Many extol King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Some even vaunt it as the very height of the Western canon. For their claims, they point, inter alia, to the strength of the tragedy’s language.
Take the mad monarch as he roves the wild heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6). Or the broken father when he cradles his deceased daughter: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.306-07). The Bard’s language plunges us into the depths of Lear’s despair.
But King Lear doesn’t just feature some of Shakespeare’s strongest language. It also showcases some of his, well, strongest language. And when we give it a closer look, much of it is truly below the belt.
Recall that King Lear descends into madness as he feels each of his three daughters rejects him, to put it simplistically. When his eldest, Goneril, objects to some of his post-regnal demands, Lear isn’t just indignant: He’s downright wrathful. Consider this tirade:
Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend they purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart, disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! Away, away! (1.4.252)
Lear’s imprecations are personal. He curses her as a woman, as a mother. But they are also intensely physical, willing her barrenness, deterioration, and suffering.
“Strike her young bones,/ You taking airs, with lameness!” the raging father continues (2.4.156-57). “Infect her beauty,/ You fen-sucked fogs…!” (2.4.160-61) He wishes death and decay for her body. “Thou art a boil,/ A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,/ In my corrupted blood” (2.4.218-20). He treats his own flesh and blood as a disease.
Lear is revulsed by the female form. It threatens the aged ruler’s own waning virility, taunting his own “every inch” as a king (4.6.105). And it’s the vagina he most fears and loathes.
Later in the play, Lear excuses the Earl of Gloucester’s adultery. Because women. Their sexuality is diabolical:
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit.
Beneath is all the fiends’; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
Stench, consumption! Fie, fie, fie! Pah! pah! (4.6.121-26)
Yes, for Lear, “hell” is a smelly vagina. (You don’t need me to mansplain the image.)
Now, we’re familiar with the taboos of body parts and bodily functions in English swearing. We berate jerks as assholes or dicks. We denigrate women – or effeminate men – as cunts or pussies. We exclaim Balls! or Shit! when we’re pissed.
But with Lear’s vaginal “hell,” Shakespeare manages an unholy trinity of profanity, folding taboos of the sacred, sex, and the body all into one. This Elizabethan epithet has antecedents elsewhere in Renaissance literature: Earlier, Boccaccio figures a phallic devil in a hellish vagina in his Decameron, for instance. And pit, ditch, and valley join hell as vulval vulgarities.
But what’s shocking for the modern reader – and what’s consistent with current linguistic trends – are not these traditional taboos of the sacred, sex, and the body. It’s his misogyny. It’s not any particular curse word, per se, but his curse of particular group of people: women.
Now, literary critics have had a field day with King Lear’s indictment of women. As one feminist-psychoanalytic reading has concluded: “Lear’s fantasy of merger with Cordelia, which goes back to a child’s incestuous longing to return to the body of its mother, is ultimately a death sentence.” OK, that might seem a bit much. But for all the academic overreach, King Lear’s sexism is important. We should interrogate the politics and psychology of a play so privileged in Western literature. And we should do so through its language, including its strong language, even if, especially if, its locus of offense has shifted.
King Lear is some strong stuff. Thank goodness the Bard breaks up Lear’s vagina-shaming with a few insults that don’t rely on any sort of f-words or c-words. Like this zinger from the Earl of Kent, who drops the z-bomb on Goneril’s steward: “Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!” (2.2.56).