Her Father’s Daughter:
Locating the Maternal in Shakespeare’s King Lear
essay by Chelsea Pratt
. Opening with a jocular account of extramarital pregnancy, the language of female reproduction permeates the whole of King Lear. Despite these linguistic invocations, the maternal body remains physically absent on stage: the princesses’ mother has passed away before the action even begins, the ‘whore’ who birthed Edmund and the wife who delivered Edgar exist offstage. The trope of the absent mother is far from unusual in Shakespeare’s work. The Tempest, Othello, Henry IV and The Merchant of Venice for example, all foreground the paternal relationship, just as King Lear does. In none of these plays, however, do characters return to the language of the maternal with the same obsessive insistence as this titular character. Despite all his disdain for the weak feminine form, Lear both needs and covets it in his attempts to transform his dying body into a divine one.
. The circulating and recurring line, “Nothing can come of nothing,” evidences Lear’s obsession with origin, his enduring fixation on the act of creating (1.81). In this earthly realm, that act takes the form of procreation. It is this ability that forms the locus of Lear’s identity—one that is proudly and authoritatively paternal. The role of the father, however, is far more expansive than it originally seems. Not only has this man begot three daughters, he has fathered a realm. As the patriarch is to his household, so the monarch is to his country. After all, that which is owed to the parent is the same as that demanded of the subject. Cordelia identifies the office of the child simply: it is, she tells Lear, to “Obey you, love you, and most honour you” (1.89). That claim is echoed by Kent’s assertion of loyalty: Lear is the man he has “honoured as [his] king, / loved as [his] father, as [his] master followed” (1.131-132). To revere, adore, and obey their paternal figure: this is the role of both children and subjects. In every sense, Lear is the father.
. While this sense of dual paternity expands the king’s identity, it simultaneously contracts the space Cordelia, Gonoril and Regan can inhabit. The importance Lear places on the father-child dyad renders his identity necessarily relational and consigns these women to the singular and narrow role of daughter. Rarely called by name, they are instead identified by their relation to Lear: they are, in his words, “my flesh, my blood, my daughter[s]” (7.378, emphasis added). That role, we find, precludes all others. To be a true daughter, by Lear’s definition, is to be nothing else. Since love, in the eyes of this man, is both quantifiable and finite, any relationships forged by his daughters threaten the primary filial bond owed to him. Loving another, in other words, means loving Lear less.
. As such, the aging monarch struggles to impede any relationships beyond this central dyad—be they wedded or sisterly. The affectionate bond between siblings has been actively corrupted and undone by Lear. Scene one’s love trial pits each sister against the other, so that one’s lack becomes another’s gain. From childhood, sibling solidarity seems to have been fragmented by Lear’s open preference for Cordelia: as Gonoril notes, “He always loved our sister most”(1.279-280, emphasis added). Rather than uniting the displaced sisters, this favoritism effectively destroys any remaining shreds of sororal affection, transforming love into something to be fought over. Gonoril and Regan are, quite simply, raised to be wolves. When the opportunity for love arrives in the form of Edmund, each is willing to tear the other’s throat out. Even the noble Cordelia is caught in this atmosphere of familial discontent and isolation. Her quiet warning, “I know you what you are,” makes clear that sisterly affection is absent in this household—and perhaps always has been (1.258). The marriage bond is also attacked in Lear’s quest to elevate the father-daughter dyad at all costs. Gonoril and Regan may have husbands, but they must verbally negate them to gain their father’s favour: the eldest loves her father “[b]eyond what can be valued,” while Regan declares herself “an enemy to all other joys” (1.51, 67). Lear rewards them, since their lies align with those he tells himself.
. Clearly, Lear’s identity depends on those of his daughters. As such, he polices them rigorously. When it comes to the role of daughter, Lear is both playwright and director. Each woman has lines that must be delivered, and when she errs, Lear, like the prompter in the wings of the Globe theatre, reminds her what to say. When his love trial fails to go as scripted, for example, he warns Cordelia, “Mend your speech a little / Lest it may mar your fortunes” (1.85-86) In the same way, he later tries to preempt and inform Regan’s response by reminding her of her role: “Thy tender-hested nature shall not give / Thee o’er to harshness” (7.328-329). Of course, Cordelia, Gonoril and Regan are less than receptive to these stage prompts. Not only do these women refuse to regurgitate the lines fed to them by Lear, they attempt to escape the strictly defined parameters of their filial part. Beyond their father’s grasp, each seeks to establish a new relationship with another man. Cordelia leaves with the King of France and Gonoril and Regan both look to make Edmund their lover.
. Given the difficulty of maintaining Lear’s all-encompassing paternal identity, why does it hold such allure? Clearly, defining yourself in relation to offspring is dangerous. Troublesome as it is, children will insist on becoming on their own person. Considering Lear’s low opinion of the female person (they are known, for example, to manipulate men with those “women’s weapons, water-drops”), it is all the more problematic that he would link himself so inextricably to his daughters (7.435). Indeed, doing so proves destructive. Lear does not know who he is without his daughters: their presence serves as validation, their absence results in what is essentially a splintering of self. Without his daughters, what is Lear but a mad old man, ripping out his hair and raving on the heath?
. On the heath, Lear is reduced to that which he most fears becoming: an effeminate man, lacking control over even his own mind. Impotence is intolerable for a man who has never known anything but absolute power. It is this taunt that Gonoril and Regan, who know just how to cut their father, use: “O sir, you are old . . . being weak, seem so” (7.302). What is death but the ultimate surrender, proof of one’s defeat? For Lear, it is inching ever closer—and he is not ready to leave. This is never clearer than in the divestment scene that opens the play. Dividing his assets, renouncing earthly pleasures, and preparing for death, Lear is nevertheless unable to relinquish his greatest tie to this world: the title of king (1.127). With this in mind, the feverish, desperate, and ultimately self-destructive grasp he maintains on his paternal identity becomes all the more understandable. Defining himself as father, both in the kingly and domestic sense, aligns Lear’s aged, impotent, and dying body with that of an all-powerful, immortal, and masculine creator. Put simply, Lear seeks to emulate that other great king, lord, and father: the God of the Old Testament. Just as God resides over the kingdom of heaven and earth, Lear rules over England. Both, moreover, are represented as father figures by their respective texts. Yet while divine creation is portrayed as a purely masculine endeavour in the Old Testament, Lear cannot procreate alone. The absent maternal body, then, serves as a continual reminder of his own inadequacies. It must be appropriated and consumed in order to align himself with a God who can never die. Watching his own mortal surrender approach, Lear responds by assembling a life force and marshalling all the creative energy his impotent body can draw near. Quite simply, his appropriation of the maternal body functions as an attempt to seem divine—and in so doing, transcend the weakness and defeat of death. Anachronistic as such a claim might seem to be considering the tragedy’s pagan setting, the play offers precedent: Edgar, after all, quotes Christian demonology tracts (11.129-130). Reading Lear in such a way explains both his obsessive attempts to control Gonoril, Regan, and Cordelia and his intense need to incorporate his daughters into his own identity. They represent what he lacks—female generative power.
. For the greater part of the play, Lear is unable to draw distinctions between his body and those of his daughters. In his vision, they are a single entity: confronted with his daughter’s cruelty, Lear marvels, “Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to’t?” (11.15-16). As such, he contains the potential of the maternal within him—he produced each of his daughters and each, after all, has a womb. As long as his daughters remain part of his identity, he contains, like God, the power to create all on his own. Ownership and elevation of the father-daughter dyad is a means of locating the maternal body within Lear himself, female generative power consumed by the inseminating masculine form. Paternity, then, confers a sort of immortality; the concept of legacy offers a means of evading total death. After all, not only does Lear live on in each of his daughters, but in each and every product of their wombs. It is a form of immortality he clearly recognizes when he gifts his land not just to Gonoril, Regan and their husbands, but also to the pairs’ issue to retain forever (1.59, 73).
. Lear’s desire to appropriate female generative power initially seems to conflict with his efforts to maternalize his daughters and reduce himself to a childlike state. The infant, after all, represents the height of vulnerability, impotence, and perhaps most gallingly for a man like Lear, dependence on the female form for survival. Nonetheless, Lear’s infantile fantasies remain implicit in the text: speaking of Cordelia, he laments, “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery” (1.114-115, emphasis added). Considering Lear’s obsession with power, potency and virility, this fantasy seems bizarrely self-reductive—that is, until we realize it is a dream of asserting absolute control over the female form, rather than relinquishing any autonomy. It is the male infant that succeeds, effortlessly, in what Lear so longs to do: appropriate the female body for masculine purposes. Through gestation and lactation, a process that Lear has seen on at least three separate occasions, the female body is literally transformed to accommodate the needs of a child. Transforming his daughters into his figurative mother offers Lear not just a breast to suckle at, but one he can suck dry. The control of the male infant, to both reshape and use the female body, is something Lear longs for once his inseminating masculine powers have flagged. It is, once again, a means of appropriating the maternal in the bodies of his daughters.
. Of course, both strategies fail miserably. Cursing Gonoril with sterility marks a turning point in the play. On the one hand, this act seems almost like a sort of self-castration. In asking Nature to “[d]ry up in her the organs of increase,” Lear effectively ends part of his lineage (4.269). But it also begins Lear’s gradual recognition that his daughters have separated themselves off from the interwoven, paternal identity he has sought to create. In examining his errant daughters, Lear sees little of himself. Instead, they are “degenerate bastard[s]” (4.245). So what if Gonoril never gives birth? She is no longer a representation of Lear and therefore her issue cannot be either. The fantasy of the infant also fails to co-opt the maternal form for Lear’s purposes. The fool’s jibe, “thou madest thy daughters thy mother . . . thou gavest them the rod and puttest down thine own breeches” presents a far truer account of what has happened (4.163-165). Lear might have linguistically transformed himself into the parasitic infant, but now that “old fools are babes again,” Gonoril and Regan refuse to change their queenly bodies into Lear’s idea of the subservient mother (4.19).
. The answer to failure is not surrender. When the fantasy of infancy proves untenable and the option of legacy distasteful, Lear must adopt a new strategy to co-opt female generative power: he locates it within his own kingly body. In a linguistic reimagining, Lear assigns himself a womb: “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! / Histerica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow; / Thy element’s below” (7.224-226). Likewise, he is associated with the image of a mother bear, sucked dry by her cubs (8.11). This, however, is no epiphany on Lear’s part. His appropriation of the feminine does not equate to an embrace of it, or any sort of value recognition. After all, this is the same man who, even in his final moments, says of Cordelia, “Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in women” (24.268-269). Lear is not content to simply incorporate the female contribution. Rather, it must be appropriated and transfigured so that rather than an equal partner in procreation, the maternal body becomes a tool for masculine creation. Only then can he be Godly. Only then can he transcend death.
. “Is this the promised end?” so Kent demands at the close of the play (24.259). Ultimately, Lear does receive what he struggled so long for—it merely turns out to be a false ideal. Though he remains unable to ascend to the level of a creating God, he overcomes death all the same. Martyrdom, it seems, is nearly as good as divinity. Lear ensures, in his final moments, that he is at least granted this. He might fail in dictating his daughters’ their parts, but he knows what is necessary to make his last moments artful—and he pushes for it, hard. Those who surround him, including the loyal Kent and faultless captain, are transformed into “murderous traitors, all” in the imagination of this broken king (24.265). Like any good martyr, he must die alone—unsupported and wronged by all. He can overcome death by being remembered—ironically, as a victim. Yet Lear too was once a man of stone, and he knows it. In his desperate attempts to overcome the defeat of death and to perform his own apotheosis by appropriating the feminine and maternal body, Lear writes his own tragic ending.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Stanley Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.