Date Approved


Graduate Degree Type


Degree Name

English (M.A.)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Benjamin G. Lockerd

Second Advisor

Rachel S. Anderson

Third Advisor

Robert A. Rozema


My thesis addresses the supposed sexism in William Shakespeare’s King Lear through an examination of the power of speech in the play. Employing a variety of scholarship, I argue that Cordelia exerts power both through prudent speech and in her silence, adhering to Renaissance expectations for women but also defying the unreasonable behavior of her father. I explore how Cordelia’s values are recognized by and through other characters, especially Lear’s Fool. While Cordelia is often viewed as the opposite of her sisters Goneril and Regan, I provide a reading of the play that treats all three sisters as complex characters rather than stereotypes. Employing Ian Pollock’s interpretation in his graphic novel Illustrated King Lear, I explicate how Goneril, Regan, and Edmund embrace speech and sex as means to power. After examining misogynistic passages and psychoanalytic interpretations, I determine that Lear’s sexism is a symptom of his own unnatural decisions and struggle with loss of power to his daughters. I argue that Lear is a misogynist, but Shakespeare was not. Contextualizing King Lear within Shakespeare’s body of work and audience expectations, I conclude that Shakespeare intentionally used the mode of tragedy to illustrate the folly of choosing personal desires over loyalty and responsibility. Shakespeare changed his sources to make the Lear story not only darker but also more complex and compelling, intentionally evoking strong audience reactions. I argue that Shakespeare ironically used Cordelia’s supposed silence and absence to centralize her as a second tragic hero, ultimately affirming the youngest daughter’s voice and value.