Significant Allusions

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Allusions to Ancient Greece and Rome: The major change wrought by the European Renaissance was the resurgence of ideas from the ancient Mediterranean world. Aided by innovations in technology and communication, the poetry, sculpture, architecture, and philosophy from ancient Greece and Rome resurfaced in the European imagination. 

  • “Nothing will come from nothing” is an oft repeated refrain in the text. It is a play on the Latin “ex nihilo nihil fit,” or “from nothing, nothing comes.” This is a philosophical argument first made by the pre-Socratic philosopher Paramedes. Paramedes argues that all existence requires prior existence. This contradicts the biblical idea that God created the world from nothingness. 
  • “Fortune, good night: smile once more: turn thy wheel,” Kent laments after Regan imprisons him in the stocks (act 2, scene 2). In the Roman tradition, Fortuna was the goddess of chance or luck. She was often depicted with a wheel or a ship’s helm, symbolizing her fickle and unpredictable nature. Those who find themselves riding high may swing down into ill fortune, and vice versa. 

Allusions to English Literature: The story of King Lear had existed both as an oral legend and as a text in the English tradition long before Shakespeare. By building on a story his audience knew, Shakespeare emphasized the novel aspects of his work: the classical ideals and the humanist perspective with which he infused the story. 

  • “Merlin’s Prophesy” is a poem that was falsely attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer in 1589. The Fool parodies this prophecy in act 3, scene 2 of King Lear, and then jokes to the audience that he is recounting a prophecy not yet made: “This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.” 

Allusions to English History: Though King Lear is set in 8th-century BCE Britain, the play makes frequent reference to issues and events that were important during Shakespeare’s lifetime. These references allow the play to be understood as a cultural artifact of the English Renaissance, as well as a universal work that expresses broader truths about the human experience across the ages. 

  • King James I is also known for having made thousands of knights—so many that critics accused him of being indiscriminate. It’s possible that Shakespeare pokes fun at James I through Goneril’s complaints about Lear’s rowdy knights: 
This man hath had good counsel:—a hundred knights! (325) 
‘Tis politic and safe to let him keep 
At point a hundred knights: yes, that, on every dream, 
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike, 
He may enguard his dotage with their powers, 
And hold our lives in mercy. Oswald, I say! 
  • When Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, Edmund describes hims as an inmate of Bedlam Hospital: “my cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh / like Tom o’ Bedlam” (act 1, scene 2). Also known as Bethlem Royal Hospital, Bedlam was founded in the late 13th century. Though it exists today as a modern psychiatric institution, it is infamous for its history of patient ill-treatment. 

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