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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

Shakespeare and the English Renaissance: Shakespeare wrote during a pivotal moment in the history of Europe and the English language: the English Renaissance. This era spanned the 16th and early 17th centuries, seeing the printing press revolutionize the publishing industry, Protestantism divide from Catholicism, and Great Britain emerge as global empire. Concurrent with these social changes was a shift in thinking. Humanism developed into a dominant philosophical ideology, and revolutionized European culture in the way it elevated the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the individual above ecclesiastical or religious concerns. 

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  • In King Lear, Shakespeare reinterprets a story from English folklore through a humanist lens. As told by Geoffrey Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain in 1135, King Lier was a Celtic king living in ancient England around the 8th century BCE. His legendary abdication from the throne, with its familial and political fall-out, was well known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Shakespeare’s play follows Lear as he discovers the nature of his true self and of those around him, amid the artifices of the body politic. 

King Lear in the Context of Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Many scholars approach Hamlet (1602), Macbeth (1606), and King Lear (1605) as tragedies that are in concert with one another. In each play, the inner psyche of the titular protagonist is dramatized amid familial and socio-political turmoil. Hamlet reflects a man in his youth, Macbeth a man in middle age, and King Lear a man in old age. While each play grapples with the great existential questions of life—What gives life meaning? What are the limits of free will? What is the nature of the individual within society? How does one know oneself?—each does so from a different stage of life. Since their publication, Hamlet and King Lear have remained scholars’ favorite Shakespearean tragedies due to their depth, nuance, and originality. 

Publication History: Shakespeare’s play wasn’t the first dramatization of the well-known legend; The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella was performed in the Rose Theater in the decades prior to Shakespeare’s production. Varying versions of King Lear have surfaced. In 1608, Shakespeare’s First Quarto was published; in that volume, Lear dies thinking Cordelia could possibly live and Edgar speaks the final lines of the play. In 1623, the First Folio edition was published; in that volume, Cordelia’s death is confirmed and Albany speaks the final lines of the play. Then, in 1681, during the Restoration Period, playwright Nahum Tate rewrote the play to have a happier ending in which Cordelia lives and marries Edgar. Tate’s version remained popular among many for its lighter touch, competing with Shakespeare’s version until the mid-20th century, when the First Folio edition became the standard. 

Historical Texts and Influences: In his youth, Shakespeare attended grammar schools where instruction included studying the works of Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer. In addition to his schooling, Shakespeare read widely in history and literature, and the abundance of available historical texts provided him with much source material for his works. While not all of these are necessarily direct influences on the work, they constitute the literary context of Shakespeare’s composition of King Lear

  • Oedipus the King is a celebrated tragedy from the playwright Sophocles, who lived in Athens during the 5th century BCE. There is no direct evidence that cites Oedipus the King, or the broader myth of Oedipus, as a source for King Lear. However, by 1570 the work of Sophocles had already been translated into Latin multiple times, and Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer were recommended readings in the Elizabethan grammar schools Shakespeare attended in his youth. Greek tragedy was readily available to educated members of English society throughout the English Renaissance. 
  • Historie of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135, is the first recorded version of the legend that inspired King Lear—that of the ancient King Leir of Britain. It describes the central events of Lear’s narrative, from the division of his kingdom to his two elder daughters to his banishment to live with his youngest daughter. 
  • Edmund Spenser, often regarded as the greatest English Renaissance poet prior to Shakespeare, also recounts King Lear’s story in book 2, canto 10 of The Faerie Queene

A major source of tension in King Lear is the division of Britain into different kingdoms and the resulting conflicts. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the early years of the reign of King James I, formerly King James VI of Scotland, one of whose major accomplishments was to unite England and Scotland into one kingdom. Border conflicts among Scotland, England, and France were major political concerns of the early 17th century. 

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