goneril king lear character analysis Imogen Cymbeline shakespeare

Debating women in Shakespeare (II): Goneril & Imogen | Character analysis

Following my previous post on Lady Macbeth and Desdemona, in which I suggest that neither character is as bad or good as popular opinion would have us believe, I’d like us to push the moral spectrum further towards each end by looking at Goneril (King Lear) and Imogen (Cymbeline) – characters that most would agree are just as evil or virtuous as they seem. 

Both King Lear and Cymbeline share a source text – Holinshed’s Chronicles (also Macbeth’s), a lot of which is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae.

Where the intricacies and complexities of characterisation are concerned, these were largely down to Shakespeare’s humanistic imagination. Cordelia’s poignancy is compounded in contrast with Goneril and Regan’s malice, while Imogen’s goodness is highlighted by the Queen’s treachery and Iachimo’s skulduggery. 

By the way, I have written posts on the portrayal of blindness in King Lear and the presentation of masculine self-consciousness in Cymbeline (and Othello), which you should check out for a more male character-centric analysis of the plays. 

In this post, though, we’re looking at the women. 

Goneril vs Imogen – the baddie vs the goodie (… but, really?) 

In King Lear (1605-6), it’s clear that Goneril – and her sister, Regan – are the villains, with everything they do oozing abhorrence and inviting hatred from all. Indeed, this sisterly duo is so hateful that even Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, comments upon seeing their corpses that “their bodies, be they alive or dead,/This judgment of the heavens… Touches us not with pity” (5.3). 

In Cymbeline (1610), on the other hand, Imogen’s loyalty, bravery and intelligence command natural admiration. This is a character who, while virtuous almost to a fault, is able to lean on sheer strength of character and depend not on the crutches of pity, as when she asks Iachimo, “what wreck discern you in me/Deserves your pity?”

Specifically, the juxtaposition of Goneril and Imogen makes for an intriguing comparison vis-a-vis Lady Macbeth and Desdemona, because Goneril is what Lady Macbeth would have been had the latter been completely un-pitiable, and Imogen would likely have ended up like Desdemona had she been less fortunate. 

Similar to my approach in the Lady Macbeth v. Desdemona post, I’m going to set myself the challenge of taking the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ stance by arguing that for all of Goneril’s hatefulness (even she herself calls it “my hateful life”, 4.2), Shakespeare still makes it possible for us to sympathise with her. And likewise, in spite of Imogen’s faultlessness, there remain aspects to her character that are resolutely human, and thus, flawed. 

Why Goneril is less evil than we think: “O the difference of man and man!”

goneril king lear character analysis o the difference of man and man shakespeare

When we think of Goneril, what is the first thing that comes to mind? 

Most probably, her evil machinations, and the role she plays in bringing about her father and sisters’ tragedy (Lear and Cordelia, obviously, but even Regan, whom she poisons at the end).

So we can agree that she’s an evil character, but how often do we consider the cause of her evil actions?

This, by the way, isn’t about justifying Goneril’s behaviour, but about examining the root of her motives in an attempt to practice hermeneutic empathy and open up more interpretative grounds. 

A woman constantly let down by men

Notice that Goneril, for all her ruthlessness, is constantly let down by the men in her life. From Lear’s favouritism to Albany’s meekness to Edmund’s betrayal, there’s an argument to be made that Goneril’s actions are, in fact, reactions to disappointments from men. 

She sees Cordelia as a rival because Lear’s affections have always been biased towards his youngest daughter; she takes matters into her own deadly hands because Albany (to her) is too weak and indecisive; she falls for Edmund because she can’t find the masculine strength she desires in her husband. Thrown into a concoction with Goneril’s rottenness as the primary ingredient, these triggers accelerate the tragic course of the play. 

Lear the father as a disappointment: Never daddy’s girl

We first find out about Lear’s unequal love in Goneril and Regan’s tete-a-tete after Cordelia’s banishment, when she comments – 

You see how full of changes his age is; the
observation we have made of it hath not been
little: he always loved our sister most; and
With what poor judgment he hath now cast her off
appears too grossly. 

(Act 1 Scene 1)

Here, Goneril implies that it isn’t Regan and herself that’s to blame for Cordelia’s ill treatment, but rather, Lear’s “poor judgment”. They were simply shrewd enough to say what their father had wanted to hear, and that in itself is no crime. 

In fact, even Goneril deems Lear’s act “too grossly”, but she sees this as an opportunity for her to exploit. And so the genesis of her opportunism, she believes, lies with Lear, as she goes on to remark – 

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

(Act 1 Scene 1)

The negative connotations in Goneril’s diction – “rash”, “imperfections” and “unruly waywardness” – reveal her wariness of Lear’s unpredictable behaviour and her disapproval (in principle) of their father’s banishment of Cordelia. Nonetheless, because Goneril is a practitioner of realpolitik, she will react in ways most beneficial to her interest, and if this is facilitated by circumstances created by others’ weaknesses, then tough. 

Later, when Lear stays with his eldest daughter, bringing along his “hundred knights and squires” (2.4), Goneril berates Lear for his incompetence, which is partly out of selfish concerns (“By day and night he wrongs me… I’ll not endure it”), but also partly out of a reasonable exasperation at the King’s sloppy leadership – 

This admiration, sir, is much o’ the savour
Of other your new pranks. I do beseech you
To understand my purposes aright:
As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.
Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires;
Men so disorder’d, so debosh’d and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn: epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a graced palace. The shame itself doth speak
For instant remedy: be then desired
By her, that else will take the thing she begs,
A little to disquantity your train;
And the remainder, that shall still depend,
To be such men as may besort your age,
And know themselves and you.

(Act 1 Scene 4)

Is this a speech of filial disrespect? Or is it also a fair description of failed leadership? The simile that compares “our court” as being “like a riotous inn… like a tavern or a brothel/Than a graced palace” seems to suggest that the chaotic situation is too dire for nothing to be said, while the alliterative plosives in “Men so disordered, so deboshed and bold” conveys a level of brashness on the part of Lear’s retinue that Goneril – now newly installed in power – finds unacceptable. 

What emerges from her words, then, is a difference in approach to authority. 

And if, according to Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare’s world constantly told itself that authority naturally inhered in the elderly”, then this sort of open, unabashed commentary from a daughter to her father about his political ineptitude is remarkable – both for its irreverence and audacity. 

Had Goneril simply been power hungry, she wouldn’t have to be concerned about the undesirable optics resulting from the behavioural excesses and loose negligence of a stubborn, old king. That she would ask for order and restraint to be maintained at court is perhaps a reflection that she cares about more than just grabbing power, but also about preserving the dignity of the court. 

It seems that Goneril’s churlishness has a point; it’s not so much a sign of insolent ingratitude from a daughter as it is a reflection of bottled-up impatience from an up-and-coming monarch.

Albany the husband as a disappointment: Never man enough

Besides her father, Goneril is similarly disappointed with her husband, the Duke of Albany. 

Unlike the Macbeths, who for the most part are committed partners-in-crime, Goneril and Albany are shown to be incompatible from the get-go. 

For example, upon seeing an enraged Lear, Albany is uncomfortable with the sight of the spurned old man, and tries to convince his wife not to be unnecessarily harsh – all the while reassuring her of his love (“I cannot be so partial, Goneril,/To the great love I bear you”, 1.4). 

But early on, it’s clear that husband and wife’s value systems are polar opposites – 

GONERIL

[…] No, no, my lord,
This milky gentleness and course of yours
Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
You are much more attask’d for want of wisdom
Than praised for harmful mildness. 

ALBANY

How far your eyes may pierce I can not tell:
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well. 

(Act 1 Scene 4)

To the audience, Albany is a man with a conscience and the foil to his ruthless wife; to Goneril, he is a wimp and the foil to Edmund, whom she’ll fall for later in the play. 

Goneril’s reference to “milky gentleness” recalls Lady Macbeth’s comment on her husband as being “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”, but the interesting phrase here is the oxymoronic “harmful mildness”. 

Applied to Albany, Goneril means that his appeasing nature is a sign of weakness, but the notion that being mild and agreeable could be damaging to one is also indicative of a deep-rooted insecurity that perhaps only a woman – culturally expected to behave with “mildness” – would harbour. 

It’s surely apt, then, for her husband to comment on “how far [her] eyes may pierce”, because Goneril does seem to show proto-feministic sensibility that’s either reminiscent of Elizabeth I, or is way ahead of her time (which is not Renaissance England, but Ancient Britain, the time in which King Lear is set). 

But to Goneril’s oxymoron Albany counterposes a thought-provoking paradox – “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”, i.e. we often destroy what we seek to improve. The chiasmic mirroring of “better” and “mar” reinforces the idea of ‘destruction’ and ‘improvement’ as two sides of the same coin, but also underscores that to some extent, Goneril’s discontent with Lear is borne out of a genuine, professional concern for improving what’s currently broken. 

Towards the end, Shakespeare presents the unfortunate ends of a marriage built on incompatible values, and also gives us a reason to feel a bit sorry for Goneril. 

For most of the play, Goneril is portrayed in a masculine light, but we find out after Goneril and Edmund arrive at the former’s palace that she has strong feminine desires – it’s just that her husband, Albany, hasn’t been ‘masculine’ enough for her. Upon kissing Edmund and hearing his pledge to be faithful to her “in the ranks of death” (which he’ll soon renege on when the tides turn), Goneril exclaims out of his earshot – 

O, the difference of man and man!
To thee a woman’s services are due:
My fool usurps my body.

(Act 4 Scene 2)

Again, we feel her exasperation, this time not as a daughter, but as a wife who feels like she’s married to an unmanly man. The irony in her tautological “man and man” phrase, however, is that the sort of man she deems ‘real’ and worthy of respect behaves in inhumane (and thus, un-man-like) ways, an example of which is Edmund’s treacherous betrayal of both his father Gloucester and his half-brother Edgar. So, a more appropriate line would perhaps be “the difference of man and beast”. 

For all the masculine energy Goneril exudes, she sees Edmund as being the man to whom “a woman’s services are due”, here implying her willingness to give and ‘serve’ him in a secondary position. 

It’s also ironic that she should use the word “usurps” in “my fool usurps my body”, because far from Albany having taken wrongful possession of her body (which at this point he is thoroughly repulsed by anyway), Goneril is the one who has shown the desire and power to ‘usurp’ her father’s authority. Besides, in Goneril’s eyes, Albany doesn’t have the guts to pursue much of anything, as she later exclaims – 

Milk-liver’d man!
That bear’st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs;
Who hast not in thy brows an eye discerning
Thine honour from thy suffering; that not know’st
Fools do those villains pity who are punish’d
Ere they have done their mischief. Where’s thy drum?
France spreads his banners in our noiseless land;
With plumed helm thy slayer begins threats;
Whiles thou, a moral fool, sit’st still, and criest
‘Alack, why does he so?’ 

(Act 4 Scene 2)

The description Goneril ascribes to Albany – “a moral fool” – exposes the essence of her value system: it is foolish to put morality before power. It’s also silly to prioritise reflection over action, which is why she mocks her husband for dilly-dallying and not doing anything to fight against the French. 

But despite her self-serving nature and brutal schemes against Gloucester, Lear and Cordelia, Goneril’s concern here is also for the state. She reminds Albany that “France” – not Cordelia or her army – is nearing and about to encroach their territory, which again reveals that her mind, notwithstanding its capacity for inhumane thoughts, is concerned with matters beyond her own desires, and that she isn’t so self-centered as to be an entirely monstrous or villainous character. 

The death of Cordelia

Why Imogen is more human than she seems: “You put me to forget a lady’s manners”

imogen cymbeline shakespeare character analysis

The plot of Cymbeline is a tapestry of Shakespearean plays, as it bears various echoes of earlier works:

The scheming Iachimo is basically Iago with a conscience, as Iachimo confesses to his libelous shenanigans at the end, whereas Iago never repents. 

The paternalistic Cymbeline reminds us of both Brabantio and King Lear, whose daughters, like Imogen, behave in supposedly disobedient ways. 

The gullible Posthumus Leonatus carries more than a whiff of Othello’s rashness, as both men conclude that their wives have been unfaithful based on flimsy evidence and a crippling sense of inferiority. 

Of course, there’s also Imogen the heroine, who wakes up from a coma to find a dead body lying beside her, and mistakes it for her husband Posthumus’ – a twist on Romeo and Juliet

Had Imogen died, her fate would have ended up not that much different from Desdemona’s, and Cymbeline would be classified as one of the Bard’s great tragedies. (Interestingly, Cymbeline is titled ‘The Tragedie of Cymbeline’ in the First Folio, but the play – as one that ends in resolved conflicts – doesn’t fit the tragic formula, which necessitates carnage/catastrophe in the conclusion.) 

Given that Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s final plays (its first recorded performance was in 1611), it’s certainly not surprising for earlier material to be recycled – subconsciously or otherwise – in this later work. Critics have long commented on the “artlessness” of Imogen, which implies that there’s really not much to her character that one can dislike. 

I largely agree with this sentiment, but I suspect that what makes Imogen so likeable isn’t just her unflinching virtue, but her ‘humanness’, i.e. her flaws.

ellen terry cymbeline imogen
Ellen Terry as Imogen in the 1896 stage adaptation of Cymbeline

Wait, Imogen has flaws…??

Unlike Desdemona, Imogen is arguably more dynamic as a theatrical construct. She’s not just a spurned and wronged wife – she also gets to cross-dress as a boy and fight on the battlefield. 

We see Imogen in both her weak and strong moments, which perhaps makes her more relatable than Desdemona or even Ophelia in Hamlet

As a wife, Imogen’s steadfast devotion to Posthumus is a sign of maturity, but there’s nonetheless a certain childlikeness in the way she speaks or responds to situations and people she finds irritating. Her spunky personality is endearing per se, but the circumstances in which she’s placed often casts this spunkiness in a somewhat problematic light. Imogen can also be quite melodramatic at points, which – performance depending – could tip the needle on whether she comes across as whiny or expressive. 

Stylistically speaking, hyperbole is Imogen’s signature trope. For instance, when Posthumus departs Britain on Cymbeline’s banishment order, Imogen does not hold back from openly expressing the depth of her melancholy and her burning desire for their reunion. 

As she says to Pisanio, their servant: 
I would thou grew’st unto the shores o’ the haven,
And question’dst every sail: if he should write
And not have it, ‘twere a paper lost,
As offer’d mercy is. What was the last 
That he spake to thee? 

(Act 1 Scene 3)

Save for the superlative of “question’dst every sail”, which lays bare her ardent desire to see Posthumus again, the analogy of “a paper lost” with “offer’d mercy” raises questions about the power dynamics of their marriage – if she were to lose her husband’s note, she claims, it would be equivalent to a defeated person rejecting his victor’s mercy. 

This implies that she sees herself as an already-defeated subject whose default position is to receive mercy, and in this case, the ‘victor’ is affixed in her mind as her husband. This power imbalance forebodes what will happen later in the play, when Imogen must self-exile to escape wrongful persecution from Posthumus, and is only rescued by the mercy of Belarius and his sons, as well as that of the Roman ambassador Caius Lucius, before her husband finally accepts the error and blindness of his judgment. 

The superlatives don’t end there, as Imogen continues to amplify her grief over their separation with overblown comparisons:

I would have broke mine eye-strings; crack’d them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle,
Nay, follow’d him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air, and then
Have turn’d mine eye and wept. […] 

(Act 1 Scene 3)

The motif of female suffering carries on here, as she willingly casts herself in the role of a forlorn lover who pines after her spouse. But the imagery of her perspective being “sharp as my needle” also carries connotations of pain, and indeed, as the action unfolds, we see that husband and wife do operate under the impression (albeit misleading) of mutual hurt, with Posthumus believing that Imogen has betrayed him, and Imogen aghast over Posthumus’ lack of faith in her. 

Likewise, the other comparison of him “melt[ing] from/The smallness of a gnat to air” is curious. Given the general association of gnats with pests, it seems strange that Imogen would compare such an unwelcome creature to her lover. Again, this possibly foreshadows the ‘pestering’ influences that will soon surround Imogen, including Cloten’s pursuits, Iachimo’s seduction, and even Posthumus’ own misunderstanding of his wife. 

Ironically, of course, she will also “turn her eye and weep” because of Posthumus, but for rather different reasons than missing him. 

Honest, or just too blunt?

Another aspect of Imogen’s humanity is her straight-shooting personality, which could be perceived as a lack of diplomacy and tact. 

This is especially evident in her rebuke of Cloten’s advances in Act 2 Scene 3. While she makes no secret of her disdain for the Queen’s son (and her father’s stepson), she also shows no reservations in expressing her disdain to his face. 

To anyone who’s even remotely ‘feministic’, this reflects Imogen in a positive light, but in terms of human relations, her blunt attitude towards a man she doesn’t love is also a sign that she lacks empathy. 

Granted, she does at first warn Cloten that if he doesn’t leave her alone, she “shall unfold equal discourtesy/To your best kindness”, and it’s only after he persists that she explodes with unforgiving honesty:

[…] I am much sorry, sir,
You put me to forget a lady’s manners,
By being so verbal: and learn now, for all,
That I, which know my heart, do here pronounce,
By the very truth of it, I care not for you,
And am so near the lack of charity –
To accuse myself – I hate you; which I had rather
You felt than make’t my boast.

(Act 2 Scene 3)

Note the anacoluthic rhythm in Imogen’s response here, which is quite distinct from the lyrical enjambment in those speeches where she laments Posthumus’ departure. (Anacoluthon is the technique for a change in sentence construction, which breaks up an initial sentence to introduce a sudden interpolated thought.)

In the face of Cloten’s annoying pursuit, Imogen lets her emotions rip, as she struggles to blurt out – all at once – her extreme hatred for the “profane fellow”. The frequent caesurae punctuating her lines show that Imogen is quick to lose composure (“That I, which know my heart, do here pronounce,/By the very truth of it, I care not for you, Am so near the lack of charity – /To accuse myself – I hate you;”), which in turn triggers the rage and humiliation that her pursuer feels. 

For many, this only reinforces the rawness of her portrayal, and ergo makes her more likeable. But more importantly, it is precisely these ‘imperfections’ – one’s inability to hold it in all the time, or one’s emotional authenticity at the expense of tact – which renders a female character like Imogen so likeable. And this likeability effect is not something that the portrayal of a ‘flawless’, ‘virtuous’ or ‘pure’ woman can ever achieve. 

imogen cloten cymbeline

How to react when your husband wants to kill you

The apex of Imogen’s melodramatics comes in Act 3 Scene 4, when Pisanio reveals the true motives behind his bringing her to Milford Haven: Posthumus wants him to kill her. 

Reasonably distraught, Imogen launches into an anguished speech of the most poetic register:  

True honest men being heard, like false Aeneas,
Were in his time thought false, and Sinon’s weeping
Did scandal many a holy tear, took pity
From most true wretchedness: so thou, Posthumus,
Wilt lay the leaven on all proper men;
Goodly and gallant shall be false and perjured
From thy great fall. Come, fellow, be thou honest:
Do thou thy master’s bidding: when thou see’st him,
A little witness my obedience: look!
I draw the sword myself: take it, and hit
The innocent mansion of my love, my heart;
Fear not; ’tis empty of all things but grief;
Thy master is not there, who was indeed
The riches of it: do his bidding; strike
Thou mayst be valiant in a better cause;
But now thou seem’st a coward.

(Act 3 Scene 4)

Her allusive references to Aeneas and Sinon – “false” men in Roman myth (Aeneas having abandoned his lover Dido and Sinon letting the Trojan horse into Troy) – rope Posthumus into the same ranks of infamy, and she delivers her condemnation with all the force pent up in her superlatives: “Posthumus,/Wilt lay the leaven on all proper men”, which means that all good men thereafter will be tainted by her husband’s rottenness, implying her total loss of faith in the male sex. 

Despite her intense disappointment with Posthumus, however, Imogen demonstrates the same kind of wifely compliance that Desdemona shows at the hands of Othello’s abuse, as she insists that Pisanio carry out his master’s order (“do his bidding”). 

Still, she makes sure that she gets to rant before she dies, as she calls Posthumus a “false teacher” who has “set up/My disobedience against the king my father/And me put into contempt the suits/Of princely fellows”. 

You will never find a better woman than me, Imogen declares (and rightly so, as the play goes on to show). 

Pamela Adlon GIF by Better Things

Ultimately, none of the verbal hysterics will deter her from pursuing the extreme course of action – die as ordained by her husband, and this perverse obedience somewhat undercuts the feministic energy that she exudes in so much of the play. 

This split between Imogen’s strength as a woman who will speak her mind and her powerlessness in the face of a man’s wrath is striking, but also adds to the pathos we feel towards a female character who has all the potential to vanquish men, and yet is constrained by her time and place to comply with cruel, senseless commands doled out in a whim.

For a detailed analysis on other Shakespearean plays, check out my posts below: 

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