The Absolute King Lear





The concept of absolute monarchy comes into existence during the early seventeenth century. For England at this time, the Tudor dynasty ends, while the Stuarts begin theirs. However, it is the latter dynasty that brings the concept into mainstream politics, because “early Stuart political discourse can indeed be read as containing defences of absolutism” (Burgess 19). James I is the first king of the Stuart line and the first to practice absolute monarchy. It is said of him at the time that “James [I] described [sic] his ideal form of government . . . from which he sought [sic] to justify his own absolute authority and power . . . hence he was [sic] to be free and absolute, to be the law in and of his kingdom” (Jordan 15). In coincidence, the beginning of James’ reign coincides within the same time Shakespeare wrote King Lear. In his play, several scenes link together, showing that even though the king supposedly gave up his job, he cannot escape the fact that he is king and will be until his death. These scenes exemplify certain aspects of absolute monarchy. Indeed, the seventeenth century theory of absolute monarchy provides evidence that, although King Lear bestows his role as king to others, he ultimately retains the absolute power and behavior of a monarch in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.

As a result of Lear holding on to his power, in the first scene of the play he does not take off his royal crown. Furthermore, Lear states, “The name, and all th’addition to a king: the sway, / Revenue, execution of the rest, / Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm, / This coronet part between you” (Shakespeare I. i.136-139). Thus, Lear moves the power from his hands to those of his sons-in-law, Cornwall and Albany. The coronet is the visual symbol of this exchange. However, notice that it is a coronet and not Lear’s royal crown that is used. Foakes is the one to point out that:
some have thought that when Lear offers a coronet to Cornwall and Albany at I. i.140, he takes one from his own head; but Shakespeare and his audience well knew [sic] the difference between crowns and coronets: crowns typically . . . were [sic] topped with an emblem symbolic of the power belonging to kings. Corornets . . . were [sic] circlets worn by princes and dukes. (14)
In other words, symbolically, Lear does not fully give his up power, because he does not officially give up the crown. By giving Cornwall and Albany coronets, they are made no more than crowned princes and Lear retains his title as king. He cannot completely give up his crown or power because he realizes that “a monarch . . . can have no superior for then he would [sic] cease to be a monarch” (Burgess 24). Therefore, Lear is the supreme, absolute king and can have no one above him, which the definition of an absolute monarch states.

In addition to having supreme power, a monarch usually likes to have a lot of pomp and circumstance around him, to further acknowledge his power, by having subjects fluttering around trying to please their king. This is exhibited by both King Lear and King James. Furthermore, James’ love of exhibitionism is described by a person in attendance at his coronation who states:
when James [I] came to the throne, in the words of Maria Axton: Poets and dramatists worked up pageants for James’s coronation, translating into icons the legal theory which had supported the new King. Their pageant iconography declared that it was not the land, or the estates of Parliament, but the King who represented the power of government and the perpetuity of the realm. (Tennenhouse 134)
Similarly, Lear also expresses his love of pageantry while living in the castle of his daughter Goneril. While there, he surrounds himself with subjects, who serve him as their king. These subjects consist of his knights, fool, and adviser in disguise, Kent. With his men, Lear gives orders, hunts, and holds court in a castle that is not even his. For this, Goneril gets quite upset and says, “By day and night he wrongs me. Every hour / He flashes into one gross