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King Lear Theatre History

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“King Lear”

Written towards the end of the Golden Age of England, Shakespeare wrote and performed King Lear during a time when the reach of monarchial authority was questioned. Once Henry VIII decided to split from the Catholic Church, and named the monarch the head of the church in England, the country was extremely divided and the repercussions of his decision changed the cultural and political landscape of England completely. In addition, another crucial and divisive subject during those times was the royal succession of a monarch. Considering that Elizabeth I never married, the subject of succession was a very heated and divisive topic throughout Europe at the time. But even before Elizabeth I’s long and successful reign, royal succession was still a vague and extremely divisive process, shown through the very short but catastrophic reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Thus, writing in a period where the position of a monarch was under immense scrutiny, William Shakespeare wrote plays regarding the role of a monarch as a leader while also accentuating the mistakes and shortcomings of modern monarchs. Furthermore, Shakespeare choice of including a French invasion in the play with a just and wise French King in contrast to the inept British monarchs, might hint toward Shakespeare being a secret Catholic, since Catholicism was banned in light of the Protestant Reformation. The invasion is somewhat symbolic of the countless attempts of Roman Catholicism to regain supremacy in England during the country’s period of “rebellion.” Due King Lear’s focus on kingship and royal succession, the play should be viewed as William Shakespeare’s representation of the greatness of Elizabeth I’s reign and struggles with succession, a warning to James I’s young monarchial rule, and what constitutes a good king.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare exemplifies that a monarch’s lack of kingly traits to lead and garner the love of his people to be detrimental and leading only to chaos. King Lear, a man who as a king had everything he ever needed and wanted decided that he was tired of leading, and ultimately failed his people as a king by leaving the country in the hands of incapable individuals. He wished for the royal authority that comes with being a monarch, but wanted to pass on the administrative and political duties of a king to someone else, a distinction of power and authority made very clear by Shakespeare in most of his plays dealing with rule of government. However, a king can’t have authority if he doesn’t have influence and power, which King Lear learns pretty soon when his daughters start mistreating him. For example, both sisters demand that Lear considerably whittle down his personal force of 100 knights, his pride and sign of “manhood,” or be thrown out into the storm with no place to sleep (1.4.311); to which he could not object since he wasn’t king anymore. At first glance, one would think of him as an appropriate king, but his folly is shown when he divides his kingdom between the two ill-prepared and ill-mannered sisters. His decision to divide the kingdom changed the situation of the country from a united and peaceful land under one king to a divided country that was being invaded by outside forces. King Lear might have had the love of his people but he lacked discernment and the temperament needed from a king, and this ultimately led to the downfall of the country. In addition, the evil daughters Regan and Goneril showed their lack of leadership by allowing their lust for Edmund to decide the fate of all their subjects and cause a rift within the country. By carelessly handing over the kingdom to his two evil daughters, Lear shows an example of an undesirable succession and is consequences, the destruction of a country. This is relevant to the time period because towards the end of her reign, the English people were looking forward to Queen Elizabeth choosing a successor and even though Mary of Scotland was the rightful successor, she was found to be inept for the position of monarch of England due to her bad decisions in choosing suitable husbands and her irresponsible nature. Unlike Lear, Elizabeth listened to her advisors and Parliament in making the important decision of succession while Lear was fooled by Regan and Goneril’s false proclamation of love by means of flattery. However, being performed two years into James I reign, the division of the kingdoms could also be viewed as a warning to James that despite his efforts to unite England and become the “King of Britain,” he is actually dividing the country even more and causing discord within the realm. Thus, during a time of religious discord and questions surrounding the monarchy, Shakespeare was using the play to demonstrate the importance of a strong and wise monarch in order to have a peaceful and prosperous country, highlighting the long and successful reign of Elizabeth I in comparison to the start of James’ and lay out the consequences of an undesirable succession.

Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, represents all facets of a royal succession. Edmund represents the many cases of illegitimacy due to being a bastard son or daughter in the 16th century, while the three sisters represent the absence of justification of some monarchs to lead other than being related by blood to the previous king. Similar to how Cordelia was disinherited by her father and seen unfit to rule, Elizabeth was unfairly disinherited and seen unfit to ascend the throne by her father Henry VIII. During the end of her reign, the subject of royal succession was so undermining to her authority as queen that Elizabeth I censored any talk or mention of succession throughout her kingdom. James I, her eventual successor did the same and believed that it was well within his power to do so because he believed in the power and supremacy of a monarchy. He even viewed Parliament as an advisory board at best that could only adjourn when he pleased. This is the mindset that King Lear had at the beginning of the play, but as he started to experience the wrath and disrespect of his two daughters more and more he comes to realize that all humans are “poor naked wretches” (3.2.30) in the face of nature and the gods, regardless if they are a monarch or not. As King Lear loses all of his royal authority and starts to go mad, he realizes that all men are the same and that being a monarch is a matter of being born into the right family not individual achievement. Being stripped of his one hundred knights is the ultimate sign of his loss of power and authority he previously enjoyed as Britain’s sovereign (2.4.175). This fate befalls Lear due to his poor sense of discerning a person’s character, shown through his choosing of Regan and Goneril as his successors and his poor treatment of Kent once he wisely advised him against trusting the kingdom to



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