King Lear Context AO3 (Shakespeare A2)

Renaissance Rediscovery of many Classic texts and the culture of Greece and RomeDiscovery of America- world a larger and stranger placeSun not earth at centre of our planetary system- challenging centuries-old belief that humans were centre of the universeMachiavelli- politics cut free from morality Reformation- individual conscience not church authority at centre of religious life
State of the Nation Many Shakespeare plays preoccupied with national identity Fascinated by the exercise of power, bringing critical perspectives to the royal courtUncertainty and unrest- the plague shut theatres, Guy Fawkes
The Spanish Armada (1588) and the Gunpowder Plot (1605) The invasion of the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot were both Roman Catholic plots against the government of England.As a result of these events and Renaissance Protestant nationalism, Roman Catholicism was seen as hostile and disloyal.Shakespeare seems to have avoided direct religious comment in his plays, but his characters, such as Lear, have Protestant leanings.Lear is obsessed by his sense of identity – his inner struggle; this was very much a Protestant preoccupation
Grace Wildgoose (1603) She tried to have her father, Brian Annesley, declared insane.She and her sister tried to take control of his estate by proving he was unfit to manage it.Shakespeare would have heard about this story – it was big news in 1603-4.This real-life scandal probably gave Shakespeare the idea of making Lear go mad
Kingship James VI & I, on the throne when Lear was written and performed, himself extensively theorized the political role of the monarch as absolute ruler with divine rightPreceding reign of Elizabeth I marked by continued efforts to justify her rule—both as a result of her gender and of her uneasy familial claim to the throne—including through the theory of the ‘king’s two bodies’, whereby her person was understood to be divided between her mortal body natural and the immortal body politic of the kingshipHenry VIII breaking from Rome- the whim of a monarch could affect destiny and structure of an entire country
Royal Court Direct criticism of the monarch/contemporary English court not tolerated- why Shakespeare’s plays were often set in the past or abroad Court’s hypocrisy- Lear’s diatribes Self-seeking ambition- Machiavellian villain Edmund Courtiers figures of fun- unmanly sophistication contrasted with plain-speaking integrity
The Great Chain of Being This was a static world view, where everything in nature had its place. It was unchallenged until the early 1600s.In Renaissance times, ‘Truths’ that were comforting and reliable were challenged by the ‘New Learning’.King Lear explores these tensions between the old belief systems and new ideas based on scientific discovery.Edmund rejects the old, conservative ideas that the stars influence human fortune; he argues the case for free will
Religion Nationalism of English Renaissance- reinforced by Henry VIII’s break from RomeDispute between Protestants and Catholics- religious scepticism Shakespeare’s plays remarkably free from direct religious sentiment Tragic heroes haunted by their consciences, seeking their true selves- spiritual journeysKing Lear set in pre-Christian Britain- sidestep religious controversies Edmund’s blasphemy + Gloucester’s suicidal despair- unacceptable if placed in the mouths of Christians
Dramatists Medieval period plays had been almost exclusively religious, performed in carts and in open spaces at Christian festivals Professional performers did mimes, juggling, comedy acts- considered vagabonds and layabouts by polite society Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine the Great’ (around 1587) and Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (1588-9)- unlike anything that had been written in English before- full-length plays on secular subjects, taking plots from history and legend, many devices from Classical theatre, range of characterisation and situation hitherto unknown in English drama
Professional Theatre 1576- James Burbage built first permanent theatre in England (in Shoreditch) Shakespeare arrived to a flourishing drama scene, with theatres and companies of actorsShakespeare’s company performed at Burbage’s Theatre until 1596, and used the Swan and Curtain until they moved into their new theatre (the Globe) in 1599The Globe burned down in 1613 during a performance of ‘Henry VIII’- rebuilt 1614
The Globe Form of Elizabethan theatre derived from the inn yards and animal baiting rings in which actors had performed previouslyCircular wooden buildings with a paved courtyard in the middle, open to the sky Rectangular stage jutted out into the middle of this yard’Groundlings’ paid a penny to get in and watch standing in the ‘pit’ while wealthier spectators sat in covered tiers and galleries overlooking the pit and the stage
Staging Practices Very little scenery or props- nowhere to store them (no wings in the theatre) and no way to set them up Stage was bare- characters have to describe where they are Bareness of the stage- location often symbolic- suggests a dramatic mood or situation, rather than a place (Lear’s barren heath reflects his destitute state, the storm his turmoil)
Continuous Action Staging of Elizabethan plays often continuous- many ‘short’ scenes of which Shakespeare’s plays are often constructed follow one after another in quick successionReason why characters speak as they enter or leave the stage because otherwise there’d be silence while they took up their positions in full viewDead bodies have to be carried off because no “blackouts”
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Version (Background) Historia Regium Britanniae (c. 1136)- chronicle of the lives of the kings of the Britons spanning two thousand years, beginning with Trojans founding the nation and ending with the Anglo-Saxons. Book II Chapters 11 – 14 includes a tale of King Lear and his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Version (Content) Part of the dynasty of Brutus of Britain- succeeded to the throne after his father Bladud died while attempting to fly with artificial wings. Longest reign of Geoffrey’s kings- sixty years. Eponymous founder of Leicester in England. End of Brutus’s male line of descent, siring three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. King Aganippus of the Franks courted + married Cordelia, despite Leir refusing to pay a dowry.Duke Maglaurus of Albany, Goneril’s husband, maintained Leir with a retinue of 60 knights, but his wife reduced this by half after two years. Leir then fled to Regan, who reduced his entourage to only five men. Returning to Albany and pleading with Goneril, Leir was left with a single knight for protection.Leir feared both his older daughters- fled to FranceSent Cordelia a messenger when he was outside her court at Karitia- she had him bathed, royally clothed, and assigned a fittingly large band of retainers. He was then officially received by the king + made regent of France, with the Frankish nobles vowing to restore him to his former gloryLeir, his daughter, and her husband invaded Britain- successfully overthrew his daughters and sons-in-law. Leir ruled three years and then died. Cordelia succeeded him and buried him in an underground shrine to the god Janus beneath the River Soar near Leicester – allegedly at the current site of the city’s Jewry Wall. An annual feast was held nearby in his honour
Holinshed’s Chronicles (Background) Often used by Shakespeare as sources for his plays. First part of the Chronicles, covering Great Britain was published in 1577 titled Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Holinshed wrote the history of England in two parts – before the Norman Conquest of 1066 and from 1066 to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I- Holinshed died in 1580 without finishing the task
Holinshed’s Chronicles (Content) Leir, son of Baldud and his daughters Gonorilla, Regan, and CordeillaPrince of Gallia marries Cordeilla, having heard of her beauty Leir wins back the kingdom with the aid of Gallia + Cordeilla Restored to the throne- rules for a further 2 years Leir dies- Cordeilla becomes Queen of the Britons around 807 BCE Sequel- Cordeilla rules well for 5 years- husband dies- two nephews “disdain to be under the government of a woman”- seize control + imprison her- “wherewith she took such grief, being a woman of manly courage and despairing to recover liberty, there she slew herself”
The True Chronicle History of King Leir Play anonymously written in about 1594- not published until 1605.King Leir decides to hand over his kingdom to his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella Adviser called Perillus is banished (just like Kent) when he tries to defend Cordella After Leir has been reunited with Cordella he appears once more to be a king with full authority- marches against Gonorill and Ragan, defeats them easily and then regains his throne. Happy ending that promises the good characters will live happily and that Leir will end his days looked after by a loving Cordella
Mirror for Magistrates Collection of poetry (pub. 1574) Various authors retell the lives and tragic ends of historical characters. Collection’s version of the Lear story- Cordelia character commits suicide
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser Another version of the story of Lear that Shakespeare surely read and admired was from six stanzas of Canto 10 of Book II of The Faerie Queen, written by the greatest Elizabethan poet before Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser
Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia 1580 (published in 1590) Book 2 Chapter 10Sub-plot of Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund. Blind king of Paphlagonia is restored to his throne and the brothers are reconciled. Shakespeare not only forgoes the happy resolution, but reduces the guilt of Edmund who in Arcadia tears out his own father’s eyes
Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s 1561 play Gorboduc Division of the kingdom- King gives his sons Ferrex and Porrex half shares of his land. The sons fall out, the younger kills the elder and the people of the land kill the king and queen. The nobility then kill the rebels and the country falls to civil war
Contemporary Literary Connections (Good and Evil) ‘Doctor Faustus’ by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1592) draws on the old medieval morality playsFaustus counselled by Good and Evil Angels- Gloucester advised by Edgar and Edmund Lear’s love-test/division of the kingdom- Faustus’ contract with the devil Like Faustus, Edmund casts aside traditional restraints and morality in the name of personal ambition
Charles de Bovelles (16th century) He wrote the Liber de Sapiente (Book of Wisdom); he argued that man is motivated by more than animal instinct.He reasoned that man achieves wisdom through knowledge acquired through the senses and knowledge acquired through contemplation of the soul.Edmund can be seen in this light as striving for fulfilment, denying that he is inferior to Edgar.Goneril and Regan, however, are motivated by selfish desire for status and power
Contemporary Literary Connections (Madness) Madness a popular subject for playwrights of the time- dramatic behaviour on stage as well as a way of depicting a world gone wrong ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ by John Webster (1614)- Duchess tormented and murdered by her two brothers; Ferdinand confronts her with “several sorts of madmen” Shakespeare’s accounts of Poor Tom and Lear’s breakdown more sympathetic and thoughtful than Webster’s treatment of madnessWebster’s treatment of Antonio, Duchess’ steward whom she secretly marries, far more sympathetic than Shakespeare’s of Oswald or upstart Edmund Both tragedies propelled by family breakdown
Harsnett’s ‘A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures’ (1603) Samuel Harsnett wrote a pamphlet about people who feigned madness to gain money or sympathy.Harsnett was a sceptic; he didn’t believe in demonic possession.Shakespeare used Harsnett’s pamphlet in creating Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom.There are many links to Harsnett’s pamphlet in the play, such as Poor Tom’s words ‘the Foul Fiend’
Modern Literary Connections ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams (1947)- Blanche is an outcast whose disturbed speeches offer insights into the conventions and power structures of society Blanche a victim of domestic violence, betrayed by family, mental breakdown- Lear, Gloucester and EdgarStanley resembles Edmund- a ruthless social upstart, determined to prevail at any costBrian Friel’s play ‘The Home Place’ (2005)- set in an English household in Ireland in late 19th century, showing institutionalised neglect of the poor and generational conflict- unequal match between son David and housekeeper Margaret the only sign of hope in a world moving towards the civil war and terrorism that will break out in the following century

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