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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for King Lear by William Shakespeare

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  Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537-1547 (Wikimedia Commons) Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537-1547 (Wikimedia Commons)

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of tumult and great social upheaval, both in England and in Europe as a whole. Some fifty years before Shakespeare’s birth, the Reformation had swept through the continent, challenging longstanding religious practices and institutions, and resulting in the establishment of a number of alternatives to the Catholic Church of Rome, including Lutheranism and Calvinism. While this movement was initially resisted in England, Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn in 1527, and the pope’s subsequent refusal to allow it, led to a break from the Church of Rome and the eventual founding of a Protestant Church of England in 1536, with the king as its head. The crown seized the properties and wealth of the monasteries, and England was thrown into a kind of religious identity crisis over the next few decades, as successive monarchs shifted the country back and forth from Catholicism to Protestantism several times. Each of these shifts was accompanied by danger, persecution, and death.

After the death of Henry’s daughter Mary, a staunch Catholic like her mother Catherine, her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, became queen in 1558, a succession by no means assured given the political implications of Henry’s marital relations. Elizabeth I, last of the Tudor monarchs, reigned until 1603, presiding over an extraordinary rise in England’s fortunes. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the country (along with its Protestant religion) had established itself as a political power within Europe, and embarked upon a process of imperial expansion. Simultaneously, there was a great flowering in literature, classical studies, historiography, geography and philosophy, which has made the Elizabethan era practically synonymous with the English Renaissance. Any doubts—and they were expressed often—about the capacity of a female monarch to rule effectively were, if not put to rest, at least exposed as unfounded by the multiple achievements of her long reign.

Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen, died without issue, having spent her reign skillfully playing various suitors and factions against each other for political gain while remaining unmarried throughout—on her deathbed in 1603 she appointed James VI of Scotland as her successor, and he was crowned James I of England, the first English monarch of the Stuart dynasty, ruling until his death in 1625. The Jacobean era saw the country continue to emerge as a colonial and trading power, both westwards in Ireland and North America, and eastwards in Asia. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of English Renaissance writing continued—the Authorized King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611, and James himself was known to be a writer, and composed works on poetry, witchcraft, and on political theory and kingship. In the latter texts, he articulated his belief in an absolutist theory of monarchy and the divine right of kings, desiring to command not only complete obedience but also complete devotion, which would lead to difficulties in his relations with the Parliament. These difficulties would eventually lead to the English Civil War (1642–1651), and ultimately to the execution of James’ son and heir Charles I in 1649. 

Sir Francis Walsingham by John de Critz, c. 1585.  (Wikimedia Commons)  As Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham uncovered several plots against Elizabeth’s life, including one that led to the execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.Sir Francis Walsingham by John de Critz, c. 1585. (Wikimedia Commons) As Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham uncovered several plots against Elizabeth’s life, including one that led to the execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. That civil war broke out fewer than thirty years after Shakespeare’s death suggests the extent to which England, despite the advancements and triumphs of the Tudor-Stuart period, was still a troubled society. While both monarchs were to some extent popular and inspired the devotion of their subjects, the changes set in motion by Henry VIII continued to have far-reaching effects. While Elizabeth’s accession may have confirmed England as a Protestant nation, the next decades continued to be marked by religious tension, not only between England and Catholic Europe, but also within a populace for whom religious faith and identity had become a life-and-death matter—Catholics were persecuted and tolerated to varying degrees depending on the political climate and monarchical whim, and schisms within English Protestantism developed as well. At the same time, political pressures continued both from outside and within, with anxieties about foreign espionage and expansion, and internal treachery and power games. The social structure and geography of the country as a whole was being reorganized, and the possibilities for social advancement opened up, through a combination of factors, including the dissolution of the monasteries and their land-holdings, along with increased opportunities resulting from the expansion of trade and exploration, and the rise of London as a commercial center.


Early modern drama & ‘Shakespearean tragedy’

While Shakespeare is indeed one of the great writers of the Western canon—and one of the best-known—it’s important to avoid uncritically endorsing portrayals that render him as a near-mythical kind of universal genius, without considering the particular historical contexts not only of the period in which he lived and worked, but of the nearly 400 years after his death. He was undoubtedly a product of his age: not only of the flourishing literary world of early modern England along with writers such as Edmund Spenser, Mary Sidney Herbert and John Donne, but also of a vibrant theatrical world together with playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and John Webster. This latter world, while it featured writers with literary aspirations, was distinctly separate from the world of literature: theater was a commercial venture that sought to entertain as many people as possible, and to turn a profit for its participants. The momentous transformation of the rich theatrical traditions of England into the commercial theatre of the late 1500s was closely linked to the transformation of London into a commercial center, and the attendant population explosion (from c. 50,000 in 1530 to c. 225,000 in 1605). Shakespeare was deeply involved in this theatrical world, as playwright, as actor and eventually as shareholder in one of the premier stage companies of the period, the Lord Chamberlain’s (later known as the King’s) Men.

If Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers, then King Lear is often considered one of his greatest works. Along with plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, and Macbeth, Lear has established its creator not only as one of the great tragedians, measured alongside the ancient Greeks, but as the foremost representative of a great age of tragedy, comparable again to fifth-century Athens. Again, such a view is worth considering closely—it is not to diminish the power and artistry of these works to acknowledge their differences both from Athenian tragedy and from our later conceptions of tragedy.

Three Daughters of King Lear by Gustav Pope, c. 1875. (Wikimedia Commons) Three Daughters of King Lear by Gustav Pope, c. 1875. (Wikimedia Commons) These plays were not produced in conjunction with religious festivals, and they were in competition with each other only insofar as the companies that staged them sought to maximize their share of the theatrical audience. The theater of early modern London was however similar to that of ancient Athens in terms of the interrelationships between playwrights who were composing as part of a complex dramatic community that existed both synchronically and diachronically. Shakespeare was not a solitary genius, composing plays in isolation, but both influenced and was influenced by other playwrights such as Kyd, Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, and Webster, sometimes working for the same company, sometimes for competing companies, sometimes collaborating on the same play, a common practice at the time.

In this kind of rich environment, where the demand for entertainment led to ever-increasing numbers of plays, where audience tastes could shift from one week to the next, and where theatrical companies thus had to remain flexible in order to maintain their edge, dramatic genres such as tragedy or comedy were never fixed or unified as they would later become. The range of influences on early modern tragedy includes classical tragic theories and texts alongside medieval dramas and moral philosophy, and any notion of what tragedy consisted of as a genre was pretty much worked out in practice on the stage, rather than in theory.


King Lear in historical context

As its title suggests, King Lear is a play about kingship, written during a period when the monarchy was of central importance, and the role of the monarch was under constant scrutiny and subject to endless theorization. James VI & I, on the throne when Lear was written and performed, himself extensively theorized the political role of the monarch as absolute ruler with divine right. The preceding reign of Elizabeth I was itself marked by continued efforts to justify her rule—both as a result of her gender and of her uneasy familial claim to the throne—including through the theory of the ‘king’s two bodies’, whereby her person was understood to be divided between her mortal body natural and the immortal body politic of the kingship. These theories were not just abstractions, but had a very real effect on life in Shakespeare’s England, and in early modern Europe as a whole. In the 1600s, both country and continent were still feeling the world-shattering impact of Henry VIII’s decision to separate from the Catholic church nearly a century earlier. The far-ranging political, spiritual and societal consequences of such an event exemplified the degree to which the monarch’s personal desires and actions could affect the destiny and structure of an entire country, seemingly on a whim.

In the 1590s, Shakespeare often dwelt on the nature of monarchy, and the history plays of the period can be read not just as historical narratives featuring kings, but also as meditations on monarchical rule. The two Richard plays explore the limits and abuses of such rule and the possibilities for its overthrow, the Henry IV plays deal with the issue of succession, while Henry V focuses on the role of king as national figurehead. In Lear, we see Shakespeare tackle the issue of patriarchal monarchy, where the king is figured as head of both his own family and of the state, a staple of Jacobean understandings of the relationship between monarch and country that saw in it an analogy to the relationship between a patriarch and his household. While Lear may have been a ruler of almost mythical status from ancient Britain, King Lear articulates pressing contemporary concerns about the power of early modern kings.

Written by Frederick Bengtsson, Department of English & Comparative Literature, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, & Katherine Eisaman Maus

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells