In Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, the writers portray the lives of women and men during their time. One could argue male characters are generally seen to be stronger and powerful than female characters in each of the texts. In “King Lear”, we are introduced to Lear’s three daughters, “the eldest” Goneril, “dearest” Regan and “more opulent” Cordelia. In the story, Lear is seen to break natural order by dividing the kingdom into three for each of his daughters.
He orders them to “say doth love us most”, making Goneril speak first. Our reaction to Goneril’s speech is one of strong dislike, which is caused by her desire for power. The blend of power and femininity demonstrated in this speech from the Jacobean society is one of the main contributing factors to our disdain for Goneril. This is an idea which holds true today. It is interesting that for a male character this trait is not be so offensive.
This is due to the gender differences and expectations in society.
Similarly in the novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, we clearly see the treatment of women in Victorian society. The novel begins with Henchard auctioning off his wife to the highest bidder at Weydon Fair, “I’d sell mine this minute if anybody would buy her”, showing how in early nineteenth century England country women of this class, were viewed as nothing. They could be disposed of if their ‘owners’, namely their husbands or fathers, wished, “it has been done elsewhere”, illustrating just how common these auctions were.
This is similar to “King Lear”, where Lear has the power to order his daughters to speak. Equally in the novel “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, Hardy portrays the way in which men dominate women, presenting their greater control and power in society. Alec, for example, recognises how morally corrupt he is for seducing Tess for his own brief pleasure. This displays his power over her and his ability to take advantage of it. In reverse, Tess’ parents ask her to work in the D’Urbervilles and she refuses.
When her mother asks why she replies, “I’d rather not tell you why, mother; indeed, I don’t quite know why”. This shows us how aware Tess is of the differences in gender. She tries to use her power, even though it does not do much good. “King Lear” is in the form of a play, where speech is a main aspect. Notably the daughters speeches to Lear, particularly those of Goneril and Regan, present authority and greed, “I am made of that self-mettle…” proving to Lear, Regan is “made” of gold or silver, as she begs Lear with her “highness’ love”.
Proving to Lear she wants money and wealth, Cordelia on the other hand refuses, “Nothing, my lord. ”, as well as mocking her sisters explaining how she loves her father “no more nor less”, presenting Cordelia to be a fair and reasonable character. Likewise in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, Susan has no control over Henchard and his rash decision making, “dropping her eyes again, and saying nothing…”. The word “nothing” here is different to “King Lear”, as the meaning of nothing here means no hope or words to fight back.
However in “King Lear”, the word “nothing” is used metaphorically as no money or no love. The word “nothing” is used in another sense in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, “look here; I won’t walk another inch with you if you say any jokes about him”, confirming Tess’ loyalty towards her father, she proves “nothing” in another meaning. Tess depicts how she will exclude herself from the group if they talk bad about her father, presenting female characters in the novel to be faithful and independent. “King Lear”, as a play, has no direct description of the settings and environment.
Although we see the action taking place, we are also guided through the stage directions, “Sennet” meaning a ceremonial entrance as well as “one bearing a coronet”, presenting a formal mood to the act. We are also aware of the “attendants” who are involved in this large event. The female roles in this royal occasion are classified as the King’s daughters, giving them a higher status than other women in the time. Hardy begins the novel in the “late summer” with the “valleys and woods” and the “sight of several horses”.
He displays how women have a connection to nature, “she becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature”, that men cannot share as they are more involved with business “than of the systematized religion taught their race at later date”. Hardy portrays how men are more linked with a “systematised” world and the development taking place in the Victorian time. Similarly, Hardy uses natural imagery in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, “a swallow…flew to and fro in quick curves above their heads”, presenting a strong symbolic image.
Swallows were often the first to land on a ship that had been out to sea for long periods of time, which relates to the buyer of Henchard’s wife, Newson who was a sailor. Foreshadowing the future, Hardy relates the swallow to Susan. One of “King Lear’s” recurring themes focuses on sight, where Lear has a lack of insight, as we see “how full of changes his age is” suggesting he is too old and making bad decisions.
Unlike the female characters such as Goneril and Regan where they have strong insight towards Lear’s actions, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself. , this shows how generally male characters are have greater power over women however one could argue the female characters have a greater insight to the people and actions around them, such as Goneril and Regan recognising Lear’s doom. Similarly in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, Tess has a large amount of insight to the world around her, this may possibly be connected to the daughters of Lear. However, Tess’ misfortunes and fate create tragedy’s which eventually destroy her insight “Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue… been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive…”.
As Tess is raped, Hardy uses the word “doomed”, where one could suggest it is Tess’ “doom” or “fate” to be raped. The meaning of “doom” is slightly different to “King Lear” as we see Tess’ “doom” from the beginning whereas we see Lear’s by a gradual build up. Differently “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, the word “doomed” could be placed in another sense as one could say Henchard shares the same characteristics to Lear with his rash decision making and again his lack of insight, causing the village and the people who are around him to be “doomed”.
However the female characters such as Susan can see clearer into Henchard’s wrong actions and goes with Newson the sailor, “I’ll try my luck elsewhere. ” A justifiable opinion could be Susan’s “luck” is far from “doom” by going with Newson, as one visualises Henchard’s personality from the beginning of the novel. In “King Lear” one could argue Lear does not notice his own faults, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” presenting Lear to self-pity himself as he displays himself to be the victim.
However on the other hand Lear’s favouritism for Cordelia makes Goneril and Regan despise Lear “He always loved our sister most…” showing how Lear could possibly be “sinned against” by his daughters. This portrays how women who are more “opulent” have more chances of being liked. Similarly in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, “Tess was now carried along upon the wings of the hours, without the sense of a will. ” As Hardy relates back to the theme of “time” in the novel, Tess has waits “passively” for the wedding to take place as it is not under her responsibility anymore.
One could say Tess is “more sinned against” as Hardy uses another theme of fate and free will as a symbolism for Tess’ life. She uses her free will to choose or determine her own actions; however these actions she makes, seems like fate always brings her down. In comparison Henchard in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” could possibly be seen as “more sinned against” as well as “sinning”. Henchard had sold his wife displaying him “sinning”, however on the other hand one could possibly argue how it was not his fault as it was his fate and he cannot change his actions, making him “more sinned against”.
This could create sympathy for Henchard although he has done wrong, where usually the sympathy is for the female characters. In “King Lear”, Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy by using a storm in Act 3 to conclude Lear’s insightful decisions. The storm is presented as a microcosm of Lear’s madness, as he encourages the storm to continue he shouts “Blow winds and crack your cheeks! ”. Lear personifies the wind as he asks the elements to destroy him, “his little world of man” as he sees no importance of man or nature after his death.
This shows how the word “man” is the centre of importance and how the power of the storm is imagined to be originating from Lear, a male character. The “fretful elements” are metaphors for Goneril and Regan where Lear is contending with his family. Kent being disguised gives the knight “a ring” for Cordelia, being symbolic as the shape of a circle is seen with the “one bearing a coronet”. This could also be seen with Edmund using a dramatic device, holding a “letter”. This follows a theme of a cyclical story with the letter being passed around as well as the circular shape from the theme of fate and destiny.
Likewise Hardy uses the Ring in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” to be a Roman amphitheatre, where he invites Susan to meet. Hardy uses this setting as there were ghosts of the past rumoured to be a wife and her husband, where a woman “murdered her husband was half-strangled and then burnt … of ten thousand spectators. ” The ghosts of the past were metaphors for Susan and Henchard, who both have the past haunting them. This shows how although the woman was seen to be powerful to be able to murder her own husband, men are still seen to be stronger as she was “half-strangled” and “burnt” for what she had done.
In contrast “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” Hardy uses the past and compares it to the present “Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. ”, one could argue Hardy uses the past and the present similarly to Shakespeare and “Mayor of Casterbridge” as the circular shape is used not visually but literally. Hardy describes Tess as an image of femininity “As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks…” Similar to Lear with Cordelia’s looks being “opulent”, Hardy presents his female characters to be feminine and attractive.
Hardy uses Tess’s appearance to be the only powerful aspect of her, similar to Cordelia in “King Lear”. The power which is usually seen in male characters could be seen as “defeated”, as in “King Lear”, Shakespeare uses hyperbole to make the event seem larger than it is as Lear tragically says to the storm “I stand your slave” where we see Lear as a “weak” and “poor” “old man”. Ironically Lear says “I will say nothing” which could suggest Lear thinking of Cordelia as well as continuing this theme of “nothing”.
One could say Lear’s power has been destroyed from himself “sinning” and becoming “nothing”. Lear’s daughters had more power than Lear from Act 1 however it is seen clearer in Act 3. Similarly the idea of being a “slave” continues in “The Mayor or Casterbridge” where “His old feeling of supercilious pity for womankind in general was intensified…”. Henchard is seen to be a tall and strong, male figure, as he tends to feel more dominant and controlling over women. Since women are physically weaker, he feels a “pity” for “womankind” because of their weakness.
This could possibly be argued how women were portrayed as “slaves” as men have the physical and stereotypical power to rule against them. In contrast Tess in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” could be seen as a “slave” to her own family, as she goes to work in the D’Urberville household to collect money for her family at home, “she ought to make her way with ‘en, if she plays her trump card aright. And if he don’t marry her afore he will after. “. Tess’ mother sends Tess away for work, however she realises Alec’s love for Tess and hopes for marriage.
One could suggest her mother wants her to be married to Alec for the money which could present Tess to be a “slave” in another meaning. However she includes “if she plays her trump card aright. ”, which is ironic for Tess as it seems as if she has no “trump” card in her pack. In “King Lear”, Shakespeare relates grown men to compare with “babes” “…to shake all cares and business from our age; conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburthen’d crawl toward death”. It seems as if Lear is ready to retire, as he adopts the “royal we” making the event seem important.
Shakespeare has displayed Lear as a “weak”, “old man”, however he gives another mental image of Lear “crawling toward death” like a baby. One could argue old age is similar to being a baby as it leaves you “weak” and powerless. Goneril and Regan’s distaste to Lear humiliates him as they say “O, sir, you are old…” showing how they as female characters have greater power and order over Lear. The image of a baby in seen in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, however it is used in another sense. Tess’ baby could be seen as a symbolic feature for Tess’ bad luck which Tess could not control.
The baby could symbolise innocence like Tess as she has done nothing wrong however she is still punished by society, for an act she could not control. This is ironic as a baby could suggest new beginning, purity and usually visualised with a mother figure. In comparison a baby is presented in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, where Elizabeth-Jane is the step daughter of Henchard, as the previous baby died, “the little one too – the more the merrier! ” The baby could symbolise the past and change, as when she died another baby was born – Elizabeth- Jane which could suggest a new beginning.
Hardy used Elizabeth-Jane’s hair colour to foreshadow the future how she was not Henchard’s legitimate daughter. As Hardy’s novels were in the form of serialisation the theme of “foreshadowing” became present in most of his novels. Differently in “King Lear” there is no mother figure for Lear’s daughters. Goneril and Regan are seen to be violent female characters in the play; it raises the question would they be more feminine and caring if they had a mother to look out for them?
Women are seen to be able to nurture and care for their children whereas one could say Lear caused his own downfall by failing to provide a mother figure. As Lear says “Come on, my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold? ” this is the first time Lear is aware of the suffering of others, and acts like a “mother figure” to the fool, however it is the wrong time. Similarly the absent role of a mother figure is seen in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, as Susan dies Elizabeth- Jane is left with Henchard.
Elizabeth –Jane begins to like Farfrae as she believes “he seemed to feel exactly as she felt about life”, presenting how although she has no mother figure to look out for her, her strong insight helps her to continue her life. As Susan left Henchard a letter explaining how Elizabeth-Jane was not his daughter, it seems as if he “disowned” her by making her leave his house. The mother figure was seen to have a responsibility which Henchard as a male could not adapt to although Elizabeth-Jane was seen to be a step daughter to him.
Differently Hardy uses the mother figure in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” however she is not present too often. We see her control Tess unlike in “King Lear” and “The Mayor of Casterbridge” where there is a father figure with no sense of control. Tess is made to go to the D’Urberville’s house by her mother, where one could say Tess’ misfortunes began. She could represent time as although she is seen to be uneducated she still believes in “old superstitions”, “Between the mother, with her fast- perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore…” Mrs Durbeyfield could also represent pre-industrial England with the “folk-lore” at that time.
Both writers discuss the theme of women, however they are portrayed differently. “King Lear” focuses on women gaining power and having control over the male characters. The female characters in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” again have different roles, although this is mainly because the novel is set in the Victorian period where women’s roles were to take care of their husbands and children. Lastly “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” displays how male characters have a strong control over women, and how this affects their overall lives.