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It has been close to 400 years since William Shakespeare’s death and yet his work is still highly regarded and considered to be scholarly. And the themes he wrote about are still considered relevant. Interestingly, while it is easy for historians and literature scholars to discuss the views and values of other famous British literary giants such as John Milton (his views about the Trinity being non-existent were widely published), William Shakespeare never revealed his opinions on any of the themes he wrote about, possibly because he wanted to probe the consciences of the readers and allow them to see life from a different point of view. In the tragedyOthello, he tells a story about a mixed race couple, a Moor and a Greek woman whose life is plagued by tragedies as her name (Desdemona) suggests and when she meets the man of her dreams the society she lives in can not accept their relationship. For years this story has touched many hearts and modern versions ofOthelloincluding “O” have been turned into movies and dramatized on stages world over. And yet the playwright did not mention his own personal views of inter-racial marriage.
In December 1579 a Katherine Hamelette drowned in what was viewed as a suicide, and, according to the laws of the day, people who committed suicide were not entitled to have a minister read their last rights during the service. And in the 16th century that was considered disgraceful! Some people claimed that after her fiancé broke up with her, Miss Hamelette killed herself because she was heartbroken. However, those bent on ensuring that Miss Hamelette did not receive a shameful burial suggested that she had slipped on mud and fallen into the river and drowned. This event occurred in the city of Stratford- upon- Avon when then the Playwright was just sixteen. Town gossip was rife about Miss Hamelette’s death and no doubt, it provided him with inspiration for his tragic dramaHamlet.
“Her death was doubtful,”this is real life pre-echo of Ophelia. (Hamlet, Vi, page 227)
During that same year, in July, a man from Ballswall nine miles from Strafford- upon Avon ( a John Shakespeare) was found dead, hanging from a beam. He was a poor man having at the time of his death goods to the value of three British Pounds, fourteen shillings and four pennies. His death was deemed criminal suicide.
In the same year, 1579, William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet dies and his sister Anne dies too. The tragedyHamletis born. The writer ofShakespeare the Thinkerdescribes Hamlet as,” A meditation on self-destruction, haunted by the shade of a dead woman and transfigured by the image of a dead father’s namesake.” Shakespeare used the events he had experienced and events he had heard about to redefine the realities surrounding the events to form tragedies that made people weep and learn important values.
Who was King Lear?
King Lear, one of the Playwright’s greatest plays, is a tragedy that teaches a few life lessons on loyalty, kindness and the evil power of greed. There is often a general assumption that King Lear reigned in the Middle-Ages. However, Holinshed’s, Shakespeare’s principle source on Ancient Britain, records that King Lear ascended to the throne in Anno Mundi 3105. Anno Mundi is a dating system that counts years from the original creation. Holinshed was confused about the conversion of Anno Mundi dating system to the BC/AD dating system. InThe Chronicles of Englande, Scotlandeand Irealande, Raphael Holinshed writes that Lear became King fifty-four years after the founding of Rome (754 BC). This means that he became King in 808 BC and creation, according to the author of the chronicles, was in 3972 BC. But, according to the Anno Mundi, creation is said to have been in 3963 BC- which makes the system questionable. Early 800 BC or 900 BC is accurate. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived four hundred years before Shakespeare, provides no dates but says that King Lear ruled sixty years after Bladud the Aeronaut – a contemporary of the Judean prophet Elijah. (History of The Kings of Britain translated 1969; 61-2).
The British city, Leicester is named after King Lear or Leir. King Lear is said to have had three daughters and Tudor historians also believe he lived around the same time as the Judean Kings. (ED Hoeniger, Explaining the Primitive King Lear).
However, there are some who believe that Shakespeare was portraying King George III who was thought to be insane. However, King George III ascended to the throne after Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare’s language depicts Pre-Christian era as on page 77 King Lear utters the words: “By Jupiter I swear no!” During The Elizabethan Era, Britain was regarded as a Christian nation. King Lear and other characters in the play often refer to Roman deities such as Juno and Apollo. Edmond, in his soliloquy, constantly refers to astrology as a determinant of character and temperament:“My naivety was under UrsaMajor, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous.”(Page 27)
In other Shakespearean plays that were set in the Elizabethan times Christian traditions are noted and celebrated. In Elizabethan Britain or Medieval Britain the King would have been honored with the famous, “God save the King” salutation which was adapted from 1 Samuel 16 verse 16 but such is not the case in the play.
King Lear’s Insanity
Before the advent of scientific reasoning people had ways of explaining things they did not understand by including divine and supernatural elements. For instance, they believed that the sun was in fact the young god Apollo running around in his golden chariot. They also believed that the world was held up by a god called Atlas.
“In the early modern period the discourse of madness gained prominence because it was implicated in the wider transformation of what it meant to be human and was deeply intertwined with the medical, theological and social facets….. In the Middle Ages madness was seen as the intersection between the human, the divine and the demonic. It was viewed as possession, punishment, sin and confirmed the inseparability between human transcendence.’’ (Page 76Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender)
Exorcisms were seen as the only way to “get rid of” the spirits that cause insanity. Between 1585 and 1886 Catholic Priests conducted such exorcisms. William Weston, a Jesuit priest, was considered to be what we would call “an expert” in the field of exorcisms. He conducted exorcisms in the house of a gentleman called Sir George Peckman of Denham, Beckinghamshire. He (Weston) was once considered an outlaw as the State did not have good relations with the Catholic Church and Jesuits in particular, sometimes being a practicing Jesuit was classified as high treason which was punishable by death.
Shakespeare readA Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures-a book by Samuel Harsnet that contained sworn statements from the demoniacs, as he was writing King Lear. He borrowed names from the book, hellish terminologies, lingo of madness, colorful adjectives. (Shakespeare and the Exorcistsby Stephen Greenbalt).
William Shakespeare also fused in the era’s superstitions, the evil Edmond cunningly sings “Fa, sol, la, me” a tune which Elizabethans considered to be “the devil in music.”
Edgar disguised as “Poor Tom” uses phrases such as Modo, Mahu. Modo is the devil while Mahu is the organizer of hell according to Harsnet’s devils.
Lear’s madness is gradual and he is fully aware of what is happening to him.
“O how this mother swells up toward my heart! Hysterica passio! Down,thouclimbing sorrow, thy elements below”(Shakespeare, 81).
‘’Climbing sorrow’’ or the “mother” are words for hysteria and during Shakespeare’s time it was believed that hysteria originated from the pit of the stomach.
Then on page 83,
“We are not ourselves when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind to suffer the body.”
Then he goes on to say,“Oh me, my heart! My rising heart! But down.”(Shakespeare, 83).The rising heart is also another symptom of hysteria.
King Lear ,His Daughters and their alliances
King Lear has three daughters, Regan, Gonerill and Cordelia. At the beginning of the play the King plans to divide the Kingdom for his daughters but first, he has a test for them- they all have to declare their love for him individually and a satisfactory answer equals a piece of the Empire. Gonerill is first and she declares that she loves her father, “More than the word can yield matter, dearer than eyesight, space, liberty. Beyond whatcan be valued, rich or rare, no less than life with grace, health, beauty, honor, asmuch as a child has ever loved, or father found. A love that makes breathe poor, speechunable, beyond all manner…” (Shakespeare, 5)