Behind ‘King Lear’: The History Revealed

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Dulwich Picture Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images (left)
King James I of England, in a portrait attributed to John de Critz, circa 1606; William Shakespeare, in a portrait attributed to John Taylor, circa 1610

Even by its own standards of extremity, King Lear ends on a note of extraordinary bleakness. The audience has just been through the most devastating scene in all of theater: Lear’s entrance with his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms and the words “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” coming from somewhere deep inside him. All is, as Kent puts it, “cheerless, dark, and deadly.”

Albany, the weak, widowed, and childless man who is all that remains of political authority, goes through the ritual end-of-play motions of rewarding the good and punishing the bad, but these motions are self-consciously perfunctory. When he says, “What comfort to this great decay may come/Shall be applied,” we know that the comfort will be small and cold. Albany promises to restore Lear to his abandoned kingship, but the old king utterly ignores the offer of power, and promptly dies.

Albany then tries to appoint Edgar and Kent as joint rulers, but Kent replies that he, too, intends to die shortly. No one, it seems, is willing to perform the necessary theatrical rites of closure, to present even the pretense that order has been restored. And so the only possible ending is the big one. Because the play cannot end, the world must end. In the original version that Shakespeare completed in 1606, the last lines are Albany’s:

The oldest have borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Why will the young not live to be old? Because the end of the world is coming. The bad news does not end there. This is not even the Christian apocalypse, in which the bad are damned to Hell and the good ascend into the eternal bliss of Heaven. We’ve just seen a version of that last judgment, with the rather pitiful Albany playing God the Father:

              All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings….

This assurance of just deserts is immediately undercut by one of the most terrifying images of injustice, Lear’s raging at a universe in which dogs, horses, and even rats have life but his daughter will never have any again, in this world or the next: “Never, never, never.” This is why King Lear was so unbearable that it was Nahum Tate’s infamous version, with its happy ending for Lear, Cordelia, and Edgar, that held the stage from 1681 to 1843, and why a critic as discerning as Samuel Johnson supported Tate’s alterations on the grounds that Shakespeare’s ending violates the natural human desire for justice. Johnson admitted to finding the original ending so upsetting that he did not reread it until his duties as an editor of Shakespeare forced him to do so.

This aversion is not unreasonable. King Lear is not apocalyptic, it is far worse. Instead of deserved damnation and merited salvation, there is merely the big fat O, the nothing that haunts the play, the “O, O, O, O!” with which Lear expires. Even Shakespeare seems to have thought twice about this utter annihilation of hope and justice. When he rewrote the play, probably two or three years after its first performance in 1606, he allowed Lear (and the audience) one little moment of merciful illusion. Instead of that terrible “O, O, O, O!,” Lear is permitted to lapse with his dying breath into the fantasy that Cordelia’s dead lips are moving after all. It is as if even Shakespeare, watching his own play, could not quite bear its unyielding ferocity.

That such a play is possible at all is one of the great wonders of human creation. That it was written by a liveried servant of a Calvinist king who devoutly believed in salvation and damnation, and performed at his court, seems almost inexplicable. Or at least it seemed inexplicable before James Shapiro’s wonderfully illuminating The Year of Lear.

Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, published in 2005, broke new ground in the subtlety, vividness, and richness of its explorations of the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and their immediate social and political settings.* He repeats that achievement for 1606, an astonishing year in which Shakespeare finished the first version of King Lear, probably wrote all of Macbeth, and almost certainly wrote and staged Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro plunges these tragedies back into the whirlpool of plots and plagues, of religious and political anxieties, from which they emerged. He does not drown them in historical detail, but he does bring them before us still wet from their struggle to emerge from the urgent currents of politics and power.

Shapiro has a marvelous ability to use his formidable scholarship, not to pluck out the heart of Shakespeare’s mysteries, but to put the beating heart of the contemporary back into them. His great gift is to make the plays seem at once more comprehensible and more staggering. The better we understand the immediate materials with which Shakespeare was working and the political pressures to which he was responding, the more profoundly we can appreciate the alchemy of his transformations.

To see Shakespeare as a court official working to please his political masters is not to reduce him to the level of functionary or propagandist. It is to marvel anew at the ways in which he could use even such humbling demands as sources of imaginative energy. Though it may be incidental to his purpose, Shapiro effectively overturns the Romantic conception of the artist as the champion of freedom over necessity. We begin to see a Shakespeare for whom the distinction between freedom and necessity is scarcely relevant. Here is Shakespeare as an opportunist in every sense, a political operator taking advantage of a shift in power and a voracious artist for whom the need to please new masters is not a restriction but a creative stimulus.

In April 1603, James VI of Scotland, then just thirty-six, began his long ride from Edinburgh to London, where he would succeed the childless Elizabeth I as James I of England. This was an unlikely event: Henry VIII had gone to the considerable trouble of breaking with Rome and marrying six wives in order to secure the future of his Tudor dynasty. Yet it was Henry’s sister Margaret, who married into the Scottish Stuarts, whose descendants would rule in seventeenth-century Britain. The irony was surely not lost on Shakespeare. Macbeth also goes to a lot of a trouble to create a dynasty but it is Banquo’s heirs who will reign.

For Shakespeare, James’s arrival was double-edged. The new king and his wife were much more interested in the theater than Elizabeth had been and the most immediate beneficiary of James’s patronage was Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Almost immediately, James chose Shakespeare and his eight core collaborators to be the King’s Men. Their new title was not merely symbolic: as of May 1603 Shakespeare was an official of the court as Groom of the Chamber. He and his fellow shareholders were each issued with four and a half yards of red cloth to make the royal livery in which they were allowed to appear on state occasions.

This royal patronage imposed new demands. Typically, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had performed for Elizabeth two or three times a year. As the King’s Men, they performed for James nine times in 1603–1604, ten times the following year, and ten times again in 1605–1606—more court appearances in the first three years of James’s reign than in all of Elizabeth’s. Shapiro reckons that around twenty of Shakespeare’s previously written plays were probably staged for James in these years.

The royal demand for more Shakespeare plays had grown but the supply was running short. By his own prodigious standards, Shakespeare was in a relatively fallow period. In those first three years of the Jacobean era, he wrote just two plays, Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens (with Thomas Middleton), even though he was no longer appearing as an actor at the Globe and presumably had more time to write. He seems to have been spending more time in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, using his earnings from his theatrical career to build up his status as a prosperous landowner. Whatever the reason, Richard Burbage, who played all of the main tragic roles in the King’s Men, had to admit to the court in January 1605 that they had “no new play that the queen has not seen” and could offer only an old comedy, Love’s Labours Lost. Their star playwright would have to get his acts together.

If Shakespeare was under pressure to produce new material, he was also under pressure to produce a new kind of material and indeed to imagine a new place. Before James became king, Shakespeare was an English playwright. Now he had to be a British playwright. James’s big project was the political unification of the entire island. In his opening address to the London Parliament in 1604, he compared his accession to an indissoluble marriage: “What God hath conjoined then, let no man separate. I am the husband, and all the whole isle is my lawful wife.” The silver medal minted to commemorate his accession acclaimed James as the “emperor of the whole island of Britain,” and his coronation medal hailed him as “Caesar Augustus of Britain.”

But the forging of a new identity for James’s “Great Britain” was a formidable ideological challenge. The London Parliament had no enthusiasm for a full union. Scotland and England had long been mutually antagonistic countries. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal jokes that the widely admired English border warlord Hotspur “kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast.” Now there could be no more jokes about killing Scots by the dozen. Shakespeare put on the king’s livery imaginatively as well as literally. On the fundamental question of what country he was in, he became his master’s voice. King Lear and Macbeth are British, not English, plays. Lear is “King of Britain”; Macbeth is overthrown by a joint Scottish/English army. Shapiro reports that the words “England” or “English” appear 356 times in Shakespeare’s pre-Jacobean plays but only thirty-nine times after James took power in London. Conversely, “Britain” appears only twice in the Elizabethan plays but twenty-nine times in those written under James.

The great pleasure of The Year of Lear is that Shapiro allows us to feel the movement of Shakespeare’s quicksilver mind as he seizes on James’s political and religious obsessions and makes them his own. Indeed, what comes across most strongly is Shakespeare’s genius for transforming what is, objectively, a servile relationship with his sovereign, master, and employer into a breathtaking act of appropriation. Shakespeare doesn’t just write to James’s order—he somehow manages to absorb James’s interests into his own imagination. In fact—though Shapiro does not go this far—it does not seem unreasonable to think of Shakespeare treating James (who was, after all, attempting to alter the consciousness and identity of his subjects) as a fellow dramatist, and then doing what he always did with fellow dramatists: taking their best ideas and plots and reprocessing them.

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Tate, London
‘King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia’; painting by James Barry, 1786–1788

Robert Greene’s famous complaint about the young Shakespeare—“an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers”—is not entirely unjustified, though of course Shakespeare used the feathers he plucked from others to make wings that could fly in previously unimagined directions. This is essentially what he does with James. He plucks the king’s obsessions and ideological projects and uses them to beautify his own work. It is an astonishingly adept combination of deference and impudence, the King’s Man at once serving and stealing from his boss.

Some of what Shakespeare took from James is obvious enough. The idea of Britain in Lear and Macbeth is a direct response to the king’s insistence that England and Scotland are to be treated as a single entity. James’s interest in witchcraft is catered to in Macbeth. The king’s understandable concern with the evils of regicide feed into the same play, whose first and last acts feature the killing of Scottish kings. But Shapiro uncovers deeper layers of influence. He catches Shakespeare in the act of reading up on subjects known to be of concern to James and, in the process, discovering not just new themes but even new words.

The most striking example is James’s deep curiosity about demonic possession. The king personally examined an allegedly possessed young woman, Anne Gunter, and arranged for her veracity to be tested by an acknowledged expert on true and false possession, Samuel Harsnett, who published A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures in 1603. Shakespeare, picking up on the king’s curiosity, read Harsnett’s book. Over eighty passages in King Lear are indebted to the Declaration’s descriptions of people acting as if they are possessed—the very guise that Edgar takes on when he becomes Poor Tom, the wandering beggar. No single book is the source of as many unusual words and phrases in Shakespeare as the Declaration, from which he culls, for example, “meiny,” “propinquity,” “auricular,” “gaster,” “yoke-fellow,” and “vaunt-courier.” Some of the names of devils that torment Poor Tom are taken directly from Harsnett: Puff, Pure, Frateretto, Flibbertigibbet, Mahu, Smulkin, Obidicut.

What matters, though, is not just Shakespeare’s taking up of James’s concerns, but the way he makes them his own. The language and gestures of demonic possession allow Shakespeare to use the king’s interest as springboards for his own imaginative leap into the abysses of mental breakdown. The storm scenes of King Lear are like nothing Shakespeare or anyone else ever wrote, with the deranged Lear conducting his mock trial of his absent daughters, the Fool throwing in snatches of sense and nonsense, of songs and proverbs, and Edgar’s Poor Tom performance reaching into the darkest corners of madness to pluck out a terrible poignancy:

The foul fiend haunts Poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale. Hoppedance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring. Croak not, black angel: I have no food for thee.

What begins as an opportunist keeping an eye out for what will appeal to his new master ends as some of the strangest, most searingly painful language ever spoken on the stage. For James, the state of being possessed is an object of rational inquiry. Shakespeare turns it into a heartbreaking image of the agonies that lie beyond all reason.

Even more influential on Shakespeare is the king’s concern with “equivocation.” The word appears just once in Shakespeare before Macbeth, and even then it seems to be a mere synonym for ambiguity. By 1606, it has acquired a more specific meaning, one that Macbeth himself explicates when he says that “I…begin/To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend,/That lies like truth.” In these early years of James’s reign, the practice of equivocation, of constructing lies that have the appearance of truth, acquired an urgent political currency. The Gunpowder Plot of November 1605, in which a well-organized group of Catholic conspirators installed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder under the chamber where Parliament was to meet, with the aim of killing James, his heir Prince Henry, and the entire government, concentrated royal attention on the threat of Catholic disloyalty.

A particular source of anxiety was the Catholic doctrine of “mental reservation,” which allowed those being questioned under oath to give answers that seemed true even while they withheld the real truth. Shapiro quotes a broadsheet ballad that sums up the accusation against Catholic leaders: “The Pope allows them to equivocate,/The root of their abhorred intents to hide.” That Shakespeare expects the previously arcane word to be widely understood and associated with religious treason is evident from the monologue of the Porter in Macbeth, imagining who might be hammering on the gate as if it were the gate of Hell:

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.

Yet just as Poor Tom takes the language of feigned possession and pushes it into a terrifying psychological terrain, Macbeth as a whole seizes on James’s political interest in equivocation and propels it far beyond the boundaries of its immediate political meaning. In James’s world, equivocators are identifiable people. They are Catholics infected with a Jesuitical doctrine. They can be found out and punished by those who are not equivocators—good loyal Protestants. But this is not what happens in Macbeth. In the play, equivocation rules. The witches are the greatest of all equivocators—they lie like truth with ingenuity and aplomb. And their deceptions are completely successful: Macbeth does not grasp their treachery until it is far too late.

Even more disturbingly, though, it is not just the evil witches who equivocate. Almost everybody does—the good and the bad. Poor Lady Macduff engages in classic equivocation when her son asks her whether his father is a traitor. The nobleman Ross equivocates when he tells Macduff that his wife and children are “at peace,” withholding the news that they are at peace because they have been butchered. In one of the queasiest scenes in all of Shakespeare, the “good” Malcolm launches into an elaborate set of lies to Macduff about his own character. He explains this as a test of Macduff’s loyalty, but its effect is morally vertiginous. We begin to wonder whether Malcolm, who will replace Macbeth, may not in fact be lying like truth, whether he may not be the monster he has accused himself of being. What happens in the play is not that lies and truth are eventually unraveled, but that they come to feel like the same thing. In a vicious world, the play asks, who can survive without lying, and who can tell deception from honesty?

Because Macbeth picks up on so many cues from James—witches, equivocators, Scottish dynastic origins—it is easy to miss what it does not do. In making the untrustworthiness of appearances and of language a universal condition of life under arbitrary power, Shakespeare avoids the immediate political agenda of identifying them with a specifically Catholic amorality. We get some sense of why he might have done this from Shapiro’s startling researches into Shakespeare’s own connections to the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare probably did not know the main plotters (though two of the leaders were nephews of the same Edward Arden to whom Shakespeare claimed a familial connection when he applied for a coat of arms), but he certainly knew many of those caught up in the chaos and repression that followed its discovery.

As it happened, the main center for the wider conspiracy was in Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire. The arms depot for the Catholic uprising that was to follow the murder of the king was just a few miles north of his own town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare’s family and business interests were centered. A strip of land rented by Shakespeare himself abutted Clopton House, which in turn was rented by the conspirators as the nerve center for their rebellion. Shakespeare’s longtime next-door neighbor in Stratford, George Badger, was arrested with a cache of Catholic vestments, crucifixes, chalices, and relics. Other neighbors, including the man who would later sign as a witness to Shakespeare’s will, were brought in as a jury to examine the hoard. Other Catholic townspeople, whom Shakespeare would have known well through business and family connections, were suspected of involvement and marched off to the Tower of London.

We will never know what Shakespeare thought of the Gunpowder Plot, but thanks to Shapiro we can say with some confidence that he knew very well the human cost for Catholic recusants whose lives were destroyed by it. In Macbeth, he does not blame Catholics for the moral chaos of equivocation. He blames power itself, and its infinite capacity to corrupt language and corrode humanity. In Lady Macduff’s equivocal answers about whether her husband is a traitor, we catch the terror of all those under interrogation trying desperately to use words to evade death.

The most remarkable thing is that this deep skepticism about power does not work against Shakespeare’s efforts to please the man in power. It originates with them. Because he so thoroughly appropriates James’s concerns, he can at once inhabit them and transform them. Nowhere does this work so strangely and so disturbingly as in King Lear. There is no doubt that the impetus for the play is to support James’s campaign to unify Britain by showing the horrors of a disunited kingdom. Lear’s dismembering of his kingdom is the negative correlative of James’s destiny to make its body whole again. An anonymous play about Lear (or Leir), The True Chronicle History of King Leir, first staged around 1590, was printed in 1605 by a publisher who obviously saw the relevance of the story to James’s project of reinventing Britain. Shakespeare clearly admired this opportunism. In the first printed version of his own play, he sometimes absent-mindedly uses “Leir” instead of Lear.

Shakespeare, of course, deepened the existing drama immensely, adding the entire subplot of Gloucester and Edgar and the madness that overthrows the old king’s mind. But the most radical shift is at the end. The True Chronicle History is a moral tale with a happy outcome: Leir is reunited with Cordelia and restored to his kingdom. This is in keeping with the original story told in Holinshed’s Chronicles, but more importantly it allows for an image of restored unity and reinforced authority that suits James’s purposes. Shakespeare doesn’t just change this ending; he assaults it with that extraordinary psychological violence in which the very idea of a satisfactory (let alone a happy) ending is exploded.

King Lear cannot end because authority cannot be restored. This impossibility results from Shakespeare’s greatest act of opportunism. James’s interests have given him the opportunity to write a play about the collapse of all political order and that in turn gives him the opportunity to show what authority really looks like when it is not propped up by power. In King Lear, it is the old king himself, speaking to the viciously blinded Gloucester, who utters the most savage attack on all authority:

Lear: A man may see how the world goes with no eyes; look with thy ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thy ear: handy-dandy, which is the thief, which is the justice? Thou has’t seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?

Gloucester: Ay, sir.

Lear: An the creature run from the cur, there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office.

There is no going back from this. If the great image of authority is a cur biting the heels of a beggar, what does it matter who is king? Even the blind can see how the world goes: put a dog on the throne and men will bow before it. When Albany offers Lear the restoration of his kingdom, the old man does not even hear him. The divine right of kings, so insistently upheld by James, has become a thing of nothing. The King’s Man in his red royal livery plucked his master’s anxiety about the need for unquestioned authority and used it to summon up the deeper fear that, in their most secret selves, must haunt all kings.

  1. *

    See Anne Barton’s review in these pages, May 11, 2006.