I’d like to preface that although I’m interested in medieval history, I’m not at all a medieval historian, so I’ll probably get at least a few things wrong.
Reading King Lear reminded me of the story of King Richard I of England, as it shares a couple parallels with the one told in Lear‘s. I’ll give a brief summary here.
Richard was the son of Henry II, and brother to Henry the Young King (his elder), and Geoffrey II. He grew up like a son of the king, in wealth and luxury, and received a good education. Though, being a younger son of King Henry II, he was not expected to take the throne.
When Henry II fell seriously ill in 1170, he began planning to divide his kingdom among his sons, but wanted to retain overall authority over his sons and their territories, as they were not yet old enough to rule by themselves (starting to see the similarities?). Richard’s brother, Young Henry, was crowned as the heir apparent in June.
A few years later, the three brothers, Richard, Geoffrey, and most of all the eldest Henry the Young, began to grow unsatisfied. Their father still controlled their territories officially, and his power over them was still intact. For this reason, Henry the Young instigated a revolt. It also should be mentioned that it was rumored their mother pushed them to take this action, though for what reason I’m not sure. The brothers all joined Henry the Young against their father, Henry II, and took refuge under the protection of the French King Louis VII while they mounted their forces. Jordan Fantosme, a poet of the time, described the rebellion as a “war without love.”
The French forces were very successful in their advances, but the English were biding their time. An army was growing in Brittany.
The brothers were getting more confident in their victory, and made promises to French barons for land and gold. This would soon turn on them, though, and the English began rapidly retaking territory with a massive force of 20,000 mercenaries. Eventually, Louis VII would seek peace with Henry II, and leave the brothers out of the treaty.
The brothers had no other option than to ask for mercy from their father, who gave it to them. Though the terms they were given from their father had taken away most of their lands, and they were not again able to challenge their father. Richard, though, seemingly got off easier than his brothers, and was left with enough land for him to amass his power again. He again scuffled with his father and brothers a while longer, until Henry the Young died suddenly, leaving Richard next in line to be heir to the throne. His father commanded him to cede his territory to his mother (who had formerly been imprisoned by Henry II, for some reason?), to which he refused. Henry II later died, and it was suspected that Richard had somehow caused his death, though this has never been proved either way. Richard then was crowned King of England.
I hope you enjoyed my summary of that very short period of King Richard “Cœur de Lion”‘s life, and I’m sure you can see how it has some similarities with the Tragedy of King Lear, especially relating to the father/child power relationships, though I wouldn’t call it either a tragedy or a comedy. It may seem more like a tragedy from Richard’s perspective, as he tried to get power over his over-controlling father with his two brothers, lost, and was removed from much of his power, though this still is an imperfect comparison. It is interesting how in this example (from which Shakespeare may have taken inspiration?), Henry II, the father, retains his power and authority over his sons, and manages to win a war against them, while in Lear, he loses all power. This may cause this story to be seen more as a moral lesson, saying “don’t rebel against your father,” while in Lear, it’s a tragedy from the father’s perspective. I can also see this as being compared to Edmund’s story, though here the son’s treachery didn’t succeed, and wasn’t quite as morally bankrupt. There can also be some comparisons between Richard’s mother and the women in power in Lear. It’s quite interesting how she was rumored to have done many things to influence the brothers, when none of it could have been proven.
Overall, I think this story and Lear’s are an interesting comparison to make, when it’s possible Shakespeare took inspiration from this story, or any number of other monarchical dramas.