Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Disillusioned Precedent: The Role of the British Monarchy in King Lear (My research analysis)

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A Disillusioned Precedent: The Role of the British Monarchy in King Lear

When conducting a study of any piece of literature, by any author, at any time, it is almost always possible to detect clear and present ties to political, social, or economic climate, either of the time period at which the piece was written, or from the years that preceded it. Shakespeare’s King Lear is no exception. While there are ties to the time in which Shakespeare was writing, it is also possible to detect echoes of the past when reading the play. These ties are present in the example of King Lear’s personal plight of a skewed self-image in comparison with various British monarchs who ruled before Shakespeare’s day. For my argument, I will focus mainly on the lives and situations of Queen Mathilde, Richard II, and Edward II. While the lives of these monarchs did not actually follow the downward spiral of Lear, they did have similar characteristics of disillusionment which proved detrimental to their reign. 
Although it is not clear whether or not Shakespeare was thinking of these particular monarchs as a model for King Lear, the similarities between Lear and these unfortunate rulers is uncanny. For instance, it becomes clear early on in the play that King Lear has an extremely distorted self-image; although his cravings for flattery and accolades are almost certainly indicative of a deep-rooted insecurity, Lear’s conscious mind has created an inflated image of himself and superimposed it over all that he says and does, making his actions irrational,
impulsive, and tragically, misguided. This is evident right from the beginning, with his disownment of Cordelia for her truthful and direct declaration of love for Lear in Act 1, Scene 1. Lear’s own image of himself is so inflated that when Cordelia’s declaration of daughterly love is delivered following the flattery-laden declarations made by her sisters, Goneril and Regan, Lear reacts with outrage and contempt that Cordelia should love him any less, when in reality, it is Cordelia’s confession that is the most truthful and should be taken most seriously. This is apparent in Lear’s words to Cordelia following her declaration:
Although we as readers are made aware of Lear’s folly in dismissing his youngest daughter, Lear himself remains unaware of his error for the majority of the play. In his mind, he is untouchable, and worthy of such accolades and flattery as were delivered by Goneril and Regan. In this way, Lear is strikingly similar to the early British monarch, Queen Mathilde. Following the death of her father and brother, Mathilde returned to England from Germany (where she had lived from an early age as part of a political marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor until his death) to ascend to the throne. However, although she was entitled to rule,the people ousted her after she proved to be a distant, more autocratic ruler (behavior learned as an empress in Germany) whereas the English people enjoyed at least a small amount of control over their monarch—the king, or in this case, queen, had to be acclaimed by the people in order to remain in power. When the English people refused to accept Mathilde as queen after her imperious behavior towards them, Mathilde was forced to fight unsuccessfully for many years to return to the throne. Perhaps if Mathilde had been more aware of the altered reality of her new situation as Queen of England, she would have behaved differently and been able to retain her kingdom.
              This overly exaggerated self-importance we see in King Lear is also quite similar to the behavior of King Richard II. Richard, who had ascended to the throne at the age of 10, and was successfully suppressing rebellions (Namely the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381) by 14, began to take on a grandiose view of himself, and behaved tyrannically, leading to further rebellions, which resulted in his eventual overthrow by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. Although it is almost certain that Richard began well enough, by the end of his reign, he was arguably out of touch with the reality of his situation, which allowed for his overthrow to be possible. Likewise, King Lear displays a similar distance from the reality of his situation, which unfortunately, contributed greatly to his fall from greatness. This is exhibited well in Act 3, Scene 4, when King Lear marvels at the situations of many poor citizens of his kingdom:

“Poor naked wretches, wherso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loo'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?” (Act III, Scene IV, Lines 28-32)
The fact that Lear was, to this point, unaware of the poverty of his population speaks to his ignorance and overall distance from the reality of his situation and that of his kingdom.
              One final example of Lear’s situation in comparison to actual British monarchs can be found in the ill-fated rule of Edward II. Edward had the misfortune to follow his legendary father to the throne. Edward II simply was not his father. He proved to be a disappointment to the monarchy, not only in military and political matters, but also in personal ones. Although he married Isabella of France, it was apparent to all that he harbored homosexual attractions to his squire, Piers Gaveston. This was a problem in the kingdom, not to mention in his marriage. Eventually, Edward was ousted from the throne by his own wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, supported by a faction of angry Englishmen. By all accounts, he seems to have been completely blindsided by the betrayal. After the coup, Edward spent the rest of his life in prison, where it is said Isabella eventually ordered his murder. Had he paid more attention to his wife, and been more aware of the agitation his actions were causing within the kingdom, he could have possibly averted or at least delayed his own demise. As with Edward, King Lear experienced a betrayal within his family, and was utterly unaware of it until it was too late. Had
he paid a bit more attention to his family situation, he might have been able to alter his course of action and avert tragedy.

              As previously stated, it is not possible to determine for certain if Shakespeare actually took any inspiration for his character of King Lear, the similarities between Lear and these three particular monarchs of early England are undeniable. 

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