150+ essays on literary topics
Shakespeare drew on various sources for the plot of King Lear, but what he made of them was a play about growing old, based on people he knew.
If we were to think about the main character, not as King Lear, but just plain Lear, perhaps we would be better able to understand what Shakespeare wanted to say, not about kingship, but about human nature. The old story, as he read it in Holinshed’s Chronicles, was just a frame on which to hang a new story about families, about loyalty and jealousy, about egotism and altruism, above all about self-knowledge, about a man who, in the words of one of his daughters, ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’.
So who among his family and friends were Shakespeare’s models for Lear and his family and friends? We can’t know, of course, but we can hazard a few guesses and in the process turn them back into the real people they once were.
Judith (not her real name) was the model for Cordelia. The daughter of a friend in Stratford-upon-Avon, she had always been her father’s favourite. She was a late addition to the family, which had made her seem to him like a gift from God to warm his heart and brighten his old age. If he spoiled her, who could blame him? Not Shakespeare, who found her enchanting and sought her out whenever he went back home from London. She was very bright, stood up for herself, had a mind of her own. That was the best of her.
The worst was that, particularly in her teenage years, she could be arrogant and stubborn. She spoke her mind, as Cordelia does when Lear demands to be told by each of his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
It was Judith’s voice that Shakespeare heard when he wrote Cordelia’s lines. Judith would never have told her father what he wanted to hear if it wasn’t what she wanted to say. So when she hears her sisters do their best to please him, Shakespeare gives her two asides. First, after Goneril has spoken.
What shall Cordelia do? Love and be silent.
And after Regan.
Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s
More ponderous than my tongue.
When it comes to her turn, Lear having saved the best till last, she has already decided what to say. Nothing. Love and be silent.
Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters?
He waits for her to answer. She stares straight ahead. He prompts her.
She has to spell it out.
Nothing, my lord.
Forced to explain herself, she does so in words intended more for her sisters than for her father, taking the opportunity to score a point over them, just like Judith.
Why have my sisters husbands if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Shakespeare had any number of models for the problems that arise when old men become dependent on their children. His mild-mannered cousin, John, and Lucy, his domineering wife, (not their real names) were first among them when it came to finding real-life counterparts for Goneril and the Duke of Albany. It was a habit of Lucy’s to speak to herself sometimes, treating servants as if they were not there, as Goneril does when she is with her steward.
By day and night, he wrongs me; every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other,
That sets us all at odds: I’ll not endure it.
Shakespeare could hear Lucy’s voice as he wrote those lines. He could see the way her head trembled when she snapped, ‘I’ll not endure it,’ and her mouth snapped shut. There was a boy player in his company who caught it perfectly.
The model for Kent, loyal, sturdy, plain speaking, was Thomas (not his real name), an actor he had known and worked with for many years. The actor, the man and the parts he wrote for him were almost indistinguishable, as Thomas sometimes complained. But they were good parts and always drew praise from the audience, so he didn’t complain too often or too loudly. Enobarbus, Antony’s loyal friend, had been his favourite role until Kent came along.
His model for Lear was not a friend but his own worst enemy: himself. He often thought about death. At various times in his life there had been a lot of it about. He thought of his home in Stratford as a safe house in times of plague, though he knew there was really no such place. Death had come there too.
He sometimes wrote as if he were an old man.
That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none or few, do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold,
Bare, ruin’d quires where late the sweet birds sang.
As a poet and playwright, he was almost a king. His players were The King’s Men. They had acted in the palace at His Majesty’s pleasure. The old story of Lear, as he told it, was a way of reducing a man to the nothing he really was. In the words that he had put in the mouth of the usurper in the play that he had just finished writing, it was ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
Burbage had played Macbeth and Burbage would play Lear, not a usurper but an old fool who voluntarily renounces his kingdom but wants to go on being king. His daughters would take it in turns to have him stay, but he would ‘still retain the name and all the additions of a king’.
His Lear would be a composite of all the old fools he had ever known and might one day be himself if he lived long enough. He would be an old man in second childhood. He would stamp his feet. He would be reduced to tears. He would be afraid of going mad. He would go mad.
You think I’ll weep – No, I’ll not weep –
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I’ll weep. – O fool, I shall go mad.
He would have Burbage take his clothes off on stage!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things –
What they are yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
It would be a play about an ordinary man turning into an old fool and, to write that, he had to do no more than look at himself in the mirror.
‘Look in thy heart and write’, as that young fool, Philip Sidney, wrote before he got himself killed.