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
Mystery and morality plays
The beginning of English drama
In the Middle Ages, there were no permanent theatres in England. Any drama was associated with the Christian Church. Beginning with dramatisations of the key elements of Christian belief and events in the Christian year, such as the resurrection of Christ at Easter, the Medieval church allowed short dramatic performances within services, or on the steps of churches. These helped to show to the people the mysteries of faith within the Latin liturgy.
Theatre on the streets
These short dramas then developed into processions, where the priests and civic dignitaries, in their colourful vestments and robes, added to the spectacle. Gradually, these processions included ‘pageants' — a word we usually use today to mean a kind of open-air theatrical display, but which originally meant the cart on which scenes were performed.
As the citizens stood in the streets, carts moved past carrying actors in still poses depicting biblical events such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, or the resurrection of Christ.
Drama in English
Eventually some dialogue was introduced, and although the language of church services was Latin, actors on the pageants spoke in English, so that all the people listening could understand; in this way drama was used by the Church.
More on the mystery plays: The latter name arises from the French ‘myster' or ‘metier', meaning craft/profession, since it was the craft guilds who took over the production of the plays in the Middle Ages. Some mystery plays, originating from towns such as Chester, York and Coventry, still survive and are still regularly performed.
Alongside the Mystery plays, in the later Middle Ages, dramas known as morality plays developed. Instead of enacting events from the Bible, morality plays focused instead on the spiritual struggles of individual souls. The central characters, who have names such as Mankind or Everyman, act out the spiritual challenges faced by every human being. Vices and Virtues, such as deceit or kindness, or the Seven Deadly Sins, or the even more abstract Good and Evil, are personified and presented as debating or struggling against one another while the eternal destiny of the human protagonist hangs in the balance. The most famous of these plays is Everyman, which is still performed today.
Influence on Shakespeare
We see the influence of morality plays in Shakespearean drama:
- Although the characters of King Lear develop and display very human inconsistencies, they seem to embody moral ideas at points in the play. For instance:
- Lear seems to stand in Act 1 for selfishness and wilfulnes
- Kent seems to be the epitome of loyalt
- Cornwall stands for cruelt
- Edmund, for ruthless ambitio
- Cordelia, for truth and fidelity.
- In Act 2, scene 1 of Measure for Measure, Escalus is referring to the kind of characters found in Morality Plays when he asks, ‘Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?
- In Act 3 scene 3 of Hamlet there is a struggle between good and evil within the soul of Claudius
- In Macbeth, Macbeth wrestles with himself, and against the urgings of his ‘fiend-like’ queen, before succumbing to evil.
Shakespeare’s characters are never one-dimensional and they all display very human inconsistencies; however, they clearly descend from the embodied values of medieval morality plays.
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