Historical Context in King Lear

Shakespeare wrote King Lear around 1605, between Othello and Macbeth, and right after King James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as King James I of England in 1603. Before James I ascended the English throne, there was a lot of anxiety about who the next heir would be after Elizabeth I died. This is because she had no male heirs, and people feared that a war over the title would ensue. Elizabethan England’s social and political structure depended on very strict hierarchy determined by status, wealth, and, most importantly, bloodline. Thus, family and political affairs were constantly at odds. King Lear emphasizes this, as well as the prevalent fear that children of monarchs would take advantage of their vulnerable, elderly parents to attain wealth or power. The Elizabethan audience would certainly relate to this fear, making the tragedy of King Lear resonate even more deeply for play-goers.

Historical Context Examples in King Lear:

Act I - Scene I 1

"adieu..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The French word adieu means “farewell.” However, due to the long history between the English and the French, many French words have been appropriated into the English language and are commonly used even to this day. In Shakespeare’s time, the ruling classes had stronger ties with the French than the lower classes, and so the prevalence of French words in aristocratic speech was much more common.

"France in choler parted!..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In medieval science, emotions were believed to be derived from bodily fluids, or humors, and the balance of them. In this case, choler refers to yellow bile, a humor associated with the liver and believed to cause anger. So, Gloucester is saying that the King of France left Lear’s court in anger.

"capable..."   (Act II - Scene I)

In this context “capable” means “able to inherit.” When Gloucester states that he will “make Edmund” capable,” he means that he will find some way to make Edmund his heir. During this time, Gloucester would face difficulty doing so since Edmund is an “illegitimate” son—the legal system would recognize Edgar as the rightful heir.

"Child Rowland to the dark tower came, ..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

This apparently meaningless rhyme has made appearances in other works. First, it refers to an older fairy tale of the "Childe Rowland," a knight of legend. The poet Robert Browning took this line and legend for the title and content of one of his most well-known poems, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." Additionally, this quatrain is also well-known for its appearance in the tale Jack and the Beanstalk, even though the rhyme has been around since before that tale and this play.

"Sirrah..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

“Sirrah” was an address form in Elizabethan England used to address boys or men over whom the speaker assumed authority. Glocester calls Edgar “sirrah” because he does not realize that this is his son and a noble man.

"plague..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Because multiple devastating outbreaks of the bubonic plague ravaged England’s population in the 1590s, the word “plague” would have evoked connotations of chaos, death, and horror. Glocester uses the metaphor “time’s plague” to signal that this is the worst of times: his family, his body, and the country are in disarray and all of the systems that regulated civil life have devolved into chaos.

"It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions;..."   (Act IV - Scene III)

Like many of the older characters in the play, Kent has faith in fate and the divine power of the heavens. In this scene, he uses this faith to explain the difference between Cordelia and her sisters rather than call for divine retribution. The idea is that the stars were in a different alignment than her sisters when Cordelia was conceived, making her into such a kind-hearted person. Many used to believe that being born under particular signs and constellations in the sky gave people their particular characters.

"The wheel is come full circle..."   (Act V - Scene III)

The medieval wheel of fortune, or Rota Fortunae, was a philosophy adopted from antiquity that conceptualized the unpredictable and seemingly random nature of fate. In depictions of the wheel, all men are ordered along the wheel according to their status in life; those with good fortune are at the top and those with miserable fortune lie crushed under the wheel at the bottom. The goddess Fortuna spins the wheel at random, and those at the top can suddenly and easily fall to the bottom. The wheel represented the random nature of fortune and the idea that no matter your class, wealth, or inner piety, your fortune could reverse itself at any moment.