King Lear – Sample Answer (female characters)


“The female characters in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, are powerful figures who are equally forceful as and, at times, even more ruthless than their male counterparts.”

To what extent do you agree with this view?


As I sat in the Helix theatre watching the bodies pile up as the final scene of King Lear came to its bloody climax, I wondered about how much of Shakespeare’s masterpiece would remain with me in the coming years. True I had enjoyed the play and I certainly picked up a few decent Elizabethan insults along the way; but much of the rest I’m sure will fade in the memory – with one notable exception. The female characters in King Lear are some of the most memorable in all of literature. True, they are powerful and forceful, not afraid to fight for what they want; and in that respect they are more than a match for their male counterparts. However, in many ways it’s the more typical masculine traits – aggression and ruthlessness – that dominate the unforgettable personalities of Goneril and Regan that I believe make this play particularly special. Brutal they may be, but forgettable they are not!

It’s the power that both Goneril and Regan have over the men in their lives that’s particularly impressive. In an Elizabethan society where the role of women was severely restricted, Shakespeare presents us with female characters that have significant influence. Goneril in fact, bullies Albany in the early stages of the play, calling him ‘milk livered’ and accusing him of being too compassionate – an almost gender role reversal in a way. Regan too is a hugely powerful figure – both she and her sister in many ways are ‘wolfish’ in their aggression. This is most memorably displayed in the shocking scene where she incites her husband, Cornwall, to torture and murder poor Gloucester. She forcefully instructs that he ‘hang him instantly,’ although thankfully he settles for viciously removing the ‘vile jelly’ of Gloucester – a moment in the play that will certainly be haunting me for some time to come! Cordelia too, of course, can also be considered a powerful figure. She refuses to meet her father’s demands of false flattery, telling him that she loves him only ‘according to my bond.’ Despite the resulting rejection of her, she still shows what a powerful leader she can be by fearlessly leading the French army into battle later, in order to save her suffering father. I don’t believe that the male characters can match that level of power. In comparison they seem dithering and indecisive. Although men like Cornwall appear to have power, we always get the sense that it is the more cunning women who are really the most influential in the world of the play.

Not only do I believe that the female characters are more cunning, but they are certainly more forceful as well. Cordelia has single-mindedness that has to be admired. She is determined to save her father and will go to extremes to achieve her goal. Eventually, her forceful nature costs her her life in that final tragic scene……………………………………………….+ forceful (b) Goneril/Regan

  • Ruthless (Goneril + Regan)

There’s no doubt in my mind that not only are the female characters in King Lear more than a match for their male counterparts in the play, but I believe that the virtue and forceful nature of the relentlessly determined Cordelia, or the shocking ruthlessness of the vicious ‘pelican daughters’, is a match for any female characters anywhere in literature. These are not women that any student is likely to forget any time soon!