King Lear is Historically Broken

Brace yourselves for more weary recitations of dukes and earls and so on.

More Shakespearean historical errors! Excellent! King Lear, as one of the few non-histories of his that I have read, is absolutely full of historical holes. Starting off. The play is supposedly set in pre-Christian Britain, and as there’s a conspicuous lack of people wearing red plumed helmets and boasting titles like “praetor” and such, pre-Roman as well. How then, do all the nobles have their titles? Maybe areas like Cornwall and Gloucester existed as concepts before the Middle Ages; I don’t know. BUT. The title of Duke of Cornwall was created in 1337 for Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince. It didn’t exist before then. Earl of Kent is the same, having been created in 1020 for Godwin, Earl of Wessex, the father of Harold Godwinsson, the man who got shot through the eye at the Battle of Hastings. The Earl of Kent should therefore probably be the Earl of Wessex. The Duchy of Burgundy (the Duke of which appears in Act I Scene I) was only such from 1032. It was a odd sort of tribal federal kingdom thing before then, and therefore wouldn’t have had a Duke. The Duke of Albany is a Scottish title. As England and Scotland were united in the person of James I/VI in 1603 and in law with the 1707 Act of Union, no English noble would have been Duke of Albany before then. While we’re on the matter of union, the isle of Great Britain was not united in pre-Roman times! It was totally fragmented between all manner of people and tribes, with England and Wales a mess, Scotland being mainly Picts before the Scottish (they actually came from Ireland) invasion and Cornwall inhabited (amazingly) by the Cornish. The Welsh came about when the original peoples of the island were pushed into Wales by the Anglo-Saxons, whom Vortigern had in his infinite wisdom invited to the island. The point of all this is that Britain was not united until Edward I conquered Wales, Henry VIII legally integrated it with the 1535-1542 Laws in Wales Acts. Scotland tried to colonise Panama (who though that would be a good idea?) and lost so much money that they had to unite with England. GREAT BRITAIN WAS NEVER UNIFIED BEFORE 1707. (Ireland came in 1801, when William Pitt the Younger’s First Ministry integrated it after a long history of conquest involving the Earl of Pembroke, Henry II, Oliver Cromwell, and Wolf Tone’s United Irishmen.) Now onto France. France was a patchwork mess before the Hundred Years’ War, and continued to be so for a while afterwards. There was no King of France in the pre-Roman Era. He would have been King of Gaul, maybe, if Gaul had been united (we all know it to be famously divided in three parts). Now for Cornwall again. The title of Duke of Cornwall is traditionally given to the King’s eldest son, which makes the Duke’s marriage to Regan, the king’s middle daughter somewhat… unsettling. Or it’s just historically wrong. Your call, dear reader. On to the Earl of Gloucester. The area of Gloucester oddly moves between being a duchy and an earldom several times. Notable Dukes include Richard III (I’ll probably write a historical critique of that play when I read it as well) and Frederick, Prince of Wales, the estranged son of George II (reigned 1727-1760). The Earldom existed periodically between 1100 and 1400. Notable Earls include Robert, the 1st Earl, who was the main supporter of Matilda during the Anarchy, her civil war against Stephen of Blois (his title is strangely amusing when pronounced in the English style), William Fitz Robert, an illegitimate son of Henry I, and Ralph de Monthermer, who famously warned Robert the Bruce to escape England. The point of all this is that no Earl, assuming he should even be an Earl and not a Duke should exist during this time period. The very title of Duke itself is French/Norman and should not be seen in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066, by the way.

Final Score

History: 11 (by my count)

Shakespeare: 0

Judgement: Shakespeare: Great at drama, useless at history.


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