The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1977) defines tragic as ‘in the style of a tragedy’ or ‘sad, calamitous, distressing’. The former is relevant to the enactment of the play whilst the latter is more about ‘view of life’, a less precise term, depending primarily on who holds it. Sadness is a subjective set of feelings, usually associated with shock, numbness and guilt (Worden, 1991: 22), and may be the way an individual interprets life in general. More importantly, people also feel sad after an unexpected event, for example, loss of a loved one, a challenge to a cherished belief or an unfulfilled dream.  Whilst death and broken relationships are likely to be influential in any historical era, beliefs and dreams tend to be aligned with the ‘view of life’ prevalent in society at the time. Stampfer (1960: 9) wrote,

“All men, in all societies, make, as it were, a covenant with society in their earliest infancy. By this covenant, the dawning human consciousness accepts society’s deepest ordinances, beliefs, and moral standards in exchange for a promise of whatever rewards and blessings society offers.”

The audience will experience sadness and distress as they identify with Lear’s losses, or sense the play is out of step with their own or society’s cherished beliefs and unfulfilled dreams. For example, Nahum Tate, in 1681, rewrote the ending as the original was considered too gloomy (Warren, 1999: 112) and in the twentieth century, the play’s portrayal of justice and religious faith aroused strong feelings, as christians searched for the benefits of Lear’s suffering (Warren, 1999: 114).

What are the sad themes in ‘King Lear’? The play portrays an extremely violent battle for succession between two generations within two pagan aristocratic families. Lear and Gloucester are old, time is short and they must provide for their children. Lear believes he can enjoy a happy retirement:

‘To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl to death.’                                   (Act 1, Sc. i)

And he dreams:

‘that future strife may be prevented now’     (Act 1, Sc. i)

Both will have been leaders of men in their prime, but they are now past it, so much so that some of their offspring have become impatient. Their rightful inheritance has been withheld from them for too long, and they will have it now. The result is bloodthirsty, sad, calamitous and distressing, as two incompetent old men and an innocent daughter die in addition to the villains. Aging and family violence are two themes with which contemporary audiences are familiar, and because Elizabethan audiences probably had a different experience of these issues they illustrate how their effect depends upon society’s prevailing attitudes.

Can we compare Elizabethan and modern attitudes to aging and family violence. Would the theatregoing public have shared these ‘views of life’? In Elizabethan times, Shakespeare’s plays were mostly performed in London, to a young, male, worldly audience containing a mix of the leisured and working classes (Harbage, 1969: 90). The modern theatre-going public tends to be a small, educated, professional, upper and upper middle class elite supplemented by a sizable minority of students and academics who experience the play as text rather than as a performance.

Dealing first with ageing. As only one in ten males survived to their seventies in 1693, the date of the first recorded life table (McKeown and Lowe, 1974: 4), older people would have been rare in 1605, and, in addition, no monarch had ever been documented as surviving into their eighties (Sutherland, 2000: 51). Death at a young age was the ‘norm’, profoundly influencing all aspects of life (Stone, 1979: 407). Old people were thus very fit community members, both respected and powerful (Giddens, 1997: 40). Whilst survival rates have since dramatically improved, the authority of older people has declined. Ageing is accompanied by expected physical and psychological change, but, in addition, extremes of age are associated with deafness, partial sight and loss of intellectual reserves, such that episodes of confusion commonly result from trivial intercurrent events (Post, 1978: 195). This picture has resulted in a negative stereotype of old age. Phillipson (1983: 38), wrote about retirement:

“However, this change in population and in the distribution of work has yet to find a satisfactory framework of support within society as a whole.The elderly still find themselves vulnerable to charges of being an economic burden, soaking up the resources derived from the exertions of others, and vulnerable also to the experiences of poverty and loneliness”.

In contrast, a new “Third Age” stage in the life-cycle has been suggested, “that period of life beyond the career job and parenting which can last for anything up to thirty years” (Handy, in Curnow and Fox, 1995: ix), during which an individual can continue to plan and make choices about their life and work.

What of audience reaction to the aging Lear? His losses are enormous, not only Kent and Cordelia and the respect of Gonerill and Regan, but also the loss of his own competence. Lear’s realises this after a sustained period of depression and delirious raving:

‘You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both:’ (Act 2, Sc. iv)

The whole episode would be interpreted by a modern audience in two ways, either a life crisis or a confusional disorder such as alzheimer’s disease. Most families today, will have experienced these problems, directly or indirectly, and would struggle not to feel sad and distressed by their portrayal on stage. Lear and Gloucester thus come to represent the plight of the middle-aged and older man who finds difficulty with retirement and ageing (Sutherland, 2000: 53). However, those who espouse an ageist perspective  might see Lear as getting his just deserts. In contrast, because Elizabethans experienced older people as fit and respected, Lear’s confusional state would have been seen as mental illness, attributed to possession or divine inspiration by some (Muir,1960: 39), and ‘unnatural melancholy’, a result of worry and stress, by others (Ingham, 1996). Lear’s raving on the heath would have been embarrassing and perhaps even comic rather than sad. Nevertheless, his waning ability to keep a grip on power, his rejection of loyal support and the cruelty he received, would have been pitied, particularly when he returns to lucidity as ‘unaccomodated’ man, stripped of all his power and wealth.

Moving to family violence. The Elizabethan audience was part of a society, ‘at all levels men and women were extremely short tempered’, in which alienation and distrust were normal, and the men carried offensive weapons (Stone, 1979: 77-78), frequently using them, whilst the women were submissive and dependent (Stone, 1979: 141). Nevertheless, violence rarely occurred within the family which, following the death of a spouse or the early departure of children, was frequently short lived. Emotional attachments were weak and sex was for procreation, not intimacy and pleasure, and individual freedom and choice in marriage were subordinated to the needs of the community.

The modern nuclear family originated in seventeenth century professional upper bourgeoisie and country squirearchy, as a means of keeping property in the family after death (Stone, 1979: 415), and evolved into marriage as a personal choice based on emotional bonding, sex and romance. One of the distressing side effects of this intimacy however, is violence, and the home is regarded as the most dangerous place in modern society. Despite the increased numbers of women in today’s work force, they are still associated with the notions of  ‘housewife and home-maker’ (Giele, 1998: 237), and women as carers, mothers and lovers is a widely held cherished belief. However, it is claimed that women can be as violent as men (Giddens, 1997: 163), as the emotional intensity of the family escalates disputes that would mean nothing in other contexts. ‘The family is not the idealised haven of love that finds its way into romantic stories’ (Freeman, 1979: 234).

What would audiences make of Lear’s family violence, especially when perpetrated mostly by women? Gonerill, Regan and Edmund are ambitious, and, given their need for a quick result, violence, at first psychological, and then physical, follows. Lear reflects on his daughters’ cruelty:

‘… nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have little mercy on their flesh? (Act 3, Sc.iv)

As brutality was unremarkable amongst seventeenth century men, the play’s violence would have come as no surprise. However, domestic strife initiated by women, would have been beyond the personal experience of most of the Elizabethan audience, who would have looked on, horrified, though sad and fascinated that their rulers need to behave in this way (Warren, 1999: 104). Whilst violence is still recognised as common, modern audiences are shocked and saddened by the play’s devastating challenge to their deep rooted ‘ideal’ beliefs about family life and women.

In conclusion, this paper suggests that audience reaction to the aging and family violence shown in King Lear, depends in part on what society says about these issues.  Modernity permits a long reflection upon the quality of life, a luxury not available in the seventeenth century (Schneider, 1995). There are middle aged or elderly men in today’s audience who ‘are’ Lear or Gloucester, suddenly forced to abandon their cherished beliefs and unfulfilled dreams and reflect on the arbitrariness of life. Others may be coming to terms with their inability to direct family events, perhaps recognising that the imposition of their will needs to be replaced by something less conditional. There is no instant cure and grief must be endured. Younger men, without these experiences, are more likely to be simply horrified by the blinding of Gloucester (Ignatieff, 2000). Ageing and family violence would not touch an Elizabethan audience in the same way, preoccupied as they were with death at any moment.


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Submitted as part of study into English Literature, University of Huddersfield circa 2000.

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