Historical setting–muddy waters

Remember that the quarto publication of the play (1608) had the title True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Lear and his Three Daughters. Remember, too, that the anonymous play that seems to have had an influence (cough, source, cough) was also titled The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella…and that the other major source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, was a history text.


[sorry for the digression]

The historical Leir lived in the 8th Century BCE (and that E is a fairly new concept for me…so sue me, I was brought up on “BC” [“Before Christ”] and AD [either “Anno Domini” or–as a kid I remember–“After Death”]…so “common era” or “current era” it is!), or nearly two and a half millennia before Shakespeare and nearly three millennia before us.

That’s old.

How old?


Throughout the play, multiple references are made to “the gods,” not God. And when the gods are mentioned by name, we get Jupiter (I.i.176, II.iv.14), Juno (I.iv.15), Jove (II.iv.220), and Apollo (I.i.158, 159). Of course, Leir would have lived before the Roman occupation, so you’d figure the gods were be more Celtic than Roman. Nonetheless, the BCE setting fits.

Also, if we want to move from the myth of Roman gods (even anachronistically) to legendary historical Britain, we have the Fool making a tangential reference to the King Arthur: “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time” (III.ii.96-7). How much before? Arthur lived in the late 5th or early 6th Century AD, nearly a millennium and a half after Leir, and a millennium before Shakespeare.

And despite (more anachronisms!) the use of the terms “British” (III.iv.183 and IV.iii.23) and “English” (IV.v.248), this was before a time of Britain and England, politically speaking. Yes, the terms (particularly the first “British”) might be read as regional or geographical references, but really here Shakespeare is making links that his audience to latch onto. Other examples include Edgar’s disguise as “Poor Tom o’Bedlam” (Bethlem Royal Hospital did not become a psychiatric hospital until the 14th Century) and Edgar’s reference to “the Turk” (III.i.92), which didn’t exist as a concept at this time, but was a handy reference for Shakespeare’s audience.


With this mismatch of historical/religious/legendary references, how do you set the play as a director/designer? A couple of the video productions referenced Stonehenge. It works geographically, and as Stonehenge was built between 3000 and 2000 BCE, it would have pre-existed Leir, it could have been there. But that’s like setting setting Rocky at Independence Hall in Philadelphia–yeah, it was standing at that later time, but doesn’t that muddy the temporal waters for the audience?

Waters that weren’t exactly rendered crystal clear by our boy Willy himself.