Flames and Storms
Edited by Miriam Zeghlache
Can Women get Angry?
Traditionally in King Lear, the daughters of King Lear, Goneril and Regan have been perceived as evil, deceitful, and ungrateful, with their sister Cordelia deemed an innocent party of her father’s rage.
Lear decides to stay with Goneril after essentially “retiring” as king, but he still wants to maintain all his royal privileges.
“By day and night, he wrongs me! Every hour” Goneril complains to her steward Oswald (Shakespeare, 1997, 1.3: 4 ). She is angry about Lear wanting to retain all his kingly powers and him encouraging his knights to be disruptive in Act I scene III. When that doesn’t work out for Lear, he goes to Regan. Regan is equally unhappy about the situation when Lear stays with her instead, Regan says “I’ll not endure it!” (1.3:6)
Traditional interpretations of this play would argue Goneril, and Regan have a duty to act graciously towards their father. But having put all three daughters through a “love test” in Act I Scene I to decide how much of his kingdom they should get, who could blame Goneril and Regan’s actions when he then wants to “retire” at their residences with “all the airs and graces'' as if he is still king? It is Goneril who confronts Lear on his behaviour in Act I Scene IV with his riotous knights who have taken up what seems like permanent residence (1.4.10). Throughout the play these two sisters are threatening, autocratic, cold, and ambitious. Many critics have focused on their wholly masculine traits and responses, and argue that Goneril and Regan were the ones that caused the onset of misery and destruction of the family in this play (Kott, 1976).
Goneril and Regan get angry to say the least. But their anger and hatred do not seem uncalled for when their father effectively decides to divide his kingdom based on how much each daughter proclaims their love for him. After Lear banishes Cordelia for her refusal to play the game, Goneril and Regan try to counsel their father “part in self-interest” ; they are worried he’s not making decisions in the best interests of the kingdom. When it doesn’t go Lear’s way, he resorts to dehumanising name calling, effectively wishing one of his daughters infertile. Condemned, by past critics, throughout the play as malevolent figures, (although their actions are not blameless) surely Goneril and Regan’s anger is a reaction to disastrous and chaotic decision- making at the hands of their father? And does this not all touch on wider issues still relevant today?
The question is, is it socially acceptable for women to get angry? We all experience anger in certain situations, both in our professional and private lives. It is an emotion that can surface as mild discontent to full scale fury. It can at the more heated end of the spectrum trigger our flight or fight response (Devlin , 2019) As a result, it releases stress hormones in the body, like adrenaline and testosterone, in order to prepare for a fight. However, what we decide to do in a scenario that has made us angry depends on the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for decision making and reasoning. It does, shall we say, remind us that we should put our anger into context and respond in a socially acceptable way (p.1).
One study showed that men were more likely to display aggression than women, but it did not mean women did not experience rage any less frequently (p.1) Then why do women seem generally less angry than men? Several studies have argued it is gender expectations that operate insidiously upon us. (p.1) One psychologist even argues these expectations are instilled
in us from a young age at school, where we learn how to regulate our responses (p.1). Boys can be outwardly angry, girls on the other hand must learn to conceal it, even if they experience anger as frequently as boys. But this, it seems, is only the tip of the iceberg.
One of the major problems is although anger is experienced by all, the associations of anger with men and women are entirely different. Anger with women is associated with evil or madness. If we consider King Lear and Goneril and Regan, critics lament in detail about the daughters’ evil actions and callous hearts. But they have been done a great disservice by their father, betrayed even. But for men, the associations with anger are entirely different. It’s viewed as part of masculinity, an inevitable trait of the male psyche. For example, seeing as Lear rages at how his three daughters have betrayed him throughout the play, are we not meant to feel sorry for him? Is this reasonable? His daughters Goneril and Regan by contrast are “evil” and perhaps considered emotionally unstable. For they have decided not to follow his plan built on a lie. His anger and subsequent tears seem very much like crocodile tears.
This is a key problem though when men are angry, it is generally considered reasonable. (Remeikis, 2022). When women outwardly display their anger, it is not feminine at all and is viewed as rather outlandish. Not at all reasonable, women’s anger is often reasoned to be the result of unstable emotions (Remeikis, 2022). And if this was not bad enough, time after time this way of thinking is reinforced through literature and myths. Women who are angry in many myths and legends are “doomed for life”, cast away by friends or family or worse, hunted down by their male counterparts. You only have to think of someone like Medusa to see how this scenario plays out repeatedly in all walks of life where women are pursued and punished (Remeikis, 2022).
But why is this disparity so worrying? It’s because it affects women in every walk of life and harms them not only personally but professionally. It is a multifaceted problem of why women are not equal to men in professional spheres, but the differing reactions to anger are arguably a contributing factor. Several studies have shown that women suffer from displaying anger in their working lives, but men by contrast are rewarded, even though the same emotion is being displayed (Remeikis, 2022).
This conundrum is evident with female politicians. Studies have shown they are more likely to receive critique when moving away from expected gender norms and displaying the “masculine” emotion of anger (Karl et al., 2021.) But this is one of the key problems; anger is generally seen as “masculine” or part of being “manly”. If it is displayed by women it is seen as almost alien to their nature. Conversely, emotions of powerlessness are associated with women such as sadness or weeping. They are regarded as feminine attributes. But it seems wholly impossible to bring about change, say politically, if one is weeping. Anger by contrast has been viewed as bringing about change, particularly in politics, so where does this leave women? (Karl et al., 2021).
Equally there is another problem at hand, is it is considered far from masculine if a man is weeping. The societal expectation of how one should be, is inconspicuously oppressive for men and women. There is no easy answer or quick fix solution to any of this. However, it does not mean that change cannot happen. The main problem is the stereotypes and expectations surrounding anger. It is also important to consider that anger has a domino effect, in that too often, the other person bearing the brunt of the anger gets angry too and there is no resolution. Moreover, anger is ‘protective’ in that we are often frightened when expressing anger at the extreme end. That’s why in King Lear, Goneril and Regan are partly reacting the way they are out of fear. Why are women made to feel the way they are acting is bad, when it’s out of fear?
It is perhaps a case of meeting our needs through expressing ourselves more coherently and with a different emotion entirely, such as being assertive. Utilising assertiveness requires good communication skills and can be improved upon by both women and men alike. Thus, anger is often reactionary and is a response due to a less than ideal situation and is important to bear this in mind.
Devlin, H. (2019) ‘The Science of Anger: How gender, Age and personality shape this emotion’ The Guardian, 12 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/12/science-of-anger-gender-age-personality#:~:text=Research%20has%20consistently%20found%20that,motivated%20by%20rage%20as%20frequently
Karl KL, Cormack L. (2021) ‘Big Boys Don't Cry: Evaluations of Politicians Across Issue, Gender, and Emotion’. PubMed Central, 1-22. doi: 10.1007/s11109-021-09727-5
K, Kott. (1974) Shakespeare Our Contemporary, WW Norton & Company.
Remeikis, A. (2022) ‘Women’s anger is not dissipating- and politics as usual won’t solve it’ The Guardian, 23 January. Available at:
Shakespeare, W. (1997). King Lear. Edited by R. A. Foakes. London: Bloomsbury.
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