“Unsex Me Here”: Gonoril, Lady Macbeth and issues of gender and power in King Lear and Macbeth
By Laura M. N., 2002.
Shakespeare’s use of female characters in the tragedies modifies and develops like the tragedies themselves. From Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth, Shakespeare has cultivated his tragic form while also exploring his tragic hero/heroine. There is a doubling in the tragic characters: just has Romeo and Juliet can be interpreted as one tragic hero, so too can Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In King Lear, Regan and Gonoril function almost as one entity as well, though not as the tragic hero/heroine, but as the anti-hero/heroine. While analyzing the apparently stronger of the two sisters, Gonoril, then comparing her to Lady Macbeth, many similarities arise. As Shakespeare worked within the tragic genre, he created Gonoril’s character as unsympathetic, and sympathy is one of the main ingredients in a tragic hero/heroine. Yet many of her characteristics are presented in the character of Lady Macbeth, who is a more sympathetic character, and therefore considered tragic. I would agree that Gonoril is a precursor to Lady Macbeth. Examining these two characters is useful to track Shakespeare’s obvious interest in strong women and whether or not they are tragic figures.
While an exclusively historical perspective on the social attitudes of sixteenth century England misses the point about Shakespeare-why his plays are still performed and studied centuries later is not because of our interest in the sixteenth century-it is useful to note Angela Pitt’s point that “Shakespeare did not write in a social vacuum” (Pitt 9). Women who assumed a predominant role in society at the time were viewed with fear and skepticism; Queen Elizabeth I might be the exception, but not all women were queens. Shakespeare’s presentation of Gonoril and Lady Macbeth plays on this fear. Gonoril and Lady Macbeth create fear in upsetting the natural order of a woman as subservient to a male, whether it is a father or a husband, (or even a brother as in the case of Laertes and Ophelia in Hamlet). In Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Janet Alderman states that in King Lear it is “the abdication of paternal power [that] seems to release the destructive power a female chaos…in Goneril [sic] and Regan” (Alderman 110). Alderman also argues that in Macbeth, a lack of paternal power gives a “horrifying expression” in the form of the “maternal malevolence” (Alderman 110) of Lady Macbeth. Neither Gonoril nor Lady Macbeth are given treatment as exemplars of tragic heroines, however, these characterizations of powerful women should be conducted without the emphasis on sixteenth century stereotypes.
A study of the character of Gonoril from King Lear would be a good place to start. Stephen Booth sees Goneril in relation to Regan and states: “Shakespeare goes to some trouble to establish Goneril [sic] and Regan as a single evil force” (Booth 45). He bases this theory on Regan’s first words, “Sir, I am made/ Of the self-same mettle that my sister is, / And prize me at her worth” (1.1. 62-64). Regan as the second born is in a different position to Gonoril, and must protect her position as the daughter who loves the king “more that words can wield the matter” (1.1. 49). I therefore would argue a difference in the characteristics between the two elder sisters. As Booth also notes, “we come to recognize Goneril’s [sic] superior intelligence and managerial skill and to see that Regan trails behind her” (Booth 45). Shakespeare usually uses the device of the doubling of characters of suggest connections as well as contrast. Their variances are also noted by Juliet Dusinberre: “The first interchange between the two sisters declares their difference” (Dusinberre 301). She points to the end of their conversation at the conclusion of scene one:
Regan: We shall further think on’t.
Goneril: We must do something, and i’th’heat (1.1. 295-296).
“Regan,” Dusinberre asserts, “meditates while Goneril [sic] acts” (Dusinberre 301). Therein lies the essential difference between the two sisters that I want to develop: Gonoril is the more assertive sister, and therefore the authoritative figure in King Lear, as opposed to the King as the authority figure.
Gonoril is the force behind the plot to undermine King Lear’s authority. While Regan notes that: “Such unconstant starts are we like to have from him/ as this of Ken’t banishment” (1.1. 289-290), it is Gonoril who suggests: “Pray, let’s hit together. If our/ father carry authority with such dispositions as he bears/ this last surrender of his will but offend us” (1.1. 291-294). This interchange between the sisters counters the view that these are merely evil entities. There is a kernel of truth in what they say: Lear has been “unconstant,” and his authority has been undermined by his abdication. Gonoril’s call to action to Regan shows that her authority is not yet tainted.
In Gonoril’s next scene, she is advising her servant to tell her father the king that he does not want to see him. Lear is staying with Gonoril and her husband Albany and in her eyes, Lear “sets us all at odds” (1.3. 5). Gonoril, perhaps miffed about her father’s cantankerous ways; also states a truth that is behind her anger: “Idle old man, / That still would manage those athorities/ That he hath given away!” (1. 3. 16-18). She has a point here, for he is in the territory that Gonoril now rules, with Albany, and Lear is still acting like the King, which he is no longer. Gonoril is acting like a Queen, or at least like one in authority-which she is-and “If he dislike it, let him to our sister, / Whose mind and mine I know that are one, / Not to be overruled” (1.3. 14-16). In Regan’s part of England, she is in authority along with Cornwall-by previous arrangement-will not “be overruled” by her father either. Gonoril will make sure of that: “I’ll write straight to my sister/ To hold my very course” (1.3. 25-26).
Lear is angered and slighted by his reception at Gonoril and Albany’s home. He abuses Oswald, her servant:
Lear: Who am I sir?
Oswald: My lady’s father.
Lear: My lady’s father? My lord’s knave, you whoreson dog, you slave, you cur! (1.4. 73-76)
This exchange displays the “wrongs” (1.3. 3) that Gonoril feels Lear has perpetrated upon her. The abuse by Lear of her servant for merely stating the truth (that Lear is his lady’s father and Oswald is not Lear’s knave), is an example of Lear’s refusal to abdicate the power that goes with the crown he no longer wears. The fool sees this too: “He that keeps neither crust or crumb, / Weary of all, shall want some” (1.4. 189-190). Gonoril is insistent to keep Lear in his place as an old man, and as father, but not as King: “Come sir, I would you make use of that good wisdom/ Whereof I know you are fraught, and put away/ These dispositions that of late transform you/ from what you rightly are” (1.4. 211-214).. Gonoril’s refusal to accept Lear’s large “debauched” (1.4. 233) retinue results in Lear’s disowning of Gonoril: “Degenerate bastard, I’ll not trouble thee/ Yet have I left a daughter” (1.4. 245-246). Lear then works himself up into a tirade by reason of the insult he believes he has endured: “Dear goddess, suspend thy purpose if/ Thou didst intend to make this creature [Gonoril] fruitful. / Into her womb convey sterility” (1.4. 266-268). Gonoril’s insistence that Lear reduce his retinue is not entirely an insult to Lear in and of itself. As Lear is no longer King, it is not necessary for him to have so large an assemblage, and while Gonoril could have placated him out of fondness, she does not. It is through power and authority that Gonoril bases her relationship to her father, not fondness.
The relationship of Albany and Gonoril deserves examination, as Gonoril has a similar relationship with her husband that she has with her father. As she wants to control her father in his “dotage” (1.4. 283), so too does she want to control the relationship with her husband:
Albany: I cannot be so partial Gonoril, / To the great love I bear you-
Gonoril: Come, sir, no more. (1.4. 303-304)
Albany speaks of love, and Gonoril cuts him off. Tenderness is a weakness to Gonoril: “Now my lord, / This milky gentleness and course of yours, / Though I dislike it not, yet under pardon/ You’re much more attasked for want of wisdom/Then praised for harmful midness” (1.4. 322-345). As we will see later with Lady Macbeth, Gonoril chides her husband with politic rhetoric and, like Macbeth, Albany wants to preserve the status quo: “Striving to better aught, we mar what’s well” (1. 4. 327). Gonoril attempts to further her argument and Albany appeases her with a “let’s wait and see” response: “Well, well, the event” (1.4. 329). What happens is that Gonoril seeks out strength with Edmund. Albany, in refusing to take part in Edmund and Gonoril’s plan for power shows what Gonoril states “is the cowish terror of his spirit/ That dares not undertake” (1.16. 13-14). Again, as we will see with Lady Macbeth, Gonoril will assume the masculine role and relinquish any womanly ways to her husband: “I must change arms a home, and give this distaff/ Into my husband’s hands” (1.16, 17-18).
At this point, Gonoril is investing her future power in Edmund, and her authority is now tainted by association, as Edmund has proven himself to be the villain in this play by his obvious treachery towards Edgar. Gonoril believes herself to be a supreme power by referring to herself as the royal “our” (1.16. 1). By this point, Gonoril and Edmund are lovers: “A mistress’s command. Wear this. Spare speech. / Decline your head. This kiss, if it durst speak, / Would stretch my spirits up into the air” (1. 16. 21-23). Gonoril’s involvement is further when she says to herself: “To thee a woman’s services are due; / My foot usurps my body” (1. 16. 27-28). The sexual innuendo is purposeful.
Albany now sees Gonoril’s actions as treachery-the language of love is gone: “O Gonoril, / You are not worth the dust which the rude wind/ Blows in your face” (1. 16. 29-31). Gonoril is not offended-Albany has lost any respect she may have had for him: “Milk-livered man, / That bear’st a cheek for blows. a head for wrongs” (1. 16. 49-50).
Gonoril also responds like a monarch, however misguided her effort to the threat of war: “France spreads his banners in our noiseless land,/ With plumed helm thy flaxen biggen threats,/ Whiles thou, a moral fool, sits still and cries/ Alack, why does he so?” (1.16. 55-58). Albany is disgusted with Gonoril, to the point that if he were a violent man, he would “dislocate and tear/ Thy flesh and bones” (1.16. 64-65). Gonoril is disgusting to him for not acting like a woman, with kindness to her father and respect for Albany. Gonoril’s fortunes are now intertwined with Edmund’s, and her path flounders from this point on in the play. When Edmund loses, so too does Goneril, who after poisoning her sister, dies by her own hand. Is Goneril’s fate tragic? Her actions allying her quest for power with Edmund would seem to say no. It is difficult for an audience then to feel sympathetic for this woman.
Lady Macbeth, as I have noted, has many of Gonoril’s characteristics. As in King Lear, there is a doubling of characters in Macbeth, most notably in Lady Macbeth and her husband. Booth notes that “not only [are] the forces of good and evil so intertwined as to be indistinguishable” in Macbeth, but also that “as the play progresses, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are often hard to distinguish” (Booth 97). Like Gonoril, Pitt notes that “the unfailing technique that Lady Macbeth uses to keep Macbeth to his purpose is to taunt him with suggestions of effeminacy and cowardice” (Pitt 66). This is apparent as soon as the audience is introduced to Lady Macbeth: “yet do I fear thy [Macbeth's] nature, /Is too full o’th’milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way” (1.5. 15-17). Note the similarity to Gonoril’s use of “milky gentleness” in her description of her husband. The reference of both women to “milk” is a term for femininity, recalling the milk of a mother to her child.
Lady Macbeth, upon reading her husband’s letter, knows what course of action must be undertaken to realize the witch’s prophecy: “the nearest way” is to murder Duncan. Lady Macbeth’s action is to “pour my spirits in thine ear, / And chastise with the valour of my tongue” (1. 5. 26-27). The use of the word “valour” suggests the implied power of Lady Macbeth’s use of language. It also implies masculinity, as does the speech that follows. More than Gonoril, who must “change arms” with her husband to permit her power, Lady Macbeth relinquishes her femininity: “Unsex me here, / And fill my from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty” (1.5. 40-42). Though it is action that Lady Macbeth would have her husband do, she is more active and persistent:
Macbeth: We will speak further
Lady Macbeth: Only look up clear; / To alter favour, ever is to fear. / Leave all the rest to me. (1.5. 69-72)
Like Gonoril, she is the active pursuer of power.
Macbeth, though he has “vaulting ambition” (1.7. 27) backs down from the plan to murder Duncan: “We will proceed no further in this business” (1.7. 36-37). Lady Macbeth will, like Gonoril before her, attack her husband’s indecisiveness by attacking his manhood: “When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man” (1.7. 49-51). Macbeth sees the masculinity in his wife, as he asserts: “Bring forth man-children only: / For thy undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males (1.7. 74-76). Lady Macbeth’s entreaties are successful as Macbeth claims: “I am settled, and bend up/ Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (1.7. 80-81). Their actions during and after the murder scene, however, place Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a sympathetic light, as there is regret and guilt in their later speeches that is not apparent with Gonoril in King Lear.
Lady Macbeth poisons the King’s guards, but will not kill the King: “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t” (2.2. 13-14). Compassion and ambition are not compatible. Lady Macbeth and her husband seem shocked at what they have done, yet Lady Macbeth retains her purpose, as Macbeth is “afraid to thing what I have done” (2.2. 50) and will not return to the scene, but Lady Macbeth has no such qualms: “Give me the daggars; the sleeping and the dead, / Are but as pictures” (2.2. 53-54). Following the discovery of Duncan’s murder and the chaos it creates, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are crowned King and Queen in the absence of Duncan’s heirs.
Once King, Macbeth’s squeamish nature is gone, and he becomes convincer of Lady Macbeth to the actions that follow, such as the plot to kill Banquo and Fleance:
Lady Macbeth: What’s to be done?
Macbeth: Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck (3.2. 48-49)
After the murder, Macbeth’s guilt is realized in the ghost of Banquo, which almost drives him mad. Lady Macbeth uses the occasion to attack his manhood again: “Are you a man?” (3.4. 57). She chides his fear as “unmanned folly” (2. 4. 74). Lady Macbeth is still trying actively to hold their power together and sends the assemblage from their presence before Macbeth can cast suspicion upon them.
As Macbeth protects his throne and loses his guilt, Lady Macbeth carries it for him. In her sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth relives the events showing her guilt and even remorse: “Yet who would have thought the hold man to have so much blood in him” (5. 1. 38). She still sees blood on her hands-a proverbial metaphor of guilt. Lady Macbeth’s servant and the doctor witness the scene and suspect the truth: “She has spoke what she should not” (5. 1. 46). This is the last of Lady Macbeth, as she dies: “The Queen, my lord, is dead” (5. 5. 17). Macbeth has no time to grieve, as he is defending his position as King with the assuredness granted him by the witches-that no man of woman born can harm him.
The death of Lady Macbeth can be interpreted many ways. Consumed by the guilt that she takes from Macbeth, she is like a sacrifice to the power that she so actively sought out for herself and her husband. Another view is that as a woman who crossed the gender lines to actively seek power, she must end badly and go mad-she has gone against nature. Lady Macbeth has with her husband gone against nature in the usurpation of power that the murder of Duncan started. If the reader or audience subscribes to the interpretation of Lady Macbeth as a sacrifice, she is more sympathetic and therefore a more tragic figure.
Gonoril and Lady Macbeth then, are female characters that seek power. Gonoril, though, will seek either power alone or with another-she chides her husband Albany, but leaves him behind and invests in Edmund. Lady Macbeth will invest her power in her husband, and is successful in her bid to make him King-as he had ambition too. Gonoril and Lady Macbeth differ also in that Gonoril has been given power by the abdication of her father, she simply wants to exert this power and keep it. Lady Macbeth and her husband conspire on the word of supernatural witches to take power forcibly. The similarity of these two characters is the gender crossing of their language and behaviour that is associated with the power they aspire to. Their placement in the tragic genre questions whether or not these women who aspire to powerful positions can be tragic like their male counterparts. As I have stated earlier, it is difficult to see Gonoril as tragic: the tragic hero, after all, is her father, the man she is conspiring against. Lady Macbeth, however, seems more tragic as a woman who, like her husband, is caught up in the acquisition of power.
The question of what is tragic is debated continually, there for there cannot be a right or wrong interpretation of these characters. That having been said, I believe that Shakespeare continued his investigation into powerful women in the tragedies with Gonoril, and then gave Lady Macbeth the same goals but presented her more sympathetically than Gonoril, and therefore Lady Macbeth can be seen as the more tragic character. This can be questioned and revisited repeatedly, which is ultimately the appeal of Shakespeare through the centuries.