The Influence of the Time Period Upon the Perceived Success of Kent, Goneril and Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear

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Shakespeare’s King Lear was set in the Middle Ages (Mabillard) but written during the Renaissance era. There was an intense shift in how one viewed his relationship with the world right around that transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. This included an adjustment in morals and one’s sense of purpose. The characters in King Lear displayed archetypal traits reflecting the common mindsets of each of those times. When analyzing Kent, Goneril and Cordelia in order to conclude who was the most successful within King Lear’s chaotic world, it is important to recognize that the relative success of these three characters depends strongly upon the temporal context their actions are perceived within.

King Lear takes place in England during the 8th century, which fell within the Middle Ages, a time when theocentric thinking prevailed. Theocentricism is defined by the thought that God is at the center of the universe. In the 3rd century, out of these ideals, a method of order amongst all living things was established called The Great Chain of Being. This idea was first seen outlined in Plato’s theory of ‘The Forms’ (Bunnin 289). The Great Chain of Being was a hierarchical order based on responsibility and obligation (Meade). It’s most basic form began with God, who was followed by Angelic Beings, then humanity, animals, plants and finally minerals. Branching off of these specific sections are countless subdivisions that place every thing in existence in a certain rank. In the subdivision of humanity, the king was the highest ranking. The specific doctrine associated with this is The Divine Right of Kings that states that God had bestowed earthly power upon the kings (Kern 5). The Middle Ages were a time when keeping within this order of the Great Chain was not a question. It was considered a sin to operate outside of it especially when it directly involved an interaction with your king. To act against him was to act against God and that in itself will be the most important factor, to a person of this time period, when deciding which character was most successful.

Although Shakespeare’s King Lear was set in the 8th century, the play was written between the years of 1603 and 1606. This was during the Renaissance era, which spanned from the 14th to the 17th century. The journey out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance was heavily marked by incredible discoveries, which resulted in turbulent shifts in regards to religion, power and man’s sense of purpose. The unearthing of the New World in the early 16th century (Davidson 417) and many other scientific finds, such as the Earth not being flat, took a serious shot at the credibility of the Church. Out of this questioning birthed what we know as Anthropocentricism, the idea that man, not God, is at the center of the universe.

During the Renaissance period, two mindsets seemed to blossom out of Anthropocentricism. There were those who practiced Renaissance Humanism, which involved an eagerness to reveal man’s full potential for a fuller and more justifying existence (Ralph 23). As well as Machiavellianism where ‘morality was absolutely irrelevant: if a strategy worked, it was good; if it failed, it was bad’ (Ralph 43). Both of these mentalities held man at the center but also held him to very different standards.

When analyzing the characters of King Lear against the differing backdrops of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it is apparent that Shakespeare presented his cast as archetypes of the ideals of those times. An incredible embodiment of the way of the Middle Age’s is seen in the character Kent, especially when we look at his service to King Lear. Kent was a nobleman who acted as King Lear’s advisor and right hand man. When Lear held a flattery contest in order to decide the size of inheritance he would divide between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, Kent was quick to step in for the best interest of the King. Lear was won over by the...
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