With most plays, I like to take a look at Shakespeare’s use of names for his characters to see if we can find any clues or symbols in them. Only as Shakespeare took much of his King Lear from both Holinshed’s Chronicles and the anonymous play of King Leir, there’s not much to discuss here.
Not much. But still some.
In many of the cases, the only change from the source material is in the spelling: Lear/Leir; Gonorill/Goneril; Ragan/Regan; Cordella/Cordelia. I began re-reading this play nearly two months ago, pronouncing in my head (and in the first, plot-centric podcast) the middle daughter’s name like ray-gun (as in the former President). In every production or video I’ve seen thus far, however, it’s been pronounced ree-gan. With Shakespeare’s change of spelling, though, I’m wondering if my original pronunciation isn’t closer to the source.
Now beyond these four, the major characters in Lear are not named so much as they are given titles based upon their geo-political bases.
In the play King Leir, Cordella’s husband is the King of Gallia (or Gaul); as the historic Gaul was made up of modern- (and Shakespeare’s) day France and Belgium, the change from King of Gallia to King of France makes complete sense. In the source, though, Gonorill’s husband is the King of Cornwall, while Ragan’s husband is the King of Cambria. In that earlier play, neither Cornwall nor Cambria have any Albany-like last-act conversion as he does in Lear. So why make the change from Cornwall to Albany and and from Cambria to Cornwall? And why does Shakespeare change the name of the loyal follower of Leir from Parillus to Kent?
It seems to me that the answer can be found in geography.
“Say what?” you say.
Cambria is another name for Wales, which is in the west-southwestern part of England, near to Cornwall–in fact, too near to be of any geographical contrast to Cornwall. Cambria shouldn’t be confused with Cumbria, which is from the north west of England; it shouldn’t be confused, but it easily could if we only heard the name. So this may be–in my thinking–why Shakespeare makes the change and a few others.
If Lear is the King of Britain (as the list of characters proclaims–despite, as we’ve discussed, the fact that Britain didn’t really exist as a nation at the time), then it makes sense that Shakespeare would then shift Regan’s husband–the irredeemably bad son-in-law in Shakespeare’s play–from Cambria (easily confused with Cumbria) to Cornwall, one of the farthest reaches of the country, in the extreme southwest of the country. Fitting, too, that the purely Shakespearean invention of Gloucester (or at least a character that doesn’t appear in Leir) would also be named for an area from the south of England, just north of Cornwall; it makes sense that Cornwall and Regan would visit him.
[oh, and there’s another reason why Shakespeare would give his character the name Gloucester (instead of the name Sydney uses in his Arcadia–which Shakespeare used as inspiration–King of Paphlagonia). The historical first Earl of Gloucester–who lived roughly 300 years after the supposed historical period of Lear–was Robert Fitzroy, a son of Henry I, who in turn was son of William the Conqueror. Robert was a supporter of his half-sister Matilda in her efforts to gain the throne for herself and her husband Geoffrey from Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry’s sister. And why did both the son of Henry’s sister and Henry’s daughter each have greater rights to Henry’s throne than Henry’s own son, the Earl of Gloucester? Well, that would be because Robert Fitzroy was the bastard son of Henry. Bastard son. You can see–beyond geography–why Shakespeare might have used Gloucester as the name for the bastard subplot in King Lear, right?]
Let’s picture England as a triangle, with Cornwall as the bottom left corner, and Kent as the bottom right corner, in the southeast of England. Shakespeare renames Leir‘s loyal follower Parillus to Kent, the region nearest to where Cordelia has just become Queen.
If the base of the Lear triangle of England are Cornwall and Kent, polar opposites in their loyalty to the king (with Kent in closer proximity to the good daughter Cordelia), then Shakespeare changes Leir‘s Gonorill’s husband Cornwall (which he is already using, having changed Cambria to Cornwall) to Albany, the top of the triangle in the north of England. How far north? How about so far north that it really isn’t even England. Albany is an older name for Scotland. Shakespeare creates a good son-in-law, and makes him Scottish. Just like Shakespeare’s new King and patron, James I (of England… James VI of SCOTLAND).
All this totally makes sense.
Except for (and you knew there’s be an “except for,” didn’t you?) the fact that by the end of the play, though Albany should be the king (last royal left standing), he doesn’t want it. He abdicates the throne, leaving it to Kent (who’s going off to die) and Edgar. Albany may be a good guy, but he’s not “king material.”
If that isn’t worrisome enough, try this on for size. The only other character that Shakespeare renames is the not-so-loyal follower of Leir, Skalliger, who becomes Oswald in Lear. Why is this worrisome? Because Oswald as a given name comes from the Anglo-Saxon, meaning “God’s rule.” How can the villainous Oswald be “God’s rule” in King Lear? I have no idea.
Names and places in King Lear… Some sense, some nonsense.