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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 6,544 words.)