Free Comparing And Contrasting Sexism In King Lear And The Importance Of Being Earnest Literature Review Example

Type of paper: Literature Review

Topic: Women, Family, Sexism, Shakespeare, Men, King Lear, Daughter, Parents

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/01/06

People develop their own individual beliefs which reflects the different factors that a person grew up knowing and interacting with. As such, belief becomes something that is individual and unique to everyone as each and every person is exposed to different things while growing up. This helps in developing a person’s character. However, when the said beliefs are veering towards prejudism, they create an inequality in the society. This was proven in a study by Brandt, which looked into gender inequality between men and women. According to the study, the idea of having beliefs, especially those which are sexist or prejudiced, creates an inequality between men and women in a society overtime. Using a data collected from an international survey conducted from 2005 to 2007, which asked the questions “On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do,” and “On the whole, men make better business executives than women do” (Brandt), the study also concludes that sexism may be a myth consensually legitimized by high-status and low-status groups which created gender hierarchy. It was also found that sexism is expecially stronger in less developed countries. As a result, the researcher cautions that while sexism is translated in factors such as employment, violence against women, and inequality in pay, the ideological forces behind these effects require a deepere understanding (Brandt).
The reality of sexism has been seen and observed in the society for the longest time. In the stories King Lear by William Shakespeare and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, sexism was blatant and reflects the unequal condition of men and women in the society. In King Lear, sexism in the form of patriarchy was very strong. The stroy presents the old King Lear who has decided to retire from his throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. During those times, daughters were not allowed to take possession of the kingdom. They get to possess and take control of a kingdom through their husband, and this is despite the fact that the recognized supreme monarch of England, where the story took place, was Queen Elizabeth, a woman. This in itself shows that sexism had its roots deeply embedded in the society even in the early days, albeit a little selective. In general, women were not allowed to own properties, and King Lear’s decision to give his kingdom to his daughters was unheard of. However, being the father and the king, he was able to do it through a love test. In the end, he banished her favorite daughter Cordelia and the kingdom went to both Regan and Goneril.
The two daughters were consumed by their greed and they took over the kingdom completely by reducing their father’s power. When Goneril reduced King Lear’s retinue of knights, his power was also reduced. He felt that “his manhood was shaken” (Shakespeare 1.4.42), effectively stripping him of his masculinity. His words indicate that his position as a king and the patriarch of the family are the sources of his power, positions that women like his daughters would never hold because they are women. This belief, widely shared and accepted by everyone in the society placed women to an inferior position. Perhaps this is also the reason why the two daughters were influenced to be greedy as they were placed in a position not given to females like them. However, their greed was what led them to their doom, further implying that failure will come to women when they try to change the course of nature. Cordelia’s fate, on the other hand, was more harmonious and orderly because she willingly accepted her role in the patriarchal structure.
The first sign of Regan and Goneril’s doom came when they both fell in love with the same man despite being married. This shows another sexist idea, two women who were both driven and ambitious falling for a man who was only in it for what he would gain. When Regan’s husband died, she did not show concern, while Goneril expressed her willingness to leave her husband for Edmund. The bond between the sisters was broken by a man, and this made them weak and vulnerable. This situation placed the sisters in the belief propagated by people in the society, that image of them being helpless despite the strength which they exhibited when they conquered their father’s patriarchal power.
King Lear’s contempt and sexist remarks, focused on his daughters, was apparent in his many diatribes. In one, he described women as “Centaurs down from the waist,” where “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphorous pit, Burning, scalding, stench, consumption” (Shakespeare 4.6.6). These words call to mind symptoms of venereal diseases in relation to the female anatomy. It was apparent that King Lear associated the female anatomy to these diseases, despite them having normal appearances from the waist up.
However, sexism in the story was not only directed women but to men as well. Goneril referred to her husband Albany as being overly mild-mannered when dealing with her father, referring to his “milky gentleness” as a way of saying that he lacked killer instinct. The expression “milky gentleness” was also used in the play Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth also accused her husband of being weak when they decided to kill King Duncan and his wife. Lady Macbeths words described her husband as being “too full of the milk of human kindness (Macbeth, 1.5.1). Although she assured him that she was okay with it, her disdain and lack of interest in him was apparent when she displayed disconcern over his death.
This prejudice against men was not present in the story The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, where sexism against women from men and mothers was the main theme. For instance, when Gwendolen told Earnest “What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Earnest! They are quite, quite, blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present.” (1.167) implies that women are vain. Gwendolen was portrayed as a woman who was only concerned about how she looks in front of the others and how she craves for men look at her with desire, as if it would serve as a validation of her good looks. One other implication of women being vain was also indicated in Alegernon’s words to Cecily about her being “like a pink rose” which indicated that he was flirting with her by praising her bwuaty (2.71). Although Cecily protested about the compliment, a later scene where she wrote down all of Algernon’s compliments to her in her diary revealed that she secretly reveled in the said comment.
Another instance of sexism was also shown when Jack uttered the words in a very patronising manner“y dear fellow, the truth isnt’ quite the sort of thing one tellss to a nice , sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!” (1.236). These words imply how Jack thought of women as too pampered, fragile, and sheltered that they are most probably not able to handle things such as the truth. The idea that this kind of treatment of women is man’s way of taking care of the women and shielding them from the harsh society is a prejudice againts women’s ability to handle themselves on their own. This was also observed in the female participants in Swim et al.’s study wherein a wife reported that her husband told her not to “worry her pretty little head these complex insurance issues” when they were talking to a receptionist about settling their hotel bill (36).
The story also implied that women in general are superficial. In a conversation between Jack and Algernon, Jack observed that women would call each other sister after meeting for only half an hour, while Algernon added that this is only true after they are done calling each other several different things first. Similarly, women’s pettiness was also displayed when Gwendolen and Cecily showed a sudden dispay of solidarity when they suspected that Algernon and Jack were being dishonest to them. Even though both women displayed a certain level of dislike towards one another, they were quick to change their minds and ended up siding with each other when they felt that they were were insulted by the men they love. This view about women who are petty and superficial was also observed by women participants in a study conducted by Swim et al., where some participants reported men treated them as passive and enjoyed different kinds of activities and preferences (36). These type of sexist treatment from men were also exhibited in the story King Lear, when Edmund assumed that he could play Genoril and Regan together because they were merely women who happened to have greater means in life. This was also displayed by King Lear himself, however his sexist comments were more a result of his patriarchal anger towards his daughters after losing his power as the leader and their father.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, patriarchal display of power was not present. Instead, it was the mother who held stronger power over their chldren, as indicated by Lady Brachnell’s words to her daughter “Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact.” indicates that choosing a husband is not decided on by the daughter as “It is a matter that she could hardly be allowed to arrange for herself” (1.172). This hihglights the implication that women are incapable of choosing their own husbands, and as such should be a mother or father’s task in order for it to become successful. However, in the lines uttered by Gwendolen to her father, where she issued a challenge about women’s role of being at home doing the cooking, cleaning and raising children by saying that “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man.” (2.266). This is one of the few lines where Wilde impied that it is possible for women to occupy positions of power and overturn the traditional gender roles. This was not implied by Shakespeare in King Lear, despite the several similiarities of sexism expressed against women.
Sexism in both stories was prevalent and served to be a rather strong theme despite having other themes as well. This is not different from the strong sense of sexism that many women experience in their everyday lives today, which are not only limited to being abused verbally but are also subjected to physical abuse such as being groped and touched at every turn. However, the two stories successfully mirrored the reality of gender inequality that was prevalent in the past, where women in most situation are put at a greater disadvantage compared to men. Like Brandt indicated in his study, the idea of prejudice and having one’s own belief when let on for a long time leads to gender inequality in the society. In the same manner, women should also not let themselves fall for and encourage the long-standing gender myth of them being placed in a subservient position compared to men. Like all other calls by different movements propelled by women, equal treatment should be accorded to women as they are important members of the society as much as men are. This was not included in either stories, except in The Importance of Being Earnest where Gwendolen expressed her opinion about men being at home doing the same household chores that are expected of women. There is no guarantee that gender equality will be achieved, but perhaps classic literature like the two discussed could serve as inspiration and eye opener on the issue.

Works Cited

Brandt, Marc J. “Sexism and Gender Inequality Across 57 Societies.” Psychological Science,
Nov 2011. Web. 30 Mar 2015.
Rosengarten, Herbert and Amanda Goldrick-Jones, eds. The Broadview of Poetry, 2nd Edition,
1994. New York: Broadview Press. Print.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994. Print.
Swim, Janet K., Laur L. Hyers, Laurie L. Cohen, and <elissa J. Ferguson. “Everyday Sexism :
Evidence for its Incidence, Nature, and Psychological Impact from Three Daily Diary Studies.” Journal of Social Issues 57.1 (2001), 31-53. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Beign Earnest. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,1990. Print.

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WePapers. (2021, January, 06) Free Comparing And Contrasting Sexism In King Lear And The Importance Of Being Earnest Literature Review Example. Retrieved June 26, 2022, from
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Free Comparing And Contrasting Sexism In King Lear And The Importance Of Being Earnest Literature Review Example. Free Essay Examples - Published Jan 06, 2021. Accessed June 26, 2022.

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