The vagina(-shaming) monologues of King Lear

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).

***

Text quoted from The Norton Shakespeare (1997, W.W. Norton, ed. Stephen Greenblatt). For more on Shakespeare’s strong language, see my previous posts.

5 thoughts on “The vagina(-shaming) monologues of King Lear

  1. old gobbo June 9, 2016 / 6:02 pm

    There are some reasonable points here, but I fear you get carried away. For instance “Ay, every inch a king” replies to Gloucester’s, “Is’t not the King ?”.

    Yes it is possible to read a scatological significance into it, but by that token you could argue “I’ve measured it from side to side, ‘Tis six feet long and two feet wide” expresses Wordsworth’s horror of the “little muddy pool” that is the female sex organ (particularly since you may even see the baby’s face in it), contrasted with the withered thorn of his own derogate lust..

    First, Lear reviles male lust as well as female (e.g. “Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind For which thou whipp’st her). You concentrate only on the latter. All right, there is more of it, but in the context of the play, that makes sense.

    Second you work so hard to make it sound disgusting: ‘ “hell” is a smelly vagina’, that you overlook the other epithets attached in the immediate context of the reward of sin: the burning and consumption of venereal disease – to be found again in “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame” and “Two loves I have” I the Sonnets., for instance.

    Verbal abuse of women comes in all shapes and sizes, e.g. in Measure for Measure, where it is finally shown to be ”a bad thing”. But this is not to argue that Shakespeare himself thought that all women were Isabellas, any more than all Doll Tearsheets. You gently mock over-analytic criticism, but it seems to me that you also indulge in it, when you say we should “interrogate the politics and psychology of a play so privileged” because of tis one-sided sexism. But you do not even mention Shakespeare’s abuse of men (Timon, anyone ?)

    Shakespeare was a playwright and showed a variety (an astonishing variety) of people, what one might loosely call “a fair field full of folk”. It is a category mistake to suppose that we can read his mind as well as his words.

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    • John Kelly June 13, 2016 / 11:04 am

      Thanks for your comment. I think you raise a number of good points. As for “every inch a king,” I find it hard not to see some penis reference due to 1) other examples in the bard’s corpus where “inch” alludes to “penis,” 2) the overall context of the passage, focusing on sexuality and in genitalia in particular, and 3) Shakespeare’s proclivity for polysemy. As for Shakespeare’s verbal abuse of women, I don’t pretend, nor think I claim to in the piece, that Shakespeare himself is the misogynist, but King Lear, the character is. Nowhere do I feel I pretend to read Shakespeare’s mind. And in some ways you are right that Shakespeare is an equal opportunity offender. Iago is an incredibly evil example. But for my ongoing “Shakeswear” series on this blog, I think it’s the misogyny, or at least attacks on social groups, that jumps out to me, as a reader of Shakespeare today and as knowledgeable about the misogyny of the day, as strongest. Thanks again for your comments!

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  2. old gobbo June 9, 2016 / 6:06 pm

    Sorry:
    ‘in the sonnets’, not ‘I the sonnets’ (or even ‘i’ the sonnets’)
    ‘its one-sided sexism’ not (as you would aver) ”tis one-sided sexism’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. opheliabenson June 10, 2016 / 5:18 pm

    Yes but. What you’re leaving out is that Lear is being *a horror* when he does that. He’s terrible in the first part of the play, an awful, unloving, egomaniacal shit. The stuff he says to Goneril isn’t just sweary abuse, he’s invoking a curse on her, in a world where curses had power. He curses Cordelia too, and gets what he asked for.

    Shakespeare features a lot of men heaping verbal abuse on women, and they’re usually entirely wrong. Not always, but usually.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Kelly June 13, 2016 / 11:08 am

      Is this addressed to the previous commenter or me, the author? I think I make pretty plain that King Lear is pretty horrible. In fact, that’s how I frame the piece. We like to pity King Lear as a mad, tottering old man, which overlooks the ferocity of his words. I also discuss his abuse of Goneril *as* curses. But I agree with your larger point and love the way you put it: he’s “an awful, unloving, egomaniacal shit.” I also think you are right to divide up King Lear’s behavior as he comes to self-knowledge of his actions.

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