Humanities Information

Shakespeares Art: Understanding King Lear

Students of Shakespeare have spent a very great deal of time debating the meanings of "Othello", "King Lear", and "Macbeth". The wealth of criticism of any one of his plays can be overwhelming to the casual student. I cite my own experience as a high school student struggling to write credible criticism of "King Lear" whilst juggling History, German, and General Studies reading and assignments. Students benefit from guidance concerning what it is best; at the very least to make best use of the time they have, opting perhaps to read the very best sources only.

Now language, spoke or written, is entirely a reflection of individual experience. We speak and write words we have picked up, first from whom ever taught use to speak; later from those we talk to and from those books which we have read. Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, we also use language to speak and write about our experiences.

Fiction writers use language, no way in exception to this rule. However many planes they may have crossed using their imagination and knowledge, their fiction will be the product of their experiences. It is important then, for students of literature to learn about a writer's experiences - how they lived, and what they read being the two points of focus in any such study of a writer. Secondary to reading the text apart from knowledge of the writer to consider language in the abstract, it is necessary for students, searching for meaning, to consider texts with knowledge of their writers.

Considering fiction writers' sources is a practice never more crucial than when studying Shakespeare's plays. Firstly, it is a relatively easy exercise (and therefore good practice), as none of Shakespeare's plays are entirely original. Secondly, it is important for most students studying Shakespeare to express their own opinions about the texts. Examiners, certainly of A-Levels, (so I am told), are interested in the thoughts of the candidate, and therefore do not look favorably on regurgitated criticism from leading Shakespeare scholars. Thirdly, knowing something of Shakespeare likely sources is immensely useful at opening paths to substantiated judgments on meaning; it can lead to a whole new level of understanding, from which it is even easier to appreciate bard's genius.

The discourse to follow on Shakespeare's sources for three of his best known tragedies is, I admit, a regurgitation of my last three years of studying English. I decided that treading familiar ground was most prudent at this stage in the life of "Arguendo". I hope to build my own confidence as a writer, as I build your confidence as a reader. Not withstanding that these three tragedies are amongst Shakespeare's most thought provoking plays, I hope that this essay will indeed provided knowledge to add to you enjoyment of them.

One of the problems or, depending on your perspective, one of the advantages of studying Shakespeare, is that relatively little is known about his life. In particular, scholars are uncertain when he wrote the majority of his plays and sonnets, which leaves, potentially, a substantial gap between Shakespeare's intended meaning and our own understanding of his work.

The best estimates for the dates that he wrote span several years. He must have written "Macbeth" sometime between 1603, the ascension of James I, and the first known performance of the play in 1611; "King Lear" within three years of the first court performance on December 1, 1606; according to a note in the First Quarto edition of 1608. "Othello" was written about two years before it was performed, apparently for the first time, by the King's Men in the Banqueting house at Whitehall on November 1, 1604.

The approximate dates for the production of Shakespeare's plays, scholars have largely derived from the apparent contextual details in the plays themselves. It is possible, then to consider and to use these dates in arguments about Shakespeare's meaning. Context is an important source for many writers.

Shakespeare's Context

"?this place is too cold for hell." --(Mac.2.3.13-14)

"What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?"--(Lr.1.1.80-81)

"My blood begins my safer guides to rule, And passion having my best judgment collied,Assays to lead the way."--(Oth.2.3.186-188)

These three quotations have meaning set in the context of Shakespeare's time. This higher level of meaning it is important to know something of the ideas and beliefs of Shakespeare's England; not surprisingly, it is most important to be aware of the religious beliefs of the time. Perhaps the most fundamental of these was that the king was appointed by god; ruled with divine right. In France the belief in the divinity of the monarchy extended so far that the king's touch was believed to cure illness. In England, the theory of divine right was no less prevalent: Elizabethan propaganda emphasized the relationship between the monarch and the land. James I was, moreover, quite obsessed with the theory of Divine Right: hence one of the central themes of Shakespeare's plays, written at about the time of James's ascension, is about the monarch's relationship with the land, about who has the right to rule.

The Porter grumbles about the knocking at the gate: "if a man were the porter of hell's gate, he should have old turning the key." He asks: "who's there in the Devil's name?in th'other Devil's name?" and then declares "But this place is too cold for hell". These comments are all ironic, as the audience must realize, given what has taken place in Macbeth's castle. The Porter has become the keeper of hell's gate, as he is the keeper of Macbeth's castle. Macbeth is not only guilty of regicide, he is guilty of murdering a kinsman, as all Scottish thanes were relatives of the king. Shakespeare is ironic when he has the Porter say it is "too cold" to be Hell. The ninth circle of hell was reserved for those who betrayed their kinsmen. The guilty were frozen in ice for eternity as punishment for their crime.

After King Duncan is murdered (Mac.2.2) it is no coincidence that Shakespeare has characters in this scene, Macduff and Lennox, discuss the weather in the next scene: the "unruly" night that has just passed. Shakespeare creates the impression that there were dark forces at work through mention of "strange screams of death, and prophesying with accents terrible, of dire combustion and confused events". The weather is symbolic: because the king is murdered, God's chosen is murdered, according to the theory of Divine Right, there is disorder in the kingdom; represented here by a storm. After renouncing his authority formerly King Lear finds that his kingship has truly been usurped by his daughters (Lr.3.2). He finds himself going slowly mad, in a storm, which has many characteristics similar to those featured in the storm alluded to in the scene after Duncan's death (Mac.2.3.53-59): the verbs Lear uses to command the elements - "blow", "crack", "rage", "blow", "spout till you have drenched our steeples" - suggest this.

The answer to Lear's love test is (Lr.1.1.86-92) becomes increasingly clear, considering Shakespeare's handling of the relationship between the king and the kingdom. When he asks each of his daughters what they can say to "win" the largest portion of his kingdom the only correct, the only acceptable answer for a sixteenth century audience is Cordelia's: "nothing".

The Theory of Divine Right was one closely linked with that of the Great Chain of Being; the one very much determined the other. According to the Great Chain of Being, in society every man had a place, a social stratum, in which they ought to remain for their lives. The king was the highest authority in the chain; the highest authorities in the church and in the state, the archbishops and bishops, and the noblemen occupied the second strata, to the parish clergymen and gentry; down to the poorest man. Above everyone, however, was God. The king's role was to protect the kingdom in God's name: hence the Theory of Divine Right. The law of primogeniture was thus very important in Shakespeare's society, to keep the Great Chain in order; without endeavoring to explain the feudal system, it suffices to say that land to remain united was to pass the eldest male child, or to the husband of the eldest daughter. Lear does not protect his kingdom by unburdening himself of his divinely appointed authority: he brings war and division; not only in Ancient Britain, but in his family. The subplot involving the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons further emphasizes the symbolic relationship between the king and the land that emulating that between the father and his children.

When studying "Othello" one of the important contextual details is that colored people were uncommon in Shakespeare's England: Christendom, Christian Europe, had been at war with Muslims for many centuries in and around the Holy Land, and increasingly in the Mediterranean, whereabouts the main drama of "Othello" is set to unfold: on Cyprus. The racial tensions gave way to superstitions and stereotyping: Othello apparently breaks the latter for all Shakespeare presents him displaying composure and control over his emotions; marrying for love; proving successful and intelligent as a military leader. Yet, it is already clear that Othello is destabilized by Iago and reverting to racial type for a sixteenth century audience (Oth.2.3), by giving way to fists of passionate jealously of his wife; and moments of other intense and negative emotions, including anger, when he discovers his soldiers brawling.

Literally and metaphorically, Othello's "blood" begins to rule him when he is removed from the cultured and safe environment of Venice: Europe. At least this is what the 16th century audience would have surmised.

Some commentators have argued that "Pliny's Natural History", which Philemon Holland translated in 1601, probably provided the details that Shakespeare uses to enhance with a degree of authenticity Othello's exotic adventures and alien origin (consider the explanation that Othello gives to Desdemona about the origin of the handkerchief that he gives to her).

However, Geoffrey Bullough has maintained that Shakespeare probably consulted John Pory's translation of "A Geographical Historie of Africa" by Leo Africanus; in which there is a distinction drawn between the Moors of the northern and those from the southern regions of the country. Africanus also describes both groups of Moors as candid and unaffected but prone to jealousy. Shakespeare's Othello appears to be quite a faithful rendering of this characterization. Othello is candid and unaffected while in Venice; so much so that he passes as a Venetian, as a European, sufficiently to have achieved prestige as a general. In his speech to Brabantio and the senators in Venice regarding his clandestine union with Desdemona, he is indeed candid and unaffected

It is apparent that Shakespeare was familiar with fifteenth century and sixteenth century accounts of the wars between Venice and Turkey, particularly the battle of Lepanto in 1571, in which the Venetians in alliance with the European Catholic states temporarily regained control of the island of Cyprus.

Being thus aware of the sources that Shakespeare is likely to have used for "Othello", the perspective or meaning of the play is that much more clearly defined. The cause of Othello's madness is diagnosable; the symptoms are those behavioral characteristics of Moors, according to contemporary accounts. Once Othello leaves Venice, he becomes symbolically isolated from the positive influence of Christian European culture; Othello's nature begins to take hold of him. When Iago preys upon him, Othello's reversion to a racial stereotype is apparently dramatically increased.

The lesson for Shakespeare's contemporaries is that Moors will only revert to erratic behavior if they are first isolated from the European society and second treated with contemptuous cruelty and abused because of their heritage and origin. Hardly a racist attitude within the context of his time; to be likened to Shakespeare's apparent sympathy toward the villain, Shylock, in "The Merchant of Venice". At the very least, Shakespeare offers Shylock the same chance that the likes of Iago, Edmund and Richard III have to justify their actions; and Shylock's is quite reasoned when he explains that Antonio has wronged him because:

SHYLOCKI am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jewhands, organs, dimensions, senses,affections, passions, fed with thesame food, hurt with the samemeans, subject to the same diseases,healed by the same means, warmedand cooled by the same winter andsummer, as a Christian is? If youprick us do we not bleed? If youtrick us do we not laugh? If youpoison us do we not die? And if youwrong us shall we not revenge? If weare like you in the rest, we shallresemble you in that. If a Jew wronga Christian, what is his humility?Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew,what should his sufferance be byChristian example? Why, revenge.The villainy you teach me I willexecute; and it shall go hard but Iwill better the instruction. --(3.1.51-64).

The suggestion that the Jew follows the example of the Christian establishes a hierarchy of sorts. With the Christian above the Jew; it places the Christian in a position of responsibility and culpability for the actions of his Jewish subordinates. The Jews follow the Christians example: when the Christian persecutes the Jew, the Jew will likewise persecute the Christian; as the Christians persecute Shylock, Shylock persecutes Antonio.

Shakespeare's perspective is thus not anti-Semitic, relative to the context in which he lived as a Christian. He is critical of the treatment of the Jews more than he is condemning of the people or the faith. Considering that the Nazis in Germany promoted "The Merchant of Venice" as evidence that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, the importance of considering Shakespeare's sources and the context in which he was writing is practical, as well as of literary significance.

When the meaning is properly understood by means of contextual knowledge, the artwork gains in aesthetic value. The crimes of Macbeth, the weakness of Othello, the madness of King Lear, and the morals of "The Merchant of Venice" are clarified. The plays are more enjoyable; the morals are comprehensible, sympathetic, human, and considered. The message is clear and Shakespeare's genius is polished; restored to all its glory.

Dr. Evans
April 24, 2005

Dr. Evans has a PhD in English Literature and an MA in History. She lives in New York City and is a freelance writer. Visit her web site at for more information.


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