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Essay about criticism of shakespeares plays

Essay About Criticism of Shakespeare's Plays

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

within Lear.

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.

Ann Thompson's essay, "Are There any Women in King Lear?," is centered

around the debate of the relationship between various forms of historical and

materialist criticism and feminist criticism of Shakespeare texts. Thompson has

divided her essay into three important sections, each focussing on a different

aspect of King Lear. First, she begins with "The Family Quarrel Revisited"

which is an analysis of the relationship between feminist criticism and various

forms of historical and materialist criticism of late. In this section of her

essay, Thompson does not mention any specific characters from Lear. Thompson

makes a point of mentioning that the critics most intent on analyzing the

polarization of these forms of criticism are women and that male new historicist

critics have been reluctant to respond. An argument Thompson brings up is that

while feminist critics acknowledge the value of history in regards to criticism,

historicist critics are accused of ignoring gender in their studies(Thompson


In the second part of Thompson's essay she asks the question, "Have

Women Been Erased?" She focuses on whether it is in fact critics who have

erased the women from studies of the text or if it was Shakespeare who did not

want the women to be visible in Lear. Thompson is obviously coming down on ‘

cult-historicism' as being exclusive in its study of politics and power and in

the process leaving out readings of female characters. She goes on to question

whether these omissions are "the inevitable fact that critical arguments are

selective" or that readings concerned with class and economics may in fact,

ignore gender(Thompson 120).

Thompson's essay does in fact note this inequality on the part of prior

critics. She goes on to criticize critics for their removal of the women from

their essays. Thompson makes a point of questioning whether it is the critics

who have attempted to erase the women from Lear or if in fact, Shakespeare

wanted a study of Lear to be so obviously focused on the male characters. She

criticizes other critics for focusing on "male-centered politics" while almost

altogether ignoring the "gender component"(Thompson 120). Thompson is careful

not directly criticize ‘cult-historicism' but makes clear that her understanding

of early class-conscious readings of Lear "focus attention on male power

relationships, class and property and give due weight to the fact that

Shakespeare actually chose to represent generational conflict most intensely in

the father-daughter relationship"(Thompson 120-121). Thompson does criticize

those critics who specifically mention the relationship of power to gender as

not being the issue of the play (Thompson 121).

Several critics Thompson mentions directly have glamorized Edmund's

behavior for "creating a new kind of reality" while condemning Goneril and Regan

as "wicked, ugly sisters" when in fact the three characters are committing the

same acts and often together. Edmund's marginalization as been noted as being "

potent and glamorous while that of the women is either impotent or evil"

(Thompson 121). Thompson questions this distinction as perhaps being the fault

of "the author or the critic"(Thompson 121)?

In the third section of Thompson's essay, "Can Women Be Restored?" she

begins by acknowledging the fact that no male character has been as condemned in

Lear criticism as Goneril. In this section, Thompson refers to several critics,

most of whom are female to point how the women can be restored and in some cases

how women who are absent from the text such as the mother-figure can be

reinstated(Thompson 123-124). The ending of King Lear is a notable scene for

feminist critics. Feminist scholars have been quick to compare Lear's

attachment to Cordelia as the desire for a daughter-mother figure. Thompson

does go on to present ideas by the male feminist critic, Peter Erickson, who

attempts to "bridge the two sides" of feminist and materialist

criticism(Thompson 125). Erickson also presents an enlightening view of the

male issues presented in Lear. She criticizes Leonard Tennehouse for noting

that the political chaos in Lear can be related to evil women. Thompson also

goes on to note that "feminists do consider the relationship of power to gender

and are troubled by it"(Thompson 123).

Thompson's essay is a much more progressive read of King Lear than has

been done by Shakespeare scholars throughout history. Few critics other than

recent feminist scholars have taken notice of the women in Lear other than to

recognize Cordelia as the daughter Lear longed for and Goneril and Regan as evil,

demon-women. Goneril and Regan are not ideal images of women; however, they are

no worse than the characters Edmund and Cornwall. Critics generally focus on

Edmund's "right" to be so ruthless since he is the bastard son of Gloucester but

to recognize the background of the women is virtually unheard of in criticism.

In fact, little information is given as to the background of Goneril and Regan

other than the reader knowing there is the absence of a matriarchal figure other

than their sister Cordelia.

Thompson's essay presents the women of King Lear in a clear context.

She makes clear that politics and economics are largely absent from her essay.

Thompson has incorporated some well-versed critics viewpoints in her criticism

of King Lear. She does not believe that a feminist review of Lear is to be

written off. Though she believes there are other Shakespeare plays in which

issues of gender are more obvious than King Lear, Thompson is clear that her

intention is not to isolate feminist criticism from historicist and materialist

criticism(Thompson 126-127).

When studying the behavior of Goneril and Regan one question might be

whether they resemble their father in their behavior patterns. Goneril and

Regan are the characters most associated with evil in readings of Lear. These

two women are rarely viewed as demonstrating positive characteristics; however,

their behavior should not be merely a demonstration of a wicked, licentious

female but a deeper investigation is certainly warranted. Criticism generally

focuses on their behavior as being much more offensive than Edmund when in fact

they are very much the same. Cordelia is often viewed by critics as being

selfless, weak and dependent when in fact she is an archetype to be revered.

There are many aspects of King Lear to understand from a contemporary

viewpoint. A close examination of the many relationships within Lear would be

interesting. The father-daughter relationship between Lear and Cordelia is

especially interesting when understanding the text from a feminist perspective

when so often this relationship is compared with a woman's understanding of her

masculine self. The lack of a mother figure but the replacement of matriarchal

characteristics in Goneril, Regan and Cordelia open the doors for a feminist

revisionist understanding of King Lear. In both essays there are absences

which are important to the text. Ribner's essay is lengthy and filled with

redundancies about the suffering of Lear himself while ignoring the fact that

every other character has lived their own process of suffering and rebirth as a

result. Thompson's essay is brief but concise in the area of investigating

where are the women have been placed in or out of King Lear. A feminist review

of Lear is by no means impossible and perhaps upon deeper understanding may in

fact prove to enlighten an audience.

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