What Influenced On King Lear
English author, Graham Greene once said, “The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer.” Writers draw inspiration for their work from a multitude of sources. Whether it comes from an occurrence that the writer experienced or something they saw in a dream, inspirations can be very diverse. William Shakespeare, like many playwrights, found inspiration in a variety of sources that led to the creation of many of his most famous works. While these sources can vary from other works of literature, to historical events, to oral legends, they all influenced Shakespeare in one way or another. Some of the main sources Shakespeare uses for inspiration for King Lear are two different folktales. Shakespeare builds King Lear off of these folk tales with a few key differences, most notably is the lack of a happy ending in Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare also uses another play has his primary source of inspiration. Again, Shakespeare varies from this play by editing the many things, including ending. After analyzing Shakespeare’s original sources, the reader is left wondering why he would choose to end King Lear on such a tragic note. One of the main reasons the ending is so crucial and drastically different from its sources is because the family dynamic in King Lear is distorted compared to the sources. Although Shakespeare combined a variety of sources to develop the ideas used in King Lear, the play is in unique due to Shakespeare’s portrayal of family dynamics.
Through reading King Lear, the reader may notice similarities between the play and popular folktales. The most obvious resemblance is the one between King Lear and “Cinderella”. The basic premise in the Cinderella story is that a daughter, Cinderella, is left motherless after her mother passes away and so her father remarries a woman who already has two daughters. These girls are cruel natured and treat Cinderella horribly. In the end, a prince falls in love with Cinderella and rescues from her family and they live happily ever after together. In King Lear, it is only acknowledge that Lear’s wife is deceased when he says to his daughter Regan, “If thou shouldst not be glad,/ I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb,/ Sepulch’ring an adultress” (II. iv. 124-126). These line, in which Lear is telling Regan that he knows she is glad to see him because if not he would divorce her mother’s grave, show that the Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril are motherless like Cinderella. While Cordelia clearly represents Cinderella, the main difference between the two characters is that Cordelia’s evil siblings are her sisters by blood, not marriage. Regan and Goneril are certainly the perfect examples of evil sisters. Like the terrible step-sisters in “Cinderella,” Goneril and Regan prove that they only care about themselves. At one point in the play, Regan insults Goneril by saying, “I never shall endure her” (V. i. 15). The fact that Goneril and Ragan murder each other over a man shows how twisted the family dynamic is in Shakespeare’s version. Another key difference between the typical Cinderella story and King Lear is that the father is somewhat oblivious to his daughter’s suffering; whereas, King Lear the direct cause to Cordelia suffering when he banishes her from the kingdom and renounces his love for her. An additional underlying theme that would drastically separate King Lear from “Cinderella” is the scandalous theme of incest. Folklorist Alan Dundes believes in the interpretation of the play that involves the idea that Cordelia has a sexual love for her father, but is unable to express it. Dundes states, “The interpretation explains not only why there is no Queen Lear, but also why Cordelia’s husband appears so little in the play. The play is about a daughter-father relationship, not a wife-husband relationship” (237). This underlying sexual tension adds another factor to the sibling rivalry that exists throughout the play. By keeping the framework of “Cinderella” in mind, the reader can see the folktale’s influence on the story, although the family dynamics have been amended.
“Cinderella” is not the only folklore that influences Shakespeare’s King Lear. Another folktale’s premise can be seen throughout the play. While “Cinderella” has more general similarities with King Lear, the British folktale “Cap O’ Rushes” has more specific similarities within the play. “Cap O’ Rushes” involves a princess who is banished from her kingdom after her father, the King, asks her and her sisters to declare how much they love him. While the two eldest daughters answer to the King’s satisfaction, the favored youngest daughter answers that she loves her father as much as salt is loved by fresh meat. The King is offended by her answer and banished her from his kingdom (Friedman n.p.). This same scenario is seen in the opening scene of King Lear. This “love-test” is somewhat standard in many folklore tales, though it is specifically seen in “Cap O’ Rushes” (Dundes 232). In the opening scene of the play, King Lear is seen asking his daughters to describe how much they love him in order to determine who gets the most of his kingdom. While Cordelia does not answer that she loves him as much as salt, she does state that she nothing in particular to say. Then when prompted, she simply admits, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/ According to my bond, no more, nor less” (I. i. 89-91). Cordelia’s response to Lear was harsher than in the “Cap O’ Rushes” tale (Skura n.p.). If read literally, her response in appropriate and chaste. Though if the reader takes into account Dundes theory of incest, then Cordelia is simply having trouble expressing her sexual love towards her father. Another aspect of folklore that is seen in both “Cap O’ Rushes” and King Lear is “type of the Outcast Child” (Perret 10). In both cases, the youngest daughter is banished from her kingdom because she did not “pass” the love-test. “Cap O’ Rushes” ends with a happy conclusion where the princess falls in love with another King and marries him. She then invites her family to dine at their palace where she serves all the food without salt. Her father finally realizes how crucial salt is and the tale ends happily ever after. This theme of the favorite daughter and the king reconciling at the end is the normal ending for the folklore (Dundes 233). On the contrary, King Lear ends on a tragic and depressing note. Although Lear and Cordelia reconcile once they are both captured as prisoners, there is no happy ending in their tale. Cordelia is murdered in her prison cell and Lear is so sorrowful that he dies from a broken heart. By varying from the framework of the “Cinderella” and “Cap O’ Rushes” folktales, Shakespeare has the literary skeleton of a folklore turned tragedy.
Folklores were not the only thing that inspired Shakespeare as he was writing King Lear. In fact, another literary work heavily influenced what was written in the play. The play The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his Three Daughters; Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella was written by an unknown playwright a year or so before Shakespeare’s King Lear was first performed. Shakespeare closely followed this play in writing his own rendition of King Lear, though he did make many changes. One of the many changes is seen in the character of Lear. In the True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, the King is “a weak old man, sketched without depth or complexity, who after his outburst against Cordella endures without anger except for an occasional flash of bitter irony” (Bullough 297). Shakespeare’s Lear has numerous outbursts throughout the play. Lear is arrogant, intemperate, and insufferable. These three qualities are all shown in Lear’s speech to Kent after Kent tries to reason with the King over giving the kingdom to Goneril and Regan. Lear tells Kent:
If on the tenth day following
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death. Away! By Jupiter,
This shall not be revoked (I. i. 174-177).
In the preceding quote, Lear specifies to Kent that he only has so many days to get out of the kingdom and if he is discovered in the kingdom after those days then his death is imminent. Lear swears on Jupiter that he means what he says and his threat will not be revoked. The fact that Lear banishes Kent, who was only trying to help Lear, seems insane. Lear literally goes insane in Shakespeare’s play only to then regain some of his sanity but then die of a broken heart after Cordelia’s death. As discussed earlier, King Lear does not have a happy ending. On the contrary, the True Chronicle Historie of King Leir ends on an upbeat note with Lear telling Cordella, “The modest answere, which I tooke unkind:/ But now I see, I am no whit beguild,/ Thou lovedst me dearely, and as ought a child” (32. 18-20). There is no undercurrent of incest noted in True Chronicle Historie of King Leir. The tale ends on a happy note when Leir realizes that Cordella’s modest response was spoken with honesty and not with deceit. The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir ending is in direct contrast with King Lear’s tragic ending. Although the family dynamics are strained in the True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, it is not nearly as bad as the family dynamic in Shakespeare’s play. Each member of the Lear family certainly has their faults. As noted earlier, King Lear’s main fault is his brashness and his inability to control his emotions. Goneril and Regan only value power and being superior to everyone else. They are ruthless and have no issue with betraying a family member in order to succeed. Cordelia can be viewed as the only sane person in the family, although if the reader chooses to adhere to Dundes’ interpretation, her motives aren’t sane but lustful and incestuous.
Besides works of literature, King Lear another possible source for Shakespeare to draw inspiration from was history. A few years before King Lear was written, a parallel situation occurred with an older servant of Queen Elizabeth and his three daughters. Bryan Annesley was a wealthy Kentish courtier who had three daughters: Grace, Christian, and Cordell (Geoffrey 270). Grace tried to take over Brian’s estate by stating that he had “fallen into suche imperfeccion and distemperature of minde and memorye… [He is] altogeather unfit to governe himself or his estate” (“The Case of Cordell Annesley” 160). Bryan’s youngest daughter, Cordell, protests stating that he is not a lunatic and should not be treated as such, especially after his years of service to the Queen. The Annesley situation is similar to King Lear in the sense that the youngest daughter is the only one who is worthy of the father’s trust. Just as Cordelia earns Lear’s love and respect before her death, Cordell earns Bryan Annesley’s respect which is why he leaves Cordell the majority of his property in his will (Geoffrey 270). Furthermore, there is also the noticeable similarity between the names Cordell and Cordelia. The dispute among the Annesley family also shows how the dispute among Lear and his family is somewhat realistic, though clearly dramatized. Unlike the folktales and the True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, the Annesley dispute does necessarily end happily. The dispute was said to have caused hard feelings amongst the family, especially between Grace and Bryan Annesley (Geoffrey 270). Although the dispute may have caused hard feelings among family members, the result is much less dramatic and deadly than the ending to King Lear.
William Shakespeare’s King Lear uses a variety of sources, from folk tales to another play to a current dispute that happened around the time when King Lear was written. Shakespeare may have drawn inspiration from more sources than the ones noted; however, he certainly appears to have incorporated something from each of the sources discussed in this paper. Shakespeare uses certain elements from folktales, specifically elements from “Cinderella” and “Cap O’Rushes.” Like “Cinderella,” Cordelia lacks a mother figure and has to endure her two horrendous sisters. Goneril and Regan are untrustworthy, malicious, and self-centered, much like the evil step-sisters in “Cinderella.” Shakespeare also uses the framework set up in another folktale, “Cap O’ Rushes.” By analyzing “Cap O’ Rushes,” the reader can see where Shakespeare may have gotten the idea for the love-test and the similar “love like salt” response. Also, the theme of the “Outcast Child/Heroine” can be seen in both the folktale and in King Lear. Besides the folktales, Shakespeare uses the skeleton of the story of The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his Three Daughters; Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. Besides the similarities in characters, the premises of the plays are extremely alike. The most important difference between Shakespeare’s King Lear and these three sources is the fact that these tales all center around resolvable family dynamics that lead to a happy ending. Shakespeare takes this folklore framework and turns it into a timeless tragedy. The last possible source discussed in this paper is from a family dispute that occurred during Shakespeare’s time. The dispute between the members of the Annesley family may have inspired Shakespeare in parts of King Lear. The dispute between Lear and his daughters is a dramatized version of the Annesley dispute. By ending King Lear the way he did, Shakespeare was able to shock the audience and create a completely unique and unexpected ending. Since Shakespeare paid close attention to what was going on during the time period, as well as works of literature from the past, he could easily create transform the play into his own masterpiece. After all, Shakespeare purposefully used family dynamics to deviate from the typical happy ending in order to transform the King Lear into a tragedy.
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