King Lear was written around 1603-06. A contextualised political reading interprets King Lear as a drama that gives expression to crucial political and social issues of its time: the hierarchy of the Jacobean state, King James’ belief in his divine right to rule, and the political anxieties that characterised the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign: fears of civil war and division of the kingdom triggered by growth of conflicting fractions and a threatening underclass.
Like all writers, Shakespeare reflected the world he knew. The ancient Britain the pseudo-historical Lear lived in contained anachronistic references to aspects of Jacobean life, such as eel pies and toasted cheese. Kent calls Oswald a ‘base football player’, evoking the class assumptions of the times. More significantly, King Lear reveals the conditions and preoccupations of Jacobean England in terms of politics, social change, justice, religion, madness, and the natural order.
Watching the play, Jacobean audiences would detect many resonances with their own socio-political climate: troubled and uncertain times as Elizabeth’s reign draws to a close and James ascends the throne – as the Tudor dynasty gave way to the Stuarts.
Poverty, food shortages and unemployment were commonplace; Bedlam beggars were troublesome, roaming the countryside pleading for charity. These social features are explored by Shakespeare via Lear’s madness and the character of Edgar-turned-poor-Tom.
The Cordelia-led French invasion may have sparked memory of the Spanish Armada of 1588.
Lear’s character contains parallels to King James’s. James, like Lear, believed in his own divine right to rule, and deemed it blasphemous to question the King’s action. The divine right of the King was the prevailing sentiment reinforced by law, and Lear’s unwitting decision to abdicate ruptures the divine and natural order
Shakespeare makes subtle allusions to James’ profligate behaviour – which held significance for Jacobean audiences. James had proved susceptible to the flattery of ambitious courtiers. Lear’s belated recognition of the conventions, flatteries, and corruptions by which he has long been deceived provides sharp reminder to James that a king is only man like other, subject to the same human frailties: “they told me I was everything; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.”
James, with his intention to unite England and Scotland, would have welcomed the play as a validation of his unionist views. The doomed Lear shown to have “divided in three our kingdom”; this brusque cutting-up of a kingdom would have appalled the audience (who would share Kent’s horror), warning against partitioning of a state. Monarchs have a sacred duty to keep their kingdom intact, it was a sin to abdicate or divide their country. The divided coronet is a striking visual image, symbolising the political dysfunction, chaos, civil war and personal tragedy that follows the division of the kingdom.
Both Lear and James rules societies characterised by its distinct hierarchical order – but also in the process of social change. A stable feudal society wit its strong allegiances and rigid hierarchy had crumbled in the wake of new scientific discoveries and global exploration. Increasing wealth from commerce fostered new ideas about value and status, as James made social mobility a reality with the selling of knighthoods for cash. A prosperous commercial gentry challenged the King’s power and divided the aristocracy, giving rise to difference political fractions – reflect in the rivalry between Albany and Cornwall.
Newly acquired power and property gave rise to a new kind of individual – those who felt no obligation to the old feudal loyalties, filled with the spirit of radical individualism, driven by self-interest. Edmund, Gloucester’s unscrupulous illegitimate son, refuses to “stand in the plague of custom” and seeks to thrive by his own cunning – mocking the superstitious beliefs of his father (an upholder of the old feudal loyalty to the king). Another is the corrupt, self-serving Oswald, who is ridiculed by the nobleman Kent. But he represents the emerging class of thrusting individualists in Jacobean England, motivated by self-interest, not loyalty to the traditional order.
In their acquisitiveness, Goneril, Regan and Edmund flaunt the “offices of nature, bonds of childhood, effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude” within the old order of human relationships.
Social Preoccupations/Values: How Jacobeans would have responded to these themes/motifs
Justice – King Lear reflects the passionate interest of the Jacobeans in justice – both process of law (human justice) and justice meted out by gods (divine justice).
The play’s many trials would strike a familiar chord in its contemporaries. There are five trials:
1. Love trial
2. Trial of Kent, whose bluntness earns him instant punishment
3. Improper trial of Gloucester by Cornwall and Regan
4. Lear’s hallucinated ‘mock trial’ of Goneril and Regan
5. Trial by combat where Edmund is destroyed.
In each case, the play raises questions as to whether justice has been done. In his madness, Lear becomes obsessed with bringing his daughters to justice, while losing faith in human justice, asking “which is the justice, which is the thief?” He reveals the inherent hypocrisy in judgement itself as he imagines a beadle (Jacobean figure of legal authority) punishing a whore despite how he “hotly lusts to use her in that kind for which thou whippst her”. The concluding lines “through tattered clothes great vices do appear: Robes and furred gowns hide all” – is a damning indictment of human justice, where possession of power is more important than fairness, where the fallibility of judgement present itself as a searing criticism of Jacobean society.
Divine justice, although unmotivated by tangible influences, is equivocal – and their effects equally devastating. Although Albany claims Cornwall’s deserved disgrace of being killed by a servant as proof of divine justice, the death of Cordelia is a bolt from a sky cleared by the vanished storm, demonstrating that there’s no simple scheme of rewards or punishments, earthly or divine. Both are equally wanton, confirming the bleak views of human predicament expressed in “like flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport”.
Religion – Adapted from old play: King Leir, which is pre-Christian. Shakespeare gave his play a pagan setting, which allowed greater freedom for him to present ticklish theological issues, in particular the question of providence, without falling foul of the strict Jacobean censorship. Jacobeans would be shocked by the image of a son assisting his father to attempt suicide, which is a sin.
Audience may detect the Christian theme of a journey through pain, suffering and humiliation to love, forgiveness and wisdom. There are obvious biblical echoes, like as Cordelia’s “O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about”, and the apocalyptic nature of the storm. Thus, its bleak, almost sadistic ending diverges from Jacobean expectation. It doesn’t fit the tragedy trajectory that moves from order to disorder and eventual restoration and fulfilment – Hence, a modified version by Tate containing a happy ending had replaced Shakespeare’s original on the stage for few centuries.
Madness – Jacobeans’ attitudes to madness were harsh and unsympathetic (bedlam beggars were believed to be possessed by devils). They may have been startled by the proliferation of madness within the empowered individuals of society:
Lear’s madness is that of a selfish, autocratic old man whose will is thwarted, whose moral blindness, misjudgements and lack of understanding of himself and others inevitably lead to breakdown: “O Fool, I shall go mad”
Cornwall and Regan seem to become mad in their obsession with Gloucester’s punishment.
Gloucester thinks it better to be ‘distract’ and lose his sorrow in ‘wrong imaginations’. He views madness as a privilege, bestowing innocence upon the insane person.
Ironically, the madness of Poor Tom, and archetypal image of insanity, is put on. The Fool’s ‘madness’ is professional, witty, exposing the weakness and folly of his ‘reasonable’ superiors.
Human madness is reflected as disturbance in nature and society. Lear’s inner torment is externalised by the violent storm. Lear’s tearing up of the kingdom is political madness, kindling a storm of social frenzy that precipitates cruelty, blindness, madness and death.
These incidences of madness demonstrate the vulnerability of those in whom we entrust power, and thus how fragile the fabric of Jacobean society was.
The Natural Order – Jacobeans would have viewed the play, especially its characters, through notions of what’s ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ instilled into them by their paradigm. This paradigm advocates hierarchical order enforced by God – with King fixed at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy, and the father at the family’s – both charged with the duty to maintain their state in harmony.
The perversions that occur to this order are unnatural:
Lear’s division of the kingdom according to daughters’ protestation of love violates a monarch’s duty to keep his kingdom unified. This act allows evil to breed, resulting in personal and social madness in the form of suffering, civil war, self-destruction.
Children revoking their filial duty also violate natural order. Being female, Goneril and Regan’s usurping of the patriarchal status quo induce particular shock and horror in Jacobeans. Their self-destruction is expected repercussion of their double felony against the natural order.
A Jacobean reading interprets King Lear as a vivid social portrait, featuring aspects of social conditions, depicting social change, and voicing the beliefs of its contemporary audience. Its story teaches a moral lesson against the shirking of responsibility and division of one’s state. Its characters represent social groups- their actions and interactions parallel the ebb and flow of social forces.