Context And Background

King Leir #

Shakespeare’s Source: The True Chronicle History of King Leir

The story of King Lear and his three daughters is an old tale, well known in England for centuries before Shakespeare wrote the definitive play on the subject. The first English account of Lear can be found in the History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey Monmouth in 1135. Monmouth’s account spawned several 16th-century narratives about Lear, including renderings in Holinshed’s Chronicles (first edition, 1577) and in The Mirror for Magistrates (1574). Even the great poet Edmund Spenser recounted Lear’s tragedy in Canto 10, Book II of The Faerie Queen (1590). All of the aforementioned versions of the tale, and possibly dozens more, were readily available to Shakespeare and shaped the main plot of his own drama. However, it is clear that Shakespeare relied chiefly on King Leir, fully titled The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, the anonymous play published twelve years before the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Mabillard, Amanda. The True Chronicle History of King Leir. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < >. Sourced, 07/04/2024.

Shakespeare’s World #

Shakespeare’s life spanned Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a dynamic period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment, yet his view of the world (Weltanshaung) was quite different from ours.

His was a uniform, unanimous or monolithic world with one rule – a monarch, one church, one economic system and a conformist outlook in life.

He believed in order; a place for everything and everything in its place, especially in matters of governance. The monarch is supreme and his plays are strongly critical of improper succession of monarchs which give rise to chaos or anarchy.

History Plays became a device to bring the cultural and national inheritance to the common illiterate masses. Through entertainment it helped the common people appreciate the famous victories and noble heroes of a great nation. None was more admired than Henry V.

He believed in hierarchy – the order of degrees in society.

His was a profoundly Christian society, yet also easily influenced by pagan ideas of fortune, the stars and supernatural spirits. Fortuna, the pagan goddess with her wheel of fortune is prominently referred to in his plays.

Finally he believed in the Great Chain of Being with God, the Angels, Man, Animals, Vegetable and finally the inanimate. Man exists in a state between the Angels and was capable of transcending to the level of Angels but also prone to descend to the level of animals.

In 1603, with the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Lancaster lineage became extinct and Parliament turned to the Stuart line, King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England. The Stuarts believed in Absolute Monarchism and the Divine Right of Kings.

On November 5, 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament in what is known as the Gunpowder Plot – the origins of Halloween. This was a provocative terrorist act in protest against the treatment of Catholics that could easily have resulted in the death of a king and chaos throughout the land. James I reluctantly felt he had been made to “let blood”. Guy Fawkes was executed on January 39, 1606.

1606 saw MacBeth with its subtle cautionary messages about the limitations of the powers of a monarch, while King Lear has some clearer warnings regarding flatterers in court and how they can undermine the King’s real power.

Shakespeare was not writing history, rather tragedy, and he changed and simplified much all the history to suit his purpose. Shakespeare wrote a number of tragedies shortly after King James came to the throne in 1603 reflecting his concerns about the succession of monarchs. Many of these may have been an attempt to curry favor with King James I, while others served as warnings against poor governance, husbandry and gullibility. Perhaps Shakespeare is warning the King about the limitations and temporality of his power. Is he warning the King against hubris animated by foppish flatteries of the court culture? King James granted the royal patent to the Chamberlain’s company who became known as the King’s Men.

King James I, the father of Charles I, was a Stuart who succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, staunchly believing in the Absolute Power of Monarchs and the Divine Right of Kings. He appeared intent on a union of England and Scotland. James attempted to influence his sons, Prince Henry, Duke of Albany and Charles, Duke of Cornwall, for a Union of England and Scotland. Shakespeare was one of the first to refer to his country as Britain - Edgar’s Fi fo fum, I smell the blood of a British man."

This is his speech to parliament on 21^(st) of March 1610 demonstrates a delusional power monger:

Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King. God has the power to create and destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged, nor accountability to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have Kings.

Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool of Christendom”. When an noted lawyer, Sir Edward Cook, suggested there were limitations to the King’s prerogatives, King James thundered “*So then I am under the law. It is treason to say that!” * Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the royal rage, pleading for mercy.

Yet 38 years later King James’ son, Charles I lost his head upholding the same principle. The story of how Cromwell’s lawyers produced the first trial of a Head of State – that of Charles I. It traces the memorable career of John Cooke, the radical barrister and visionary social reformer who had the courage and intellect to devise a way to end the impunity of sovereigns. Geoffrey Robertson’s paper, Ending Impunity: How International Criminal Law Can Put Tyrants on Trial has been published in the 2005 Cornell Law Journal (issue 3, Volume 38). In 2006 he chaired a Commission of Inquiry into the United Nation’s internal justice system.

Tens of thousands of English citizens died in a brutal civil war to begin a long march to democracy.

Following the despotic reign of Oliver Cromwell, the monarchy was restored and the people turned on the hapless John Cooke and he was unceremoniously hung drawn and quartered for treason.

Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived and wrote under the rule of this Absolute Monarch. Each makes some denigrating references about the King and yet somehow survive and even prosper. In Donne’s case it was his holy sonnets, his religious tracts and his sermons so impressed King James that Donne was ordained a priest and eventually became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the highest offices of the Church of England.

Most of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies were written and performed during the reign of King James I with many scholars finding subtle suggestions about his serious concerns of responsible governance. There is documentary evidence that King James attended some of Shakespeare’s performances. There are few indications of his reactions.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values. The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic and distressing.

History of Performances:

The war of the Roses set the Tudor line on the throne until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Her reign (Elizabethan Age) was marked by stability, growth and prolific artistic creativity but her failure to provide an heir returned the Stuarts (Jacobean era) to the throne with their ideas of the Divine right of kings and absolute authority of monarchs. Shakespeare was profoundly affected by the transition of monarchs as many of his plays indicate. His concern is about legitimacy and husbandry. King Lear (1606) may be a warning to the new King James I about several issues; the false flattery of courtiers, breaking up kingdoms and whether or not a King is a king forever.