Sisters, sisters, shame of ladies, sisters!

Thursday’s class was devoted to the three sisters, particularly their interactions in scene one (Cordelia’s farewell) and act two scene four (Goneril and Regan uniting against Lear). We posed and, in some cases, answered a number of questions about staging, motivation and characterization. And, as usual, tackling those questions only left us with more: What is the nature of Goneril and Regan’s relationship? What about their relationship with Cordelia? Are they all evil? Is Cordelia all good? What is France doing while the sisters talk in act one? Where is their mother? What does Kent’s punishment signify for Lear? Why do his daughters turn against him at this moment? Why not sooner? Did he really care for Goneril and Regan? Did they ever love him?

But before I go into dramaturgy land, I think this video is necessary (in part because the song’s been stuck in my head since class):

It’s actually kind of eerie how relevant that song is (Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man, anyone?)…Anyway, one of the biggest questions we addressed was how to differentiate the two “evil” sisters. I feel a little hypocritical lumping Goneril and Regan together in one post after we established differences in their characters and the importance of giving them distinct personalities and motives (adding Cordelia to the mix would just open up a whole extra can of worms, so I’m saving her for another post). As much as I want to avoid talking about them as GonerilandRegan, looking at their characters side-by-side is the most helpful way of discovering where the differences lie.

We had a particularly enlightening conversation in class about how birth order may have influenced their development. I’ve seen dozens of Gonerils and Regans in performance, but for some reason, I never stopped to think: What does it mean that Goneril is the older sister? What about Regan being the middle child? So we discussed stereotypes about birth order for a while (the bossy oldest, invisible middle, spoiled youngest) and then staged the two scenes, keeping those ideas in mind.

I’ve seen some pretty wild sisters — deranged, childlike, terrifyingly angry, sadistic, guilty, sexually frustated, lustful, pompous — but what I really enjoyed about our exploration was how our Goneril and Regan are nothing like any I’ve seen before. You’d think that there are only so many ways to characterize two villianous sisters, but tiny choices in speech and movement can create major distinctions. I’ve never considered, for example, that Goneril may have actually been sincere with her advice to Cordelia: “Let your study/ Be to content your Lord, who hath recieved you/ At Fortune’s alms” (I.i.321). Or that she may have been addressing Cornwall. Or if Cordelia’s “Love well our father” was said in anger, sincerity or as a warning (I.i.314).

There are endless ways of characterizing the sisters, as evidenced by how we ran over class time talking, but I think the bottom line is this: They can’t just be “evil.” The motivation behind their cruelty, whatever that motivation may be, needs to be clear so that the audience isn’t just watching yet another play about bad people doing bad things. In many productions I’ve seen, Goneril and Regan are the most colorful, exciting characters in the play. As an audience member, I loved looking forward to how each pair of actresses reinterpreted the roles. Time and again, I was struck by how much the sisters evolve over the course of the play. Shakespeare’s villains are so delightful to watch because of how they have as involved (if not moreand complex character arcs as the heroes (oftentimes even more). The Lear sisters, Regan especially, actually grew into their villiany in many stagings I watched. Regan was turned on by Gloucester’s blinding a few times, taking a primal, almost sexual joy in her newfound sense of power. The sisters’ relationships with their husbands can be opportunity for character development as well: How does Regan feel toward Cornwall? (I saw one staging where she was genuinely distraught after his death, another where she passionately kissed him as he bled to death)

As further proof of just how many ways an actress can characterize her role, here are some images of the sisters from other productions. There are some pretty inventive interpretations, but I’m excited to see how our Goneril and Regan will come into their own.

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