William Shakespeare's notoriety for creating memorable characters that are realistic as well as fantastical is demonstrated through his female characters in the tragic plays, King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare was obviously considering familial relations and reflecting on how to parents could produce children who are so starkly different from one another when he wrote King Lear. Additionally, by creating the ungracious, self-centered daughters, Goneril and Regan, the poet is also commenting on the fact that women could be as powerful and aspiring as men, which leaves them open to the possibility of being just as evil. King Lear's daughters were not subservient to their fathers and they certainly were not submissive housewives. This notion of the independent, aspiring woman is further emphasized in the calculating, power-hungry character of Lady Macbeth. The concept of a delicate, docile wife is thrown out the window with her and her manipulative nature. With these strong characters, Shakespeare is expanding the role of women by recognizing them as capable of the same desires and motivations that inspire men. These images of women not only contrast the traditional image of the medieval damsel in distress, they mortify and embarrass their male counterparts.
The image of evil we discover in King Lear is not presented as metaphysical problem as it is in Macbeth. What is striking about the evil displayed by King Lear's daughters, is the fact that, initially, it appears to stem from normal emotions. Goneril and Regan are not evil witches by any means, but rather highly ambitious women. King Lear affixes no reproach to their declarations of love and we can hardly blame them because they are only participating in a game in which their father has set in motion. Furthermore, their inheritance provides them with a power that they are very eager to use to their own advantage. Our first impression of Goneril and Regan is that they are rather normal in their reactions and their desires. However, the subsequent conduct after their inheritance reveals a deeper, disturbing evil that surfaces as a result of their inheritance.
That King Lear could have two daughters so dissimilar from Cordelia is an issue that Shakespeare explores within this family dynamic. The contrast between their affection for their father only intensifies King Lear's awful mistake. It is important to note that all of his daughters violate traditional expectations in one way or another. Clearly, Cordelia's recalcitrant answer is the least offensive of these violations -- but it is the action that moves the entire plot of the play. We know that she loves her father, which makes Goneril and Regan's speeches so hard to swallow. The most despicable aspect of Goneril and Regan's evil is the fact that they seem to have no love or respect for King Lear as a father, a man, or a king. Clearly, they have no interest in him as soon as they acquire their inheritance. Their cavalier and heartless way of treating him demonstrates the depth of their evil. They become the antithesis of their earlier affirmations of love. Goneril obviously exaggerates her devotion to her father with a speech so sugarcoated that anyone with half of his or her wits would recognize it as a falsehood. She claims to love her father:
more than the word can wield the matter;
Deeper than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor. (Shakespeare King Lear I.ii.56-60)
Given her behavior just a few scenes after this speech, Goneril is nothing less than a monster. It takes no time for King Lear to realize that Regan's promise that she is "felicitate/In your dear Highness' love" (I.i.79-80) is counterfeit. Regan and Goneril waste no time placing their interests before his and this characteristic illustrates their ability to treat others whom do not have anything to offer them as objects. Nothing illustrates this more than when both daughters reject their father. As King Lear relates Goneril's "sharp-toothed unkindness" (I.iv.147) to Regan, she is quick to support her sister by insinuating that King Lear has wronged her. Goneril and Regan's cruelty increase as the play progresses, emphasizing the level of inhumanity of which the two are capable. Goneril and Regan are excellent case studies illustrating how evil manifests itself in a quest for power that pays no special attention to familial ties. This apparent lack of concern for family loyalty is what Shakespeare forces us to contemplate with these two unfaithful daughters.
In Macbeth, we encounter an evil that couches itself in marital love. Lady Macbeth is capable of manipulating Macbeth because she is aware of his deep love for her. His love skews his ability to rationalize her (and his) behavior, which turns out to be extremely damaging to Macbeth's self-esteem. When Lady Macbeth doubts Macbeth's manhood, he becomes her puppet simply because he does not want to appear to be weak.
Her inference when asking if he be:
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Would'st thou have that Which thou esteemest'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage" (Shakespeare Macbeth I.vii. 39-45) is enough to motivate him to prove not only his manhood, but also his love for her. Furthermore, Lady Macbeth is fully aware of the fact that Macbeth, while he may desire to be king, might not possess what it takes to secure his position. She understands how kindness is sometimes a detriment to success when she mentions that Macbeth's nature is " too full o' th' milk of human kindness" (I.v.18). Her evil rests not only in the fact that she will do whatever it takes to be queen but also in the fact that she is willing to destroy whatever is good in Macbeth to make him king. Her statements illustrate the depth of her commitment not to love, but to attaining a powerful position.
When examining the feminine evil characters depicted in Macbeth and King Lear, it is important to note how they assume masculine and inhuman characteristics. While these characteristics can be related to either their disposition or their physical qualities, they accentuate the theme of the unorthodox medieval woman. One of the first images Shakespeare introduces to us in Macbeth is of the weird sisters. They are a confusing sight, as Banquo's confusion reveals. Later in the play, we discover that they are at least partially responsible for Macbeth's catastrophe. The fact that Macbeth grows more and more dependent on them illustrates how they replace Macbeth's will and conscience. They are evil because even as he swerves farther away from his moral compass, they only confuse him with more riddles. It is also worth noting that Shakespeare has the weird sisters and Lady Macbeth work in unison to destroy Macbeth. They do not conspire together to destroy him, but rather Shakespeare has Macbeth fall victim to their schemes. This aspect of the play allows females to be perceived as powerful and sometimes unnatural creatures.
Additionally, Lady Macbeth is a strong and almost overbearing character from the beginning of the play. She disavows her femininity when she prays:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. (I.v.38-41)
Her prayer indicates a desire to be as unfeminine as she can be. Her evil is multiplied by the fact that she does not care about Macbeth or his thoughts or feelings in the slightest. We also see an unnatural aspect of her character when she states:
have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.60-65)
Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth is no traditional Renaissance wife by any stretch of the imagination.
In King Lear, Goneril and Regan feign affection toward their father. Their evil is heightened by the fact that once they have what they want for him, they are willing to banish him without a second thought. Their change in disposition and treatment of their father is inexcusable and shocking. In addition, Goneril becomes so overcome with evil intent that she shocks her husband. She demonstrates herself to be like Lady Macbeth when she criticizes his manhood by accusing him of being a "milk-livered man" (King Lear IV.ii.57). He confronts her destructive behavior by declaring, "See thyself, devil!/Proper deformity shows not in the fiend / So horrid as in woman" (IV.ii.67-9). Albany's response to Goneril's accusation reinforces Shakespeare's theme that these evil female characters are unnatural, abhorrent creatures. Their behavior violates conventional norms associated with women during the Elizabethan era.