Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Final Paper, Preliminary Draft: "A Grave Precedent: Historical Repetition in Lear"

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The purpose of this post is to get a little feedback. I wasn't able to be in class on Tuesday, when we did peer reviews, and I would love to get some input. The paper posted here is very much in a state of flux. I'm still playing around with some things (paragraph order, source placement, etc.) so it will be evolving a great deal before the final is complete. I hope someone will take the time to look at this; I would really appreciate it. Thanks! 

Grace Dayton                                                                                                                                        
Dr. Burton
ENG 385
December 6, 2016

A Grave Precedent: Historical Repetition 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, namely Queen Mathilde, King Richard II, and King Edward II. Given the great similarities between these unfortunate monarchs, and the tragic character of King Lear, the notion that Shakespeare drew inspiration from these historical examples in order to form Lear’s character, likely as a cautionary tale for the population and rulers of Elizabethan England. While the lives of these monarchs did not actually follow the downward spiral of Lear, they did have similar characteristics which proved detrimental or even disastrous to their respective reigns.
Although it is not clear whether or not Shakespeare was thinking of these particular monarchs as a model for King Lear, as previously stated, the similarities between Lear and these unfortunate rulers is uncanny. Despite the differences in the rules of these three monarchs,
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each had flaws and weaknesses that ultimately weakened 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
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untouchable, and worthy of such accolades and flattery as were delivered by Goneril and Regan. This flaw is highlighted in Ian McKellen’s 2008 production of King Lear. Although Lear begins the play as a jovial old man, the smallest suspected hint of doubt as to his daughter, Cordelia’s love and admiration for him caused him to fly into a rage, beginning as a quiet fury, and escalating into a vicious shouting match. Through this, it is clear that Lear’s sense of pride and high opinion of himself are both very much in play, and these two things factor greatly into his demise, as he places his trust in the wrong hands and is eventually betrayed by those who once professed to love him. In these tragic events, we begin to sense a trend of misplaced loyalties and perils of foolish pride.
This trend serves not only to facilitate Lear’s downfall, but the similar unfortunate ends of other characters as well, particularly Goneril and Regan; although they eventually overthrow their father and gain the land they so desperately sought, they both lose all they have gained, as Regan is poisoned by Goneril, who subsequently commits suicide after her lover, the treacherous Edmund, is mortally wounded. These events demonstrate a and ear is strikingly similar to the early British monarch, Queen Mathilde.
As the daughter of King Henry I, Mathilde was given in political marriage to the Holy Roman emperor at an early age; Following the death of her father and brother, Mathilde returned to England from Germany (where she had lived from the time of her marriage) to ascend to the throne. n 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
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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. Alan Eieria put it this way in his 2004 documentary series entitled, “The Kings and Queens of England”.
“She [Mathilde] behaved imperiously, which may mean ‘magnificently’ in German, but meant ‘intolrably’ in English.” (Eieria, Alan)
Meanwhile, the country was plunged into chaos as conflict and rebellion broke out against Mathilde and her unpopular reignAs it is, she lost her crown due to a fatal combination of unchecked pride and ill-founded loyalties. When it mattered most, her supposed allies stabbed her in the back, and she was unable to oppose them and take back her father’s 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
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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)
In the Trinity Theater Company’s production of King Lear, Michael Elliot interprets the role of Lear with a sense of awe. He still does not seem to pity the “poor naked wretches”, as it were, but allows for the 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. Perhaps it is at this point that Lear reaches one of his lowest points in the play, as he realizes in his banishment that he has misjudged not only his filial relationship to Regan and Goneril, but also the conditions in which his subjects live. It is in this moment that we can understand what Lear is going through as the basic emotions of fear, wonder, and shock come
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together to form the bizarre amalgamation of human experience which so often accompanies deep personal growth. And yet, so much of the inner workings of the play remain undefined. Critic and scholar, Morris Weitz, put it this way. “It is generally admitted that King Lear is the most baffling of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Not that any of them is not full of difficulties, but King Lear, unlike the others…has yielded no convincing reading.” (Weitz, Morris)
Thus, much like the small nuances and emotional intricacies of history and those who play a role in its development, much about Lear remains unclear; while in many situations this could be frustrating to readers and scholars who wish to understand and interpret the play, it is this uncertainty that makes it more feasible and relatable. Rather than being viewed as just another story, it becomes more like a historical account.
              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
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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. However, the similarities between Lear and these three particular monarchs of early England are undeniable, making the theory that Shakespeare drew on Britain’s history to formulate King Lear’s character, complete with the tragic sense of illusion about one’s self. Thus, it seems apparent that Lear’s doomed character was indeed founded on a three-fold precedent, drawn from the misfortunes of early British rulers in an attempt to remind the Elizabethan population of past misfortunes, and by so doing,

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Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
Ereira, Alan. “Kings and Queens of England” (Documentary Series, BBC, 2004)
McKellen, Ian. King Lear (2008)
Elliot, Michael. King Lear (Trinity Theater Company)


Background Research
Pearsall, Ronald. Kings and Queens: A History of the British Monarchy. Todtri, 1998.
Greaves, Richard, L. Society and Religion in Elizabethan England. University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

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