Last night my sixteen year old granddaughter and I went to see King Lear in the park. Staggering out at the end of the play, we spoke of its portrayal of powerful and violent women: the startling and shocking images that neither of us will forget.We spoke, for example, of Regan in her white robes, splattered with poor blinded Gloucester’s blood, ordering him to be thrust out of the gates, to “smell his way to Dover.”
We wondered, as we joined the river of people walking out of the park and down Central Park West, if today, too, powerful women were still associated with evil, or if our attitude to power and women has changed.
Our conversation brought to mind a friend, a successful divorced woman, whom we had recently tried to set up with one of my husband’s doctor friends.
The four of us went out to dinner and my friend, an attractive woman in her mid- fifties, sat opposite the white- haired and handsome doctor whom we hoped might ask her out. The doctor turned to her, and making an effort to draw her into the conversation, asked if she liked to sail.
She looked at him for a moment, considering the question, and then said firmly, “ I do, but I don’t like to crew, I like to captain.” There was a moment of silence as we all stared at her, and I was tempted to give her a kick under the table. Well, I probably don’t have to tell you that the doctor did not ask our friend out. This blatant claim for power was hardly the way to this man’s heart.
So is power and ambition in a woman still considered unattractive to most men? If we look at literature it is interesting to note that almost invariably in Shakespeare’s plays powerful women are associated with evil.
In the case of King Lear, the king in his narcissism, wishes to know who of his three daughters loves him best. He asks them to describe their love for him. Only Cordelia refuses to flatter him as her sisters, Goneril and Regan, do. They, of course, by heaping their father with praise and declarations of love, win the foolish king’s kingdom whilst Cordelia gets nothing for her honesty.
The sisters, once they have the power to control the father, turn on him. Regan tells her old father to return to stay with her sister who has insulted him, saying bluntly:
“O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong'd her, sir.”
Lady Macbeth, of course, is another powerful Shakespearean woman who goads her husband on to kill the king. She says, “Come you Spirits That tend on mortal thoughts unsex me here, Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers.”
And in the banquet scene she is the only one to keep her head, covering up her husband’s confusion, finding a pretext for dismissing his guests, though later she is overcome with remorse attempting to wash the hands that are stained with blood.
Yet power remains associated with masculinity:
“Bring forth men-children only
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.” Macbeth says to his wife who, ironically, in the end remains barren. Is this her punishment for wanting power?
Freud in his interesting essay, "Character Types Encountered in Psychoanalytic work" suggests that Shakespeare often divides one character into two people: here Macbeth and his wife. He demonstrates how the seeds of fear that are sewn in Macbeth on the night of the murder mature not in him but in Lady Macbeth.
Shakespeare is too great a playwright to always associate woman’s strength with evil. All three of Lear’s daughters show themselves capable of independence and strength. Even the “good” sister, Cordelia shows strength of character and integrity when she refuses to go along with Lear’s initial request to flatter. Thus she remains, through her marriage with the king of France, a source of love and strength, though in the end, she, too, dies so tragically.
Surely, though the fear of powerful women remains today, men are capable of appreciating their independence, their strength, and in the end their ability to help and to steer the ship of state.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.