When attempting to read criticism of Shakespeare plays one idea is
clear: if the review was written more than five or ten years ago the essay is
likely to be exclusive when it comes to the women in Shakespeare. Little
attention had been given to the women of Shakespeare prior to the seventies
feminist movement. The women in King Lear deserve attention just as women in
every Shakespearean play do. A common idea among critics is that the women
perpetuated evil and were not worthy of acknowledgment for anything else.
Goneril and Regan are believed to be vicious, evil women and Cordelia the small,
sweet daughter and while this interpretation may be true there are other aspects
to consider which are not typically presented when reviewing these female
characters. Each of these women is worthy of acclaim for her strengths of
character as well as in opposition to the male characters and various subplots
A common interpretation of Lear is one of the juxtaposition of good and
evil within the play. Many traditional critics have made this idea their
primary focus in interpretations which often ignores the feminist and class
conscious theme that are also present in King Lear. Most recent critical
essays of King Lear do make note of the class struggle within the play; however,
critics tend to ignore the gender struggles which upon thorough reading are
clearly as obvious as the class issues. I have chosen an interpretation of King
Lear from 1960, by Irving Ribner and set it in contrast with a 1991 review by
Ann Thompson. There are some interesting points made in both essays and some
stark differences in 'what and who' are the important themes and characters in
In Irving Ribner's essay, 'The Pattern of Regeneration in King Lear,'
Ribner focuses on Lear's regeneration as a result of the 'suffering' he must
undergo(Ribner 116). In the opening section of his essay, Ribner makes clear
that he will approach his interpretation of King Lear from the perspective of
Lear's spiritual rebirth. Ribner focuses attention on the suffering of Lear and
of the process of rebirth through suffering that Lear is able to do. Lear is
indeed the tragic hero but must go through great pains to achieve such notoriety.
As Lear's madness progresses he is able to come closer to his epiphany. Lear
becomes humble and succumbs to the fact that perhaps he is imperfect as father
and king(Ribner 127-129). Humility is necessary for Lear's regeneration and it
is through his process of pain that he is able to achieve rebirth(Ribner 128).
In Ribner's introduction to his study of Shakespeare, he states, '
Tragedy is an exploration of man's relation to the forces of evil in the world.
It seeks for answers to cosmic problems, much as religion seeks them, for it is
a product of man's desire to believe in a purposive ordered universe'(Ribner 1).
From this introduction it seems clear that Ribner will be examining the forces
of good and evil within Shakespeare. Later Ribner states in his Lear essay that,
'if Shakespeare is to assert the power of man to overcome evil, the forces of
evil must be shown in their most uncompromising terms'(Ribner 116). Ribner
proceeds to present the forces of evil in terms of the behavior of Edmund,
Cornwall, Goneril and Regan. Ribner goes on to state that the primary focus of
the play is on Lear himself with the other characters serving 'secondary
supporting functions, each symbolic of some force of good and evil'(Ribner 117).
Ribner views the behavior of Cordelia, Edgar, Kent and the Fool as the
antithesis to the evil doings of the other characters. In Ribner's study of
King Lear the forces representing evil are most clearly examined through the
behavior of Goneril and Regan with occasional references to Edmund and Cornwall.
While Ribner does use Edmund as a representative of evil, he also excuses Edmund
based on his background of illegitimacy. Ann Thompson later criticizes the
critics who let Edmund 'off the hook' based on his background.
Ribner places his critique in historical context of the Jacobean
response to the play. He is careful to note what 'would be' reactions in
specific instances may have been vastly different than contemporary reactions.
Ribner makes it clear that in Jacobean England the political reactions to Lear's
resignation of the throne would have resulted in turmoil for the audience and
that they would have been far less influenced by his banishment of his daughter,
Cordelia(Ribner 118-119). A political interpretation of Shakespeare is what
Ribner seems to be driving towards. He makes clear what the historical and
political interpretations would have been when King Lear was first staged.
Ribner pays little attention to the women of King Lear other than to
accuse Goneril and Regan of villainy(Ribner 119). There is little reference o
Cordelia other than the impact of her final scene with her father. The
reconciliation with Cordelia is noted by Ribner with this scene being the most
notorious scene for a female character in Lear. Ribner does not ignore the
women completely but repeatedly refers to Goneril and Regan as vicious, cruel
women(Ribner 123-125). Ribner primarily focuses his attention on the
traditionally visible ideas when criticizing Shakespeare--the patriarchal values
presented therein. Ribner's essay is representative of the patriarchal front
and does not give adequate attention to the female experience in Lear. In his
essay, Ribner completely ignores the possibility that Cordelia has undergone her
own process of rebirth and regeneration. He presents quite an insightful essay
on regeneration and rebirth--a commonly feminine ideal but has left out the
female experience of that ideal.<...