Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Shakespeare: Legitimacy, Propaganda and the Jewish Question

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In researching for my final paper I have come across many intriguing topics that appear to be related but are rarely addressed together. I would like to address the legitimacy and the divine right of kings  and how Shakespeare as a propagandist used King Lear to address legitimacy and the question of the Jews.

One of Shakespeare's most common themes is that of legitimacy. This theme is particularly poignant in King Lear, because Shakespeare presents us with such an obvious foil of this concept in the brothers, Edmund and Edgar.  Edgar, the older brother was born in the bans of matrimony and stands to inherit his father's title and possessions. His younger brother, Edgar, is mocked and regarded as a bastard because he was conceived out of wedlock. According to the custom of the day, illegitimate individual were seen as morally inferior. Not only that, but these individuals were essentially outside the bounds of legal citizenship, they were not able to inherit and virtually lacked rights. Thus in the mindset of the day to be illegitimate was to be outside of the benefit of the law, to lack rights and privileges afforded by the legal system.

This belief did not only affect those born out of wedlock, this idea was ingrained in the way individuals viewed each other and their king. The path the crown would take was an incredibly big deal to these people. A legitimate king was thought to possess divine authority over his people, given him by Deity. The belief was that a legitimate king was essentially endorsed by the Divine, and so to disobey him was a sin against God. However, this power was received on a condition, the king had to fulfill his spiritual duty to the people, being just and providing for their needs otherwise God would allow his position to be taken from him.

This belief was long seated in the English tradition because it had its roots in Judaism, notion of which had long since been incorporated into Christianity. Judaism has a long history of  relying on national leaders who were also spiritual leaders because their culture rested entirely on their religion. This lead to a unification of the roles of spiritual and national leader. When Christians split they took this aspect with them because they believed that they were following the correct spiritual leader, they believed Christ had established a new line of authority through his apostles. Thus they no longer saw Jewish leader as being legitimate because they held that authority had been passed along a different line. Furthermore, the English believed that their monarchs were the recipient of this authority while viewing the Jews as a mislead group worthy of scorn not only because they crucified the Savior but because they continued to follow after leaders who had long since lost legitimacy.

King Lear can be read as a propagandist answer to the Jewish question which can be read as a sort of parable of the Jewish situation. King Lear is a stand in for the ancient Jewish leaders, specifically for the Pharisees at the time of Christ. A proud man, he gets to carried away in the pomp and ceremony that he rejects his own daughter when she offers him genuine love and loyalty instead of the theatrics he asked for. His abandonment of her marks his rejection of his savior-figure and the loss of his divine authority for kingship. He continues struggling on but his power is gone and he is subject to the consequences of his actions. This remains the case despite the redemption and sacrifice of Cordelia, the Savior figure. Lear is redeemed but her death was still indirectly caused by his actions and so he wallows in denial for a little while, desperate to believe that she isn't dead. He suffers and dies in this sad state, his kingdom a mess while authority is passed to Edgar, Gloucester's loyal son.
This whole sad little story represents Shakespeare's depiction of the way English and most European Christians saw the Jews. The Jews were like the sad Lear at the end of the play wallowing in denial suffering from the consequences of their actions while they saw themselves as Edgar, recipient of the authority rightfully stripped from the nation who had killed their Savior.


  1. Gaylie,
    I think that this analysis is complex, intriguing, and definitely divides an educated audience. Good job finding these connections. I am concerned that I don't understand what you mean by the "Jewish Question." Is this how to treat the Jews? Or if Jews really were to blame for the death of Christ? I would like a direct explanation or backing of sources in your actual paper to understand your angle. Also, I'm not sure if I understand the "proposed solution" to the Jewish question.
    Overall I think this is a great topic and an interesting angle to take!

    1. Thank you Isaac, I appreciate the feedback! I will try to make my idea about the "Jewish Question" clear in the introduction of my paper, thanks for pointing that out!