King Lear: Contexts (AO4)

Religion (as in ‘King Lear’, the secular clashes with the sacred) – Both Shakespeare’s father and his daughter Susanna were fined for their refusal to attend Protestant services (as they were Catholics)- Shakespeare was probably a ‘tolerant’ Anglican, with some sympathy for the Catholics
Quarto/Folio (as there are some significant differences) – In the Quarto, Edgar’s final lines are given to Albany – Shakespeare’s usual practice is to give the final words of the play to the highest-ranking survivor – in the Folio, does Shakespeare’s decision to give the final lines to Edgar reflect the devastation of the feudal world, and perhaps even the need for a more modern order and new way of thinking?- In the Quarto, two servants discuss helping Gloucester after his blinding. This moment of hope is omitted from the Folio; in the Folio, is Shakespeare deliberately crafting a play devoid of justice?- In the Quarto, Lear says “never” three times instead of five. Arguably, Shakespeare prolongs Lear’s agony in the Folio in order to cement the injustice of Cordelia’s death, as well as to heighten the catharsis in the audience as they look on upon a Lear totally reduced, both in language and stature
Shakespeare’s sources – Stories of ‘King Lear’ existed for over four hundred years before Shakespeare’s time- Originally Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’- Ralph Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland’- In all of the previous versions of ‘King Lear’, Cordelia commits suicide, but Shakespeare replaces her suicide with execution (more injustice, a palpable sense of needlessness)- The ‘True Chronicle History of King Leir’ was first published in 1605; it included no deaths, and restored Lear to the throne- The desire of a father to know “which of [his offspring] doth love us most” is a common feature of folk tales- Shakespeare takes inspiration from Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ (1590), in which an illegitimate son blinds his father, but is eventually forgiven. There is no such redemption for Edmund in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’- Samuel Harsnett’s ‘A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures’ (1603); the source of Edgar’s ‘mad Tom’ language (e.g. “foul flibbertigibbet”, “foul fiend”), Harsnett’s pamphlet was part of the on-going propaganda war against Catholicism and he intended to discredit Jesuit priests accused of bogus exorcisms and to draw attention to people who, like Edgar, feigned the symptoms of madness and demonic possession to gain sympathy and money- Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ (1603); advised that the rejection of ancient custom, borrowed for Edmund by Shakespeare, will become more widespread with the rise of Protestantism. Said that “the weakness of our judgements helps us more with our strength . . . and our blindness more than our clear-sighted eyes.”
Performance – Initially caused feelings of discontent and deep anxiety at Cordelia’s death and the play’s alleged “dark paganism” (religious scepticism)- Nahum Tate rewrote ‘King Lear’ (1681), including a love theme between Edgar and Cordelia and restoring Lear and Gloucester to their initial positions. Tate’s version was met with critical acclaim and public rapture- Caroline Spurgeon (1935) sees the dominant image of the play to be that of a human body in a variety of desperate and shocking poses; “in anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated, flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured and finally broken on the rack”- Frank Kermode (2000) finds the play to be Shakespeare’s “cruellest”
Nature, the Cosmos and Humankind – Great Chain of Being, first developed by Plato and Aristotle- Early alchemists believed that that which is ‘base’ in creation could be impelled to aspire higher by refinement (like Edmund)- The belief that there could be movement within the Chain slowly gained ground but was considered by many to be a suspect belief coming close to heresy: theories which expressed discontent at God’s natural order were viewed by social and religious conservatives as worrying- The Great Chain of Being was comforting in that everything in nature has its allotted place but troubling because aspiration enabled some movement- The Renaissance unleashed tensions that made people feel both excited and frightened; ‘truths’ that had been reliable and comforting for hundreds of years were being questioned and for every person who welcomed the new learning there were others who felt threatened by it- ‘King Lear’ is a dramatic manifestation of such tensions – between old, comfortable, conservative belief-systems, and new, challenging, liberating discoveries- The Chain of Being, like the Wheel of Fortune, presented a visual image of a complex idea about an interlocking universe where no part was superfluous- Shakespeare seems to question the traditional view of superfluity in ‘King Lear’ when Lear, who has been a traditionalist, moves into an ultra-modern and controversial view; the superfluous is not ‘lowly’ but essential (to be redistributed to enable “each man” to “have enough”)
The Elizabethans saw the family as…? A microcosm of the state
Free Will – One of the reasons an audience can like Edmund is that he shapes his own destiny- Edmund can be interpreted as a character initially trapped by circumstances beyond his control, condemned by his illegitimacy to live on the outskirts of society- “Edmund is motivated by self-realisation and self-actualisation, powered by the force of his own free will, whereas Goneril and Regan are motivated by a selfish desire for status and power.” (AO3ii)
Politics – Jacobean audiences had lived through troubled and uncertain times towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign e.g. the memory of the Spanish Armada (1588) – Cordelia’s arrival with the French Army was likely to remind Jacobean audiences of the Spanish Armada invasion- With the collapse of medieval feudalism, the royal courts became the centre of power and authority- Poverty, food shortages and unemployment were commonplace in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign- 1603: Tudor dynasty gave way to the Stuarts (upon James I’s coronation)- Like Lear, James believed passionately in his own divine right to govern- James was susceptible to the flattery of ambitious English courtiers- King James declared himself “God’s lieutenant upon earth”- James overestimated the wealth of the English Crown and so spent lavishly, spending half a million pounds every year, an enormous sum by contemporary standards- James annually spent four times as much as Queen Elizabeth on clothing (relevant to Lear’s attack on Regan’s elegance, Act 2)- 1604: King James proclaimed himself King of Great Britain (proposed the unification of England and Scotland)This was the ‘Union’ debate – was opposed by many and eventually rejected- Some scholars have argued that James specifically requested the performance of ‘King Lear’ to demonstrate the tragic results of division, thus strengthening his case for unification – does Shakespeare appear to favour unification?- Partitioning the state has tragic consequences
Social change – Both James and Lear rule societies in the process of change- Both James and Lear believe in the hierarchical order… but this was being challenged- Political thinking was changing – feudal society with its strong social hierarchy had virtually vanished and discoveries in science and the New World, together with increasing wealth from commerce and manufacture, fostered new ideas about value, merit and status- More social mobility e.g King James sold knighthoods for money- A newly prosperous gentry and commercial class challenged the power of the king- Political factions were rife e.g. reflected in division between Cornwall and Albany- Powerful men emerged who felt no obligation to the old feudal loyalties e.g. Edmund, Cornwall, Oswald – men who were driven by radical individualism and self-interest- Edmund says “if thou dost as this instructs thee, thou dost make thy way to noble fortunes… men are as the time is”
Justice – Passionate interest of the Jacobeans in justice and the processes of law- Litigation, taking one’s neighbour or another person to court was common in Shakespeare’s time- Each process in ‘King Lear’ leads to a judgement and a punishment, and on each occasion, Shakespeare’s dramatisation clearly raises questions as to whether justice has been done- The play equates earthly justice with the law of the land- In his madness, Lear becomes obsessed with the idea that his daughters must be brought to justice- Lear has learnt that there is an inherent hypocrisy in judgement itself- There is no simple scheme for rewards or punishments, whether earthly or divine
Madness (Lear’s madness and Edgar’s feigned madness, but also a mad, morally corrupt society) – Lear’s abdication of his powers and the division of his kingdom would have been seen as acts of political madness by Shakespeare’s contemporaries- In Shakespeare’s time, people’s attitudes and responses to madness were harsh and unsympathetic- It was commonly believed that people showing signs of madness were possessed by devils – Shakespeare’s use of the theme of madness, differently, exposes human frailty and even arguably the need for mutual support and love- Gloucester views madness as a privilege; he thinks it better to be “distract” and lose his sorrows in “wrong imaginations”
For most of 1606, why were theatres closed? The plague

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