As the essay question splits itself conveniently into two separate sections; the sources of Lear and the significance of the play to Shakespeare’s contemporaries and the fact that they are not directly linked, I intend to answer both in separate essay answers.
Sources of the plots of King Lear;
It was very unusual for Shakespeare to introduce his own plot material into his plays; almost everything he wrote has a subject matter in the ancestry of literature. The same is true for King Lear, he used many sources in getting the base-line story, but it required his genius and intellect to place them together to create the true tragedy with its multiple plot lines that his play turned out to be in the end. His subtly in creating modern ’rounded’ characters rather than moralistic stereotypical ones, along with his delicate interweaving of the two plots, meant that his work was far superior to the ones he ‘plagiarised’ (or took inspiration from – dependant on your point of view!).
The main version that Shakespeare had likely read and from which he had definitely borrowed was The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters. However he also borrowed from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene and John Higgins’ A Mirror for Magistrates.
However the story of King Lear and his three daughters existed in some form up to four centuries before Shakespeare recorded his vision. Lear was a British King who reigned before the birth of Christ, allowing Shakespeare to place his play in a Pagan setting. Predated by references in British mythology to Lyr or Ler, Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded a story of King Lear and his daughters in his Historia Regum Britanniae (1137). Dozens of versions of the play were then written up, highlighting certain events, such as the love test, or expanding upon the story, such as creating a sequel where Cordelia committed suicide. Most of these versions had a happy ending, though untrue to the story, where peace was restored under the reign of Lear and Cordelia.
The development of the sub-plot, though original when used in conjunction with the main plot, was not a creation by Shakespeare. He borrowed heavily from Sir Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia, which provided him the alternative plot, that of Gloucester-Edmund-Edgar. Shakespeare’s originality was interweaving the two plots, recognising their compatibility when dealing with the major theme’s of blindness (both physical and metaphorical), betrayal of offspring and the curve of learning. Kenneth Muir says that the sub-plot,
provided the perfect parallel to the Lear story; and, by making use of the artistic law that two similar improbabilities are more credible than one, he forced the audience retrospectively to accept Lear’s strange conduct in the first scene of the play by duplicating it in the subsequent conduct of Gloucester in the second scene. (Muir 145) 1
One of the only truly original elements introduced by Shakespeare was the ‘tragic ending’ with the kings forces routed, Cordelia hanged and Lear dying. In nearly all other adaptations of the tale the play ends happily, or at least not in the melancholy of Kent’s lines ‘all cheerless, dark and deadly’. It is this ending that makes it a true tragedy, for Lear is a ‘changed’ man, he is reunited with Cordelia, and poetic justice would argue for them too live ‘happily ever after’. It is by dispensing with such poetic justice, and adding an original ending, that Shakespeare creates the ultimate tragedy.
The Fool was purely a Shakespeare creation. The Fool was needed to be Lear’s guide and conscious during his fall, as a commentator for the audience and a voice of reason. He stays with Lear until he realizes that he has erred in his judgment of his daughters and in giving away his kingdom. Once Lear has realized that he erred, then the Fool’s role in the play was no longer needed, and he disappears.
The significance to Shakespeare’s contemporaries
Although dealing with universal, eternal themes, one must remember that Shakespeare was writing for an audience over four hundred years ago. He was writing in the time of ‘enlightenment’, where Britain was experiencing major social changes, from that of a basically feudal social order to a basically capitalistic one. The period is often referred to as ‘early modern’, and the age in which he was writing ‘the watershed between medieval and modern England’. This conflict obviously caused much tension within Britain, especially when dealing with issues involving the church, and much of Shakespeare’s later work deals with this conflict caused by the social change.
At the time of writing people (and I am talking of philosophers and scholars, rather than the general public) were beginning to question the role of authority, and in particular the role of the church. All of Shakespeare’s plays, except for Lear, even when set in periods before Christianity, general deal in Christian morality (the idea of godly justice for example). As the introduction to New Swan Edition of King Lear points out,
“The disgust of the ‘good’ characters in the early ‘Titus Andronicus’ for instance, when confronted by the horrors and cruelty of the ‘bad’ characters shows Christian pity… In Lear…the ethos is not that of a Christian writer”
Shakespeare is simply reflecting, in Lear, the changing views of his contemporaries on religion. Though often presented as a completely Pagan play, he leaves many ambiguities on this front, and therefore is almost a ‘mirror image’ of the confusion surrounding religion at his time.
On a far more pragmatic note, the actual revival of the Leir story was very significant for the contemporaries of Shakespeare. The abdication of Lear would have shocked the Jacobean audiences for it would have reminded them, due to the death of Elizabeth I and the succession of James I, of the strife in England at the time. Firstly the Jacobean audience traditionally believed in the divine-right of kings (though as stated before many of the ‘intellectuals’ were challenging this) that they were appointed by God. Therefore abdication would, by breaking the ‘Great chain of Being’ on earth, be unthinkable. Secondly James I was also James VI of Scotland and had designs on uniting the two nations. Both countries were firmly against this, and there was certainly a chance of civil war breaking out had James tried to unite the countries. Thus contemporary audiences would have automatically associated the division of the kingdom, and the threat of civil war between Albany and Cornwall, as representing the division between England and Scotland.
A final significance (but certainly not the final significance) for the Shakespearian contemporaries was the major theme of madness. Madness, both feigned and real, plays a large part in Shakespeare’s writing (a further example Ophelia (real madness) and Hamlet (feigned madness) in Hamlet). The age in which he lived was harsh and unfeeling; especially when dealing with those who were insane (even though many of our Kings, Henry VI for example, were clinically insane). People with physical and mental disabilities mocked and even punished for being disabled. However as suggested a more humane society was developing, one with sympa
thy for insanity. Shakespeare takes this in Lear one step further, by suggesting (then very radically) that there is indeed much “reason in madness”. He also challenges the age-old hierarchal monarchic system; many critics have suggested that Shakespeare is suggesting that it is infact insane to follow this ‘social hierarchal system’ and that only in ‘madness’ can one find the profound insights.