King Lear: Context

Studying “King Lear” as an A2 exam topic for English Literature, I have collected key contextual information and listed it below. I hope that this helps anyone who needs it.

Key points of each idea are made in bold; they may be summarised in this way.

  • It is possible that “King Lear” was thought appropriate for presentation to James I on 26 December 1606, because this was a traditional day for celebrating the Christian virtue of patience, necessary for enduring hardship.
  • Aristotle suggested that there were two emotions necessary in any tragedy, these being pity (e.g. Gloucester, Cordelia, Kent and Lear) and fear (e.g. of changing times, Edmund and the power of women).
  • The story of Lear has been told since the Middle Ages, with a stage version: The True Chronicle History of King Leir performed in the 1590s. This was not a tragedy, however, as Leir is restored to the throne in this production.
  • Sidney’s Arcadia tells the story of a blind Paphalogian king with two sons, one of whom plots against him. When the king realises this, he wishes to throw himself from a cliff; this may have influenced Shakespeare in writing the tragedy’s subplot of Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar.
  • The story of Sir William Allen may have influenced King Lear; he divided his property between his three daughters, after which point, he was abused by all three.
  • Sir Brian Annesley was named a senile lunatic by his eldest daughter and her husband, when they hoped to take control of his property. Annesley was saved by his youngest daughter, Cordell.
  • Sir Stephen’s Night (26th December) was traditionally associated with hospitality to the poor and the homeless.
  • Inheritance issues were a matter of concern for Shakespeare’s audience in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as Elizabeth I was unmarried and childless.
  • Edmund is the victim of the law of primogeniture, the traditional method of passing on wealth and power to the first-born son.
  • In Shakespeare’s day, “thou” was the pronoun used to address close friends and children, not the king; “you” was the polite, respectful term. (E.g. Kent = “What wouldst thou do, old man?”)
  • References to astrology and the pagan gods remind us that the play is set in the pre-Christian era. Breaches in nature also reflect Elizabethan and Jacobean beliefs about witchcraft and magic.
  • In Shakespeare’s playhouse, the Fool would have addressed the audience from the downstage area, encouraging the audience to relate to him.
  • It has often been suggested that the same actor played Cordelia and the Fool, this explaining why the two never appear onstage together.
  • During the same period that King Lear was written, Shakespeare also wrote Measure for Measure, which questions authority and justice.
  • Cordelia’s words echo Christ’s in Luke 2: “O dear father, it is why business I go about”, thus aligning her with Christ, and Lear with God.
  • Edgar was the name of a king who united England and Scotland.
  • “Kings are not only God’s lieutenants…but even by God himself they are called gods” (James I on the Divine Right of Kings).
  • Classical tragedies generally demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist.
  • James I’s court was known for its sycophancy; Goneril and Regan’s words in Act I, Scene I, may thus serve as a warning to James.
  • Strict Puritans saw death as the punishment for adultery, suggesting that Edgar is a religious activist.
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