Shakespeare’s King Lear is an age old tale. Like Cinderella it has been reinterpreted throughout time and in many different cultures. Here are a few interesting highlights in the old legend and how it got to Shakespeare in the 1600s.
The Princess Who Loved Her Father More Than Salt
This is an old folktale from my favorite podcast, Journey With Story, which starts with the Cordelia/ Lear plot of a foolish king who banishes his honest daughter. Then through extraordinary circumstances it becomes a Cinderella story. I think at some point these two stories were one and the same until they diverged and one became a story about an absent father and a wicked stepmother, while the other became about a wicked father and a dead mother.
The ancient ballad of King Leir, which helped inspire Shakespeare. It serves as a cautionary tale against flattery, and it places equal blame on Lear and his daughters:
And calling to remembrance then His youngest daughters words, That said the duty of a child Was all that love affords: But doubting to repair to her, Whom he had banish'd so, Grew frantick mad; for in his mind He bore the wounds of woe:
Which made him rend his milk-white locks, And tresses from his head, And all with blood bestain his cheeks, With age and honour spread. To hills and woods and watry founts He made his hourly moan, Till hills and woods and sensless things, Did seem to sigh and groan.
Even thus possest with discontents, He passed o're to France, In hopes from fair Cordelia there, To find some gentler chance; Most virtuous dame! which when she heard, Of this her father's grief, As duty bound, she quickly sent Him comfort and relief
The characters of Gloucester and his children, Kent, and the Fool are absent in this ballad, but unlike the fairy tale above, both Lear and Cordelia die in each other’s arms.
The Annonymous History of King Leir, (first published c. 1594)
This play was written for Shakespeare’s rival acting company The Queen’s Men around 1590). Since the Queen was patronizing the company, most of their plays were government-funded propeganda. For instance, it was the Queen’s men who first did a tragedy of the wicked King Richard III.
If you watch the first 20 minutes of the documentary above, you will see that Wood and many other scholars believe Shakespeare must have worked for the Queen’s men, or at least performed their scripts, since they did their own versions of King Lear, Richard III, King John, and Henry V.
However Shakespeare got a hold of The Queen’s Men’s scripts, he didn’t adhere to them rigidly. Their King Lear follows the fairy-tale / history format of having Cordelia be banished, disguise herself as a peasant (like Cap ‘O Rushes in the earlier version), and eventually she is restored to her rightful place. Shakespeare’s version must have been a MASSIVE shock to anyone who read these old tales and ballads. In Shakespeare’s version, everyone dies and there is no guarantee that the kingdom will survive. Every other tragedy ends with a new king or emperor to take over the kingdom but Lear leaves the audience with a sense of apocolypse; that Lear’s madness and Edmund’s machinations have doomed England and all these characters’ lives will be erased by Time.
As pessimistic as Shakespeare’s Lear is, it does seem more true to life than the previous versions. Perhaps this is because of a legal case from 1603 that might have inspired Shakespear to adapt the story: In 1603, two daughters tried to have their father declared insane. By an astonishing coincidence, the third daughter, who protested, happened to be named Cordelia! Perhaps Shakespeare, (who had three children and was preparing to retire), might have been inspired by this case and worried he might suffer the same fate.
Lear at its core is a play about growing older, and not just for its title character. Goneril and Regan learn their father is a lousy dad and learn to stand up to him. Edgar learns about the cruelty of the world and how to deceive his enemies.
Lear, a king in pre-Christian England, is too old to rule, so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He then tells them he will give the the kingdom to the one who loves him most.
Lear’ youngest daughter Cordelia, refuses to flatter her father, so she banishes her. He also banishes the Earl of Kent, who warns the king that his actions are foolish and rash. Finally, Lear demands that, although he resigns his kingdom, his daughters call him king and agree to house him and his knights in their castle.
Lear is not the only rash old man who is blind to his true danger. His friend the Duke of Gloucester has a bastard son named Edmund, who schemes to usurp his father’s lands and marry into Lear’s family. Edmund frames his legitamite brother Edgar which forces him to disguise himself as the mad beggar Poor Tom
After his daughters refuse to house him and his knights, Lear goes stark-raving mad. He runs out into a storm on the heath, wishing the Earth were struck flat and all mankind was destroyed. He is soon cared for by his Fool, and Kent, disguised as a commoner named Caius.
2. Bios of William Shakespeare and John Shakespeare Both Shakespeare and his father had children, and both worked hard to make a better life for their offspring, so I thought I’d tell you some of their life stories so you can learn more about these great men.
3. My Picks For Top 5 Best and Worst Dads in Shakespeare I’ve gone through the entire cannon from As You Like It to Alls Well That Ends Well, and picked out the dads whom I think deserve recognition either as great or terrible parents. Who will take the coveted #1 Shakespeare Dad prize? Stay tuned to find out!
I’ll also be sharing some great memes and reviews on Instagram and my podcast tomorrow, then next week I will honor the official start of summer with A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
If you read my blog for an extended period of time, or if you listen to my podcasts, or if you’ve taken any of my classes online, then I probably told you the notion that I believe that you could find Shakespearean roots in just about every single work of Western and quite a few of Eastern literature. Shakespeare is ingrained in our culture and therefore a lot of his influence can be felt in almost every bit of media we take in. One of my favorite ways to illustrate this, is by looking at Disney movies, trying to prove that every Disney story is at least a little bit inspired by a Shakespeare play as you’ve seen from my comedy series if Shakespeare wrote for Disney:
I had an enormous challenge on my hands when Disney came out with the new film Encanto. Previously I’ve found it very easy to deconstruct Disney film plots and spot their Shakespearean roots: Pocahontas is Romeo and Juliet by Disney’s own admission, Aladdin is basically the Tempest, Mulan is Twelfth Night, and the Lion King is Hamlet, as many people have pointed out.
Encanto was really really hard because it is such a fresh and original story. It is deeply rooted in Columbian culture, so trying to defend the notion that it has anything in common with the works of a 400 year old English male playwright is a tough claim. I don’t mean to suggest that this movie is a deliberate reinterpretation of Shakespeare. That would be insulting and limiting to the breadth of the story. My main purpose with this post is to show how universal and powerful these two stories are- to pay Encanto the compliment that, like Shakespeare, the story transcends cultural and historical boundaries and tells a story we can all relate to, and this is why I am making this bold claim, that Encanto resembles King Lear, albeit with a happy ending.
It was hard for me to realize that Encanto resembles Lear because the Lear character is not the focus of the movie; the focus of the movie is the Cordelia character Mirabelle if you’ve read King Lear or then you know that Cordelia is vital to the first 2 scenes of the play, and then goes offstage until Act 4 when where she is reunited with her father in prison, then cures his madness just long enough for her to be hanged. Her death is the darkest, grimmest, bleakest moment that Shakespeare ever wrote. She is the heart of the play and Lear’s failure to listen to her forms the heart of the play’s message; when an older generation clings to power and power or money or status or anything else besides their family, ultimately they suffer tremendously.
In his first line of the play King Lear, the king says that he wants to give up his kingdom, conferring it to his daughters and their husbands, but what he is really trying to do is to get his daughters to say they love him and to give them the kingdom as a reward.
This deal also has more strings attached; Lear basically says: “Now that I’ve given you my kingdom, you have to house me in your castle with a retinue of a 100 knights.” And the only child who really loves Lear and has his best interest in hearts is Cordelia, and Lear violently disclaims yet disclaims her and and renounces his permit his parental claims on her and yeah and since and since her and banishes her from the kingdom along with her husband the king of France.
So who is the king Lear figure in the Encanto? Abuela Alma! Think about it, she is a woman who is spending the whole play clinging and holding on to the power that the Magic Candle gives to her. she spends the whole movie trying to protect the Encanto, and when she mistakenly believes that Mirabelle is a threat, she pushes her away. Her other children Papa, Julietta, and Bruno she rules with an iron fist, and she flies into panics and rages whenever anything seems to threaten the safety of the candle. For example, when Bruno gets the magic prophecy that Mirabelle might destroy the house and destroy the Encanto, Abuela refuses to let Mirabelle talk to anybody ever and generally acts in a cruel controlling way.
Look at this passage when Lear rejects his loving daughter Cordellia. Given what I’ve mentioned- the fists of rage, the clinging to supernatural powers, and the controlling demands for loyalty and obedience from his children, who does King Lear sound like?
Lear: For, by the sacred radiance of the sun, The mysteries of Hecate and the night; By all the operation of the orbs115 From whom we do exist and cease to be; Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian,120 Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and reliev'd, As thou my sometime daughter. King Lear, Act I, Scene i.
As Ian McKellen explains in this interview, like Abuella, Lear clings to power, which he derives from supernatural forces, ignores people who care about him, and believes that his authority is absolute:
Power and violence in Encanto and King Lear
Marxist critics believe that Lear’s power s is based on violence like most medieval kings and violence is actually connected to abuela as well. Let’s not forget that the candle was forged after the faceless Men with machetes attempted to murder abuela and her whole village. The candle is Abuela’s power, but it is also a constant reminder of the violence that she escaped. It is also therefore a symbol of her trauma. Perhaps these characters became so controlling and distant and cold because of the trauma they endured. Lear is supposed to be a king of Britain back in the pre Christian era of the Anglo Saxos; he must have seen countless invasions:
The former king says himself that he’s fought in wars with his good biting falchion (a kind of sword). Whether they’ve seen falchions or machetes, these characters have seen violence and want to protect themselves against seeing the pain of it again, and ultimately it is their children that suffer because of it.
In King lear the kingdom is ripped apart between the 3 daughters and in Encanto, the house is literally ripped apart by the rift between the family and Abuela. Lear foolishly tries to bribe his daughters into flattering him; promising them the kingdom if they demonstrate how much they love him. Therefore Lear demands obedience and love and expects his family to fawn on him as if they were his subjects, not his family.
Lear’s favorite daughter Cordelia refuses to take the bribe and cannot put her love into words, so she says nothing. Lear is enraged and treats this small disobedience like an act of treason:
Arguably Abuella makes the same mistake. She treats her children as her subjects too and exploits their gifts in order to keep the community happy. Her fear of losing her home is the reason she pushes them all to be indispensable to the community. Think of the psychological and physical pressure Louisa mentions in her song:
Much like Lear and Cordelia, Mirabelle and Abuela argue about how her clinging to the past is hurting her family and how the pressure she puts on them is literally ripping their home and family apart:
Perhaps the biggest connective motif between Encanto and King Lear is the the motif of sight and sightlessness. Both Lear and Lord Gloucester are blind to the danger that they’re in and blind to who their real friends and enemies are. Lear trusts his 2 elder daughters because they flatter him, he trusts his drunken Knights who only succeed in getting him forced out of the cold. Conversely, Lear ignores Cordelia. who really loves him, as well as Kent, who is a loyal nobleman to the very end, and he ignores the Fool because he’s a fool. If he had heeded any of their advice he would not have died alone and powerless. Therefore his sightlessness is a deadly weakness.
Gloucester, the other old man character in Lear has another problem with sightlessness and his is much more literally. Gloucester’s bastard son Edmond deceives him into thinking that his legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. The old man sends Edgar away, makes Edmund his heir, and then Edmond betrays him and gets him arrested for treason.
In the play’s most savage scene, Gloucester is tortured and his eyes are literally pulled out of his head. From this moment Gloucester finally sees Edmond’s treachery, and he laments that he stumbled when he saw. Gloucester feels like he is finally able to see clearly now that he is blind not unlike the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex.
of course nothing this gruesome can be shown in a Disney movie but the image of sight is constantly referenced in Encanto visually, and also through the lyrics of the songs. Even the name of the character; Mirabelle comes from the Spanish word ‘mira’ which means to look, and the first thing one might notice about her is her brightly painted green glasses, which constantly draw attention to her ability to see.
Mirabelle, like Cordelia is able to see that her family is in pain, she sees that her family, the Encanto, and the house is a danger while Abuela is constantly deluding herself and everybody else in thinking that nothing is yet wrong. Through the course of the movie, Mirabelle is able to fix the various problems she sees. For instance, she sees that her sister Louisa is taking on too many responsibilities and refusing to admit that she is tired and feels weak. She realizes that her sister Isabella is tired of being the perfect golden child, that her Uncle Bruno is not the monster that the family declare him to is be layer him to be, (however catchy their song about him is), and It is through her sight and her perceptiveness that Mirabelle is able to heal the wounds in her family, The last wounds that she heals, of course, are the cracks on her house, and her own Abuella’s wounds, the wounds that went deep through her and even deep through her house; she mends the problems that happened the instant that that candle came into being,
Notice how many times the words “look,” and “see” are mentioned in the lyrics. Mirabelle re-iterates how each person in her family is more than their gifts, more than just the roles Abuella put them in, and they respond by telling her to look at her own gifts and be proud of who she is. She heals them by seeing them as they are, and they heal her by seeing her too.
It was when I realized this that I understood that this movie is what would have happened if King Lear had only listened to the people who really cared about him, and did not succumb to idle flattery, if he did not let his pain and his trauma dictate the rest of his life. There’s a wonderful hopeful message here that family wounds can be healed if we take time to see and address them. If you read King Lear and then see the movie you can see both how these family wounds can be healed, and the tragic consequences if they are not.
I hope that this little post has helped you appreciate both works because they are both magnificent and they are both carefully constructed and they both tell a very simple lesson for all families. As families, we need to recognize our faults, forgive faults in others, and work together to mend the pain and suffering that we experience in our lives. Mirabell and Cordelia show that we can all be heroes if we see the truth, and speak what they feel not what they ought to say.
Gloucester and His Sons, PBS Learning Media: Shakespare Uncovered: witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/shak15.ela.lit.gloucester/gloucester-and-his-sons-king-lears-subplot-shakespeare-uncovered/?student=true
I realize Father’s day was last weekend, but I thought I’d like to cap off that week of posts with one final insight into Shakespearean fathers, only today they won’t be fictional! Today I’ll be sharing with you some details from the lives of William Shakespeare and his father, John Shakespeare. We’ve been talking about good, bad, and dad dads, so after reading this post, what do you think- were these men good fathers, or not?
-Bio of John Shakespeare c1530—to 1601
John Shakespeare was born around the year 1530 (exact records no longer exist). He came from a long line of prominent farmers in Snitterfield, and moved to Stratford Upon Avon in Warwickshire, in the year 1557 John married Mary Arden, who also came from pretty posh country stock; records trace the Arden family back before the Norman conquest in 1066!
John and Mary’s children
Altogether, John and Mary had 8 children (see the family tree above.)
Sadly, their 2 eldest daughters Margaret and Anne died in infancy, making William the eldest child, and the son and heir of his father’s wealth.
William’s brother Edmund became an actor, while his sister Joan took over John’s old house.
Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a modest house on Henley Street, which still stands today!
Mayor, Bailiff, Glover When John and Mary moved to Stratford, John established himself as a great fixture of the community- he started as the local glover, and rose to the highly respected office of town ale taster (no, I’m not kidding). At the height of his career, John became Mayor of Stratford, and an Alderman- a town counsilor who helped make decisions like whether or not to let local theater troupes come to town! Maybe John took his young son to watch the travelling players and helped inspire Will’s lifelong love of theater.
Teach Your Children Well Shakespeare got to go to one of the first ever public schools in England, where he learned English history, poetry, and the art of persuasive speech, everything he needed to become the great writer he would become.
Brogger not Blogger As I mentioned in my first post, Shakespeare’s dad had an illegal side business as a wool dealer. All wool was controlled by the English government, so selling it directly to people was a crime, and eventually John Shakespeare was caught. Fortunately, the fine he paid wasn’t enough to ruin him financially…yet.
Closet Catholic The biggest financial problem John Shakespeare faced was his religious beliefs. In 1757, archeologists unearthed a pamphlet where John confessed to be a secret Catholic in a society where the Church of England was the national religion. Scholar Michael Wood believes that John’s Catholicism led to financial ruin; he refused to go to Episcopal church and had to pay crippling fines every time he failed to appear.
John’s Descent At the same time, John’s debts kept mounting and he was afraid to go to the town council house for fear of more collectors, even though he was the mayor. The final blow came in 1576, when John was booted off the town council.
Son of Fortune John’s son William would eventually repair the family dignity when he became a success. In 1596, William made himself, and all the male members of his family gentlemen, by applying for a coat of arms. Below is a picture of Shakespeare’s family crest.
John Shakespeare died in 1601, shortly after his son’s play Hamlet was published. Willmight have honored his father’s memory by playing the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.
-Bio of William Shakespeare as a Father 1564-1616.
Roger Dunn BA
Wedding Bells In 1582,Will married Anne Hathaway (not the Oscar winning actress from Les Miserables, although that one has shown some love for Shakespeare too. Based on the timeline, it’s very likely that Anne was already pregnant when William married her. Some claim that the Bard was basically in a “shotgun” marriage, but nobody has proven otherwise. We do know that he wrote a sonnet to her on their wedding day, click here to read it!
Shakespeare’s Children Shakespeare and Anne had three kids (Judith, Susanna, Hamnet) Susanna was born in 1583, while the twins were born 5 years later.
Hit the Road! Sometime around 1590, Shakespeare moved to London and must’ve gotten a job with a theater company. Unfortunately, no records survive between the birth of Shakespeare’s children, and his first success as a playwright in 1592, which is why scholars refer to this period as “The Lost Years.” It was probably a tough life for the Shakespeares, with the father away in the city while they were cooped up in Stratford with their grandparents.
RIP Hamnet. Shakespeare’s only son died August 9th He was away in London at the time, and undoubtedly the news was a terrible shock.
Will’s daughters Shakespeare had two girls, Judith and Susanna. Naturally, it’s hard to tell anything about Shakespeare’s personal feelings, but looking at his plays and his future actions, Shakespeare must have really loved his girls. Many of his later plays explore the relationships between fathers and daughters, and as you’ve probably noticed, most of the fathers on my previous countdowns have at least 1 girl. Shakespeare was preoccupied with his daughter’s futures and helped them find husbands, Susanna Shakespeare was arrested for refusing to take protestant communion Susannah married Dr. John Hall, a respected puritan physician. She also bore William his only grandchild, Elizabeth Barnard (pictured below).
Will clearly loved his daughters, especially his daughter Susanna. His last 5 plays were about fathers trying their best to improve their daughter’s lives. In his will he gave his daughter Susannah 100 pounds of English money, as well as a dowry To his other daughter Judith he left 30 pounds, all of his silver, and permitted her to live in one of his houses on Henley street.
by Michael Wood: A fantastic documentary/ book/ website, which looks at the life of William Shakespeare and his work. On this website is an interactive timeline that shows pictures of the places Shakespeare lived and worked, and the documents with his name on them: http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/events/