Reading King Lear Through Prism of Jacobean Context
If you used the word faggot in Shakespeare’s time; you wouldn’t be called a homophobe, you’d simply be referring to a bundle of sticks. If you considered women less capable than men; you wouldn’t be called a misogynist, you’d be a Jacobean realist. If you believed the leader of the nation to be God’s rightfully appointed hand on earth; you wouldn’t be considered insane or even unusual. When it comes to understanding; context is everything, and King Lear is undoubtedly a timeless reflection of the Jacobean era for which it was composed. By employing dramatic techniques to intertwine the notions of justice, identity, and fate with contextual elements unique to his time and audience, Shakespeare reflected the true nature of the Jacobean world that he and his audiences lived and breathed. Through this interlinking of the broader human experience with era-dependant contextual notions, Shakespeare not only engages audiences across vastly contrasted time periods, but further allows us to understand the context that shaped King Lear, and ultimately challenges the modern audience to consider the true extent to which their understanding not only of the text, but of the world, is coloured by their own individual contextual lens.
In King Lear, Shakespeare questions whether “the heavens” make it their object to deliver justice to humanity or simply “like wanton boys…kill us for their sport”. This fundamental question of the true nature of justice is one explored from the moment the plays tragic plot is foreshadowed in the revelation of Lear’s “darker purpose” “to crawl unburdened toward death”. This expression of hubris, that ironically alludes to the “future strife” to come of trusting Goneril and her sister “of the selfsame metal”, means little in the eyes of today’s audience, but to Shakespeare’s audience, it was a grave offence against the heavens and a careless mockery of the divine right of kings. In the God fearing mind of the Jacobean viewer, Lear has sealed his tragic fate just a few lines into the play by putting the world out of order, further emphasised by the pathetic fallacy of the storm. Shakespeare, however, doesn’t limit his exploration solely to divine justice. By utilizing conflict as a means of highlighting comparative views of justice, Shakespeare employs characters such as “legitimate Edgar” and “bastard Edmund” as symbolic lenses for contrasting perspectives and ideologies. Edmund’s decision to acquire “lands by wit” represents a blatant rejection of the prevailing Jacobean system of belief, and his disillusionment with the notion of natural justice. Edmund thus can be considered a personification of Renaissance thought, seeking to understand and control the natural world without regard for the supernatural. On the other hand, the audience is presented with Edmund’s distinctly opposed brother, Edgar, who quite openly believes “the gods are just” even in the wake of overwhelming tragedy and the horrific mutilation of his father. In his unwavering belief, Edgar symbolizes the more common view of justice among the Jacobean audience. In one sense, divine justice is delivered when most of the characters metaphorically “taste the cup of their deservings”, however, this is tainted with ambiguity when the ever honest and forgiving Cordelia dies, leaving the audience to ask the rhetorical question “why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” Through these conflicting and juxtaposed events, Shakespeare highlights that the true nature of justice as little more than perspective, and in effect, argues against the notion of absolute divine justice. Instead symbolizing that “the wheel is come full circle” when almost all the characters are undone by their deeds against each other and can no longer “make guilty of [their] disasters the sun”, effectively reflecting the superstitious context whilst making a subtle attack on it through the words of Edmund. This essentially presents justice in King Lear as a perpetual struggle between poetic, divine, and human justice, and through these conflicting modes of justice, Shakespeare mirrors the ongoing clashing of ideologies taking place in the real world at the time of composition. This conflict ultimately drives home the fundamental point made in King Lear when read from a modern perspective, that true justice is little more than a reflection of the context by which it’s measured.
The importance of identity in determining one’s fate was unprecedented in the feudalistic and superstitious Jacobean context. To have a certain “star in the firmament twinkled on [ones] bastardizing” was to be rendered “rough and lecherous” for life, and to “have lands by wit”, “not by birth” was to express a serious form of hubris, a direct moral attack on God, of equal gravity through Jacobean eyes as Lear’s early retirement plan. Shakespeare reflects this contextual understanding of identity’s connection to fate through the juxtaposition of the overly trusting Edgar with his cunning brother Edmund, who are engaged in a constant struggle between faith in the divine and worldly ambition. The audience is called to both love and hate Edmund through his conflicted characterisation, Shakespeare utilizes Edmund’s soliloquys to provide insight into the prejudices he endures due to his identity as a bastard and encourages them to empathise with his plight, however, this sentiment is quickly inverted as the plot develops and his duplicitous scheme is revealed. Shakespeare further employs bitter irony to demonstrate the power of ones identity on their fate through characters like Albany’s servant, Kent, and the Fool. Each of whom offers sound and thoughtful counsel to their masters, but is severely punished by people or by plot, highlighting the prevailing truth of their context, that Edmund only learns by the stroke of Edgars blade: the great chain of being must not be broken. In contrast with modern viewers, who love to see the underdog win; Shakespeare’s audience would splatter the walls of the Globe theatre with rotten fruit if a character got away with overcoming their caste, and this is clear in unfortunate fates prescribed to those who dare overstep their role. Interestingly, parallel with asserting the importance of identity, Shakespeare utilizes duplicitous characters and deception to critique the superficiality of the Jacobean view of identity. In this, Shakespeare mirrors the philosophy of Edmund, whilst still painting it as wrong in the context. He first alludes to this with Lear’s willingness to accept blatantly hyperbolic declarations of love from Regan and Goneril and attempting to coerce Cordelia to “mend [her] speech” before banishing for refusing to “heave her heart into her mouth”. This contrasts Shakespeare’s own typical contextual lens and challenged his audience to consider whether their superstitions were truly supernatural in nature, or little more than self-fulfilling prophecies. Lear’s apparent wilful blindness could be further considered a double entendre, referencing the public scandal of William Allen who mistakenly divided his wealth among three daughters. Or alternatively, when coupled with the motif of Lear’s madness, it could allude to the case of Brian Annesley whose daughter attempted to steal his kingdom by having him ruled insane, only for him to be saved by another daughter, incidentally named Cordell.
When all is said and done, and the death march plays, it is ultimately in the sentiments of the audience that the true importance of context is revealed. To the modern audience, the storm is still raging and the world is still out of order – however to the Jacobean audience, justice has been done and order has been restored. The guilty have been punished for their hubris and only the righteous ascend unscathed from the maelstrom to “grow” and “prosper”. It is this distinction that not only reflects the overwhelming influence of context on King Lear, but more significantly, proves the true power of its construction by engaging audiences across the vast divides of chronology and context. It is in Shakespeare’s ability to so effectively connect context with the issues of the broader human condition that the Jacobean context outlives its inhabitants and is forever immortalized in the words of the play.
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