‘By day and night he wrongs me…I’ll not endure it’: The Gender Politics of Rewriting King Lear – Nora Selmani

Nora Selmani is a final year English and Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham. Her interests include diasporic literature, feminist readings of everything, and poetry. 


Kaede and Jiro in Kurosawa’s Ran. 


‘By day and night he wrongs me…I’ll not endure it’: The Gender Politics of Rewriting King Lear

The tragedy of King Lear has been found, by critics and writers alike to be somewhat lacking with regards to its characters’ history and motivations. The roles of Goneril and Regan in particular have caused considerable critical controversy; academics of Shakespeare have either blindly accepted their presence as the antitheses to the angelic Cordelia[1] with no desire to explore extra-textual pasts, or have argued that Shakespeare’s incomplete characterisation of the sisters prevented them from talking about the injustices done to them.[2] With no soliloquies offered to the sisters throughout the play, one cannot help but wonder what sympathies they would have generated had they been given the opportunity to reflect on their relationship with their father. It is also worth asking what role their mothers would have played, King Lear itself being a notoriously motherless play. Adaptors and appropriators of King Lear grapple with this dilemma themselves, motivated by a desire to ‘explain’ or fill out the narrative. This essay will be considering the novel A Thousand Acres and the film Ran as examples of these rewritings, looking at their representations of Goneril in their narratives.

What is striking about these particular adaptations is their constructions of a past for the characters. Jane Smiley and Akira Kurosawa have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with the exclusion of history in the Shakespeare; Smiley herself explicitly stating her desire to write back to Shakespeare, to give Goneril the opportunity to speak.[3] As a means of achieving this, she employs a first person narrative, offered from Ginny’s perspective, Ginny being Smiley’s Midwestern Goneril. This reframing allows Smiley to create a site of toxic masculinity which Ginny must simultaneously escape and unlearn. The anxiety of an obscured and unknowable past is one that Kurosawa also shares, noting in an interview that the absence of history in Lear troubled him.[4] Kurosawa’s film takes place in feudal Japan in the midst of peace after a decades of unrest. The perpetual moment of  chaos within the film provides a space for the construction of a regional and therefore personal history defined by conflict.  These writers make explicit their desire to locate a history within the perpetual present of King Lear and to give voice to those whose voices are restricted. To make sense of this idea of a past and the importance of upbringing in the context of these two texts I will be referring to Cristina Leon Alfar’s illuminating essay ‘Looking for Goneril and Regan’ which suggests that the behaviour of the sisters is due to their upbringing in a viciously male-dominated sphere where the expectation is that to gain and retain power, ruthless masculine behaviour must be performed.[5]

My focus will be on this notion of a learned behaviour which is violent, chaotic, and stifling of femininity, and its effect on the representation of Goneril in Smiley and Kurosawa’s respective texts. In A Thousand Acres, Ginny is indisputably representative of Goneril, however finding distinct character parallels in Ran is more problematic. Kurosawa has experimented with the characters, splitting and doubling them, and has obscured their distinctive traits so that the division that A.C. Bradley suggests is seen in King Lear is confused.[6]  However, criticism on Ran has generally suggested that Kaede’s character is the most representative of Goneril and I cannot help but agree for reasons I will detail during the course of this essay, but I argue that it is imperative that Taro, Hidetora’s oldest son, be briefly considered in discussion of Goneril’s representation, as to avoid doing so would be to disregard Kurosawa’s problematization of moral distinctions in the face of immoral war.

It seems quite fitting to begin the exploration of Ginny and Kaede/Taro’s pasts by discussing their mothers. The absence of the mother in King Lear has been explored quite thoroughly in Shakespearean criticism, most notably by Coppélia Kahn in her essay aptly titled ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear.’[7] However while Kahn looks at the absence of maternity and its effects on King Lear, I would like explore how the absence of the mother and conditions of motherhood inform the characterisation of Ginny and Kaede, who acknowledge their mothers during the course of the texts, and Taro whose mother is not addressed at all. The daughters, the women in these texts, are haunted by their mothers and unsuccessfully try to break from maternal roles whilst reconciling themselves with that absence. In King Lear, the mothers are only spoken into existence by lone fathers, and Lear’s mention of the mother of his daughters comes in a veiled threat to Regan, ‘if thou shouldst not be glad I would divorce me from thy mother’s shrine, sepulchring an adultress’ (II.ii.301-4)[8]. Lear verbally absolves himself of responsibility in terms of the character that has been bred into his daughters, laying the negative traits of parenthood at the shrine of the mother, thus denigrating motherhood in a manner that gives way to the sisters’ distancing of themselves from it. When he is refused the motherhood he craves, it manifests in him through sickness, ‘mother swells up towards my heart’ (II.ii.231). The mother is weakness which must stringently be avoided, but this circumvention can only be achieved if someone is available to occupy that role.

Caroline Cakebread puts forward the argument that Ginny’s life is defined by negative maternal encounters.[9] This is in many ways inevitable, given the negative figuring of motherhood within Smiley’s source text. One of the most shocking moments in King Lear is the misogyny-charged tirade that Lear launches at Goneril which is grounded in sexuality and reproduction: ‘into her womb convey sterility, dry up in her the organs of increase’ (I.iv.257-258.) Similarly, in being denied the maternal care that he demands, Larry seeks to prevent Ginny from escaping the shackles of surrogacy. Smiley takes this Shakespearean moment and expands on it, amplifying the sexism of the Shakespeare through the incorporation of sexually violent slurs, ‘you barren whore’, ‘you slut’, dried-up whore bitch’ (181).[10] Motherhood is a source of anxiety for Larry because it threatens his dominance over Ginny; his command of her maternal care allows him to have ownership over her time and therefore of her. In response to this, Ginny looks in many ways to locate her mother, attempting to connect with motherhood in concrete ways but is floundered by her miscarriages, which force her to perpetuate her role as primary caregiver for her father. This inability to adequately occupy that maternal space in her own terms causes her be affected by her nieces ‘like a poison’ (8). This idea of ‘poison’ runs throughout the narrative, taking shape in the form of cancer, the sausages; and a toxic masculinity which drives the farmers to poison the land with nitrates and allows them to intoxicate and subdue the women in Zebulon County.

Ginny and Kaede are explicit in their acknowledgement of their mothers, or more specifically, in the acknowledgement of their absence. The death of the mothers is inspired by overt patriarchal forces; the violence brought about by Hidetora causes Kaede’s mother to take her own life , whereas the terminal cancer of Ginny’s mother has been exacerbated by the men’s patri-colonial pursuit of ruling the land. The mothers are acknowledged as being dead but are never adequately accounted for thus leaving their children – more specifically their daughters in the case of Ginny and Kaede – with a space to fill and avenge. In Ran, as Kaede reveals her mother’s death her voice is even, her gaze pointed to the floor. She has her hands folded in her lap but avoids eye contact with her husband Taro.[11] Her voice is eerily quiet and one can almost imagine the ghost of her mother in the spot that she fixates upon. The absence of emotion in her voice is suggestive of a quiet motivation. This undercurrent of evenness suggests a desire for balance, ‘I have waited for this day ever since’. However, Kaede’s pursuit for revenge forces her to repeat history, occupying the role of her absent mother, as the space left behind becomes occupied by self-destructive chaos.

Chaotic motherhood also informs the character of Taro-as-Goneril. During Ran’s equivalent of the division of the kingdom, Hidetora’s youngest son Saburo protests his father’s decision to place blind faith in his sons, observing that, ‘we are children of this chaos’, that the strife and treachery that he and his brothers have been exposed to has generated a model of behaviour for them to follow. Hidetora’s means of accumulating power have been violent; burning down castles with their families inside, and using his sons as pawns to seize power from his daughter-in laws’ families. However, the wording of Saburo’s claims has deeper matrilineal implications, ‘children of’ also suggests birthed of, and in the absence of a maternal figure, chaos becomes the mother. Therefore if, as Alfar argues about Goneril, the love from his father has always been bound up in obedience and authority, then Taro cannot help but forego filial obligations for power.[12] In some ways, Kahn and Saunders suggest that the absence of a mother cause the tragedies in the play.[13]  It is Lear’s need to be mothered that is his undoing, however in Ran it is the inability to escape the spectre of her mother and the ‘chaos’ that has nurtured her and Taro that causes tragedy for Kaede. The patriarchal instinct instilled in these Gonerils through their exposure to violent masculinist behaviours can only have tragic outcomes. Ginny severing ties with the farm allows her survival, whereas Kaede and Taro are unable to escape the influence of mother chaos, Kaede confining herself to the poisonous interiority of the castle, therefore they must die.

Physicality in these two texts contributes to the conception of the characters and their history, allowing us to see various placements and displacements of power. Shakespeare offers little physical description of the sisters, leaving Smiley and Kurosawa more gaps to fill, more shadowy elements to bring to light. Kurosawa explores Kaede’s physicality in external terms, through the impenetrable camera lens where the viewer is constantly placed at a calculated distance from her. Much of the critical reception of Ran has assumed Kaede’s position as the embodiment of all that may be perceived as evil in King Lear.[14] The printed screenplay and the accompanying illustrated storyboards appear to suggest that Kurosawa’s initial intention was to figure Kaede as a supernatural evil. The illustrations depict Kaede as serpent-like, her eyes glow yellow and the colours red and green dominate these panels. Although she appears human in form, the jerky and angular illustrations with their rapid brush strokes and sketchy colouring complicate and obscure her humanity.[15]

As Julie Kane notes, Kurosawa readily and consistently invokes imagery of the fox in relation to Kaede.[16] More explicitly, it is the idea of the kitsune which is used to colour our perceptions of her. Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox , which is more specifically used to refer to the spirit from Japanese folklore which is known for its desire to trick and deceive humans. Through this, the incomprehensibility of Kaede’s magnitudes of viciousness and evil are flirted with. This element is retained in the film through repeated references to kitsune folk tales in implicit relation to Kaede, and Kurogawa’s exclamation of ‘fox-devil’ as he executes her. To further this dehumanisation, ‘smoke hovers over her body’ after her death in the screenplay, elaborating on the supernatural elements gestured towards by the other characters throughout.[17] In some ways , this acts as an expansion of the idea of the unnatural which pervades descriptions of the sisters in King Lear by Lear – ‘unnatural hags’ (II.ii.452) – Gloucester and Kent, and within criticism. Their perceived coldness towards their father is seen as being unnatural for women who are expected to be accommodatingly maternal. However, it is interesting to note that the supernatural elements, beyond reference, are not in the final film. Kaede’s death remains clinical, a beheading only made clear by the garish splatter of blood on a paper-thin white wall. Her humanity has been compromised, but has not been completely negated.

Smiley’s novel is hindered by its first person narrative with respect to visualising Ginny. In many ways this is reflective of the internalised vision Smiley had of Lear in her downscaling and domestication of the setting. Locating moments of Ginny’s physicality may be difficult, however the descriptions that she does offer of herself are deconstructively sexualised; there is a dissociation between Ginny and her own body, which only allows herself to see her body in terms of the male gaze. It is the gaze of her father in particular she cannot escape from. Running to get his eggs, she imagines herself ‘naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable’ (114-115). There is no sense of ownership of her body, there is a ‘self-conscious distance’ which occupies her (p.227), the ‘jiggling’ body parts become a spectacle of indignity which she observes as an outsider to herself. Like Kaede and Goneril, the men around her define her but the introspective nature of the narrative presents these definitions as internalised. Larry’s physical domination of Ginny means that her consciousness cannot escape his ‘looming… presence’ (170); she is consistently denied the opportunity to occupy space within her own internal monologue. She is so desperate to reclaim her body, to carve a space out for herself that she takes joy in engaging in a ‘private project’ (p.26) of getting pregnant, without the knowledge of Tyler, which gives her access to a ‘whole secret world’. Through the ‘secret world’ of her body, she is able to create and navigate another world where she can only be defined in her own terms as it is inaccessible to men. This is the dangerous power of motherhood.

The decision by Smiley to keep the sororicidal poisoning seems to be counter-productive regarding Smiley’s aims for the novel, as it complicates the idea of Ginny as a victim in this novel which is supposed to side with her. However, the inclusion of this moment that is glossed over in three lines in the Shakespeare actually allows Smiley to expand her commentary on the pervasiveness of poisonous patriarchal values that mean that ‘everything is toxic’ (29) in this novel. Throughout the novel, women have been pitted against each other: Ginny against Rose by their father, Ginny and Rose against Caroline, Ginny’s mother against Ginny explicitly by Larry ‘there’s only one side’ (183).  This has been encouraged by , and been beneficial to, the men in the novel. It has allowed Larry to continue exercising power over his daughters, as their subconscious rivalry prevents them from questioning his authority. The men poison the women’s relationships with each other as well as literally poisoning them. If we make personal the politics of Alfar’s theory, that the sisters imitate the political ruthlessness of their father due to their exposure to it, then we begin to see that this self-loathing is learned.[18] The desire to destroy women is so ingrained within this Midwestern farming community that the women themselves cannot help but succumb to it. Ginny acknowledges that there is a culture in Zebulon County that does nothing to discourage this kind of treatment towards women when Tyler visits her in the café, ‘do I think that daddy came up with beating and fucking us all on his own?… No.’ (343). There is a cultural consensus that allows the patriarch to ‘divide and conquer’ and retain respect and power despite, or rather because of, his transgressions.

A fundamental point to make about the poisoning in A Thousand Acres is that it allows Ginny to speak for herself. In King Lear, Goneril’s confession to her crime is not delivered by Goneril herself but by the Gentleman who seeks help from Albany. Her actions and motivations remain defined and verbalised by the male characters that surround her. Where the Gentleman claims ‘she confesses it’ (V.iii.202), there is only silence, she is not on stage and when she enters, her dead body cannot be held to account. Sanders asserts that Smiley, rather than rewriting the politics of ‘King Lear’, is elaborating on what is already present in the themes of the play,[19] and this is clearly apparent in the refiguring of the poisoning where this brief, mediated confession becomes ‘two weeks’ (312) worth of careful planning, each detail painstakingly described by Ginny. Arguably, Smiley addresses the problem of Ginny’s innocence through the past tense; Ginny is reflective, commenting that perhaps she was ‘not [herself]’ (305) after having her past revealed to her, having to refigure her life and what she knew about herself. Ginny’s acknowledgement of her guilt is muffled by the trauma of her past. It does seem unusual that unassuming Ginny Cook would consider murdering her sister for male affection, even Rose becomes ‘surprised at last’ (355). It is difficult to brush this off as being the behaviour of someone who is ‘beside [them]self’ (305) when Ginny feels a sense of ‘pleasure and pride’ at her callousness. Smiley has refused to allow us to be wholly sympathetic towards Ginny, creating deep nuances where previously there were none.

This problematisation illustrates the depth of the negative masculine influence on Ginny, whilst exploring humanity’s relationship with the environment. Although Ginny does not poison Rose, she does reintroduce the poisoned sausages into the already polluted water system, pouring the sausages ‘down into the garbage disposal’ (366). The poisoning has not been avoided at all, but has been diverted as a means of mapping the feminine with the natural. Nature (read Mother Nature) is poisoned, as she has been throughout the novel by the men. It could be argued that Ginny has exerted a form of revenge against that which has impinged upon her happiness:  the polluted environment which caused her to have several miscarriages.  However, it also becomes apparent that despite her departure from the farm, the inherited instinct to destroy femininity through contamination remains. As Julie Sanders rightly saysthe bodies of the women within the novel are polluted in the same way that bodies of water on the farm are.[20] Throughout the novel, the characters carry poison within themselves, even at the end of the novel Ginny goes into great detail of the poisons she carries in ‘each particle’ (369): her fathers’ treatment of her, her relationships with the other characters, all of these take up space in her body. The entire novel is poisoned by masculine influence and interference. Though our perception of Ginny is jeopardised by the care she takes to try and kill Rose, none of which is accounted for in ‘King Lear’, what Smiley does is draw our attention to the poisonous culture of the farm, and to the poisonous culture around reception of King Lear which has, without reservation, accepted the treatment of the sisters as evil. In the context of nitrates and cancer, Ginny’s plans are petty and insignificant but it remains that the characters in the novel are intoxicated by their pasts, the novel intoxicated by its source text.

In Ran, the poisoning manifests itself as a pretence of sexual competitiveness. In A Thousand Acres, Ginny is a victim of the female jealousy instilled in her by the patriarchal forces around her, whereas Kaede exploits this expectation of sexual competitiveness. Kaede’s command to kill Sue can easily be seen as a parallel to Goneril’s own desire to murder Regan, however while Goneril and Ginny are motivated by sexual jealousy, Kaede only pretends to be. After seducing Jiro, she continues to manipulate him by performing the behaviour that is expected of needy women, she is possessive, telling him, ‘you are mine’. She claims that she ‘can’t stand the idea that another woman has known [his] touch’. The pitch and volume of her voice rise erratically, her movements are large and dramatic , thus playing into the stereotype of the hysterically jealous woman. However, Kurosawa does not allow us to be drawn into this deception. When the camera pans in on her when she falls to the ground in apparent tears, her back is to the dumbfounded Jiro,  we watch her as she mercilessly crushes a cockroach. Her face is expressionless and there are no tears on her face. In this moment of dramatic irony the audience is privy to the duplicity of Kaede’s character whilst being made hyperaware of her abhorrence. Kaede exploits the politics of the female body in order to gain political power in the empire so that she may exact revenge. Bartholomew Ryan’s asserts that Kaede resembles Regan by displaying a ‘violent nature in demanding the head of Jiro’s wife Sué’[21] I would argue that this is reflective of her equivalency to Goneril; it is Goneril who seeks to poison and destroy her competitor Regan, and earlier where Regan demands that Gloucester is hanged, Goneril viciously calls to ‘pluck out his eyes’ (III.vii.4.). While Goneril’s inclination towards violence remains unmediated and unexplained, Kaede manipulates the schema of jealous femininity to give herself justifiable motive. Her ultimate intention is to divide and conquer, unlike Goneril whose only real intention is to retain and protect the power given to her.

Conclusively, in her representation of Goneril, Smiley has constructed a past for Ginny which is dominated by the absence of a mother, characterised by sexual and emotional abuse, and a toxic masculinity which seeks to control the women and the land through a poisonous culture which subdues and kills them. Kurosawa’s construction of history differs contextually but is similarly motivated by a masculinity which revels in violence and power. This chaotic masculinity bred in the space left by absent femininity nurtures treachery between the characters. Kaede is characterised by her desire for revenge which stems from the chaotic environment created by Hidetora, Taro for his imperial desires which he learnt from his father,  and are enacted on him by Jiro. These histories do not simply explain the motivations of the actions of these representations of Goneril, they continue to define the characters, until they die, as Kaede and Taro do, or until they can escape their polluted environments.



[1] A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy  (Project Gutenberg, October 30, 2005 [EBook #16966]) p.252;258

[2] Marianne Novy “Partite, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear’, William Shakespeare’s King Lear ed. by Harold Bloom (New York, New Haven, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), pp.85-95.

[3] Jane Smiley, ‘About the Author’ in A Thousand Acres (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004) p.10.  

[4] Bert Cardullo, Akiru Kurosawa: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi: Mississippi, 2007) p.125.

[5] Cristina Leon Alfar, ‘Looking for Goneril and Regan’, Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy (New Jersey: Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2003) pp.79-110.

[6] A.C. Bradley p.213.

[7] Coppélia Kahn, ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear’ in Critical Insights: King Lear ed. by Jay L. Halio (Ipswich: Salem Press, 2011) pp.240-262.

[8] William Shakespeare, King Lear, in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd ed, ed. by John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005). All further references to King Lear will be to this text with the act, scene and line number in parenthesis.

[9] Caroline Cakebread ‘Remembering King Lear in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres’, in Shakespeare and Appropriation ed. by Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 96.

[10] Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004) all further references to this text will be to this edition in parenthesised page numbers.

[11] Ran, dir. by Akira Kurosawa (Studio Canal, 1985). All further references to Ran will be to this film copy.

[12] Alfar p.84.

[13] Graham Saunders, ‘“Missing Mothers and Absent Fathers”:  Howard Barker’s Seven Lears and Elaine Feinstein’s Lear’s Daughters’, Modern Drama, 42 (1999) pp.401-410.

[14] Bartholomew Ryan, ‘Deception, Nature, and Nihilism in Politics: King Lear and Kurosawa’s Ran’ in Politics Otherwise: Shakespeare as Social and Political Critique ed. by Leonidas Donskis and J.D. Mininger (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012) pp.69-83.

[15] Akira Kurosawa, Ran Screenplay (Boston: Shambhala, 1986) pp.22-23; 29; 69.

[16] Julie Kane ‘From the Baroque to the Wabi: Translating Animal Imagery from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Kurosawa’s Ran’ Literature/Film Quarterly, 25 (1997) pp.159-150.

[17] Ran Screenplay pp. 102-103.

[18] Alfar pp.81-83.

[19] Iska Alter, ‘King Lear and A Thousand Acres: Gender, Genre, and the Revisionary Impulse’, in Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women’s Revisions in Literature and Performance ed. by Marianne Novy (New York: Palgrave, 1999) p.146.

[20] Julie Sanders, Novel Shakespeares, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001) p.203.

[21] Ryan p. 75.

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