Term Paper: Feminine Evil Depicted in Shakespeare

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[. . .] Interestingly, the fact that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund appear to be rather normal at the onset of the play makes us ponder their behavior all the more. In other words, they were seduced by the attractive lure of power and ambition. Goneril and Regan operate by the same standards as Edmund but not for the same reasons. They have no premeditated plans to harm their father nor are they motivated by pure revenge. Rather, they become powerful and, consequently, heartless as a result of their inheritance. King Lear becomes a nuisance to them and they would simply prefer that he be out of their way so they may do and act as they please. The additional subplot of Edmund and his father also expands on Shakespeare's notion of familial bonds.

Critical to understanding Edmund's character is realizing that he has no agenda, or long-term goal. He simply wants to improve things in his own life, which, of course, means attaining power and status. He states, "Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit; / All with me's meet that I can fashion fit" (1.ii.177-8). Clearly, he has no predetermined design to cause injury to his brother or his father. It is more likely that wants them to remain out of his way. However, when he betrays his father, we discover that he operates much like Goneril and Regan when it comes to utilizing people as mere objects in order to procure his desires. Goneril, Regan, and Edgar are ruthless characters indeed, tempted by the appeal of power -- actions that eventually lead to their demise.

Understanding the significance of the evil female in these plays includes the fact that they are unmatched by their male counterparts. In King Lear, Edmund is not a character that we would define as diabolical. Like Goneril and Regan, he appears to be, for the most part, normal in his attitudes and reactions to his personal circumstance. He has normal desires for his life and future and appears to have no agenda. He does not intend on being evil; however, he does not plan on letting anyone or anything, including familial obligation, to get in his way. A clear indication of this is uncovered in his first soliloquy when he declares that nature is his goddess and "to they law/My services are bound" (I.ii.1). He believes that he has license to whatever he can by his own shrewdness. Edmund simply does not operate by the same standards as everyone else in his world does. Because he is an illegitimate son, he feels completely justified with this way of thinking and we can almost sympathize with his feelings. While Edmund proves to be evil, his actions seem to bear less weight because of his illegitimacy. On the other hand, King Lear has provided handsomely for Goneril and Regan, a fact which makes them appear to be more evil than Edmund. In addition, King Lear does not provoke his daughter's evil nature. Instead, by giving them what they desire, he has unknowingly assisted in creating the monsters that they become. This is further emphasized by the fact that King Lear sorely misjudged Cordelia's recalcitrance.

While Macbeth is undoubtedly evil, his evil seems slight and even justifiable in light of his wife's prompts. Certainly, Macbeth's evil seems of lesser value in comparison to Lady Macbeth's evil. Moreover, Macbeth must deal with the weird sisters and their prodding. His will is stymied by these outside forces and they prove to more than he can handle. In essence, he becomes a victim of his own fear and eventual madness. Macbeth is only able to commit murder because his wife supports him and basically leads him by the nose to do it. He can never completely come to terms with what he has done, as represented by his eventual madness. Macbeth's failure to cope with his actions is interesting and insightful because it brings into focus the repercussions of acting against one's own conscience. Interestingly, Lady Macbeth becomes a victim of the same type of mental plague. By creating female characters that demonstrate themselves to be more capable of evil that their male counterparts, Shakespeare thwarts the traditional ideal of femininity.

To conclude, Shakespeare plays, King Lear and Macbeth, provide us with some of the most evil female characters in English literature. Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, and the weird sisters are fantastical creations that impel the male protagonists in each play to tragedy. Behind these themes, Shakespeare explores the element of familial loyalty with King Lear and his daughters and marital bonds with Macbeth and his wife. Beyond the scope of evil children and evil wives, Shakespeare is making a statement about the Renaissance woman. Clearly, Shakespeare was not only working against the traditional ideal of women of his time, he was also creating some of the most devious characters we can imagine. Shakespeare means to elaborate on the notion that women can aspire to be great and powerful, just as men can be. In fact, not only can they desire power and control but also they be driven by pure evil to reach their goals. Goneril and Regan were not obedient, loving daughters and they share Lady Macbeth's independent flair when it comes to being self-reliant. With these plays, Shakespeare did not simply want to create tragedies of great proportions, he also intended to give the female character a new and challenging role to play.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: 1994. Barnes and Noble Books.

The Tragedy of King Lear. New York: Washington Square Press. 1969. [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Feminine Evil Depicted in Shakespeare."  Essaytown.com.  August 17, 2004.  Accessed June 15, 2019.