King Lear is a play influenced by history and predominantly affected by contemporary social, cultural and stately events of the early 17th Century. To contextualise the play I will look at cultural, social and historical background and distinguish how this had an effect on Shakespeare’s inspiration to write King Lear. A lot of the characters and inspiration for King Lear came from the society around Shakespeare. He observed lots of contemporary rumours and stories in the news about scandal between fathers and daughters.
For example, Sir William Allen, a former Lord Mayor of London, split his estate between his three daughters and arranged to live alternately with each. But all three treated him cruelly and disrespectfully. Another popular subject of gossip in 1603-4 was Sir Brian Annesley. His youngest daughter Cordell defended him against her eldest sister who tried to have her aged father certified mad so that she could take control of his estate and wealth.
This must have been the inspiration for the main story line for King Lear, he used the idea for Gonoril and Regan to betray their father from the three daughters of Sir William Allen and then altered it to include one daughter defending and truly loving the father from the story about Sir Brian Annesley, where he also got the name for the good daughter, Cordelia form Annesley’s daughter Cordell. Historical affairs also had an effect on the plays characters and themes. Shakespeare must have the book by Raphael Holinshed’s.
Who wrote the ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland’, which told of a story of a King Leir and his three daughters Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla. This inevitably must have been the inspiration for the names of the three daughters in King Lear; Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The main idea for the tale of King Lear would probably have come from Shakespeare reading the legendary story of Lear, first told in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of England,’ written in the 13th Century. Other inspiration for the plot and subplot in King Lear may have come from a play and two texts that affected Shakespeare.
Shakespeare may have seen a play first performed in the 1590s called, ‘The True Chronicle History of King Leir. ‘ It was then published in 1605, no characters died in the play, but it contained the stage direction of ‘thunder and lightning’ which would have given Shakespeare the inspiration for the storm scene. Shakespeare may also have read a prose romance called, ‘Arcadia. ‘ A novel by Sir Philip Sidney that was published in 1590, in the book there was a story about a man having one good son and one bad and how this effected the family.
Shakespeare would have used this to create the subplot of Gloucester and his good son Edgar and his evil son Edmund. Edgar’s language as Poor Tom is an interesting creation, but again it was not Shakespeare’s invention. In 1603 Samuel Harsnett produced a pamphlet called, ‘A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. ‘ It was an anti-Catholic pamphlet and it included a lot of strange language and demon’s names. It is said that this is where Shakespeare took a great deal of Poor Tom’s language. Another relevant happening of the time was the succession of James I to the throne.
Elizabeth I’s reign ended in 1603 and James I became King later that year. During Elizabeth I’s reign England was in a time of prosperity, she reformed England massively. She had a good domestic and foreign policy and was loved by all classes in England. James I was the new monarch and he did not fulfil the expectations of the public. In comparison to Elizabeth he was weak. James I repressed the Protestants as strongly as he had the Catholics. He believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and he enforced the superiority of the state over the church.
The ‘Divine Right of Kings’ was an ancient doctrine that stated that monarchs were representatives of God and derived their right to rule directly from God, giving them to ultimate right to the throne. It meant Kings would only answer to God and would not follow secular law, giving them the opportunity to do whatever they wanted and get away with it. Shakespeare probably was thinking about the political anxieties at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the beginning of King James I’s reign. The public disliked James and his methods of kingship led to fears of civil war and of the kingdom being divided.
Parliament were also challenging the monarchy at this time. They wanted more power to represent the people, each man representing his area and his people’s view. They felt the monarchs had too much power and Parliament should have a much larger effect on decisions in domestic policy. King Lear was written at the time of the turmoil in England, in his Jacobean play Shakespeare would have considered the incompetence of James and incorporated that into his character of Lear. This new style of kingship would have inspired some of the themes in the play such as, what rights and respect Kings had.
Shakespeare was getting older and wiser and he challenged Kingship and made political criticisms in the play, the audience would have picked up on these thoughts as his plays were extremely popular, respected and enjoyed. London was a over populated city, overcrowding in houses and bad hygiene, led to disease being easily passed on throughout the city and when the plague appeared most would catch it, medicine was not an established and working system, they could only quarantine the infected and did not know cures for most diseases.
Shakespeare’s play were a form of escapism for society, they appealed to the lower and upper classes. Shakespeare wrote his plays so that the upper educated classes could understand and enjoy his witty word puns and lengthy descriptions and he also wrote after the descriptions a short understandable line to sum up the description so that the less educated could enjoy and understand the play also. Culturally Europe was under the effects of the ‘renaissance. ‘ The flowering of the arts, it stemmed mainly form Italy, as well as France and England lightly affecting the period.
It was a rebirth of life, a period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the arts. The Renaissance began in 14th-century Italy and spread to the rest of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, the fragmented feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural economy and church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed into a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and lay patronage of education, and predominantly the arts.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donato Bramante and Titian are just some of the Italian artists, sculptors and architects of the high renaissance. England was not drawn into the massive success of the visual arts and did not really contribute at all, but England’s contribution to the renaissance came form there extraordinary ability to write poetry and plays. Shakespeare was the main contributor to English poetry and plays.
Humanism was an established idea it focussed on education. They wanted to educate people to be able to read and learn Latin and Greek. This meant the people of this time were very articulate and many were master orators. This is why Shakespeare’s plays are so full or word puns and his jokes are all based on the playing with words. His plays were very descriptive and all the action was acted through the words as Shakespeare did not have the effects we can produce now.
Each play that is written is generally a product from its own society and in King Lear we see that Shakespeare’s inspiration has come from the contemporary society around him, books in history, the monarch changing and the Renaissance. Shakespeare wrote the play at the’ fin de siecle’ and great things were known to happen around this time. In King Lear I think Shakespeare created a great play that was written with challenging political thoughts, humour and an aged old story inspired by history and observations of contemporary scandal in the society around him.