The Absolute King Lear Essay Research Paper

The Absolute King Lear Essay, Research Paper

The concept of absolute monarchy comes into existence during the early seventeenth century. For England at this time, the Tudor dynasty ends, while the Stuarts begin theirs. However, it is the latter dynasty that brings the concept into mainstream politics, because ?early Stuart political discourse can indeed be read as containing defences of absolutism? (Burgess 19). James I is the first king of the Stuart line and the first to practice absolute monarchy. It is said of him at the time that ?James [I] described [sic] his ideal form of government . . . from which he sought [sic] to justify his own absolute authority and power . . . hence he was [sic] to be free and absolute, to be the law in and of his kingdom? (Jordan 15). In coincidence, the beginning of James? reign coincides within the same time Shakespeare wrote King Lear. In his play, several scenes link together, showing that even though the king supposedly gave up his job, he cannot escape the fact that he is king and will be until his death. These scenes exemplify certain aspects of absolute monarchy. Indeed, the seventeenth century theory of absolute monarchy provides evidence that, although King Lear bestows his role as king to others, he ultimately retains the absolute power and behavior of a monarch in Shakespeare?s famous tragedy.

As a result of Lear holding on to his power, in the first scene of the play he does not take off his royal crown. Furthermore, Lear states, ?The name, and all th?addition to a king: the sway, / Revenue, execution of the rest, / Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm, / This coronet part between you? (Shakespeare I. i.136-139). Thus, Lear moves the power from his hands to those of his sons-in-law, Cornwall and Albany. The coronet is the visual symbol of this exchange. However, notice that it is a coronet and not Lear?s royal crown that is used. Foakes is the one to point out that:

some have thought that when Lear offers a coronet to Cornwall and Albany at I. i.140, he takes one from his own head; but Shakespeare and his audience well knew [sic] the difference between crowns and coronets: crowns typically . . . were [sic] topped with an emblem symbolic of the power belonging to kings. Corornets . . . were [sic] circlets worn by princes and dukes. (14)

In other words, symbolically, Lear does not fully give his up power, because he does not officially give up the crown. By giving Cornwall and Albany coronets, they are made no more than crowned princes and Lear retains his title as king. He cannot completely give up his crown or power because he realizes that ?a monarch . . . can have no superior for then he would [sic] cease to be a monarch? (Burgess 24). Therefore, Lear is the supreme, absolute king and can have no one above him, which the definition of an absolute monarch states.

In addition to having supreme power, a monarch usually likes to have a lot of pomp and circumstance around him, to further acknowledge his power, by having subjects fluttering around trying to please their king. This is exhibited by both King Lear and King James. Furthermore, James? love of exhibitionism is described by a person in attendance at his coronation who states:

when James [I] came to the throne, in the words of Maria Axton: Poets and dramatists worked up pageants for James?s coronation, translating into icons the legal theory which had supported the new King. Their pageant iconography declared that it was not the land, or the estates of Parliament, but the King who represented the power of government and the perpetuity of the realm. (Tennenhouse 134)

Similarly, Lear also expresses his love of pageantry while living in the castle of his daughter Goneril. While there, he surrounds himself with subjects, who serve him as their king. These subjects consist of his knights, fool, and adviser in disguise, Kent. With his men, Lear gives orders, hunts, and holds court in a castle that is not even his. For this, Goneril gets quite upset and says, ?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. / His knights grow riotous and himself upbraids us / On every trifle? (Shakespeare I. ii. 4-8). Moreover, she is confused about how can Lear continue to command when he has relinquished his power, because she struggles to maintain her own power in her household. Although, her power is second fiddle to the power that Lear has as an absolute monarch, and as such can never fully give up rule. This is how he is still able to behave as a king.

It is not just his behavior that gives a monarch his power, but also the support of his people and the physical symbols of that support. In an absolute monarchy, ?true power displays itself in the affective exercise of physical force through competition and is subsequently ratified by an outpouring of popular support for the displaced king? (Tennenhouse 133). Lear?s power is first bolstered when it is challenged by his daughter Goneril. After fighting with her, he realizes his ?loss of kingly power [and it] is accompanied by physical divesture? (Nelson Greenfield 284). Lear?s advisors cannot take their king loosing his sense of himself. ? ?Alack, bareheaded?? Kent mourns (III. ii. 60), and Lear, finally recognizing the extent of his loss, begins to tear off his clothing? (Nelson Greenfield 284). Kent and the Fool know that Lear?s clothing is important as an outward symbol of his power, and try to prevent him from tearing it up (Foakes 20). They support the king by reminding him (with clothing) of his power and not letting him give it up again. Afterwards, ?Lear is restored to his senses and to his friends, [and] his new status is accompanied by new garments: ?In the heaviness of sleep/ We put fresh garments on him (IV.vii.21-22)?? (Nelson Greenfield 285). Also, a new crown has been made and ?Lear has made the crown from plants chosen by himself, and crowned himself with them? (Butler 399). Being pleased with himself, Lear shouts, ?Ay, every inch a king? (Shakespeare IV. vi. 107). In addition to support from friends, Lear?s youngest daughter, Cordelia, fights to put her father back on the throne. As mentioned above, a king?s true power comes from having people fight for it. However, Cordelia?s goals are not met, but this does mean that Lear loses the monarchy. In the end, Lear?s power is sustained by Albany, who declares that he ?resign[s] / During the life of this old majesty / To him [Lear] our absolute power? (Shakespeare V. iii. 297-299). Albany?s support is the last factor proving Lear?s legitimacy as king.

Indeed, Lear?s monarchy has been thoroughly legitimized, because Shakespeare?s play represents a king who has given up his power, but really does not lose it. Through the theory of absolute monarchy, Lear?s behavior and nature is seen to be that of an absolute king in various scenes. For example, symbolically, Lear is dressed the part of king by retaining his crown, the ultimate image of kingly rule. However, for a short time Lear is without his crown, but his behavior is still that of an absolute monarch which proves his power. Furthermore, he continues to make commands and keeps a sort of mini-court around himself at all times, just as a true king will do. In addition, Lear receives the acknowledgment of his subjects as their king, which is required in absolutism in order for the king to have true power. At the end of King Lear, Lear is once again declared king. After everything that has happened, everyone realizes that Lear has always retained the power of a monarch. If Shakespeare had not made King Lear an absolute monarch, the king would not have been able to be serve the role of king as he did in the very beginning of the play. Only an absolute monarch could achieve such a thing after supposedly giving up his power in the first place. This idea is thoroughly supported throughout the play, but what does it mean? What is Shakespeare trying to say about absolute monarchy?

Because of ?Shakespeare?s persistent interest in matters of government? (Jordan 13), he ?was aware of [the] absolutist theory? (Jordan 217). Since he knows of the theory, it probably is apparent to him that ?to divide sovereign power would be to undermine the peace of the commonwealth and to infringe the biblical precept that no one should serve two masters (Bossuet (Sommerville 350). Although, such an act would have been considered illegal at the time, and seventeenth century Parliament has strict rules for such things. For example, Queen Elizabeth asks her advisors if she can give away some of her land (Foakes 17). They tell her that land is not personal property to give away, but is property of the state (Foakes 17). According to them, the only way to dispose of land is by a formal letter sealed with the monarch?s patent (Foakes 17). In other words, the monarch is limited and must ask for permission before distributing land. Elizabeth is obviously not an absolute monarch and will never be. However, in King Lear, land and power are divided and given away, without the king having to seek counsel. His word is law. In Shakespeare?s play, Lear is an absolute king, but the real rulers of England at that time try to make the same claim. This is especially true for James I and the rulers that followed him. Can the rulers of England ever be absolute when they must answer to a Parliament? Perhaps Shakespeare is trying to point that they cannot when he writes about King Lear, a king who is able to do things that James I would never had been allowed to do. Shakespeare tells them that, unlike Lear, the rulers of England can never be absolute. King Lear serves as a warning for James and later followers, telling them that they can not rule over Parliament. This is a lesson they should have heeded, for later in the seventeenth century the monarchs fight for an absolute monarchy, but fail; just as Shakespeare said they would.


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Jordan, Constance. Shakespeare?s Monarchies. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.

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Sommerville, J.P. ?Absolutism and Royalism.?. The Cambridge History of Political Thought

1450-1700. Ed. J.H. Burns. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 347-373.

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Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display. New York: Methuen, 1986.



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