Daughters of Chaos: An examination of the women in King Lear and Ran
by Cathy Cupitt

The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and reliev’d,
As thou my sometime daughter1.

Although there is reasonably wide consensus amongst critics that Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood is an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Mabeth2, his film Ran is more problematic. For while it has many similarities of theme, character and action
to King Lear, it is by no means a straight forward adaptation of the play, or even its plot. In particular, the women are pushed from the political centre in King Lear to the domestic margins in Ran.

As many critics have noted, Shakespeare’s King Lear is ahistorical in that it doesn’t give the characters a past through which we can understand their current motivations3. Kurosawa changes the emphasis of the story through grounding his film in a real Japanese historical context, and adding in many of the symbols and textures of the Noh theatre to further flesh out the typology of the characters. The film could be summarised as equal parts Shakespeare, Japanese history and Noh theatrical tradition.

In this essay I wish to explore how Kurosawa’s assignation of Eastern cultural symbols, both historical and theatrical, has altered the meaning of Shakespeare’s play. I will do this by focussing on the power relations and motivations of the women: Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Lady Kaede and Lady Sué.

“Those Pelican Daughters”4

Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are adrift in an ahistorical story, where the audience knows nothing of their childhood, their mother, or what kind of father Lear has been. It is no wonder then, that many of their actions seem motiveless.

I feel some supposition can be made, however, about their history of access to power, both personal and political. From their early behaviour in the play we can guess that Goneril and Regan have had little access to direct power of any kind. People assured in their own power do not usually resort to blatant hypocrisy, as these daughters do during Lear’s division of the kingdom. Cordelia, on the other hand, is the acknowledged “joy”5 of King Lear, and so would have had greater access to personal power through her influence over the king. Correspondingly she has a much greater degree of forthrightness and assurance during the same division of the kingdom scene.

The fact that these daughters have been living all their lives in a patriarchy, ruled over both politically and familiarly by King Lear is never directly touched on in the text. Surely there must be consequences to this kind of oppression, however benign? Is it really so surprising that people who seem to have had little power in either the domestic or political spheres should behave inappropriately when power is given to them? Lear does not cede token power to these women, after all, but real power of life, death, lands and money, even if the power must be manifested through their husbands in pubic forums.

Lear expends much breath on condemning the behaviour of his two eldest “pelican”, “wolfish”6, “centaur”7, daughters, Goneril and Regan. Much of Lear’s railing seems to be directed at the fact that the daughters actually use the political power he cedes to them, in precedence of the familial power he should still hold over them as father.

For, by the
marks of sovereignity, knowledge, and
reason, I should be false persuaded I had

Cordelia’s ‘rebellion’ causes the same reaction in Lear, as evidenced in my opening quote where Lear expresses a preference for the acts of a barbarian to insubordinate behaviour in a daughter. Ironically, barbarian daughters are what he seems to have created, interested only in the exercising of their power no matter what mayhem is caused. “In King Lear … the narrative and its dramatisation present a connection between sexual insubordination and anarchy, and the connection is given an explicitly misogynist emphasis.”9 An emphasis that is only increased by Cordelia’s absence from most of the text.

We don’t know what training, if any, Lear gave his daughters in how to use power. Until we are shown the gruesome blinding of Gloucester there is little reason to even agree with Lear that they have acted unreasonably. Yet, after this moment the older sisters are revealed to be all that is evil and unreasonable, with no seeming bridge between the two states.

“Goneril is … Juliet’s antithesis; she is driven by her appetites; she is void of innocence; she is cruel, cunning, Machiavellian, murderous”10. Regan is stained “with a kind of blood-guilt in the sheer cruelty of [the] torture of Gloucester.”11 Cordelia, on the other hand, is all that is good, part of the literary tradition of “the religion of beauty in women”12. In fact the split between the good and bad women is so extreme and simplistic it can be read as the use of archetypes rather than the development of characters.

Goneril and Regan are much less psychologically complex than most Shakespearean characters of comparable importance. Few of their lines carry hints of motivations other than cruelty, lust or ambition, characteristics of the archetypal fantasy image of woman as enemy. Shakespeare gives them no humanizing scruples. … He does not allow them to point out wrongs done to them in the past … or to question the fairness of their society’s distribution of power.13

The chaotic result of Goneril’s and Regan’s evil is the crux of the play. “The generalised character of Lear’s … vision of chaos … is present in gendered terms in which patriarchy, the institution of male power in the family and the State, is seen as the only form of social organisation strong enough to hold chaos at bay.”14 However, the sudden, sourceless evil of the two older daughters is only made dramatically possible through the play’s ignoring of personal history, and the unwritten assumption that patriarchy is the proper way of things.

Interestingly, for all Cordelia’s goodness, she too wields power in the political arena when she wages war against Britain with France’s troops. She is also a part of the anarchy arising from female empowerment.

Cordelia’s struggle to attain her identity while poised between political necessity in a patriarchal world and her own moral wisdom defines her tragic experience, her simultaneous movement toward retribution and atonement.15

Given the ideological bias of the text, I think this rebellion is the underlying reason that she is not allowed to survive her sisters, despite the fact that her “saving love, … works in the action less as a redemption for womankind than as an example of patriarchy restored”16. For all that Cordelia committed –

… no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,
No unchaste action or dishonoured step.17

– she committed the textually greater crime of refusing to accept the rule of a father and a king.

The condemnation of all three daughters for their various rebellions against Lear is only possible by ignoring the important questions of “what does it mean to be a royal daughter in a patriarchal society? what does it require?”18 These questions can only be answered by discovering the history of these women. What they were trained for, and what forces shaped them.

An historical context is exactly what Kurosawa brings to his interpretation of the King Lear story. I will now examine how the change in context affects the portrayal of the two main royal women – Hidetora’s daughters-in-law Lady Kaede and Lady Sué.

Daughters of Chaos

Hidetora’s daughters-in-law have an explicitly revealed place in history and society. In fact, compared to Lear, “there is a much greater emphasis on social networks and relationships: the personal is replaced by the domestic and the historical.”19 As the tragedy is now propelled through daughters-in-laws and sons, rather than daughters alone, the theme of a child’s due to a parent is somewhat diluted. To replace this, there is a development of the theme of the woman’s place in patriarchal power structures. However, the evil/good split in the female characters remains, and in fact the women are even further apart in the spectrum.

Sué, like Cordelia is predominantly a symbolic figure. Her soul is even more perfect than Cordelia’s ‘pure heart’. Lady Sué never rebels against the patriarchy, and she has been all but removed from the power structures of patriarchal society. She has neither a domestic nor a political place. This erasure is her most striking feature. She has no real character of her own, we never even see her face clearly. Her character exists “to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the animalistic savagery of Kaede”20.

Sué’s name means “end of the world”21, and with her death the ‘civilised’ world does indeed end, and chaos rules. Her presence is a constant reminder that this society is focussed on the power of warriors and death bringing – male power. The use of this power affects the course of women’s lives and causes their behaviour. Hidetora even admits this to Sué when he tells her to hate him. This is perhaps the most important difference between his character and Lear’s, who never utters a word about his patriarchal culpability.

Kaede is less archetypal than Goneril and Regan, because we know, understand and even sympathise with her motivations. “Disaster and cruelty no longer have the mysterious, cosmic arbitrariness that daunts us in King Lear but, … are shown to be the direct result of human error.”22 However, she is even more evil than Goneril and Regan. She has purpose as well as will, and she must create her own power base from which to execute her plans. Women in King Lear are decried as being like the “fox in stealth”23. So too is Kaede. Like Lear’s older daughters she must rely on hypocrisy to remain safe long enough to act. “Her subversive identity is effectively concealed for some time within her studied movements reminiscent of Noh drama and her quiet and measured speech”24.

The most important difference between Lady Kaede and Lear’s older daughters is that Kaede succeeds in completely destroying the male power of one family. In King Lear, the daughters’ actions result in societal chaos, but are not intended to cause it. In Ran the chaos is Kaede’s primary goal. And there is no jealous sister in this tale to bring her down before her goal of societal destruction is fulfilled.

Although Kaede commits no acts as bloody as the Gloucester blinding, there is still cruelty aplenty in Ran, much of it polite poison which is Kaede’s forte. The domestic spaces are dominated by her, and her “air of malevolent control perverts ceremony to destructiveness”25. Her equivalent of the Gloucester scene is perhaps when she orders Sué’s death. She instructs a henchman to salt Sué’s head after her execution so it won’t rot in the heat. Kaede asserts, straight faced, that ruining Sué’s beauty in this way would be ‘too cruel’.

Power in this society is based on ruthlessness, and Kaede shows no pity to those in her way. Hidetora’s own power was equally ruthless, but occurred in the external sphere of the warrior through actions such as the blinding of Sué’s brother. Kaede’s power is domestic, as “the static and codified world of Ran’sinterior spaces provides the site of the rebellion of Lady Kaede as well as the site of her subordination.”26

Kaede resists traditional roles, and reshapes the domestic space as she reshapes her own identity, displacing Sué in her struggle to do so. The women in Ran have fewer possibilities of access to political power than in the world of King Lear. Women cannot be ceded direct power in this harsh world of the samurai code27. Kaede fights for the domestic power she does have access to with all her resources. She mounts her attack on the Ichimonji clan from within the reclaimed domestic space of her family’s castle.

“I won’t be a widow with my hair cropped, or a nun with my head shaved! This castle was my father’s. I won’t leave it!”28

The battle is fought and won in her seduction of Jiro in the same room in which her mother committed suicide. Kaede may not remove anyone’s eyes, but her actions while she pretends to weep are every bit as chilling and revealing. Jiro indecisively stands and watches her weep, while hidden from his view Kaede casually crushes a butterfly, the “traditional emblem of the soul”29. Jiro and Kaede united “embody mankind’s potential darkness in its deepest hue. They are the absence of good. Jiro is servant to his sexual desire for her, and she lives only for revenge.”30

Lady Kaede takes over so much of the domestic space in Ran that Sué has no space or power, either domestic or political. She is always seen on the fringes, on the castle wall at sunset, at the edge of a precipice in the ruins of her family’s castle. But she still has the power to refuse to enter in to Hidetora’s rituals of patriarchal power, by allying herself with Buddha.

“I do not hate you. Everything has been preordained in our previous lives. … All things are in the heart of the Buddha.”31

Ironically, “the situation [at the end of the film] is a final indication that human suffering has entirely human origins. There is no otherworldly cause, answer, or meaning to suffering. The tragedy is historical, existential, and unheroic.”32 The tragedy of Hidetora, and the enmity of Kaede, was ultimately caused by Hidetora’s own history of violent action. So even in this Sué, is shown to be wrong, allied to a powerless god. “The false securities of religion, society, and family disappear, and Hidetora’s [alienated] dream world becomes everyone’s predicament”33.

The power of the Buddha is no power at all in a world where:

“It is the gods who weep. They see us killing each other over and over since time began. They can’t save us from ourselves. … Men prefer sorrows over joy, suffering over peace. … they revel in pain and bloodshed. They celebrate murder.”34

What women ‘prefer’ is another matter altogether. Both the film and the play present us with “women who cannot survive the
aggressive tactics of patriarchal politics with any tactics of their own: either their feminine goodness and compliance is impotent or their female power and determination to resist or change the landscape is destructive.”35 But while women are central figures in both texts, it is only in Ran that we see how these patriarchal and feminine tactics were shaped.

Through the historical setting of samurai rule, and the use of elements of Noh theatre, Kurosawa has changed the emphasis of Shakespeare’s play from individual to social, personal to historical.

We are given no personal history to explain what has made Goneril and Regan so power hungry, cruel and treacherous, or why Cordelia is so loving and honest. The motiveless betrayal is what makes Lear a tragic figure.

On the other hand, Ran offers us a vision of the Lear-like character of Hidetora as a feudal tyrant. A man who has earned the fear and betrayal he receives from his children, in-laws and retainers, through his past of war and violent bloodshed. With Lady Kaede and Lady Sué we have knowledge of the backgrounds that led to their choice of behaviour. What makes Hidetora a tragic figure is his symbolic stature as an unwitting actor in a continual cycle of human destruction, overseen by the weeping Gods.

Kurosawa’s text is much more self aware of the results of institutionalised violence than King Lear, and examines the responses of the relatively powerless. Women have access to more direct power in King Lear than in Ran, despite both societies being firmly patriarchal. Ironically, it could be argued that Lady Kaede achieves more through her indirect power. But both sets of women subvert the patriarchal power systems of their cultures through their behaviour.

For Lear the charting of his daughter’s duty and love lies within the province of patriarchal right, the right to enclose and limit the space of female will. The decided mapping of patriarchal space and power is destroyed by Cordelia’s “nothing” and by the decorous fiction of love proclaimed by Goneril and Regan, just as Sue’s sad smile and Lady Kaede’s guileful manipulation of samurai decorum and codes disturb Hidetora’s established self.36

Lady Sué is almost completely powerless (in terms of real-world power), but is most directly involved with the spiritual theme
of the film, a dimension Cordelia shares in a less direct sense as a type of ‘perfect’ woman related to the archetype of Mary. The religious elements in Ran mean we see this episode as part of an endless cycle of human behaviour, rather than as a unique and timeless narrative. It is less one man’s personal tragedy, and more a human tragedy, in which women are not just monsters causing the chaos, but are fellow sufferers.

Shakespeare’s King Lear may have fathered chaotic daughters, but Kurosawa has given birth to daughters wrought of Hidetora’s chaos. Thus Kurosawa has shifted the focus of the tragedy from the figure of Lear, to his historic actions. It is this shift, more than any change in plot, that makes Ran a problematic interpretation of King Lear. Yet, Kurosawa’s story is still a tragedy built upon the framework of Shakespeare’s. Perhaps an even more profound tragedy, which doesn’t exclude and vilify half the human race. In Ran the cause and effect of chaos is shown to be the legacy of all, a legacy which is historical, existential, and unheroic.


Bannon, Christopher J.
“Man and Nature in Ran and King Lear.” New Orleans Review 18(4)(1991):5-11.
Faber, M. D.
“Some Remarks on the Suicide of King Lear’s Eldest Daughter.” University Review 33(1967):313-317.
Foakes, R. A.
Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare’s Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Goodwin, James.
Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Hapgood, Robert.
“Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films: Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran.” In Davies, A. and Wells, S. (eds.). Shakespeare and the Moving Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 234-249.
Howlett, Kathy.
“Are You Trying to Make me Commit Suicide? Gender, Identity, and Spatial Arrangement in Kurosawa’s Ran.” Literature/Film Quarterly 24(4)(1996):360-366.
Kurosawa, Akira.
Ran (film). Greenway Film Production/ Herald Ace, Int/ Nippon Herald Films, Inc., 1985.
McLuskie, Kathleen.
“The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and King Lear.” In Halio, J. L. (ed.). Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s King Lear. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996, 139-148.
Millard, Barbara C.
“Virago with a Soft Voice: Cordelia’s Tragic Rebellion in King Lear.Philological Quarterly 68(2)(1989):143-165.
Novy, Marianne.
“Partite, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear.” In Bloom, H. (ed.). William Shakespeare’s King Lear. New York, New Haven, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 85-95.
Parker, Brian.
Ran and the Tragedy of History.” University of Toronto Quarterly 55(4)(1986):412-423.
Parker, R. B.
“The Use of Mise-en-Scène in Three Films of King Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42(1)(1991):75-90.
Ruppert, P. (ed.).
Ideas of Order in Literature and Film. Tallahassee; University Press of Florida, 1980, 52-58.
Satin, J.
“The Symbolic Role of Cordelia in King Lear.” Forum 9(3)(1971-72):14-17.
Shakespeare, William.
King Lear. In Alexander, P. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. London, Glasgow: Collins, 1990.
Thompson, Ann.
“Kurosawa’s Ran: Reception and Interpretation.” East-West Film Journal III(2)(1995):1-13.

End Notes

  1. William Shakespeare, King Lear: Act 1, Scene 1. The Complete Works of Shakespeare: The Alexander Text. (London, Glasgow: Collins, 1990), p.1074. All quotations from King Lear are from this source.
  2. See for example: Robert Hapgood, “Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films: Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran,” In Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (eds.), Shakespeare and the Moving Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 234-249; Bernice Kliman, “Visual Poetry in Throne of Blood,” The Literary Review 22 (1979):472-481; and also Charles Clifton, “Making an Old Thing New: Kurosawa’s Film Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” In P. Ruppert (ed.), Ideas of Order in Literature and Film (Tallahassee; University Press of Florida, 1980), 52-58.
  3. See, for example: R. A. Foakes, Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare’s Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 181; James Goodwin, Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema
    (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), p.197; and also R. B. Parker, “The Use of Mise-en-Scène in Three Films of King Lear,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42(1)(1991):75-90, p. 86.
  4. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4, p. 1094.
  5. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1 Scene 1, p. 1074.
  6. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1 Scene 4, p. 1082.
  7. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 4 Scene 6, p. 1104.
  8. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1 Scene 4, p. 1081.
  9. Kathleen McLuskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and King Lear,” In Jay L. Halio (ed.), Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s King Lear (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996), 139-148, p. 139.
  10. M. D. Faber, “Some Remarks on the Suicide of King Lear’s Eldest Daughter,” University Review 33(1967):313-317, p. 313.
  11. Foakes, p. 198.
  12. J. Satin, “The Symbolic Role of Cordelia in King Lear,” Forum 9(3)(1971-72):14-17, p. 15.
  13. Marianne Novy, “Partite, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear,” In Harold Bloom (ed.), William Shakespeare’s King Lear (New York, New Haven, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 85-95, p. 87.
  14. McLuskie, p. 140.
  15. Barbara C. Millard, “Virago with a Soft Voice: Cordelia’s Tragic Rebellion in King Lear,” Philological Quarterly 68(2)(1989):143-165, p. 144.
  16. McLuskie, p. 140.
  17. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1 Scene 1, p. 1076.
  18. Millard, p. 146.
  19. Ann Thompson, “Kurosawa’s Ran: Reception and Interpretation,” East-West Film Journal III(2)(1995):1-13, p. 8.
  20. Christopher J. Bannon, “Man and Nature in Ran and King Lear,” New Orleans Review 18(4)(1991):5-11, p. 9.
  21. Parker, p. 90.
  22. Parker, p. 86.
  23. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 3 Scene 4, p. 1094.
  24. Kathy Howlett, “Are You Trying to Make me Commit Suicide? Gender, Identity, and Spatial Arrangement in Kurosawa’s Ran,” Literature/Film Quarterly 24(4)(1996):360-366, p. 362.
  25. Parker, p. 89.
  26. Howlett, p. 363.
  27. There are, of course, a few historic exceptions, but they are rare indeed.
  28. Akira Kurosawa, Ran (Greenway Film Production/ Herald Ace, Int/ Nippon Herald Films, Inc., 1985).
  29. Parker, p. 87.
  30. Bannon, p. 7.
  31. Kurosawa, Ran.
  32. Goodwin, p. 216.
  33. Bannon, p. 11.
  34. Kurosawa, Ran.
  35. Milland, p. 161.
  36. Howlett, P. 365.

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