King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
Divine right of kings
The power of the monarch
Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, monarchs were seen as being God’s deputies on earth, having a ‘divine right’ to rule; the monarch had absolute power, and an attack on him or her, even a verbal one, was considered to be treason.
Although there were meetings of Parliament, and had been for hundreds of years, Parliament did not convene unless summoned by the king; this practice continued through the reign of James I and beyond.
For most English (and European) citizens of Shakespeare’s day, the ruler was accepted as head of the nation by divine appointment.
James I was particularly keen on the idea that the king ruled by divine appointment. In their coronation ceremony, monarchs are anointed. The idea of anointing kings is based on the Bible, and English kings since Edgar in 973 have been anointed after this biblical pattern. In 1 Samuel 24:6 the military hero David refuses to harm King Saul because Saul had been anointed, and later David has the man killed who finally killed Saul.
In The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) James had written:
Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only.
The King and his kingdom
The most obvious point about a king is that he rules over a specific territory. For instance, the King of France is often referred to in King Lear as simply France. Lear's identity is bound up with being a ruler, and the play explores what happens to his sense of self when he gives up the territory that makes him a king.
Before Lear hands over his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, he represents his state and its health and prosperity is intimately bound up with him as its monarch. In King Lear, we see the physical and spiritual chaos that ensues upon the king's abdication. Shakespeare's first audiences may well have been reminded of the scene in Richard II in which two gardeners compare the order they keep in their garden with the king's neglect of his kingdom.
The king and power
Whilst a king reigns his word is law. Lear learns that, as soon as he gives away his kingdom, people (such as Oswald) stop respecting and obeying him. Kings were often thought of as having a spiritual and mystical power as well as power that was political and legal. For instance, from the time of Edward the Confessor, it was believed that a king's touch could cure the disease of scrofula.
The humanity of kings
Shakespeare explored tensions between the private lives and public roles of his powerful characters in many of his plays. Because a king was powerful in so many ways, the contrast between the public pomp and ceremony and the private man beneath the finery was bound to be highly dramatic.
In King Lear Shakespeare reveals the depth of suffering to which Lear's common humanity renders him susceptible. When he strips off his robes he reveals himself to be a man just like any member of the audience. In one scene he appears to be indistinguishable from a naked beggar.
In King Lear Shakespeare shows that kings are at their most vulnerable and human when they are beset by a combination of family and political problems. When Lear gives away his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, he exposes his humanity to their cruelty and is not protected by his kingly status and all the private and public power which that had bestowed upon him.
What makes a good ruler?
The question of what makes a good ruler is debated through many of Shakespeare’s plays. In Act IV of Macbeth, Malcolm lists the virtues that suit a king as:
Justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.’
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.’
King Lear is a ruler who has commanded respect and loyalty in the past (from Kent and Gloucester for example) yet whose faculties are declining with ‘the infirmity of his age’ – in the first act of the play he is seen to be impetuous and irrational, a man who ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’.
It is only when the trappings of power are removed that Lear learns the importance of equal justice for everyone in his (former) kingdom, the significance of not being blinded by appearance and rank. Only when he suffers does the audience witness Lear’s capacity for justice, mercy, devotion, courage and fortitude (to quote form the list above), but by then these qualities are relatively ineffective in their impact on wider society.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi. 2Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats' Rocks. 3And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. 4And the men of David said to him, Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you. Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's robe. 5And afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe. 6He said to his men, The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord's anointed. 7So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way. 8Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, My lord the king! And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. 9And David said to Saul, Why do you listen to the words of men who say, Behold, David seeks your harm? 10Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed. 11See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. 12May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. 13As the proverb of the ancients says, Out of the wicked comes wickedness. But my hand shall not be against you. 14After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 15May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand. 16As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, Is this your voice, my son David? And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17He said to David, You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. 21Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father's house. 22And David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
1And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, saying, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi. 2Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to seek David and his men upon the rocks of the wild goats. 3And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave. 4And the men of David said unto him, Behold the day of which the LORD said unto thee, Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee. Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul's robe privily. 5And it came to pass afterward, that David's heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul's skirt. 6And he said unto his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD's anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD. 7So David stayed his servants with these words, and suffered them not to rise against Saul. But Saul rose up out of the cave, and went on his way. 8David also arose afterward, and went out of the cave, and cried after Saul, saying, My lord the king. And when Saul looked behind him, David stooped with his face to the earth, and bowed himself. 9And David said to Saul, Wherefore hearest thou men's words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt? 10Behold, this day thine eyes have seen how that the LORD had delivered thee to day into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me kill thee: but mine eye spared thee; and I said, I will not put forth mine hand against my lord; for he is the LORD's anointed. 11Moreover, my father, see, yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand: for in that I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and killed thee not, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it. 12The LORD judge between me and thee, and the LORD avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. 13As saith the proverb of the ancients, Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. 14After whom is the king of Israel come out? after whom dost thou pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea. 15The LORD therefore be judge, and judge between me and thee, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of thine hand. 16And it came to pass, when David had made an end of speaking these words unto Saul, that Saul said, Is this thy voice, my son David? And Saul lifted up his voice, and wept. 17And he said to David, Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. 18And thou hast showed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the LORD had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. 19For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the LORD reward thee good for that thou hast done unto me this day. 20And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand. 21Swear now therefore unto me by the LORD, that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou wilt not destroy my name out of my father's house. 22And David sware unto Saul. And Saul went home; but David and his men gat them up unto the hold.
The period of European history broadly between 1000AD-1500AD.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
The belief that the authority of a king / monarch comes directly from God, taken by some kings to mean that they were above the law of the land and to disobey them was to disobey God / sin.
In the United Kingdom it is the highest political body, composed of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and elected officials in the House of Commons, who make laws and have the responsibility of running the country.
The image of God on his throne in heaven surrounded by his angels and ministers to whom he makes announcements and where he may be petitioned.
In the Old Testament Kings and Priests were ceremonially anointed (touched with holy oil) to show that they belonged to God and as a sign of receiving God's power.
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