King Lear was written in 1608, three years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. This era was often referred to as a ‘golden age’, yet around the time of the death of the heirless last Tudor, there was an unconscious feeling of anxiety felt throughout society which is reflected in some of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s no coincidence that the majority of his tragedies were written around this time. Elizabeth had managed to cement the power of the Protestant church, which her father had created and her sister had tried to overturn. Having seen off the Spanish, and laid the foundations for what would become the imperialist British empire, Elizabeth’s hegemonic position in society seemed irreversible to those that also benefited from its power and to those that wanted to change it. The divine right of kings put everyone in their place, but this narrative was continuously challenged as shown in Shakespeare’s English history plays, from King John up to Henry VIII, and many of his comedies. In these works common people would often comment on society’s order in a subversive fashion, often with jokes or snide comments, but in the end the societal order remained and only the person sat on the throne changed. There was always the crown.
With Elizabeth’s death imminent, the concerns were around King James of Scotland taking over. His mother was Catholic thus many people were concerned about the return of Catholicism and the English were not too thrilled to be ruled by an outsider, that said the Scottish weren’t too pleased to deepen their relationship with them either. But it wasn’t just who would rule that was of concern, it was also what changes in society could come of it. Societal contradictions were becoming apparent to all: Increasing poverty, tensions between monarchists and parliament; between England and Scotland, furthermore changing industries and international relations meant that people’s positions in society were starting to be questioned and moving. The growing merchant class, ironically created by Elizabeth’s victories, wanted a say in how the country was run. Until now Elizabeth had kept parliament at arm’s length, but she couldn’t do so if she was dead. A reoccurring conflict between two classes in Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ dramas was ‘virtue versus vice’ and an anxiety that was wary of the values of the newly rich is also present.
A new crop of ruthless power hungry challengers were being promoted up the ranks; the symbolic structures and values of old failed to incorporate their ideas, wants and needs of the new. The foundations on which the rich and powerful had built their version of the world were beginning to sink. We see this conflict at its most brutal when the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes plucked out on stage in what is still one of theatre’s most shocking scenes. Like the contradictions that it represents; they too would also come to a violent end in the English civil war.
King Lear was cleverly set before the time of Christ. In addition, Britain is portrayed as a complete country with Scotland and Wales. This avoided conflicts over the state of the country and offending any sensitive Christians. By removing these questions, Shakespeare and the audience are free to concentrate on deeper societal power struggles and the question of human nature. We see social mobility taking a step away from pleasing the monarch and marriage, the two main ways of increasing your fortune in this age, to a more ruthless, almost business-like approach of improving your prospects, whether that be machiavellian politics or deals. Here we see where the clashes of the old and new classes begin. In the beginning, King Lear gives away his power to two of his less-than-loyal daughters (the third loyal daughter fails to flatter him so is cut out of the process). Here we see a warning from Shakespeare of what happens when the values of the new class rule instead of the older order. If power is chosen over loyalty, as his daughters do without flinching, the old will be cast aside along with their morals.
This is what the old dominant class fears, that their beliefs and way of life will be uprooted and sacrificed. Was this Shakespeare’s anxiety or that of King James? or even the old Elizabethans? Status anxiety is not restricted to the ones on top. Whilst this may not directly echo the modern day struggles of millennial socialists versus neo-lib boomers, traditionalists and modernisers, haves and have-nots; there is a struggle and it is between classes for power. Everything else such as morals and values appear to be circumstantial and not definitive.
What’s more, we can see how identities built by ideologies also command high levels of attachment despite it often not being in their favour, just like the servant that tries to stop Gloucestershire’s blinding. Wouldn’t it be in his favour to help overthrow the old order and help install the new? Small gestures such as this, and the return of Lear’s favourite daughter at the end, challenge the lazy assumption that all humans are greedy beings. But it could also be argued that it shows as long as there is a class based hierarchy, there will be those who will strive to be at the top and exploit others. Lear’s metaphorical blindness to the suffering of his subjects and his daughter’s love is arguably caused by the very ideology he used to justify the symbolic place of the crown and his place in it. Thus becoming blinded by the ideas that helped justify his position in society. It’s not until he has his power ripped from him, and is made to face the harshness of life in the form of a storm, that Lear sees the one of life’s truths that we often deny: we are all human. We are all born “no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art“. It is the symbolic order of life that gives it meaning; helps us form an identity and place ourselves in the world. But as we see from Lear’s downfall, it can often give us too much. What would it take to awaken us from the spell of power and pomp on this platinum Jubilee?
In the modern day we still have tragedies. Years and Years echoes similar themes to many of the Shakespearean tragedies, seeing good people face consequences of mistakes and seeing others suffer as a result of decisions made in haste. However if we ever reach the last season of The Crown, or if you watch the Royal drama unfold in real time, we will see Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family as the stars of their own tragedy.
Elizabeth II mirrors the previous Elizabeth in many ways such as her ability to maintain a powerful presence using words and clothing along side carefully worded and positioned statements. Even when the Royal household resorts to having her take tea with a CGI bear, you have to admit that even Gramschi would have been proud of their ability to maintain their hegemonic position in an age of democracy and ‘meritocracy’. In the film The Queen we see the echoes of a traditional tragedy, when our protagonist is thrown into a world beyond their control despite them being a powerful figure, yet we don’t have the cathartic ending. King Lear also lacks the cathartic ending that is meant to be a hallmark of tragedy. Aristotle claimed that the effects from the tragedy were meant to act as a release for the spectator’s anxiety in a controlled space. People have also claimed that it has a humanising effect on the witnesses. Is this what nations like Britain need? A cathartic release from the heightened contradictions it’s going through.
There’s no lack of source material. Scottish independence. Reunification of Ireland. Brexit. Lack of political alternatives to neo-liberalism. A child molesting prince. A racist and out of touch royal family. A dying commonwealth. Lack of industry. And the spectre of the Empire haunting it. Britain needs to release the pressure from somewhere. Will it be the Queen?
Despite being written over 400 years ago, the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear reflects on how, even in an age of PR, monarchies struggle to hold their hegemonic edge over contradictions in society even when they have a pedo son, are 90 years of age or are closet racists. But this isn’t the main contradiction. Much of that has little meaning and only adds to the chipping away of the ideology that has been built around them. In an age where some people justify others’ poverty on a lack of ‘hard work’, or claim that capitalism is the best system of wealth distribution despite at the same time admitting that their children’s future isn’t bright, how can people continue to justify an undemocratic parasitic system like the monarchy?
We need to remove the cover completely to begin to show the contradictions that have existed hithero in all class society and that will never cease to exist as long as it does. We must take a step closer to a real classless society, not one of fairy tales.
We Need a Republic Now!