The pre-Christian warrior King Lear
If there was ever a historical King Lear, his memory has faded into mythology. Llyr and his son Manannan are Celtic ocean-gods.
Legend remembered Lear as a pre-Christian warrior king. In the old story, Lear asked his three daughters whether they loved him. Two claimed to do so extravagantly, while the third said she loved him only as a daughter should. Lear disinherited the honest daughter. The story appears elsewhere in world folklore; there is an Eastern European version in which the honest daughter says she loves her father as much as she loves salt. Lear went to live with his first daughter, bringing a hundred followers. She demanded that he reduce his followers to fifty. Lear then went to live with the other daughter, who reduced the number to twenty-five. Lear went back and forth between the daughters until he was alone. Then the third daughter raised an army, defeated the
other two, and restored him to his kingdom. (The story appears in Holinshed, who adds that Cordelia succeeded her father as monarch and was deposed by the sons of her sisters.
He took a story, which had a happy ending, and gave it a sad ending. He transformed a fairy-tale about virtuous and wicked people into something morally ambiguous. He took a story of wrongs being righted, and turned it into the story of painful discovery. He included passages, which deal with ideas instead of advancing the plot. Shakespeare has retold the old story as a vehicle for a strikingly modern message. Many people consider King Lear to be his finest work. Whether or not you agree with his vision of a godless universe in which our only hope is to be kind to one another, you will recognize the real beliefs of many (if not most) of your neighbors.
The main plot focuses Lear as the king of Britain. He is an old, highly successful warrior king. (War is an institution, which we despise, just as Shakespeare clearly despised it. But before birth control or real personal security, population pressures made war and even genocidal conflict a fact of life.) King Lear has decided to retire and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands. His stated intention is to prevent future conflict. This is stupid, since it actually invites war between the heirs. Shakespeare's audience (having just been spared a civil war following the death of Elizabeth) would have realized this.
King Lear has staged a ceremony in which each daughter will affirm her love for him. Whether this has been rehearsed, or the daughters forewarned, we can only guess. Goneril and Regan may have been embarrassed. Goneril says she loves her father more than she can say. King Lear thanks her and gives her Third Prize. “Lear should know better than to divide the kingdom in such a way, but he is morally blind, believing that love can be measured by a quantifiable means. Because his lapse (hamartia) is far more serious than Redcross Knight's, ’t
fits better the encroachment of tragedy than the initial action of romance”. 01Regan says that she loves her father so much that she doesn't like anything else. King Lear thanks her and gives her
Second Prize. Cordelia says that she loves her father exactly as a daughter should. King Lear goes ballistic and disinherits her, and banishes the Earl of Kent for speaking in her defense. First Prize is divided between the other two daughters.
Cordelia has been courted by the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. Burgundy says he will not marry a woman with no property. France is cleverer. He swears that he loves Cordelia, and marries her. This is an obvious plan to make a claim on the British throne, and Shakespeare's audience would have realized this. We'll see the proof later. France may or may not be sincere in loving Cordelia. We won't know. As the basis of his retirement agreement, King Lear has stipulated that he will live alternately with his daughters, who will support him and 100 followers. When he leaves, Goneril and Regan express their understandable concern about hosting a mentally-imbalance father and his personal army.
King Lear goes to live with Goneril. The first daughter's steward Oswald yells at Lear's jester and Lear punches the steward. Goneril decides to assert control. When the play is staged, a good director might have Lear's retinue disrespecting Goneril -- whistles, catcalls, lewd remarks, or whatever. Kent returns in disguise to serve Lear, and we meet the jester ("Fool"). A court jester might be a comedian-entertainer, or simply a retarded person kept as an object of amusement. Lear's jester is specially privileged to speak the truth, which he does ironically.
Oswald is rude to Lear, and one of Lear's knights makes an indignant speech about the king not being cared for properly. (This knight, and all the others, will soon abandon their king.) Lear yells at Oswald, Kent trips Oswald, and a scene ensues in which Goneril demands that Lear reduces the number of his followers -- evidently to 50. Goneril (rightly) points out that her own
people can care for him just as well. Lear curses her and departs for Regan's. He sends Kent before him, and Goneril sends Oswald.
Regan and her husband have gone to visit the Earl of Gloucester, and when Kent and
Oswald meet at the Earl's castle, Kent picks a fight and Regan's husband puts him in the stocks. This is a serious breach of protocol, and when Lear arrives, he is furious. Goneril arrives and Lear curses her again. Regan says she will allow him only 25 followers. Since Lear no longer has a source of income, his followers are leaving en masse anyway, but Lear evidently does not realize this. Lear says he will return to Goneril, but now she will not even allow 25, and the daughters re-enact the fairy-tale plot by alternately reducing the numbers, and asking "Why do you need even one follower, when we can care for you ourselves?" Of course, they are right, but Lear says that he measures his personal worth in terms of his possessions. "Reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life is cheap as beast's." Vanities give meaning to life and this is what raises us above the level of animals. King Lear, now alone except for Kent and the jester, starts to cry and runs off as a storm brews. The daughters lock him out of the castle to teach him a lesson.
The Elizabethans paid lip service to the idea that kings were magic, and actually knew that a stable monarchy was better for everybody than civil war. (Lawful democracy would be devised later.) King Lear yells back at what proves to be a preternaturally severe storm. His whole retinue has abandoned him except the jester, who begs Lear to go apologize to his daughters and seek shelter, and Kent, who sends to Dover, where the French army has landed in expectation of a British civil war. Even though the jester pretends to be foolish, he always knows exactly what is going on, and what's more, he is loyal to the old king. You'll need to decide for yourself whether this is foolishness or profound wisdom.
In the first storm scene, which is difficult, Lear is going crazy.
He: first calls on the power of the storm to sterilize the human race; then accuses the storm of taking sides with his daughters against his dignity and being their degraded slave; then, realizing that people have deceived him, says the storm must be "the god's" way of finding and punishing secret evildoers, and that he is "a man more sinned against than sinning"; then comments, "my wit begins to turn", i.e., he realizes he is going crazy -- in literature, becoming insane is often a metaphor for changing the way you look at yourself and the world;
· notices the jester is cold, and comments that he is also cold; this is the first time Lear has been responsive to the needs and concerns of someone else;
· Accepts Kent's suggestion to take shelter in a hut.
Already inside the hut is "one of the homeless mentally-ill." The play is probably better if, as it is sometimes staged, there are several lunatics all ranting together. (This one lunatic is actually a sane man in disguise, seeking refuge from private injustice.) When he sees the hut, and before seeing the lunatic(s), King Lear realizes that what is happening to him now is what he has allowed to happen to the poor throughout his reign. "Oh, I have taken too little care of this." He suddenly realizes that his luxuries have been maintained at the expense of his poorest subjects, and that justice is only now being served on him.
When he sees the lunatic(s), Lear cracks, and says he/they must have given everything to their daughters and been turned out also. But the onset of madness confers a deeper insight. Lear sees in the naked lunatic someone who has taken nothing wrongfully from anyone, and is the essential human being. Saying that "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art," the king rips off his clothes.
In the third storm scene, King Lear holds a trial of his two daughters, evidently mistaking a stool for Goneril, something else (I've seen a chicken used) for Regan, and so forth. The good Earl of Gloucester comes and urges Kent to take the king (who has passed out) to Dover, since his daughters' people are planning to kill him. At the end, Kent tells the jester to follow Lear.
Kent and Lear reach Dover and Cordelia, who loves him. Cordelia accompanies an invading French army. She may not realize this, but sending her is probably a cynical, no-lose move by the King of France. If his forces win and kill the other heirs, he is now also King of Britain. If his forces lose, the heirs will kill Cordelia and he will be rid of a wife who is no longer of any political value. It seems to me that this is why the King of France suddenly had to return to his own country because of some sudden business which was more important than conquering England. Uh huh. He has left his wife either to do it for him, or be killed. (Shakespeare's English audience mostly did not like the French. Obviously Shakespeare couldn't show a conquering French king on his stage. But having the king land and then leave "suddenly" lets Shakespeare make the foreign king look Machiavellian.
Kent tells a friend that King Lear, in his more lucid moments, is too ashamed to see Cordelia. The king reappears in a field where the Earl of Gloucester lies, his eyes having been
gouged out by Regan and her husband. King Lear is now crowned and decorated with weeds and wild flowers. He wavers between hallucinations and accurate perception. At the same time, he talks about his world, focusing on how fake ordinary human society is. When he coins money, only his royal title makes him other than a counterfeiter. People pretend to be modest and virtuous, but even the animals commit adultery. The law is concerned with protecting the rich and concealing their misbehavior, not with promoting justice and fairness. Regan and Goneril have played and humored him. He learned the truth only in the storm. He says that "when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." Cordelia's people come to bring him back to their camp, and they chase him down.
We next see King Lear asleep under the care of Cordelia. He awakes, and thinks -- correctly -- that he recognizes her. But he thinks that they are both dead. "Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound upon the wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead." Cordelia kneels, Lear tries to do the same (as in the older play), but Cordelia prevents him. Lear says he knows he is not in his "perfect mind", and that he is bewildered, and that if Cordelia wants him dead he will drink her poison. When Cordelia says she has no cause to be angry, but merely wants to help him, Lear says "Pray now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish." King Lear is not about wrongs being righted. If Shakespeare were a Hollywood writer, his king might have returned to rulership and ("having learned to be sensitive, and that it is all right to cry") become a champion for the poor in his own country and set up a social agency to deal effectively with other dysfunctional families. In contrast to the happy ending in the source, Shakespeare has the French army defeated by the British, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. King Lear looks forward to happy time with his daughter in prison, merely laughing at the rest of the world. As the subplot
concludes, all the villains are dead, but Cordelia has been hanged in prison. King Lear kills the hangman with his bare hands. He comes onstage, carrying Cordelia's body and howling. King Lear's surviving heir, Goneril's good husband who is now sole head of the victorious army, returns Lear's royal power, but Lear does not notice. Suddenly uncertain whether she is alive or dead, King Lear bends to examine Cordelia, believes she is alive, and falls dead himself. The good survivors see the passing of a man who was larger than life.
The secondary plot
King Lear's story is paralleled by the story of the Earl of Gloucester. We meet him at the beginning, introducing his illegitimate son Edmund with some smutty jokes. We do not need to see Edmund's face to imagine how often this must have happened, and how Edmund's feelings must have been hurt by it. Edmund soliloquizes that he is as talented and as loved as his legitimate brotherEdgar, and that the accident of his birth is unjust. He professes allegiance to "nature" rather than law or love, and decides that he will try to gain control of the earldom by removing his father and brother.
Edmund takes a minute to ridicule astrology. We can ask ourselves whether Edmund is simply making fun of superstition, whether he is talking about "self-empowerment" like a 1990's person, whether he is disavowing a role for heaven (God, the supernatural, transcendent values, the ideals of religion, whatever) in his life, or whether he is denying their reality altogether. Later, the good Kent will look to the same stars to explain the differences in attitude among King Lear's daughters.
Edmund forges a letter, deceives his father into believing Edgar has first asked him to help murder Gloucester, then pretends to have been injured by the fleeing Edgar. Gloucester declared
Edgar an outlaw and Edmund his heir. Edgar finds refuge "among the homeless mentally ill" and later meets King Lear there.
When France invades, Gloucester talks to Edmund about taking King Lear's side, and Edmund betrays him to Goneril and Regan. Edmund shows an incriminating letter to Regan's husband and pretends to be uncertain about whether his father is a traitor. "True or not," is the cynical reply, "it hath made thee Earl of Gloucester." Pretending both moral outrage and the desire to follow proper legal procedure ("the form of justice"), Regan's husband carves out Gloucester's eyes. He stomps one eyeball flat on the ground for fun, but is stabbed to death by one of his own horrified servants, who is killed in turn by Regan's backstab. The dying husband calls on Regan for help, but as the scene is usually staged, she merely walks off and lets him die. (She likes Edmund instead.)
Gloucester's servants tend his wounds and Edgar leads him, without revealing who he is, to Dover, where he meets Lear and laments his foolishness. On the way, he meets King Lear. Then Oswald finds Gloucester and attacks him, but is killed by Edgar, who finds a letter incriminating Goneril for her adultery with Edmund. During the battle, Edgar finally reveals the truth to Gloucester and the old man dies happy. After the battle, Edgar defeats Edmund in a duel, jealous Goneril poisons Regan and then suicides, the brothers forgive each other, and Edmund's last act is an attempt to do good "despite his own [evil] nature." He calls -- too late -- for Lear's and Cordelia's lives to be spared.
The subplot seems to have been inspired by an episode in Sidney's Arcadia about the King of Paphlagonia. Many details match, including the good son persuading the blinded father not to jump to his death off a cliff.
Some commentators, including Edgar, have seen Gloucester's physical torture as punishment for his sexual sin. Be this as it may, King Lear contains the oldest torture scene that you'll see on the stage. Sensitive Victorians cut it from production. Even by today's movie standards, it is a shocker.
Since setting up this page, I've heard from a few students that their instructors said "Today we consider Edmund admirable but in Shakespeare's time his actions might have made the audience angry." I am not making this up. Evidently Edmund is admirable because he has a grievance and talks about illegitimate sons being discriminated against, and is some kind of nature-worshipper. This overshadows the way he treats everybody around him. Even if today's far-Left continues to judge people primarily by their grievances, they could wish that Edmund had shown a little real kindness to the genuinely needy people on his father's estate -- as King Lear ultimately wishes he had done. If you, the contemporary student, want to admire mean-minded crybabies, that is your business. If not, feel free to speak up in class. Your decent-minded classmates will appreciate it.
Themes and Image Patterns
The Elizabethans believed, or pretended to believe, that the natural world reflected a hierarchy that mirrored good government and stable monarchy. This is a common enough idea in old books from various cultures. Even our scientific age talks both about "laws of nature" and "good government through good laws", although of course we know the essential difference.
Shakespeare's era contrasted "nature" and "art" (i.e., human-made decorations, human-made luxuries and technologies, human-made artistic productions), just as we talk about "essential human nature" contrasted to "culture". Shakespeare's era also contrasted "natural" and
"unnatural" behaviors; the latter would include mistreating family members, opposing the government, and various sexual activities not intended for procreation.
King Lear deals with how children and parents treat each other, whether human society is the product of nature or something we create so as to live better than animals do, and whether human nature is fundamentally selfish or generous. Not surprisingly, you can find various ideas about the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
· You already know that 57 different animals are mentioned in the play.
· Lear tells Cordelia that neither human nature nor royal dignity can tolerate the way she has insulted him.
· Lear tells the King of France that "nature is ashamed" to have produced a child like Cordelia, whose lack of love is so contrary to nature. King Lear expects people to be naturally virtuous, in other words, to tell him the lies he wants to hear.
· The King of France suggests that Cordelia has a "tardiness in nature", i.e., that sometimes it's natural to be inarticulate. France sees nature as the source of human frailties, rather than vice.
· Edmund begins, "Thou, Nature, art my goddess." Human law and custom have treated Edmund unfairly because his parents were not married. Edmund intends to look out for himself, like an animal. Edmund sees nature as the opposite of human virtue.
· Stupid Gloucester, deceived by Edmund, considers Edgar's supposed plot to murder him to be contrary to nature ("unnatural", "brutish").
Gloucester believes in astrology. Gloucester thinks that the eclipses, which result from natural causes, still have unnatural effects, causing the breakdown of human society. Edmund doesn't believe in astrology. He says he was born rough and self-centered, and that the stars had nothing to do with it. Later, Kent believes the stars must account for the inexplicable differences in people's attitudes. Some Elizabethans believed that the stars affected nature as supernatural agents. Others believed that they were powerful natural forces.
· Edmund remarks that Edgar's nature is gentle and naive, and (at the end) that he will do one last good deed "in spite of mine own nature." This reminds us of the ongoing scientific and political controversies over how much of an individual's behavior is genetically programmed, how much is learned and conditioned, and how much one is responsible. ("Nature vs. nurture"; "innate vs. cultural", and so forth.)
· King Lear, thinking of Cordelia's "most small fault", laments the way it scrambled his mind ("wrenched my frame of nature from its fixed place").
· King Lear also calls on "nature" as a goddess, to punish Goneril with infertility, or else give her a baby which grows up to hate her ("a thwart disnatured torment").
· Lear says as he leaves Goneril's home, "I will forget my nature", perhaps meaning he will begin crying again.
· Gloucester jokes that Edmund is "loyal and natural". The latter means both "illegitimate", and that he cares for his own flesh-and-blood as a son should. Regan's husband speaks of Edmund's "nature of such deep trust", i.e., his trustworthy character is inborn.
· Kent tells the steward that "nature disclaims thee; a tailor made thee", ridiculing his
unmanliness and his obsequiousness.
· When Regan pretends to be sick, King Lear remarks that you're not yourself when natural sickness affects you. "We are not ourselves when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind to suffer with the body." There's a foreshadowing here.
· Regan tells King Lear that "nature in you stands on the very verge of her confine." In other words, you're getting too old to make your own decisions, and Regan's behavior is only that of a good, natural daughter.
· We've already seen ("allow not nature more than nature needs...") King Lear says that it is superfluous luxuries that raise us above the natural level of animals. He will soon change his mind.
· Kent and the other basically good characters see the treatment of Lear and Gloucester as unnatural. Albany says to Goneril, "That nature which condemns itself in origin cannot bordered certain in itself" -- i.e., if you mistreat your own parent, what kind of person must you be? Writers who talk about the Elizabethans believing in cosmic hierarchy and so forth will see a moral warning against deviating from nature: If you have violated nature by being less than generous to your parent, your self-centeredness will grow and you will become morally worse than an animal.
· King Lear calls on the storm to "crack nature's moulds" and end the human race.
· Kent urges King Lear to seek shelter, since "man's nature cannot carry the affliction nor the force" and "the tyranny of the open night's too rough for nature to endure."
· King Lear, crazy, asks whether Regan's hard-heartedness is the result of natural disease or chemistry or something perhaps cultural or perhaps supernatural. "Is there any cause in nature that makes this hardness?"
· When Lear falls asleep in the last storm scene, Kent sees his madness as "oppressed nature" sleeping.
· The physician calls sleep "our foster-nurse of nature." Readers may remember Macbeth, who after committing the "unnatural" crime of killing a king, becomes an insomniac.
· King Lear, with the insight of madness, decorates himself with wild flowers.
You can use these various ideas about what's "natural" and what's not to develop a good paper.
Despite "Bambi" and Greenpeace, most people know that the lives of wild animals are mostly "nasty, brutish, and short". Nowadays, most people believe that culture is something that we invent so that we can fall in love, create works of art and music, remember the past, and enjoy a reasonable prospect of good health, personal security, and choosing our own paths through life. If most of us no longer believe that a king's sovereignty mirrors the harmony of a well-run natural world, we can still find fundamental human issues treated in King Lear.
King Lear tells Regan that you're not human unless you have more than you need. ("Allow not nature more than nature needs...") Then in the storm, King Lear cries out that only the poorest person, who owes nothing to anyone, is truly human ("... the thing itself.") Which do you think is right?
blakelr.jpgAnd if you want to keep it very simple, just notice this. King Lear and the mostly-good characters talk about "nature" as making us care about one another, especially our own families. Edmund talks about "nature" as making us care only about ourselves.
Who is right? I can't tell you. You have a lifetime to decide for yourself.
And so forth...
Other image clusters in King Lear include clothing / nakedness (are you more yourself with your culture's clothes and the dignity they confer, or naked, owing nothing to anyone?), fortune (is what happens to us dumb luck, predestined, or whatever?), justice (many different ideas), and eyesight / blindness / hallucination (a blinded character and a hallucinating character both perceive things more clearly; the play asks "Does human nature make us care only for ourselves, or for others?” our natural eyes may not give us the best answer.)
And there's the recurrent theme of nothing. Cordelia can add nothing to her sisters' speeches. Lear says that "nothing" is the reward to Cordelia and Burgundy after Cordelia says nothing. Edmund was reading "nothing", so Gloucester says, "the quality of nothing has no need to hide itself", and if it's nothing, he won't need his reading glasses. Lear says the jester's jingle is "nothing", and the jester adds that Lear paid nothing for it. Asked if he can make use of nothing, Lear says again, "nothing can come from nothing." The jester calls Lear a zero without a preceding figure, or "nothing." Deprived of his identity, Edgard is "nothing". The storm makes "nothing" (should this be "knotting?") of Lear's hair. But in the storm, Lear first decides to "say nothing", then admires the poor man who owes nothing to any other creature as the true human being. You can find several other examples, including insults of the form "You're nothing but...” But King Lear's speech on owing nothing ends the image cluster. Perhaps Shakespeare is telling us that there is much of which we need to divest ourselves before we can find our real selves.
The Character of Kent In King Lear
By Donald LaGreca (© 1986)
This article was first published in the Spring 1986 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.
While reading Eva Turner Clark's analysis of King Lear, in her Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays, I was struck by the polarity of our interpretation of this supreme drama. Where Clark finds historical and political allusions, especially for the years 1589-1590, I find personal ones. For King Lear is a play of internal, personal tragedy. With this in mind I strongly disagree with her statement, "I consider Kent represents Drake." (P. 869 n.) Therefore I sought another contemporary of Oxford's who would fulfill the characteristics and qualities of the Earl of Kent. In looking tor this prototype, I drew upon J. Thomas Looney's methodology. (See Shakespeare Identified, p. 80.) Simply stated my task was to examine the text of Lear, to draw from it a definite conception of the character and qualities of the Earl of Kent, and then look for a man who fits that description. Once such a man was found it was necessary to connect him with the character of Kent and with the author. Eventually I found that my conception of Kent had been accurately described by S.T. Coleridge,
Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in all Shakespeare's characters, and yet the most individualized. There is an extraordinary charm in a bluntness, which is that only of a nobleman arising from a contempt of overtrained courtesy, and combined with easy placability where goodness of heart is apparent. His passionate affection for and fidelity to Lear act on our feelings in Lear's own favor: virtue itself, seems to be in
company with him. (Complete Works of Samuel Coleridge, Vol. IV, edited by W.G.T. Shedd, Harper and Bros., New York: 1884, pp. 138-39.)
The first two requirements of Looney's blueprint had been completed. I had read and examined the text of Lear, and with the aid of Coleridge, I had out-lined the qualities of Kent. It was now necessary to find the man. He must be blunt but charming; noble and courteous, but not overbearing in rank or slavish to authority. He must be loyal to his country, his monarch, and his friends. He must be someone worthy to lead men; even nations. (It must be remembered that Kent is one of the triumvirate who, it is implied at the close of the play, will lead England's destinies.) He must be someone who had won the highest respect and admiration of Oxford; the man chosen to be old King Lear's personal champion (and, in effect Oxford's also?) And, in keeping with my hypothesis on the nature of the play, he almost surely must be a man with whom Oxford was personally acquainted, on a familiar, even intimate basis. I believe that man to have been Peregrine Bertie, the 12th Lord Willoughby de Eresby. Lord Willoughby, as he is generally known, is familiar to Oxfordians through the writing of Eva Turner Clark and Bronson Feldman. They convincingly argued him to be the prototype of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.
Kent first holds our attention with his passionate plea for Lear to reverse his judgment on Cordelia (Act 1, Scene 1). His declaration to Lear, "To plainness honors bound, When majesty stoops to folly," gives voice to Willoughby's point of view. While Commander of the English forces in the lowlands (December 1587 - March 1589), he was rebuked by the Queen for not
consulting her regarding an appointment of the Captain of the Garrison at Bergen. Willoughby
wrote back, "How unfit it is for Princes (whose cares are infinite) to be encumbered with impertinent causes." (Three Generations of a Loyal House, by Lady Cecilie Goff. Printed privately under the care of the Rampant Lion Press, London: 1957, p. 35.) In the same scene, Kent tells Lear,
My life I never held but as a pawn,
To wage against thine enemies,
Nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.
In September 1589, the Queen placed Willoughby in command of the English troops sent to aid the Protestant cause of Henry of Navarre. Elizabeth wrote to Henry describing her commander,
...His quality and the place he holds about me are such that it is not customary to permit him to be absent from me; ... you will never have cause to doubt his boldness in your service, for he has given too frequent proofs that he regards no peril, be it what it may... (Goff, p. 55.)
Willoughby's qualities of leadership and their recognition by his superiors and peers are shown not only by his commands in the Lowlands and France, but also by the planned offensive against the Spanish mainland following the defeat of the Armada. Francis Drake and Sir John Norris, who commanded the fleet and troops respectively in this endeavor, "were very anxious that he (Willoughby) should be in supreme command of the expedition." (Goff, p. 47.) However, for health reasons, Willoughby declined. Thus far, Willoughby fulfills Kent in bluntness, loyalty to
crown and country, and the soldierly skills and qualities of leadership of men. Kent's other outstanding quality is his loyalty to those who are in disfavor with those who wield power. As Kent stood by Cordelia against Lear, and as he stood by Lear against Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril, so did Willoughby honor his friendship to those who were in opposition to state power. From his days as a youth in Burleigh's household he had a deep devotion to the ill-fated Earl of Essex whom he described "as a man I love and honor above all men." (Goff, p, 21.) Willoughby also numbered among his friends Sir Drew Drury, the leader of the Puritan Party, and the scrivener John Stubbe, who Willoughby included as a member of his household until Stubbe's death in 1591. (Goff, p. 22.) Readers of Bronson Feldman's Crowners Quest (12 - IV - 80) will recall Stubbe as the Puritan who was prosecuted for writing a book, in August 1579, against the Queen's proposed marriage to the French Catholic Duke of Alencon. Feldman writes, "Hatton dug out ... a decree of the Catholic despot Mary Tudor and her consort Philip the Spaniard ordering the behanding of any writer and printer of books they regarded as demeaning majesty. John Stubbe and his printer William Page lost their right hands under cleavers commanded by Kit Hatton. The mention of Hatton leads to another aspect of Kent's character. Kent shows a particular hostility to Goneril's retainer Oswald. Coleridge says, "The Steward should be placed in exact antithesis to Kent, as the only character of utter irredeemable baseness in Shakespeare." (Complete Works, p. 139.) More than that, Oswald can be seen as a caricature of Sir Christopher. Willoughby can also be placed in exact antithesis to the Queen's dancing Chancellor. We find the following quotation from Sir Robert Naunton's Fragmenta Regalia, quoted in B.M. Ward's The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford:
My Lord Willoughby was one of the Queen's best swordsmen ... I have heard it spoken that had he not alighted the Court, but applied himself to the Queen, he might have enjoyed a plentiful portion of her grace; and it was his saying - and it did him no good - that he was none of the Reptilian: intimating that he could not creep on the ground, and that the Court was not his element. For, indeed, as he was a great soldier so he was of amiable magnanimity, and could not brook the obsequiousness and assiduity of the Court. (p. 151.)
Let us now consider some smaller points of Kent's character. Act III, Scene iv finds Lear determined to "arraign" his daughters. He drafts Kent to be "on the commission." Shortly after Willoughby arrived in England from his command in the Lowlands, "he was one of the commissioners appointed to try Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, for treason." ("Peregrine Bertie," Dictionary of National Biography, p. 405.) When Lear first comes upon the disguised Kent (Act I, Scene iv) he asks him, "What coat thou profess?" Kent replies, "I do profess to be no less than I seem; ... and to eat no fish." This last expression was a popular phrase to signify one's loyalty to the government and the Protestant faith. Willoughby was reared in that faith. His mother, Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, was an ardent Protestant. Willoughby was no less, as evidenced by his military service to Protestant causes and his friendships with prominent Protestants. In this same conversation Kent protegees himself to be "as poor as the King." Willoughby's tour of duty in the Lowlands had made him a poor man. By 1589 he was deeply in debt. In order to pay his creditors he sold his timber and his stocks and mortgaged his estates in Norfolk. (Goff, p. 44.) Six years later (1595) he finally sold his lands (Goff, p. 71 - 72.) No doubt
Oxford felt a sympathy for Willoughby's financial difficulties; he too had become impoverished and had been forced to sell his lands.
Kent's opposition to a despotic government shows itself when he joins the French invasion force camped near Dover. (Act IV, scenes iii and vii.) This too has a parallel in Willoughby's career. While not joining England's enemies, Willoughby was greatly embittered at not being repaid the monies he had spent in the Queen's behalf in the Lowlands. On August 28, 1596, he wrote the Earl of Essex asking him to intervene with the Queen to secure for him the Governorship of Berwick-on-Tweed. Willoughby wrote, "If your Lordship cannot prevail I shall a thousand times wish rather to have buried my bones in Caddis Mallis (a stretch of land near Cadiz) than return to England so ill-regarded." (Goff, p. 74.) His feelings are more strongly put by Sir John Buck, his longtime friend, who writes to Willoughby, "You write that England hath no need of the good man at Grimsthorpe (Willoughby's estate in Lincolnshire) nor he of it." (Goff, p. 75.)
Earlier in this essay I had included as a criterion for the prototype of Kent that this man must be familiar to and respected by the dramatist. Willoughby again suits the standards. He was the brother-in-law of Oxford, married to his sister Mary. From at least 1582, when Oxford broke with the Catholic party, he and Willoughby were on the best of terms. (Ward, p. 154.) As for Oxford's respect for Willoughby, one has only to look at the great lord's military deeds. He served as Ambassador to Denmark; his military victory over the Duke of Parma (against superior forces) consolidated the English defeat of the Armada; his service to Henry of Navarre, and his loyalty to Essex and Stubbe must have won Oxford's deep admiration and affection. Oxford's feelings must have reflected the universal esteem with which Willoughby was held. "Willoughby's valor ... excited more admiration on the part of his contemporaries than that of
almost any other soldier of the age." ("Peregrine Bertie," Dictionary of National Biography, II, p. 406.)
Oxford could have had good reason for giving this noble character the title Earl of Kent. A brief look at the possible source of Lear might shed some additional light on this problem. The New Variorum Edition of King Lear (edited by H.H. Furness) claims that the "direct source" for Lear was "the ante-Shakespearean drama of The Chronicle History of King Leir." (p. 383.) While no date or author is given for this older work, it was dramatized as early as 1593-94." (Variorum, p. 383.) During these years Oxford was in retirement. It is possible that the Chronicle History was an earlier, less refined forerunner of King Lear. The two plays have a noticeable similarity. The "blunt and faithful counselor and friend" of King Leir is named Perillus. (Variorum, p. 401.) The blunt and faithful Willoughby was baptized Peregrine. The first two syllables of these names are nearly identical in spelling, and are alike phonetically. It Oxford was the unknown author of Leir, he may have already had Willoughby in mind.
The change in name from Perillus to Kent could have been a part of Oxford's revision. This, I believe to have taken place sometime after Willoughby's death, June 25, 1601. Kent's declaration that, "I have years on my back forty-eight ..." (Act I, scene iv) could be a clue to a more definite date. Willoughby was born October 12, 1555. If Oxford revised the older Leir sometime after the autumn of 1603, he could have included that line based on how old Willoughby would have been had he lived. It is possible that Oxford, saddened by the untimely loss of the "Brave Lord Willoughby," rewrote the role of Perillus as a homage to the man Bronson Feldman described as "... a general more feared by the Spaniards than any English officer of the age." (Secrets of Shakespeare, Lovelore Press, Philadelphia 1972, p. 14.)
The name of Kent appears three times in the family history and career of Lord Willoughby. Some characters speak for the sane world that the hero’s presumption has upset. They serve as a fourth function, opposing the havoc of tragic action and suggesting the continuity of society. They are uually mature men with a blunt advice 02 (FOLK AND SMITH 337) It is possible that these episodes suggested the name of Kent to Oxford. Peregrine's father, Richard
Bertie, married his mother in 1552. On Good Friday, 1554, he was summoned before Bishop Gardiner, the Catholic lord chancellor. The bishop tried to persuade him to have his Protestant wife convert. In June Bertie sailed from England, but soon returned fearing for Katherine's safety. On January 1, 1555, he managed to get her away from London using a disguise. While awaiting a ship to leave England safely they hid in Kent. The Berties finally reached Wessel where Peregrine was born and so named in memory of his parents' peregrination. (Bertie, Richard," Dictionary of National Biography, II, p. 407.) This story was doubtless told to Willoughby by his parents and may well have been known to Oxford.
The second episode concerns Willoughby's sister Susan, who married the Earl of Kent, Reginald Grey, who died in 1573. (Ward, p. 154.) The last connection can be found in Willoughby's French campaign. He commanded four thousand English troops in support of Henry of Navarre. The quality of the troops in general was poor, "with the one exception of Captain Leverson's Kentish regiment" who "when put to the teat had risen to the occasion magnificently,..." (Goff, p. 58.)
Perhaps Oxford felt that such an earldom was an honor which Willoughby deserved but had never received. In any case, it seems likely that in the characterization of, first Perillus, and later
Kent, Oxford was setting down a character who walked in company with virtue and thus attempted to do justice to Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby.
Editor's note: Mr. LaGreca offers the following additional material, which serves to amplify the evidence presented in his article:
1) The source for the Stubbe behanding under orders from Christopher Hatton, is from Sir Harris Nicolas, Memoirs of Sir Christopher Hatton (London, 1847), pp. 140 - 41. Stubbe wrote to Hatton, while in prison and using his left hand (December 1, 1579), of his (Hatton's) "round dealing" and severe sifting out of that fault that bred me all my woes."
2) Also, Eva M. Tenison, in her Elizabethan England (Vol. VIII, pp. 226 - 27), demonstrates that Stubbe was with Willoughby during his service in the Lowlands. When Stubbe entered his household is not certain, but there is no doubt that he was a trusted member of it.
3) Finally, regarding the connection of Willoughby to the name of Kent, I again rely upon E.M. Tension (Vol. VIII, p. 216). She tells us that the family of Peregrine's father, Richard Bertie, claims "ancient Saxon origin and "appear in the roles of Kentish territorial magnets" under the name of DeBerty and DeBerghstede. The birthplace of Richard Bertie was "Bertiested (now Bearsted) in Kent."
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