizabethan era dramatize such a twofold valorization and denigration—for instance, Shakespeare's own reworking of the historical figure Joan of Arc in 1 Henry VI, in which the female warrior is repeatedly impugned for sexual promiscuity and witchcraft.26 These corrupted virago figures betray the culture's concern with the social consequences of inappropriate gender status, even if for political reasons disapproval is impossible.27 It is quite telling, then, that images of witchcraft, monsters, demons, and vermin are frequently used by Lear, Albany, and others to describe the women's "unnatural" behavior; even Cordelia is impugned when Lear calls upon Hecate in banishing her and describes her to France as "a wretch whom Nature is asham'd / Almost t'acknowledge hers" (1.1.212-13).28 Such images corroborate the audience's credence of the moral codes through which ambiguously or inappropriately gendered behavior is mediated and rejected.

It is with no little irony, then, that Lear praises the dead Cordelia by focusing on the correlation between her gender and her voice: "What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman" (5.3.273-74). His insistence here that her voice epitomized her most desirable feminine attributes has already been betrayed not only by his rejection of her words but also by the content of those words—there was nothing "gentle," "low," or "excellent" in Cordelia's blunt and assertive remarks about "honor" and "bond." Compounding the irony is the realization that this final image duplicates the opening scene; here again Lear requests speech from Cordelia, who offers "nothing." Having disowned and banished Cordelia precisely because of her voice, Lear now praises what angered him most, perhaps compromising some of the poignancy that this pietà might otherwise have produced. We find, too, an ironic reversal of Lear's formerly expressed interest in Cordelia's "kind nursery," for it is Lear who now cradles the body of Cordelia, temporarily inhabiting the maternal role that he had hoped to impose upon her. In death, then, Cordelia's virgo silence reinstates her position as Lear's favorite daughter; no one but Lear grieves for her, and no "voice" threatens to contradict or confront his nostalgic fantasy. "Gentle" silence is "excellent" in an ideal woman, even if the idealized status is contingent upon the death of the heroine.

Although the sisters' own polysemous gender identities reveal the potentially damaging consequences of gender run amok, Cordelia's behavior supplies a crucial balance, in that we realize that the sisters seem evil not solely because they are female but because they simply are evil. Even if gender alone does not account for their behavior, their treachery shows itself most overtly in connection with their "unnatural" gendered identities. Contextualized by a cultural history of ambivalence toward "good" women, Cordelia is the subject of both praise and contempt in Lear's world; despite her apparent goodness and virtue, as woman, wife, and daughter she can never fully free herself of Eve's legacy—at least not while she remains alive. Thus, while Cordelia's character exhibits a dimension of moral goodness, she nonetheless displays unnatural gender which poses a threat to natural order; her idealized virgo status is reified only in absence of any further speech. In a striking illustration of intersecting and paradoxical motifs of gender and representation, then, Goneril and Regan are necessarily killed off owing to their unwomanly evil, and Cordelia is killed off owing to both her womanly and unwomanly goodness.

Once the sisters' roles are reduced to what amounts to a fatal catfight and Cordelia succumbs to the ambivalence accorded a heroine of her type, the play can move toward the restoration of order promised by its established conformity to generic pattern. After the three daughters' bodies have been carried onstage—and the threat of "unnatural" women thus safely eliminated—King Lear is brought to a close with the changing of the guard, so to speak, as Edgar takes up the duties of rule and addresses his fellow male survivors:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


The play's resolution is predicated upon the possibility and desirability of restoring "natural" order. In this regard the conventions of tragedy suit audience expectations and the gesture toward restoration appeals to our desire for closure.29 But the absence of women/Woman in the closing lines should give us pause. For all the cathartic satisfaction we may experience at this palliating if not pat conclusion, we are compelled to acknowledge the constructedness of this world and this resolution, which have their being in the time and space of a text.


1 All references to Shakespeare's plays are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), with parenthetical citations in text.

2 On the diverse origins of Western culture's understanding of sex and gender, see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1993); Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thorn-asset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, trans. Matthew Adamson (Princeton, N.J., 1988); and Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge, 1980), esp. pp. 2-9.

3 Genesis 2.23: "Dixitque Adam: Hoc nunc, os ex ossibus meis, et caro de carne mea: haec vocabitur Virago, quoniam de viro sumpta est" [And Adam said: This now is bone from my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Virago, because she was taken from man], Biblia sacra iuxta vulgatam Clementinam, ed. Alberto Colunga and Laurentio Turrado, 4th ed. (Madrid, 1965). All biblical citations are from this edition, with references noted; translations my own here and throughout unless otherwise indicated. On the "virago," see James Grantham Turner, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford, 1987), pp. 96-123.

4 Saint Jerome, Commentarli in epistolam ad Ephesios, in Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1844-83, with reprints), vol. 26, col. 567; hereafter cited as PL.

5 Compare Saint Ambrose, Expositio in evangelii secundum Lucam, ed. M. Adriaen, Corpus Christianorum Ecclesiasticarum, Series Latina 14 (Turnhout, 1957), 10.161. On early Christian, medieval, and early modern misogyny and its theological underpinnings, see Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (1994; Oxford, 1996), esp. pp. 120-21; R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago, 1991), esp. pp. 37-91; Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia, 1995), pp. 1-45; and Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York, 1991), esp. pp. 151-79.

6 Saint Jerome, Epistolae, PL, vol. 22, col. 408.

7 Newman, p. 5.

8 A useful overview is provided by Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1988).

9 Derek Cohen (Shakespeare's Culture of Violence [New York, 1993]), e.g., argues that Cordelia "will not accept Lear's right to make her take the oath. Her famous 'Nothing' is a violently reductive challenge to Lear's and everyone else's conception of hierarchical authority" (p. 98).

10 Gayle Whittier, "Cordelia as Prince: Gender and Language in King Lear" Exemplaria 1 (1989): 367-99. Whittier describes King Lear as Shakespeare's "most misogynistic" tragedy (p. 367).

11 Robert Matz ("Speaking What We Feel: Torture and Political Authority in King Lear," Exemplaria 6 [1994]: 223-41) observes with regard to the opening sequence, "Lear's imposition of a lie believed as truth (his daughters' forced declarations of love) lacks the force to make that lie stick" (p. 233).

12 I find a striking and instructive parallel to Cordelia's speech in the critique of Abraham's elusiveness by Jacques Derrida (The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills [Chicago, 1995]): "He speaks and doesn't speak. He responds without responding. He responds indirectly. He speaks in order not to say anything about the essential things that he must keep secret" (p. 59). In Cordelia's case, the "secret" would pertain to the fraudulence of Lear's plan. On Shakespearean secrecy see Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Chicago, 1996), esp. pp. 229-72.

13 See Lynda E. Boose, "The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare," PMLA 97 (1982): 325-47, on the concerns of a betrothal in an aristocratic setting; and with regard to the connection between betrothal, sexuality, and language, William C. Carroll, "The Virgin Not: Language and Sexuality in Shakespeare," Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 107-19.

14 Cavell Stanley ("The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in his Must We Mean What We Say? [Cambridge, 1976], pp. 267-353) argues that Lear's torments cause Cordelia to "snap," though her words are "too calm, too cold" to convey the outrage she feels (p. 291).

15 On the virgin/silence connection in early Christian and medieval theology, see Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 13-53.

16 Whittier describes Cordelia's "double indemnity of being both female and last-born" (p. 387). But see the challenge to primogeniture posited by Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex, 1983), pp. 77-79.

17 The image occurs in other medieval texts, most notably the Salve Regina's "exsules filii Hevae," the Prymer's "exiled sones of Eue," and the Prologue of Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale, "I, unworthy sone of Eve."

18 On "otherness," "exile," and Christian commitment, see Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1991), pp. 77-93.

19 Text and translation cited by David Damrosch, "Non Alia Sed Aliter. The Hermeneutics of Gender in Bernard of Clairvaux," in Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), pp. 181-95, at p. 182.

20 Ibid., p. 183. On gender and the monastic orders, see also Jo Ann McNamara, "The Herrenfrage: The Restructuring of the Gender System, 1050-1150," in Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees (Minneapolis, 1994), pp. 3-29.

21 Hélène Cixous, "Sorties," in The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis, 1986), pp. 63-132, at p. 85.

22 Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London, 1992), finds that King Lear betrays fantasies and anxieties about women, particularly the virgin and the mother (pp. 64-65); see also the general overview provided by Ann Thompson, "Shakespeare and Sexuality," Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 1-8.

23 In this capacity, Cordelia fulfills the symbolic function of sacrifice and preservation. The classic study of this "scapegoat" motif remains René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, 1979). Although Cordelia cannot die in place of Lear (he must inevitably experience his own death), she can forestall the demise of his kingdom. See Derrida (n. 12 above), whose analysis of sacrifice and death, motivated in part by Heidegger, seems particularly applicable to Cordelia and Lear: "The sameness of the self, what remains irreplaceable in dying, only becomes what it is, in the sense of an identity as a relation of the self to itself, by means of this idea of mortality as irreplaceability" (p. 45).

24 Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York, 1986), p. 103.

25 See Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia, 1994).

26 See, e.g., 1 Henry VI 1.2.104; 3.2.38, 52; 3 Henry VI 1.4.111-14. On the representation of women in this tetralogy, see Marilyn L. Williamson, "'When Men Are Rul'd by Women': Shakespeare's First Tetralogy," Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 41-59.

27 Lorna Hutson (The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England [London, 1994]) considers the problem of alleged sexual transgression in Renaissance culture, including Shakespeare.

28 See, e.g., 1.1.109-10; 1.4.259-61, 275-89; 2.4.160-64; 3.7.100-101; 4.3.39-49, 59-67.

29 While the demands of the genre necessitate that some such speech be delivered, these lines are, as James Calderwood observes, "place[d] on the play like a bandaid on a gaping wound" ("Creative Uncreation in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 5-19, at 18); hence they leave many issues unresolved and expose the play's fiction. Bryan Crockett (The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England [Philadelphia, 1995]) observes with regard to the "excruciating final scene" that the play's many paradoxes "can be resolved only in the communal experience of the audience" (p. 70).

Source: " 'An Excellent Thing in Woman': Virgo and Viragos in King Lear," in Modern Philology, Vol. 96, No. 2, November, 1998, pp. 143-57.