Historical Context of King Lear

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore the social and political context of Shakespeare's Jacobean England circa 1606, when he penned his great tragedy ''King Lear.'' We will pay particular attention to the play's themes of kingship and monarchy.

In and Out of Context

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. When Lear retires, he divides his kingdom up among his daughters, who then selfishly turn their backs on him. The play takes place in the 8th century B.C., but Shakespeare gives it a Jacobean twist by integrating facts and details of 17th century British social and political life.

Interestingly, screen and other modern adaptations also update the setting. The range of adaptations for stage and screen show that Lear adapts well to different time periods. Peter Brook's 1962 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company sets the play on a blank and empty stage. Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) sets the play in medieval Japan. Peter Hinton's stage version for the National Arts Centre (Canada) sets Lear in 1608 Ottawa with a cast of Algonquin actors. Patrick Stewart starred as Lear in King of Texas (2002), set on a late-19th century cattle ranch.

However, to understand the significance of the father-daughter relationships, the motivation of the female characters, and the customs of marriage, it's essential to situate Lear in its 17th century context.

Kings and Queens of England

William Shakespeare is generally known as an Elizabethan poet and playwright because he wrote most of his works during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603). His plays are a hallmark of the Renaissance style of literature that evolved during the golden age of Elizabeth's rule.

Queen Elizabeth

Shakespeare's later plays get dark and tragic, and a lot of that ambiance has to do with the contemporary climate of 17th century England. Because Elizabeth had no children, she appointed James of Scotland as her successor. When Elizabeth died in 1603, he became James I of England. James' ascension to the throne marked an important period of transition for Britain. Several notable changes took place, such as:

  • The inauguration of a new Stuart dynasty, or ruling family (Elizabeth was the last of a line of Tudors).
  • Attempts to unify England, Scotland, and Wales together to form Great Britain.

The reign of James I (1603-1625) is referred to as the Jacobean era (derived from the Latin form of James: Jacobaeus). In contrast to Elizabeth's golden age, Jacobean England saw a decline.

King James

Things had been going well under Elizabeth. The economy was up. People were getting along. Britons admired Elizabeth for her strength. They called her the Virgin Queen. Still, things weren't completely great. Society in 16th and 17th century Britain was extremely hierarchical, meaning that an absolute monarch ruled over the government, religion, and society of the whole nation. The political structure also mirrored the social structure. The father was the head of the household, and his wife and children were required to follow unquestioningly. In her time, Queen Elizabeth struggled to show politicians, world leaders, and Britons, that she deserved the right to rule: not just as a woman, but also as a sovereign monarch.

One might ask today how one person can have so much control. At the time, the monarch wasn't just a mortal person. He/she sat on the throne because God willed it. Believing in the King/Queen's right to rule was no different than believing in the power and authority of God.

You know the phrase, 'things need to get worse before they get better'? Well, things got a lot worse. James' reign inaugurated a fragile and uncertain period in British history. Historians blame James I for setting the stage for the English Civil War (1642-1651). The economy suffered. Parliament lost faith in the monarchy, leading to a destabilization in international relations. Britons lost faith and trust in the King and started questioning the absolute power of the monarchy.

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