King Lear’s Sexual Epithets vs. Women


Ford Madox Brown, "Cordelia's Portion"

Yesterday I complained about those who, in our heated political battles, have become obsessed with women’s sexuality and who employ slanderous sexual epithets to denigrate women they disagree with. I was reminded later in the day, when I was teaching King Lear, that the practice is not new. Lear hurls the same language at his two elder daughters.

Going mad on the heath, he runs into the blinded Gloucester and begins complaining about Goneril and Regan. Now, Lear’s daughters are not exemplary characters, but their crime with regard to Lear has been humiliating him, not acting lasciviously. Nevertheless, Lear’s uses sexual epithets against them.  While affecting virtue and shaking their heads at the mention of pleasure, he says, they have “a more riotous appetite” than a fitchew (polecat) or a stallion.  They may be “women all above,” he notes, but below their waists they are centaurs, and in their private female parts “there’s hell [slang for female genitals], there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”

Here’s Lear:

Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.
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!
Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
to sweeten my imagination.

As I think about it, such sexual insults must grow out of men’s fear of being vulnerable.  Lear’s entire tragedy arguably grows out of a fear that he is unloved (why else set up the love contest?), and if women can trigger men’s deep anxieties by rejecting them, then it may make sense that insecure men would respond by lashing out at what they regard as women’s vulnerabilities (their sexual privacy).

I’m not sure if this is at all related to attacks against birth control and measures introduced into abortion clinics with the intent to shame.  I’m just glad that Rush Limbaugh isn’t using King Lear type language.  At least not yet.

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  • Sue

    Interesting last two posts, Robin. Yesterday’s seemed meant to humiliate women by devaluing their differences, feminine sexuality being an obvious place to turn. Today’s post makes me wonder if Lear isn’t accusing his daughters of taking on the more unpleasant aspects of male sexuality – we often think of men as being the stronger, more aggressive sex. Is their crime that they act out as men, albeit unbridled men? And has he acted out the unbridled jealousy typically ascribed to women? Cordelia is the one who stays true to her deepest self, compassion and strength blended powerfully in a mature woman?

  • Robin Bates

    That’s a very interesting thought, Sue. There is a way that the daughters can be seen as emasculating Lear, and Goneril certainly emasculates her husband Albany. (Regan, meanwhile, joins her husband Cornwall in gouging out Gloucester’s eyes.) And I like the idea that he himself is acting almost woman-like. I wish I were more aware of what scholars have said about the play’s gender issues.

  • Nath

    I think Lear is talking about something different here, he is far more concerned with the show of virtue and with hypocrisy. I don’t think he is only concerned with making bestial comparisons about women or transforming their sexuality to something repulsive. There is hatred in the language throughout Lear but I do not think, in this instance, it is a lashing out against the sexual privacy of women, or even a diatribe only concerned with the hypocrisy of women. Lear is mad at this point – if i remember correctly- and this speech is part of the revaluative clarity that occasionally emerges from this state in Lear. Just before or after this speech he pardons and imaginary subject for adultery, in reference to the woman mentioned Lear notices her appetites,her hypocrisy, but he does not reserve these censurs for women. Lear is commenting on the unstemmable nature of human passion and energy, the life force and how it can be denied, hypocrisy and lies being subjects he has discussed earlier, where he revaluates other elements of man and his society eg. Plate sin with gold and thestrong lance of justice breaks… Or.. Close your eyes and which is the judge which the thief and etc. There is a hatred of women in the earlier language of lear when he rails against Regan and Goneril but this anger is one personal and two seen as degenerative and destructive.

    Sorry, bit garbled, haven’t read the play in a while, nice to see people discussing it though


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