Approaching possible reasons for the different endings in Geoffrey of Monmouth´s “Historia Regum Britanniae” and William Shakespeare´s “King Lear”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


1. Introduction:

Lear, the ageing king of Britain, wants to retire from his power and decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He offers the largest share to the daughter who loves him the most and carries out a test. His elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, give their father flattering answers, and please him by pretending that they would love him more than anything in the world. Cordelia, doing the opposite, does not find the words to express her love for her father and does not want to flatter him. This infuriates Lear, who finally disowns her. He marries Goneril to the Duke of Albany, Regan to the Duke of Cornwall, and divides the country among them. The King of France accepts to marry Cordelia for her virtuousness alone, despite the lack of dowry. Soon after Cordelia´s departure, Lear finds out that he has made a big mistake. His two older daughters turn on him and try to undermine the little power he still holds. Desperate of the betrayal of his daughters, Lear seems to go insane. Later, a French army under Cordelia lands at Dover to fight the traitors and to restore Lear in power.

This is the basic plot of the legend of King Lear. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a magister and later bishop of Saint Asaph, used it for his Historia Regum Britanniae, also known as The History of the Kings of Britain, a work which pretends to be a history of the British rulers. It was written between 1135 and 1138 and served William Shakespeare as a source for his tragedy called King Lear, which was written between 1603 and 1606.

It is no big secret that legends, plays and even traditions sometimes undergo massive changes in the course of time. By comparing the modern celebration of Halloween or St. Nicholas´ Day to their original meaning, we are able to detect various differences. These changes could be seen as a kind of defamiliarization of their ancient message. Can they simply be seen as a try to change old and established elements into modern and popular objects that are suitable for the longing and the desire of the mass? By having a closer look at today´s commercial character of Halloween and Christmas, one would tend to agree. On the other side, it seems to be quite logical that different periods with different social and political circumstances can cause different interpretations and expectations of a piece of literature or an event.

Although Shakespeare´s and Geoffrey´s works are dealing with the same background legend, their message and their intentions seem to be quite different. As it was Shakespeare who adapted the Lear story and provided it with several changes, the question arises why he did so. Did he make these changes for commercial reasons? Did he try to integrate the legend into a contemporary context in order to influence the masses to attend his play? Was he politically dependent and in some way forced to do it? Are contemporary values and ideas of his era the key to explain the changes? The aim of this paper is to find out, or at least to approach Shakespeare´s and also Geoffrey´s intentions for providing their own versions of the story of King Lear with special characteristics.

In order to be able to compare the different works, it seems to be necessary to provide some background information about both in the following lines.

2. Geoffrey of Monmouth´s Historia Regum Britanniae

“Geoffrey of Monmouth´s Historia Regum Britanniae is one of the most influential books ever written, certainly one of the most influential in the middle ages” (Tatlock 3).

The author of the Historia was called Galfridus Arturus by his contemporaries. It is not certain whether his nickname Arthur came from the first name of his father or from his admiration of the legendary figure King Arthur. He called himself Galfridus Monemutensis after the place Monmouth, where he was probably born at the beginning of the 12th century (Curley 2). He was often present in the Benedictine priory and was described as a magister, which means that he had a permission to teach. In addition, he witnessed several Oxford charters (Tatlock 440). According to John Tatlock, “the evidence goes to show that Geoffrey was of Breton and not of Welsh paternity” (443), which would explain his contempt for the Welsh and his favouritism for the Bretons in the Historia. It is not certain when Geoffrey started to write his work. He must have begun to write the Historia before 1135 and must have finished it before 1139, as Henry of Huntingdon read it in early 1139, and so it was already in circulation at that time. In 1151, Geoffrey became Bishop of St. Asaph in north- east Wales. He probably died in 1155.

As already mentioned before, the Historia pretends to be a history of the rulers of Britain. It covers more than nineteen centuries, from the fall of Troy and the founding of the British nation to the Anglo-Saxon domination of Britain around the seventh century. The centrepiece and climax of this chronological narrative is the very famous legend of King Arthur, a legendary warrior, who defended Britain against the Saxon invaders.

By providing fast summaries with brief slowing-ups, he managed to sum up such a long history in one little book. Compared to the more sober histories of his contemporaries William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, the descriptions in the Historia seem to be much more detailed and picturesque.

It is not certain which works and sources influenced Geoffrey in writing the Historia. In the prologue of the Historia, he mentions an ancient book, a liber uetustissimus, written in the British language, that Archdeacon Walter of Oxford gave to him in order to translate it into the Latin tongue. As there is no proof for such a book, most of the modern historians believe it to be a fictitious source (Burrichter 41). Another hint for the non-existence of this book can be found in the prologue. Geoffrey forbid William of Malmesbury and Henry Huntingdon to say anything of the kings of Britain, since they would not have this book. But his confidence that both would not have access to it could be an indicator that this book did not exist at all. This, of course, leads to doubt and disbelief in the accuracy of his work.

Additionally, some historians argue that Geoffrey also included oral traditions without any written evidence in the Historia, and used them, despite their possible inaccuracy, without indicating them as such (Burrichter 44). This informal handling of sources, although quite common in histories of medieval times, is another proof for the tentativeness of Geoffrey´s work.

Other sources seem to be Gildas´s The ruin of Britain, Bede´s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as well as Nennius´s History of the Britons and the 10th century Welsh Annals. It appears to be the case that Geoffrey derived a lot from these works and transformed them with the help of oral traditions and his own imagination into a fascinating continuous narrative.

The fact that Geoffrey of Monmouth called his work Historia indicates that he considered himself to be a historiographer (Burrichter 29). According to Christopher Brooke, it “purported to be history, and history it was taken to be” (78). This is at least true for his contemporaries. Of course there was also scepticism and criticism among them, but “even Geoffrey´s critics were sometimes prepared to make limited use of his material” (Crick 219). Nevertheless, it is essential to mention that the Historia “can in no way be accepted as historically accurate” (Curley 22). It is “a pseudo-history of great imaginative power” (Wright 569) and “an almost wholly imaginary history of the Briton kings”(Tatlock 3). Therefore, “no modern scholar would look for reliable historical evidence in Geoffrey” (Brooke 78). On the same page, Christopher Brooke goes even further when he assumes that there has “scarcely … been a historian more mendacious than Geoffrey of Monmouth”. In his work Monmouth as a historian, he describes how Geoffrey often took famous names and genuine authors and used them out of context in his narratives (79). In addition, John Tatlock mentions Geoffrey´s “desire to enliven the matter of fact by the picturesque and exciting”(381).

Although the Historia can in no way be called historically accurate, it is still a valuable piece of medieval literature and an important witness of historiography in the Anglo-Norman period. It contained the earliest known version of King Lear, and it also introduced the legend of King Arthur to the Welsh. In the opinion of Tatlock, this chronological narrative “was most concerned to give an artful picture which would impress intelligent but not learned readers” (286). This means, that Geoffrey´s historically wrong portrayal was mostly “not a product of ignorance, but of rather frank invention … [and] skilful imagination” (285).

Furthermore, it is important to see that Geoffrey consciously constructed this kind of historical image. Although “Geoffrey´s intentions remain buried in his work and in its relationship to his sources” (Crick 2), it seems to be undeniable that the descriptions in the Historia have got a political dimension. There seems to be a constructed connection between the Anglo-Norman present in Geoffrey´s days and the periods covered by him in the Historia. According to Burrichter, Geoffrey took the Anglo-Norman society as model for the construction of his narrations (30). This seems to be a praise and a glorification of that society, by “provid[ing] them with the ancestry of King Arthur (Schichtmann et al. qtd. in Burrichter 31). In addition to that, Geoffrey dedicated the Historia with Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Waleran, Count of Mellant, and later King Stephen only to influential Norman magnates. Another important reason for his glorification of the Anglo-Norman society could be the fact that Monmouth, his home town, was “dominated by the Normans and their Breton recruits” (Tatlock 440).

Beneath the legend of King Arthur, the story of King Lear is the most fascinating chapter in the Historia Regum Britanniae. John Tatlock stated that “few will deny that along with the vogue of Arthur it is Geoffrey´s greatest contribution to the world” (381). Additionally, Michael J. Curley is surprised about the emotional depth and the focus on affections in the story. Compared to the rather flat sense of character elsewhere in the Historia, it seems to be quite uncharacteristic for Geoffrey´s narration style (22). All in all, the following quote by John Tatlock seems to be adequate to describe the value of Geoffrey´s Historia Regum Britanniae, as well as Shakespeare´s King Lear:

“It would be glory enough for Geoffrey´s Historia to be no unworthy ultimate ancestor of Shakespeare´s King Lear, which has been called the most perfect play in the world (3)”.

3. William Shakespeare´s King Lear

“[ King Lear ] seems now to be virtually unchallenged as the greatest monument of our literature: the most admired play by the most admired writer in English” (Thompson 59).

King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare and is, as mentioned before, considered to be one of his greatest plays. Probably written between 1603 and 1606, Shakespeare´s work was released in different and revised versions. There exist two printed versions of his play which are not identical. The Quarto text, named after the bookbinding technique of folding a paper in half twice to get four leaves, was published in 1608. Another version of King Lear was published in 1623 in the First Folio, a collection of nearly all Shakespearean plays, which was published after his death. The Folio contains more than 100 lines of text that are not in the Quarto, but it ignores around 300 lines of text which are in the Quarto. This instance leads to the highly discussed “question of the authority of the text or the texts”(Thompson 12). Why are these two texts so different ? According to Ann Thompson, “the Folio text is based on the Quarto text altered by reference to the prompt-book actually used in performance” (12). This leads to the speculation that the Quarto text was Shakespeare´s first, authorial version of his work, and the Folio was the radical revision of it, in order to improve it for the performance on stage. This would also explain “the greater care over stage directions” (12) in the Folio. Nearly all editions of King Lear currently available conflate the Quarto and the Folio text to produce the longest possible version of the play.

Although Shakespeare´s work is primarily a dramatic tragedy, Thompson would also define it “as a version of the chronicle history play or as a transformation of myth or folklore” (17). It is very difficult to define the genre of King Lear. This does not seem surprising at all, if we consider the statement of John Reibetanz “that the very mixing of genres was itself normal at [the Jacobean] ... time” (qtd. in Thompson 18). Oscar James Campbell compared King Lear with morality plays, a genre of Medieval theatrical entertainment that made use of allegorical characters to teach the audience moral lessons (qtd. in Thompson 18). One of these moral lessons is the defeat of Lear after his folly of dividing the country. A very important historical aspect is that Shakespeare wrote King Lear at the time of the reign of King James I., who united the crown of the Kingdom of Scotland with the crown of the Kingdoms of England and Ireland. So, the moral lesson in this case would be the glorification of King James I. and the praise of a united kingdom. On the other side, we can detect criticism of Lear´s behaviour, when he foolishly divides the country and everything ends in total chaos (Buchloh et al. 12- 13).



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University of Tubingen
Shakespeare King Lear Geoffrey King Leir Historia Regum Britanniae History British kings Geoffrey of Monmouth The History of the kings of Britain



Title: Approaching possible reasons for the different endings in Geoffrey of Monmouth´s “Historia Regum Britanniae”  and   William Shakespeare´s “King Lear”