Some general thoughts on King Lear and the context of its early performances--
Shakespeare's King Lear was performed for the first recorded time before the royal court in December 1606, three years after Elizabeth's I's death and the ascension to the throne of her distant Tudor relative, James VI of Scotland, now James I of England. The play's central plot dynamic, the division of a unified English island-realm into three pieces (Scotland, England, and Cornwall) directly addresses the dangers that were feared as Elizabeth died without heir. The play's deeper thematic issues, however, address the human condition, especially human beings' duties to each other, and to themselves, testing to destruction the medieval social system of loyal service and protection of one's servants. The Courtier's recipe for "stealing graces" and adopting the behaviors of others transforms several characters during the course of the plot, and Lear emerges as the foremost example of all those who have lost their own identity as a medieval kingdom meets Machiavelli and Renaissance "self-fashioning." If Lear loses his identity in obvious madness, his enemy-daughters (Goneril and Regan) and his vassal's bastard son, the "Machiavel" Edmund, lose their identities in quite another way. ("It is his hand, my lord, but I hope his heart is not in the contents," II.1.68.) The play's master-stroke is to situate this cultural degeneration in a thoroughly imagined pagan England, before Christian missionaries arrived to teach the English to seek salvation by their "Good Deeds" and to fear damnation for their secret sins. By this means, Shakespeare can ask the otherwise difficult to imagine question, "what is human life in a universe without God and a Divine Providential Plan in which human existence is central to Creation?" Milton might be said to propose a Believer's rebuttal. Click here for the one of Shakespeare's sources for the play, notably transformed by him, from the table of contents of John Higgins' continuation of The Mirrour for Magistrates (London: Thomas Marshe, 1574). When you have finished the play for Friday, reread the title for section 10, which was what everyone thought would happen when they first saw his play. The modern YouTube video, "David at the Dentist," captures some of the weird combinations of affective response the play displays and seeks to produce in its audience.
As you read King Lear's last three acts and contemplate the catastrophic vision of the English past which Shakespeare presents to his audience, it would be a good time to cast your own mind back over the course's readings. This mood of "taking stock," or inventorying what English literature is, will perfectly mirror what was going on in the final decades of Elizabeth's reign and the early decades of the "Stuart" kings (James I, Charles I). England is contending for a world-circling political and economic power that confronts the Dutch, French, and Spanish empires, and quite naturally they wonder how things will work out in this risky game. At such times, the past and its literature often serves as a guide. The Anglo-Saxon period offered them a similar period of struggle with would-be invaders, Vikings from Scandinavia. Then, in 1066, a successful invasion by Norman French warriors unified the multiple Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under a single central government, and began the linguistic unification of the island by super-imposing French over Old English as the language of government and fine literature. By the 1300s, when Geoffrey and Julian and Margery were writing and speaking, the change was almost complete as "Middle English" became a language one could use for fine artistic effects and for talking about God. The English were still fighting to hold on to the old Norman French provinces, but by the 1400s, after a brief series of victories under Henry V, they lost the Channel ports and retreated to their island while trade and religious reform brought them something we now call "the Renaissance," a new learning about the pagan past. It also brought the Spanish Armada in 1588, but their triumph over the vastly superior Spanish fleet gave the English an almost mystical faith in their endurance. In addition to fears of invasion from outside, they also feared internal disunion and "faction" that were manifested in Irish and Scots support for survivors of the Armada (see The Spyte of Spaine after midsemester break). It's that faith in survival of Kent-like and Cordelian "Englishness" against the factional strivings of Edmund, Cornwall, Regan and Goneril that the catastrophe of Lear's Act V challenges, among other things. Can you imagine an American version of King Lear? Tough to do, eh? That's another part of what's "English" about "English literature." They've had absolute monarchs in their past, and even now are "subjects" of a queen.