Is there a more misunderstood character in Literature? (probably, but indulge me).
All too often she is dumped into the same bracket as her noxious middle sister, Regan. Middle siblings: surface charm, surface calm and deep malice.
It’s too easy to create an “ugly sisters” trope and cast the two as a matched pair of malice and intrigue, but on International; Women’s Day 2016, I want to put in a word for Goneril. This might stimulate debate in class and is not intended to be a highly critical essay – rather a train of thought.
Imagine this: your father has let it be known that there is to be a division of his property and that he expects some form of public display of affection. Yours is a family which quantifies abstract concepts like “love” as though recording the number of cakes on a platter. You are the eldest child. You will be speaking first.
Your speech at Learfest is quite safe. You profess love “more than word can wield the matter” which saves you from having to quantify it in words, and then move to a series of straightforward comparisons before ending with the notion it is a love which makes “speech unable” ( your younger sister evidently has the same idea, but is too proud or lacking in social awareness to say so…).
You get through it. You attain 1/3 of the Kingdom (which was always coming to you anyway) and then… and then your sister shafts you:
“only she comes too short”.
WHAT A COW! Your father has already made it clear where his affections lie – “our dearest Regan”, yet she still feels the need to stick the knife in and undermine you in this way. So unfair! All is not lost, however because your youngest sister behaves to type and refuses to swallow her pride, preferring a ridiculous show of saying “what (she) feels, not what (she) ought to say. GET IN! At last you will receive some justice for being the eldest – the one who has to take the lead, the one whose mistakes will help the other two avoid those pitfalls. You sit in silence and watch the drama unfold. And it scares you.
You urgently discuss a plan with your sister. once again, as you are the eldest, the first blow falls on you – he’s on his way tonight. You agree that he is unstable but let’s face it, you’re on your own.
So your castle becomes a “home” for an ex-King who will not give up his power, and 100 drunken knights. Your steward, Oswald, who, let’s face it is hardly a specimen of masculinity to be proud of, no doubt appointed by that “cowish” husband of yours, is humiliated going about his business and you have little or no recourse. You advise him to ensure that the retinue is uncomfortable in the hope that they will leave, but instead you father begins to employ local itinerant beggars to his table. In your castle. Your husband does little – he was a marriage of alliance, not love or respect and you resent the fact that your talents are to be crushed again and again by the actions of weak men. You hatch a plan – a reasonable plan – to reduce the retinue by half to try to alleviate some of the chronic overcrowding and the excesses of behaviour.
Your father goes ballistic, as if his knights are some form of penile representation – men always need to be reminded of how big they are after all. His whining little Fool focuses his “wit” in your direction and winds you up. You make your case and the result? Possibly the most noxious curse a father has ever lain at his daughters head. Sterility and self pitying ranting about “a serpent’s tooth”. Your husband shows you no loyalty and your father rides off to your sister. You act: warn her and ask for help.
Once she gets your letter (some postal service in pre-history) she arrives at Gloucester’s castle. armed with her own agenda, as usual. Her marriage seems more of a meeting of minds, and you resent this somewhere – the eldest had to ensure alliance with Scotland above all else. Regan and Cornwall got to Gloucester before you. they take control (again your milky husband seems so useless) and when the family meets again it is to reduce your father’s status to enable his living quarters to be sorted. Once again, she trumps you. She is even harsher on him than you. This is not a team, it’s an ambush and you did not see it coming. 50-25-10-5-1? You did not see that coming. The result is that your father is locked on the Heath thanks to his stupid stubbornness and refusal to acknowledge himself as any less of a King despite recent events. You are angry and frustrated at Old Gloucester, but it is your sister and her Husband who assume control and order the gates to be locked.
From this point, how can you be blamed for your actions. Cursed and abused since childhood, unloved in comparison to your sisters and married off the the wettest man since the Flood, you begin to assert yourself. true, you suggest that Cornwall “pluck out his eyes” when Gloucester is caught, but this is simply an appropriate punishment for an adulterer and traitor. You didn’t think that they might actually do it! Once it has happened, there’s nothing to be done, but the death of your sister’s husband puts you in a spin. You admire the handsome young bastard who has become Duke of Gloucester. He seems able to give you all that Albany cannot. You want him. For once you want something purely for your own ends. Something to reverse the humiliation heaped on you by the Patriarchal society in which you are forced to live. Now she can claim him – and more easily since she is no longer married.
What to do? well, there’s no nice way of putting this: you murder her – poison, a woman’s weapon will do the trick ( and your father thought tears were a woman’s weapon – foolish old man). And for the first time in your life you take direct action to secure your desires.
You get no reward. Your father manages to return with Cordelia and even though they are beaten in battle they are the focus of all pity and attention. Your bastard is shown to be exactly that! Again you were played for a fool and you fell for it. Some God is really playing with you – such sport!
There is no escape here, your husband is about to rule the kingdom, reducing you for ever to the role of the passive female onlooker. This is too much. Even in death you are overlooked by the men: you are not even named by that imbecile of a servant – “your lady” – ha! Albany – milky-white Albany then even announces to all that there is no pity to be found for the pair of you. Even in death you are tainted by your sister.
It’s so unfair!