Like Lear, Shakespeare was preparing to “shake all cares and business from our age” when he wrote this play around 1605; he retired from playwriting about five years later. The play would have been resonant among its early 17th century audience. This was a period of change: a traditionalist King had just been crowned, and the public was reevaluating notions of monarchy and power.
King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England in 1603. A staunch supporter of Divine Right of Kings — the philosophy that monarchs were appointed by God and therefore above earthly authority — he was in favor of an autocratic political system. He was notorious for his extravagance, and almost ran his court bankrupt for excessive spending on clothes, feasts, hunting excursions and gifts.
Public opinion was beginning to shift away from traditional notions of monarchy, however. Elizabeth I was comparatively open-minded and democratic, and had a collaborative relationship with Parliament. Suddenly, England was saddled with a monarch who wanted to revert back to traditional notions of authority — dissent was inevitable. In 1605, the government thwarted an assassination attempt that became known as the infamous Gunpowder Plot. The crisis continued even after James’ death, and in 1641 James’ son, King Charles I, was executed during the English Civil War.
“Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth…I conclude then this point touching the power of kings with this axiom of divinity, that as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.” — King James I’s speech to Parliament, 1609
The only surviving record of a performance of King Lear during William Shakespeare’s lifetime is immortalized on the title page of the 1608 quarto: “As it was played before the King’s Majesttie at Whitehall upon S. Stephens night in Christmas Hollidayes.” Some scholars, however, contest that the play probably had a rich stage history during
Shakespeare’s lifetime, at The Globe Theater as well as the King’s court. The play’s titanic themes – nature, redemption, nothingness – and its relatively minimalistic staging would have made it ideal for a bare apron stage. When the players raised their black flag above the theater to signal a tragedy, Londoners would have flocked to the Bankside to see Richard Burbage in the title role. Props and stage pieces would have been minimal, maybe only a chair and Kent’s stocks. The King’s Players made no attempts to recreate Iron Age England. Most of the play’s iconic images – the storm, Lear’s throne room, the heath – were left for the audience’s imagination.
In Jacobean England, theatre was an incredible social phenomenon. In a time when social hierarchies were strictly followed (there were even guidelines for how clothing defined status), when people flocked across the Thames to see a play, those notions were to a certain degree ignored. Peasants bought groundling tickets and above their heads, nobles and royalty displayed their robes and jewels from boxed seats. Although there was certainly a status structure involved with these theatrical experiences, the amazing point is that for upwards of three hours, these people were laughing and crying together.
Some basics about The Globe Theatre, to give a little insight into how Lear might have looked 400 years ago:
– Shakespeare’s connection with the Globe and its company began at The Theatre in Shoreditch in 1580. Up until James Burbage built his permanent theater in 1576, companies traveled from inn to house to square without any venue of their own. When James died, complications over the lease forced his sons, Richard and Cuthbert, to seek a new location for their theater. They eventually found a plot of land on the Southbank, right beside the Thames. They built the Globe Theatre using tibers from The Theatre, and it was open to the public in 1599.
– Experts think the first play performed at The Globe was Henry V. When the rebuilt Globe opened in 1997, the company selected that as its very first play.
– The Globe’s rival, The Rose Theatre, was only about 100 yards away. The Rose was built in 1587 and had already established itself as a producer of popular new plays by the time The Globe came into the picture. There’s evidence of Titus Andronicus and Henry VI part I being performed there, in fact. Although Shakespeare lovers frequent The Globe for performances today, the structure itself is based more off of archeological findings from The Rose. There weren’t any structural grounds off of which to build The Globe; an excavation of The Rose in 1989 revealed two-thirds of the original foundation.
– The Bankside, seperated from the city by the River Thames, was an escape from the strict, regulated life by which so many Londoners abided. Along with theaters, the rich and poor alike could pass their time there with a variety of entertainments: Bull and bear bating, cock fighting, bowling, inns and brothels, and of course, lots of drinking.
– The Globe is the only building in all of London with a thatched roof since 1666 (built with fireproof measures, of course).
– This is actually the third Globe Theatre. The first burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII when a prop cannon forced 3,000 visitors to scurry outside for safety. Miraculously, everyone survived. The only serious recorded injury was sustained by a poor fellow whose britches caught on fire, but he managed to put out the flames with some ale. It was then demolished in 1644 after the Puritan administration banned all theatre from England.
– Today’s Globe holds 1,300 spectators, less than half of what the original managed to cram in. Shakespeare’s groundlings (a term he coined himself) were charged a penny, about a twelfth of their weekly earnings, to see a play, smashed in among hundreds of other Londoners. Seats could cost anything up to six pence. Today, The Globe charges only five pounds for a groundling ticket, which they estimate is about the same as a penny in Shakespeare’s time. Seated tickets cost up to 35 pounds.