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Tembisa Aborn

Final Essay
May 4, 2015
Emily Weissbourd

Femininity, Masculinity, and Power in Shakespeares King Lear and Measure for
Women are a constant fixture in Shakespeares plays, which seems only natural given that
women are also a constant fixture in our world, and some of the bards most iconic characters,
from Romeo and Juliets titular Juliet to Hamlets Ophelia, have been women. Nevertheless, it is
well accepted that, compared to Shakespeares male characters, women experience neither
exceptional ubiquity nor autonomy, with female characters often operating as a direct extension
of male characters, whether as a means to better men, to complicate them, or as a way to bring
them down. In spite of their lack of individual agency, however, women, especially in the plays
of King Lear and Measure for Measure, nevertheless operate within a peculiar position of power
in which their obedience is necessary for men to exercise their institutional powers, specifically
in the realm of the political. Though women themselves are deprived of individual power, it
would seem that a failure to control even the most basic will of women is integral to the failure
of men, resulting from a metaphorical neutering that leaves them unable to make use of their
power as men over women. Simply put, asserting the subordination and frailty of women is the
manner in which men in these plays mediate their own manhood, the source and expression of
their institutional power, and a failure to make women yield to these rolls causes them to lose
their claim to manhood, and their right to institutional power along with it.
As a trend, this is most obvious in King Lear, the tragedy of which unfolds precisely
because Lear is unable to control any of his daughters, even Cordelia who loves him. The love

test that King Lear puts his daughters through at the plays beginning contains a certain level of
implied sadism, and relies heavily on what can reasonably be termed male power fantasies
because the entirety of the game hinges on his daughters happily prostrating themselves before
him and then being rewarded for their willingness to debase themselves in this way . King Lear
himself, when he introduces the test, even describes it as expressing his darker purpose (I.i.36).
What is especially notable about this opening scene in King Lear is that the king is not
just giving his daughters any reward for their declarationshe is divesting his own political
power as ruler, and he is passing it on to them, essentially emasculating himself for their benefit .
Given that passing on his crown necessarily means that he would no longer be able to exercise
his power over them as a king, the love test becomes apparent as a means to exercise his power
over them as a man: if they are devoted to him enough that they would sing his praises at the
drop of the hat, it would logically follow that even after the loss of state sanctioned power Lear
would remain their ruler on some level. Thus, the game allows him to give away his power
without actually giving away anything at allhe trades his title as King of the Land for the far
more useful designation of King of the Queens of the Land, which, had the test worked in the
way he wanted, would have allowed him to live in comfort and adulation without having to
suffer the burdens of a monarch (which he himself states to be his purpose when he laments that
after Cordelias supposed abandonment he will no longer be able to set [his] rest/On her kind
nursery as he had originally intended) (I.i.129).
This would explain why Cordelias refusal to bend to the terms of the game are such an
affront to him. After all, Cordelias response to the test is actually not all that offensive. She at no
point declares that she does not love Lear, nor does she deny any of the familial bonds they

share. In fact, its just the opposite. She says I love your majesty/according to my bond; no
more no less, and then, even goes on to praise Lear, saying You have begot me, bred me, loved
me: I/Return those duties back as are right fit,/Obey you, love you, and most honor you (I .i.9495, 99-101). By all accounts, she should have passed the test if only because she has declared she
loves him, which makes it clear ascertaining the depth of his daughters love was never the
purpose of the test else Cordelia would have been able to earn some small claim to the kingdom .
By failing her and banishing her from his will for being so reasoned and measured in her love
for him, he reveals that it was not his intent to ascertain her love, but to assure her obedience and
her subordination to him alone.
Lending itself to this reading is the fact that what seems to be the final decider in
Cordelias ultimate disinheritance is when she says, Haply, when I shall wed/That Lord whose
hand must take my plight shall carry/half my love with him, half my care and duty/Sure, I shall
never marry like my sisters,/To love my father all (I .i.103-107). She is, in this moment, not
denying merely his superiority as her king and her father: by failing to acquiesce to him as a
woman, and claiming that he must essentially be content to share her with other men that
might materialize in her life, she denies him his own manhood, and with it all illusion of its
By refusing to state that she belongs entirely to him, she reveals that she does not belong
entirely to anyone, bucking the notion that as a woman she is necessarily tethered to any one
person and that she exists only to be traded back and forth between hands. This level of man-like
agency causes her to stop being Lears daughter, but instead reinstates her as a threat to what
power he does still hold, and so rather than give her some meager and unhappy gift for the

undesirable but true statement of her feelings, he sends her away to where she will not trouble
him with her man-like willfulness.
So Cordelia is banished and ends up marrying the king of France, and for a time, Lear is
content with the company of his remaining daughters Regan and Goneril, both of whom he
believes love him in the way he had desired all along. Of course, this is not the case, as the two
saw through Lears test just as their sister did, but instead of speaking out against the basic,
absurd premise of a love test, they use Lears excessive desire to have his masculinity affirmed to
their advantage to manipulate him into thinking they are completely loyal to him when in fact all
he is to them is a means for them to gain power for themselves, again flipping the notion of male
right to rule on its head.
So, when Lear eventually comes to their respective estates with the expectation that he
will be adored and pampered and will be able to exercise the same power under his daughters
roofs as he did before he split his country between them, they summarily deny him each and
every one of his demands, completely crushing his manhood in the process. He immediately
lashes out against the realization that he has been placed in such an effeminate position,
Touch me with noble anger,/And let not women's weapons, waterdrops,/Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,/I will have such revenges
on you both,/That all the world shall--I will do such things,--/What they are, yet I
know not: but they shall be/The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep/No, I'll
not weep:/I have full cause of weeping; but this heart/Shall break into a hundred
thousand flaws,/Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad! (II.iv.1577-1587)

Here, it appears that Lear would rather lose his mind than lose his claim to manhood,
which is precisely what begins to happen as the play goes on. The fact that he calls Regan and
Goneril unnatural for their unwillingness to completely accommodate his presence in their
homes further suggests that the problem is that, above all else, they are not behaving as women
should towards their patriarch, and though the act infuriates him, what seems to be clear is that
the two are more masculine in some ways than Lear himself, and so his inability to out-man
them, so to speak, destroys him.
From that point, never is Lear able to reclaim the masculine strength that his daughters
took from him. However, at the end of the play, there does seem to be a small moment where he
makes an attempt: as Lear cradles Cordelias lifeless body in the final act, one of the last things
he says of her is, Her voice was ever soft,/gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman./I killd
the slave that was a-hanging thee (V .iii.3443-3445). It is the only aspect of Cordelias character
that he mentions, and it seems decidedly out of place in her case. After all, Cordelias two
defining actions in the play, and the only moments we even really see or hear of her, period, are
when she speaks out against her father and when she later leads Frances troupes against her own
sisters to protect him. Both of these were incredibly bold acts, but Lear dismisses these in favor
of the Cordelia that hed preferthe quiet, lovely, and excellent woman that he adored before
her small rebellion at the start (Howard 424). The fact that he affirms her femininity immediately
before declaring that he killed the man hanging Cordelia suggests that this was his way, in his
final moments, of reclaiming the thing that she had taken from him in her disobedience: he
becomes the noble patriarch again, and she, the beloved and submissive daughter. But in its way,
death is its own act of rebellion as the dead cannot be controlled, and so while Lear tries to
reclaim some semblance of his former dignity, he cannot after failing to save his daughter.

What is so especially notable about the downfall of King Lear is that, even though both
Regan and Goneril were married and there were no doubt countless other men who could have
made a power grab once he reached old age and with it, infirmity, it is because of the
unwillingness of a group of three women to play by his rules that he is so utterly undone . This
suggests that it is not only normal but necessary that Lear try to control the women in his life, as
they appear to be the foundation on which the bulk of his power is dependent, even though the
act of these women wielding this power on their own is regarded as wretched and against the
doctrine of nature.
Conversely, it is notable that, once Lear has lost all three of his daughters, Regan and
Goneril to their own devices and Cordelia through his own anger, and begins his descent into
madness, Regan and Goneril are picked up by Edmund. Given their infatuation with him, they
willingly give to Edmund what they would only fallaciously give to Lear, and with this
endorsement, again from two women rather than any one of the numerous men in the play,
Edmund begins his rise to power, becoming that very King of Queens that Lear was unable to
despite not having the same right to political power as other men in the play due to his status as a
Though Edmund is defeated in combat by Edgar before the death of Regan and Goneril
(which suggests that women are a necessary facet only for social and political power, but not for
demonstrations of physical feats of strength, which remain within the realm of male interpersonal
relations) it is only when the lifeless bodies of both women are brought onstage that he folds
completely and quickly tells Edgar and the others that he had ordered that Lear and Cordelia be
executed, and that they must hurry if they wish to have any chance to save them . In one line
addressed to Albany, Gonerils husband, he says, he hath commission from thy wife and me/To

hang Cordelia in the prison, revealing that the order he hopes will be rescinded was not carried
out by him alone, but in tandem with the now deceased Goneril (V.iii.3427-3428). That it takes
the sight of her dead body to relinquish the cruel order suggests that, as was the case for Lear,
Goneril was the crutch on which he rested his otherwise fragile sense of power . Unable to build
himself around her like a climbing vine over latticework, he immediately tossed away what
agency he had remaining, leaving it in his brothers more capable hands.
In both the case of Lear and Edmund, in spite of patriarchal notions to the contrary, these
women were necessary to them as a means of maintaining and continuing their power. Measure
for Measure is similar in this respect.
Like King Lear, Measure for Measure has very few female characters, and the female
character with the most significance is the figure of Isabella, pious sister of Claudio, the man
who has been sentenced to death for having sex with his fianc before their marriage.
Isabella, asked by her brothers best friend Lucio to save Claudio and feeling that the law
that is being enforced by Angelo, serving in place of the absent Duke, is unjust, goes to Angelo
to beg for her brothers life. Since she is about to become a nun, she is represented as a paragon
of female virtue, something which is immediately recognized by Angelo as she remonstrates with
One point of note is that Angelo, only recently deputized, has set out to enforce such
strict rules because he feels he has a lot to prove about his worth, as he says early in the play
when the Duke bestows the positon on him, Let there be some more test made of my
metal,/Before so noble and so great a figure,/Be stampd upon it (I.i.56-58). So, when he
immediately begins to lust after Isabella for her virtue and goodness, it would initially seem that
this goes against his stated desire to show what hes made of, since lust is a comparatively base

and unimpressive emotion. However, if indeed female subjugation is necessary for male power,
his behavior begins to make more sense.
Isabella is demonstrated to be a character of exceptional moral fiber and enacts
something of a likeable temerity in her interactions with Angelo and her brother. So, not only is
she a character very concerned with her status as a virgin and her chastitythat is to say, she
preoccupied with expressions of womanhoodbut she also has exceptional personal fortitude,
which means being able to make such a person renounce their beliefs and lay themselves low
would take a very exceptional sort of man, which, arguably, Angelo attempts to be when he tells
Isabella that she either has the choice to sleep with him, or allow her brother to be executed.
Incredibly, she decides that she would sooner have her brother die than relinquish her
body to Angelo, as for her to do so would mean the eternal damnation of her soul, where her
brother, unfairly executed, would at least have a chance at salvation. At this initial refusal, the
two have this exchange:
Angelo: We are all frail.
Isabella: Else let my brother die,/If not a feodary, but only he/Owe and succeed
thy weakness.
Angelo: Nay, women are frail too.
Isabella: Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves;/Which are as easy broke
as they make forms./Women! Help Heaven! men their creation mar/In profiting
by them. Nay, call us ten times frail;/For we are soft as our complexions are,/And
credulous to false prints.
Angelo: I think it well:/And from this testimony of your own sex,--/Since I
suppose we are made to be no stronger/Than faults may shake our frames,--let me

be bold;/I do arrest your words. Be that you are,/That is, a woman; if you be more,
you're none;/If you be one, as you are well express'd/By all external warrants,
show it now,/By putting on the destined livery. (II.iv.1148-1167)
Here, it is made exceptionally clear that Angelo believes that, as a woman, it is Isabellas
obligation to fold against his exhortations. He admits, briefly, his own frailty, but immediately
follows that up by stating that as a woman she must be equally frail, and so should accept that as
her nature and her lot. Here, as with Lear, he defines her by the inevitability of his triumph over
herand yet, this triumph does not ever come. Even when he declares that no one will believe
her if she tells them that hes tried to convince her to sleep with him, and insodoing he attempts
to affirm his place of social superiority in which his word as a deputy and a man trumps hers as
an aspiring nun and a woman. This does not stop Isabella from refusing to relent once again, and
Angelos failure to perform this patriarchal demonstration marks the beginning of the end of his
short-lived rule, because it is immediately after he attempts to solicit her that Isabella relates the
story of it, unknowingly, to the disguised Duke.
Arguably, the Duke is the only male character between King Lear and Measure for
Measure that is able to prove his worth as a man, and by extension his worth as a ruler, in part
through his sway with women.
The Duke represents perfectly the manner in which patriarchal power ideally operates.
Like any ideal institution of power, the Duke exerts himself over the events of the play
completely invisible, impervious to observation or critique , and yet he seems to pull the strings
despite the scarcity of moments of open and direct intervention (Feather, 138). Indeed, though he
is the man that Isabella appears to trust above all others in the end, (as she has even become

suspicious of her brother, and when he asks that she sleep with Angelo for his sake, she demands,
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice? which seems to be precisely what he wants her to do)
he deceives her along with all the rest of the cast with his disguise (III.i.1375). Most importantly,
regarding his relationship with Isabella, is that at the end of the play, strong and well-spoken
Isabella says absolutely nothing when he, out of nowhere, declares that the two of them will be
One might argue that this is the happy endingthe hero and the heroine have overcome
evil (in the form of morally unsound and emasculated Angelo) and this is their well-deserved
ever-after. However, Isabella clearly never had any intention or desire to get married. She was
going to be a nun, which meant she had knowingly decided she would neither have sex nor
marry for the rest of her life, and having dealt with her directly several times, it would be hard to
believe that the Duke was not aware of this . But, he does not care, and just as Angelo attempted
to, he asserts himself over her in his declaration of marriage, but she, not speaking a word to
affirm or deny their vows, appears to quietly relent where before she had been so forceful in her
Even before this point, the Duke had moved Isabella and several other woman about
according to his own devices, specifically in the ploy to get Angelo to sleep with the fianc he
abandoned instead of (as he believes) raping Isabella . The Dukes ability to use these women to
expose Angelo as he might pieces in a game of chess acts as a testament to his male strength, and
in showcasing this strength, he demonstrates both the ability and the right to exercise his power
over not just women, but men as well.


Between these two plays, the status of women is clear: they are a means to a very precise
set of ends, and are used as devices that will either spurn or advance the machinations of male
characters, but rarely work in perfect tandem with them as equals. Rather than being a
demonstration of these particular characters as representative of their own particular
circumstances, it is more likely that these plays reflect some integral aspect of the period in
which they were written, and the expectations of certain gendered interactions as expressed in
these fairly extraordinary circumstances.
On a larger cultural level, it might, in fact, be too simple to suggest that women are the
means by which men establish orderrather, the existence of such a binary automatically creates
complicity of codes of genderspecifically masculinity, femininity, and effeminacywith
other systems of social, political, and economic organization (Spear 410 .) That is to say,
dichotomies are often necessarily hierarchical, and so one must always be above, and the other
always below, and the relationship between men and women is no different. In Renaissance
England, especially, during a time of powerful and unrelenting class and social divisions,
upholding these clear delineations between groups was necessary not just for comfort, but for the
social and spiritual good of the people insofar as that was instituted by old hegemonic codes of
the time (Howard 423).
Consequently, this continuously reiterated act of trying to overcome the will of strong
women appears to be a means of clearly delineating the presumed differences between the two
genders. If men are strong, women must be weakif men will rule, then women must serve. A
failure to enact this doctrine would lead to a level of effeminacy, in which men behaved like
women and women like men that would make it impossible to properly carry out the letter of the
law and obey tried and true social structures (Spear 411).

The fact that the men who are unable to control women, or who appear to be openly
reliant upon them and easily undone by them, are represented as either mentally or morally
infirm further strengthens the idea that men who fail to perform masculinity are either a danger
or a deficit, and men who can subdue women are simultaneously men who have strength,
soundness of mind, and admirable character. In this case, an inability to subdue women is an
extension of an emotional weakness that also contributes to the loss of political power, rather
than a necessary step in a gradual process of collapse. Thus, the commentary here appears to be
that, already being of effeminate minds, the men that fail in their female conquests do so
because they are already too much like women to begin with.
Perhaps it really should not be a surprise that male power is concentrated by acts of
female obedience, and disrupted by female rebellion. Women, after all, are the means through
which men continue their lineage and by this reasoning, having control of women is no different
than placing ones claim on their future linesafter all, none of the women who are used as the
yardstick of manhood in the two plays exist outside the realm of futurity. As Lears daughters,
Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan are all direct extensions of his bloodline, as Edmunds mistresses,
Goneril and Regan mark his potential for a lineage as well, same goes for Angelo and the Dukes
relationship with Isabella which involves the staking of a sexual claim over her body.
Whatever the case may be, in spite of the reality of women as objects to the male subject
in these two plays, female obedience, willing or not, is the pivot on which male power structures
appear to turn. Though women are not expected or encouraged to enact overly large amounts of
agency (without any expectation of punishment) they are still used as the physical, living and
breathing proof of male dominion, and when that dominion falters, they stand, living and
breathing, as symbols of mans failure to suppress that which he is weaker than.

Works Cited
1. Feather, Jennifer. "Shakespeare and Masculinity." Literature Compass 12.4 (2015): 13445. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <>.
2. Howard, Jean E. "Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern
England." Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4 (1988): 418-40. Jstor. Web. 5 May 2015.
3. Shakespeare, William. "Measure for Measure: Entire Play." Measure for Measure: Entire
Play. MIT. Web. <>.
4. Shakespeare, William. "King Lear: Entire Play." King Lear: Entire Play. MIT. Web.

5. Spear, Gary. "Shakespeare's "Manly" Parts: Masculinity and Effeminacy in Troilus and
Cressida." Shakespeare Quarterly 44.4 (1993): 409-22. Jstor. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.