Shakespeare, Austen, & Women’s Morality

In the case of examining literature, morality cannot be discussed via the oversimplified connotations currently carried with the word. “Morality,” is not only associated with what is good, but should be seen as a series of rules that societies or individuals hold themselves to, even when they are not consciously aware of them. Men are typically considered the most virtuous and brave, mainly due to them always being portrayed as heroes in popular stories, or at least in leading roles. The argument that I intend to make is that Shakespeare and Austen both subvert our typically hyper-masculine associations with morality. Women in both the play King Lear and the novel Sense & Sensibility embody examples of a woman’s ability to have and act upon their own moral judgments, a philosophical realm often only associated with the “rational” man.

While this is not the most common contemporary association, there are still visages of these nonsensical and archaic ideologies within many circles of academia, and within portrayals in popular media.

After looking through several definitions of  “morality,” I found too many of them to be oversimplified. So, I turned to the philosophical discourse of morality to find a more comprehensive discussion on what morality is. This quote from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy is what I found to be the most relevant and comprehensive to this analyzation:

An initial naïve attempt at a descriptive definition of “morality” might take it to refer to the most important code of conduct put forward by a society and accepted by the members of that society. But the existence of large and heterogeneous societies raises conceptual problems for such a descriptive definition, since there may not be any such society-wide code that is regarded as most important. As a result, a definition might be offered in which “morality” refers to the most important code of conduct put forward and accepted by any group, or even by an individual. Apart from containing some prohibitions on harming (certain) others, different moralities—when “morality” is understood in this way—can vary in content quite substantially.

As one’s personal idea of morality can vary distinctly from person to person. The consistency and origins of one’s personal codes can be identified as their morals.

When examining morality in the paper I am going to set some parameters, so the terms in which I use morality will be clear. 1. Are the actions of the characters consistent? 2. Is there textual evidence where readers can draw parallels between a character’s action and their backstory/ development?

The reason that this is important is that, as mentioned above, morality is a set of rules that one follows, which means there has to be some consistency in and origin of those actions deemed moral. It then follows that morality is a set of rules often taught to one unconsciously, to prove a character has these traits, it also must be proven that they stem from somewhere. This is important because both of these writer went at everything they did with intention, and the characters were created to directly address goings on in their lives. Not only do these characters reflect the moral standards of their societies, but they give us a view on how the authors believe these standards should play out. They also show us how morals have been corrupted and skewed from their original noble intentions. Nothing that has been placed in either one of the texts was unplanned, so with closer examination we can discuss what these morals are, why they matter, and how they play out among the characters in the books I will be focusing on.

First, taking a look at Austenian morality is a fascinating study in how Jane Austen portrays a world that was typically considered inferior and showed us the intricacies of the drawing room. In Sense & Sensibility, as in all of Austen’s books the women are their own heroes, taking what I will refer to as “drawing room morals,” and proving them to be, in many cases more superior to the men surrounding them. All the heroines of Austen’s novels find happiness while maintaining the trueness of themselves, and remaining loyal to their own ideologies. More importantly these ideologies also supported constant loyalty to other women.

Elinor, like so many of Jane’s heroines, is a very pragmatic, forward thinking, and dedicated young woman. The brilliance of Elinor is that her actions were intentional, thought out and planned. While women have been typically associated with always being moved by flights of fancy or unbridled emotion, Elinor knew who she was and what she thought. Elinor served not only as her own moral compass but also as her sister Marianne’s. Marianne is a creature of raw emotion, Elinor saying to her:

“I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes” said Elinor, “in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.” (Chap 17, pg 84)

I interpret this as Elinor expressing to Marianne that, she herself (Elinor) has been subjected to her own possibly ill-informed thoughts. In this Elinor has had to go back through her own process and re-weigh her judgements before acting upon them. In this way she is trying to instill a sense of personal responsibility into her impractical sister, which makes this a moral teaching. Elinor has an origin for her decision making process, and a reason behind it, thus proving her actions to be an ideology that Elinor has given a good amount of consideration to. Elinor knows and claims her doctrine, and knows herself well enough to refute any nonsense that another may try to put upon her as their interpretation of her actions. Later in the same passage as from above when her sister accuses Elinor of being subservient to the views of other, seeking only to lead her life for the sake of their approval, Elinor replies:

“No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters?” (Chap 17, pg 84)

Here, Elinor is basically explaining to Marianne that it is not unwise to simply learn how to be civil to others, and that listening to the advice of those wiser than her was not a bad idea. Marianne was one of the reasons that Elinor had to become so strict with herself. Between constantly being the adult for a grief stricken mother, who rarely had a grasp on the world around her, and protecting Marianne from herself, Elinor had no choice but to try and lead her family by example. In this passage we also see that Elinor is very much of her own person, who knows her own intrinsic values and is steadfast in her belief in herself and her morals.

Jane Austen wrote love stories that broke the romantic barriers in such a way that it told us as the reader that: yes, love is wonderful, but no woman should be defined by her romantic counterpart, or by society’s expectations of a woman being without value unless she was in some way owned by a man. Even in heartbreak Elinor maintained her sense of self, and how important that was; “She was stronger alone, and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be”(pg 124). When Lucy told Elinor of her engagement to Elinor’s beau, Elinor did not lash out in either direction; she remained composed. It is important to note that this subverts the woman versus woman theme that we see so often repeated, even in today’s media and storytelling. All of Austen’s heroines were presented at some point or another to have to confront other possible competitors for their love interests’ affections.

Furthermore, Elinor is nothing if not consistent and constant. Roman Stoics like Marcus Aurelius oftentimes spoke of consistency in reaction to the world as the difference between the commoner and the Emperor. The idea of this principle is that fate and the world are going to throw things your way that you cannot control, the only control one has is over their actions and reactions. One could very easily argue that Elinor is an exemplary Stoic. Moreover, she is an exemplary person, who, despite the personal issues she is going through, refuses to let them change her behaviour or affect those she has become the caretaker of. “Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs; and all the comfort that could be given by assurances of her own composure of mind,” (Chap 37, pg 227). No matter what the world threw at her, Elinor dealt with it, and continued on her way in her way. I like to make the comparison that even while her love interest, Edward, was more prone to flights of romantic fancy (first Lucy, then Elinor) than Elinor is. This proves her to be a more consistent and moral person than Edward, and especially more than Willoughby.

Jane Austen purposefully planned and set Elinor up to be this type of consistent moral heroine, bringing to light the almost hidden ethical code of the drawing room. Critics and skeptics who say that Austen simply wrote these characters because she admired these qualities would only be scratching the surface of how much planning went into these characters. They were placed with complete strategy and planning that, to me, is evident within the first few pages:

Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught,”(Chap 1, pg 6).

From the very beginning of the book, Austen placed Elinor in front of us to teach us a type of morality and to show us these ideals portrayed in a woman. Elinor spoke for herself in the book, and, although she could have been proven to be such a moral character without the narrator’s introduction, this simply cements who Elinor is, and who she was made to be.

Morality is not always what we want it to be. There are many people who follow credences that many others are viscerally opposed to, but these still qualify as a set of morals. In King Lear, a manipulative, self centered leader allows his worst traits to cause his downfall. The mirror image of this is observed in his daughter Goneril. While some minimize her thought process as simply the result of being a bitter woman and a scorned daughter, Goneril is actually exemplifying the same type of morality her father displays.

In the beginning of the play we can see that King Lear plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, reserving the largest third for his youngest and most favored daughter Cordelia. Later, when she refuses to placate him with false pleasantries, he threatens to cut her section down and give most of it to her sisters, and when she refuses a second time, he disowns Cordelia and leaves her with nothing, saying:

Let it be so. Thy truth, then, be thy dower,/For by the sacred radiance of the sun,/The mysteries of Hecate and the night,/By all the operation of the orbs/From whom we do exist and cease to be,/Here I disclaim all my paternal care,/Propinquity, and property of blood,/And as a stranger to my heart and me/Hold thee from this forever. The barbarous/Scythian,/Or he that makes his generation messes/To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom/Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved/As thou my sometime daughter. (Act I, Lines 120-134)

Lear had only threatened her inheritance in the beginning, but once he gets angry he gradually strips her of more than just land. Lear takes from Cordelia: his love as a father, her right to claim membership to her family, and then even her title as his daughter. In this way, he truly leaves her with nothing, to such a magnitude that Cordelia becomes non-existent to him. However, Cordelia the noble daughter is actually the outlier in the family; her more sympathetic behaviour does not reflect the same moral compass as her father and sisters. Goneril (and Regan) the conniving and manipulative eldest is very much in the same moral ground as her father. This act of stripping someone of their property, and then their sense of self, out of spite is repeated by the other daughters, Goneril and Regan, when they strip their father of his knights:

Goneril: Hear me, my lord./What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,/                         To follow in a house where twice so many/Have a command to tend you?                                        Regan: What need one? (Act I, Scene VI, Lines 299-303)

This characteristic of reducing someone to nothing as a punishment is a habit that the elder daughters of Lear come by honestly. Goneril even recognizes that Lear’s actions are not merely something he came by in old age, rather, he had established them as practice throughout his own life. “The best and soundest of his time hath been/ but rash. Then must we look from his age to/ receive not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed/condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness/that infirm and choleric years bring with/them,” (Act I, Scene I, Lines 340-345). Goneril was raised and shaped by this man so her habits are reflections and adaptations of the moral code that she was endowed with by her father. Both Goneril and Lear have the amazing propensity to constantly promote their self interests. Their egos are comparable in the way that they both often lost their tempers and tear down everyone around them, then later lament how they feel cast off and fought against. Neither had the ability to recognize their own fault in their woes.

Goneril’s major distinction for herself occurred when she managed to outdo her father in punishing those who displeased her. Saying of her father after having taken his knights “Tis his own blame;/ hath put himself from rest/And must needs taste his folly,” (Act II, Scene VI, Lines 331-332). Later she plucks out the Duke of Gloster’s eyes for remaining loyal to the King. Her propensity to seek out revenge is something that Goneril never regrets in the slightest. Goneril believes her actions are morally correct ones, even though they do not sit well with us as readers.

While we, as readers, may not like the actions that Goneril takes or how she behaves, we also must consider some sympathy for her character. Goneril has been living under a scornful, prideful man, who unabashedly waves his power and favoritism of Cordelia in his eldest daughter’s face. Our views of morality must consider Lear’s behaviour towards Goneril as a factor in her actions. Contemporary philosopher Macalester Bell discusses this notion in a paper written on feminist morality, saying “Many feminist philosophers have argued that emotions traditionally considered immoral or detrimental should be considered moral or political accomplishments when they are felt by women within a context of male domination,” (pg1).

This means it could be argued that the act of rebelling against, and seeking punishment for, wrongs repeatedly done unto her by her father, and by a society that allows and sympathizes with her father, could actually be considered noble. Women in this time period were often expected to simply deal with the cards men dealt them, and ask for, or seek, no better. Goneril, knowing she deserved better from her father, may be righteous in taking advantage of a chance to finally express her hatred of constantly imposed oppression.

Acting upon negative feelings could be considered acts of insubordination toward patriarchal oppression, especially in the case of women. When Lear lashed out and was cruel, no one but Kent questioned his right to behave that way, but when Goneril treated her father in the same way he had treated her, many came to rally behind and support him. This is Goneril’s morality, independent of the lessons of her father. This woman chooses to seize power and revenge, traits that would very often be considered unlady-like, and acts upon them as she sees fit. This is a statement of her moral sense of independance; her husband is fairly worthless in this play and her father is cruel, so why should she not be entitled to feel and act the way she does? How is this immoral in comparison to docile, subjugated women and pushy, impatient men?

Both of the characters focused on in this essay are consistent, forward thinking, and self guided, each having a set of morals complimentary to their characters, though contrary to each other in practice. Women are oftentimes subverted and ignored when it comes to this philosophical discussion of morality. There is more than one way to be a moral person, and sometimes that means foregoing any care of the scrutiny of men. For Elinor is was her consistence and her measured responses, always caring for the women in her world, rather than seeking to please men. For Goneril it was behaving just as petty as the men in her life, namely her father, and seeking revenge for the wrongs done to her. Both characters, sympathetic Elinor and manipulative Goneril, have a claim to their own sense of morality outside of a male-dominated view. To act upon one’s own will, in either a positive or negative way, is moral.


Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense & Sensibility. Oxford University Press, 1991.


Bell, Macalester. “A Woman’s Scorn: Toward A Feminist Defense Of Contempt As A Moral Emotion.” Hypatia 20.4 (2005): 80-93. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.


Gert, Bernard and Gert, Joshua, “The Definition of Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.


Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Edited by Jay Halio. Cambridge University Press, 2005.



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