Academic journal article Gender Forum

"Sure I Shall Never Marry like My Sisters": The Measure of Marriage in Shakespeare's King Lear

Academic journal article Gender Forum

"Sure I Shall Never Marry like My Sisters": The Measure of Marriage in Shakespeare's King Lear

Article excerpt

1This paper explores marriage in King Lear, a theme that, like many others within the play, Shakespeare measures through a series of parallels. The courtship of Cordelia by the Kings of France and Burgundy, for instance, creates a second love test to define the proper basis for marital bonds, contrasting to Lear's false reckoning of the parent-child bond immediately prior. The subsequent marriage of Cordelia to the King of France compares, as well, to the marriages of her sisters, of which Cordelia herself very heavily criticizes following her explanation of her perceived responsibility to her father. The representation of adultery - Edmund's with Goneril and Regan, and Gloucester's with Edmund's mother - likewise has a bearing on the discussion of marriage and receives attention through parallels. Shakespeare also invites comparison of Edgar and Edmund on their respective legitimacy and illegitimacy - states defined by Gloucester's relationship to each of their mothers, which Gloucester himself discusses in Act 1, Scene 1. Even Edmund himself, in declaring his treachery, makes reference to his bastard state and the context of it, his father's relationship to his mother and thus the adulterous relationship, thus defined by Gloucester's existing marriage (Edgar emerges as the elder of the two sons anyway) and his violation of his marital bond in the most outright sense. As Jannette Dillon comments in her summary of King Lear, Cordelia's response to her father's love test is what sets in motion an "extended examination of how bonds are maintained or broken between human beings" (104). The emphasis, however, is predominantly upon personal bonds, not political ones (the political emerges as secondary), with paternal and marital bonds together taking center stage. The most tested bonds within the play are between husband and wife, and father and child. Kent's is really the only "bond of service" (104) other than, perhaps, Oswald's to Goneril, and Edgar's to Lear and then his father in the disguise of Poor Tom. As the parallel to parent-child relationships, marriage represents an important context for understanding gender roles and sexuality within the play.

2Marriage is vital to Lear and his division of his kingdom and thus vital to the play's principle plot. As Ronald Cooley argued in his study of primogeniture in King Lear, the rightful transfer of Lear's property is not to his daughters, in any case, but to the elder of his son-in-laws - in this, the Duke of Albany. Cordelia, for instance, limits her duty to and love for her father in terms of how she will also bind herself to a husband. She defines her love for Lear in very precise terms, "According to my bond, no more nor less" (King Lear [1]Hereafter referred to by abbreviation, KL 1.1.102), explaining the extent to which her father has warranted her obedience and love in having "begot me, bred me, loved me" (1.1.106). Her duty, though, to "Obey you, love you, and most honor you" (1.1.108), she undertakes in an intriguing fashion. Rather than obeying her father, who entreats her to perform, to "heave/ [her] heart into [her] mouth" (1.1.100-101), Cordelia demonstrates a seeming lack of obedience by refusing the command to perform and moving to criticize her sisters, perhaps to explain her apparent lack of obedience. Her criticisms, though, must also draw attention to gender roles and marriage. She asks "Why have my sisters husbands if they say/ They love you all?" (1.1.109-10). She draws attention at once to the performance, to what her sisters have said, and likewise what the part function of having a husband. She insists: "Sure I shall never marry like my sister's/ To love my father all" (1.1.114-115). The recognized responsibility of Goneril and Regan, as wives, is to not only love their father but to love their husbands by virtue of the respective bonds. Implying a passive transfer of loyalties, too, though, for women, Cordelia argues that it is the responsibility of her husband, a "lord" (1. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.