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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: July ::
Re: Female Birth-Order
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1397  Thursday, 13 July 2000.

[1]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 12 Jul 2000 21:38:49 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1387 Re: Female Birth-Order

[2]     From:   Peter Hillyar-Russ <
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        Date:   Thursday, 13 Jul 2000 08:19:37 +0100
        Subj:   Female Birth Order


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 12 Jul 2000 21:38:49 -0400
Subject: 11.1387 Re: Female Birth-Order
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1387 Re: Female Birth-Order

Taking off from Abigail Quart's remarks on female primogeniture and
Lear, I'd like to suggest that Lear is partly about primogeniture.

Lear's world is marked as archaic, of course, by its pre-Christianity--
"by the sacred radiance of the sun"--but also, I think, by the absence
of a clear rule of primogeniture. The rule is not entirely absent:
Edmund resents the injustice supposedly caused by being "twelve or
fourteen moonshines lag of a brother".  But this resentment is
irrelevant to his bastardy. It seems strangely out of place,
anachronistic. Yet it does bring in a suggestion of age-priority, as
does Lear's formally proceeding from older to younger in the first
scene.

The first lines of the play show that this is an old world because
neither Kent nor Gloucester apparently feels that Lear has gone wrong by
ignoring the rule of primogeniture. That they thought he liked Albany
more than Cornwall suggests that before now Lear in some way knew the
sheep from the goats. Their love and loyalty, and Cordelia's, will
further indicate a prior goodness and wisdom in Lear that appear lacking
in the first scene. Kent and Gloucester seem to think that Lear should
have given a bigger portion, through Goneril, to the better man--not
because Goneril is the eldest, but because Albany is better than
Cornwall.

Neither do Kent or Gloucester explicitly object to dividing the
kingdom.  Lear claims he's doing it to prevent future strife. Since I
think we're supposed to realize that it will instead cause future
strife, this suggests Lear's lack of wisdom, and failure to know
himself--to acknowledge, somehow, his real motives. Regan's later "How
in one house/Should many people under two commands/Hold amity?"
indicates how obviously the act of dividing the kingdom departs from
common sense.

So why does Lear do it? The clear course of a wise king, I take it,
would be to establish the rule of primogeniture now. It's already
available as a slightly inchoate, latent idea, which everyone could
understand. To set the precedent of division will lead to more division,
in every sense. What Lear should do is give the kingdom, intact, to
Goneril, and through her to Albany. The fact that Albany finally comes
into possession at the end, before he gives it away, suggests what Lear
should have done at the beginning.

To cut to the chase, I think the scheme of division is motivated by
Lear's desire, not entirely clear to himself, to hold onto Cordelia. He
thought to set his rest on her kind nursery, and how could he expect to
do that if she marries France or Burgundy? Yes, theoretically he could
go to live at their court, but I don't think that's a real possibility.
Yet if he gives the kingdom outright to Cordelia alone he will violate
the latent rule of primogeniture too violently--which might be barely
possible if Cordelia were married, less possible if she's single, and
even less possible if she's married to Burgundy or France. Hence the
three-way scheme, linked to the demand to "love us most".

Lear's quick jump to disinherit Cordelia for preferring her husband to
him further brings out the underlying truth that when it comes to
Cordelia's affections, Burgundy and France, "Great rivals in our
youngest daughter's love", are Lear's great rivals. He unwisely divides
the kingdom, and demands declarations of absolute love, because he can't
stand to lose Cordelia. When she won't play the game, he acts in a way
that should at least, he thinks, deprive her of a husband. At the end,
Lear's happy acquiescence in agreeing to be jailed with Cordelia shows
what he was after at the beginning, and results in her death.

Here once more Shakespeare peers into the unconscious of his characters,
and he gives a major clue to this underground motive in Lear with the
violation of the latent rule of primogeniture.

David

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Hillyar-Russ <
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Date:           Thursday, 13 Jul 2000 08:19:37 +0100
Subject:        Female Birth Order

I hate to disagree with Abigail Quart, but the English Common Law does
not generally extend primogeniture to daughters. Blackstone's says in
his Commentaries on the Laws of England Vol II, ch 14 (1765).
(Blackstone is not infallible, but he is reasonably authoritative on the
Common Law as it stood during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period.)

"A third rule, or canon of descent, is this; that where there are two or
more males in equal degree, the eldest only shall inherit; but the
females all together. As if a man hath two sons, Matthew and Gilbert,
and two daughters, Margaret and Charlotte, and dies; Matthew his eldest
son shall alone succeed to his estate, in exclusion of Gilbert the
second son and both the daughters: but, if both the sons die without
issue before the father, the daughters Margaret and Charlotte shall both
inherit the estate as coparceners."

Blackstone does, indeed, cite the crown as an exception where
primogeniture does apply to females (he also cites exceptions, in
ancient local laws, where it does not apply to males). His explanation
suggests that feudalism was instrumental in introducing a change in
ancient law to introduce male primogeniture - because only one (male)
person could perform the feudal duty of service to the lord, which went
along with the land, only the man doing the service got the land. A
Queen regnant, in English law, is still for many technical legal
purposes, rather more male than female.

Of particular relevance to the King Lear plot is the following:-"And the
right of sole succession, though not of primogeniture, was also
established with respect to female dignities and titles of honour. For
if a man holds an earldom to him and the heirs of his body, and dies,
leaving only daughters; the eldest shall not of course be countess, but
the dignity is in suspense or abeyance till the king shall declare his
pleasure; for he, being the fountain of honour, may confer it on which
of them he pleases. In which disposition is preserved a strong trace of
the ancient law of feuds, before their descent by primogeniture even
among the males was established; namely, that the lord might bestow them
on which of the sons he thought proper:- progressum est, ut ad filios
deveniret, in quem scilicet dominus hoc vellet beneficium confirmare."

Peter HR
 

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