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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | Context


Elizabethan Theater

Several aspects of Elizabethan theater provide context for King Lear. First, formal sets were minimal. The stage would have been largely bare, with just a few objects providing a loose framework for the play. As a result, Shakespeare's characters often comment on what they are seeing around them in the course of the action. Interestingly, this parallels ancient Greek theater, where choruses of narrators would help "fill in the blanks" and describe scenes.

In addition, all the actors were male. The female roles were played by men or boys. It has been suggested that the same actor might have played the Fool and Cordelia, as they are never onstage at the same time.

The professional Elizabethan theaters were run by distinct companies, and playwrights made their livings by writing plays for those companies. This meant they often wrote for specific actors, a practice which continues today in modern entertainment. Shakespeare was fortunate enough to be part of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men) with Richard Burbage, widely considered the greatest actor in London. Burbage was known for playing tragedy particularly well, and he was the first actor to play Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear. Because the men worked together for years and Shakespeare knew Burbage's strengths, the part of Lear may have been written with him in mind.

Another important aspect of the Elizabethan stage was its relationship with the royal court. All theater companies wanted royal patronage, and Shakespeare's had it. The company was renamed the King's Men after James I was crowned. Shakespeare and his company performed for the king and his court—King Lear was performed for the king on December 26, 1606—and a number of Shakespeare's plays focus on monarchy and kingship in ways that would directly comment on and appeal to James I.

Concepts of kingship and gender roles featured in many of these works. James was deeply and directly concerned about monarchy in theory and wrote two works on kingship. James's 1594 work, Basilikon doron (which means "royal gift"), was written in the form of a letter to his eldest son. His address to the general public, The True Law of Free Monarchies, was published in 1598. This later work argues for royal absolutism and for the divine right of kings. Both Macbeth and King Lear show what happens to those who rebel against a king and break up a kingdom, and both plays include very dark female characters. In King Lear, the purity of male characters such as the Earl of Kent and Edgar is in marked contrast to the scheming of women characters like Regan and Goneril.

Production History

King Lear is now considered one of Shakespeare's defining masterpieces, but it has a complex production history. The script is difficult to perform, given the emotional extremes and shifts in pacing. In 1681 Nahum Tate published an adaptation of the play that became the primary version performed for roughly 150 years (until 1838). That version has a much more conventional morality. Instead of dying alongside the evil characters, the good characters live and are rewarded. Cordelia and Edgar end up as lovers, and Lear lives to an old age.

In addition, there was a 10-year span, from 1810 to 1820, when King Lear wasn't performed professionally at all. During that era, the reigning king, George III, suffered from periodic madness, and because Lear goes mad, the play was considered inappropriate for public performance.

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