King Lear is one of the most complex plays written by William Shakespeare, with its many characters, disguises, and surprising outcomes. Typical of most Shakespearean tragedies, old King Lear is brought to ruin, and eventually death, by a tragic flaw: his foolishness spurred on by his pride. Shakespeare examines many universal themes and ideals such as the dangers of foolishness and manipulation, the consequences of greed, and the bittersweet happiness of redemption and reconciliation. Also intrinsic to his works, Shakespeare takes the opportunity to do some moral instructing to the monarchy about sharing wealth with the poor. King Lear, while complex, also provides audiences with a simple warning about what happens when we rely on our pride and ego, rather than our reason, to make our decisions.
The inspiration for Shakespeare’s play comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, published in 1136, called History of the Kings of Britain. Supposedly, King Leir of the Britons ruled in the 8th century B.C., which is also about the time that Rome was being founded. These coinciding milestones may contribute to why Shakespeare peppered the play with so many references to Roman gods and goddesses. The primary plot of the play follows the history closely: King Leir has three daughters, two of whom flatter him to receive their shares of the kingdom, and one who truly loves him but refuses to play his games. Leir also only asks for 100 knights for his entourage, which his wicked daughters reduce to zero after a couple of years. Eventually, his sons-in-law band together and overthrow him, so Leir is forced to flee to France. He, along with Cordelia and their forces, attack and retake the throne of England. However, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Leir reigns for three years after he regains his crown, and then Cordelia succeeds him thereafter. Shakespeare strays from these events by killing off Lear and Cordelia, and leaving the dubious future of the kingdom in Kent’s and Edgar’s hands instead.
A concept that was near and dear to the hearts of many Medieval and Renaissance people is the idea of the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being provides a hierarchy of roles for the people of the Medieval world, beginning with God at the top, and eventually moving down to animals and plants. In between these roles are kings and queens, clergy, knights and nobles, and finally peasants. This hierarchy is also modeled in the feudal system that began with the king and ran down to the serfs. The Medieval mindset held that if there was a disruption in this chain, usually in the higher levels of the hierarchy (such as a nobleman usurping the throne from a king), the universe and nature would respond violently until balance was restored. This belief is reflected in many works of art and literature, but it is especially present in Shakespeare’s plays. For instance, in Julius Caesar, the citizens report strange happenings in the city of Rome, including men’s hands on fire but not burning, a lioness wandering around in the Capitol but not attacking, and blood raining down on the Capitol. Calpurnia remarks to Caesar in warning:
When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
Calpurnia’s warning comes true, because little does Caesar know, his best friend is planning to assassinate him the following morning. This disruption in the Great Chain also has consequences for Brutus and Cassius, and all of Rome, as Caesar’s assassination brings about a period of chaos and bloodshed for Rome, and results in the deaths of Brutus and Cassius. In King Lear, the disruption caused by Lear’s actions are reflected in the wild storm depicted in Act III.
There are many interesting depictions of The Great Chain of Being that can be easily researched by students. Some interpretations incorporate supernatural elements such as angels and demons; others are very specific in their classifications of the hierarchies, including “higher” and “lower” animals. Students will notice, however, that the monarchy is always placed at the top, near God, and sometimes only below the Pope. This has to do with the Divine Right of Kings, another concept that helped absolutist monarchies control most of Europe for hundreds of years.
Ironically, Shakespeare’s patron, Queen Elizabeth I, had a storied family history with disrupting the Chain. Her father, King Henry VIII, appointed himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England with his Act of Supremacy in 1534. This disrupted the hierarchy because King Henry replaced the Pope, who was believed to be appointed by God, as the head of religious and political affairs.