Victoria Rondeau teaches middle school students at Emerson School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She teaches Latin and an interdisciplinary language arts/social studies course.
What's On for Today and Why
This lesson takes an interdisciplinary, research-based approach to understanding King Lear in its cultural context. Students will use the Internet to access historical primary source materials on King James I of England and the title page of the Quarto edition of King Lear. They will learn about King James I's opinions about the divine right of kings and then relate that information to King Lear and its portrayal of kingship.
This lesson will take one to two class periods.
What You Need
The title page of the King Lear 1608 Quarto
A computer lab
Folger edition of King Lear
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
James I Handout
What To Do
1. Make arrangements for the class to meet in the computer lab. Students should bring their pens and notebooks and pair up at computers.
2. Give the following background for the assignment:
Shakespeare wrote King Lear in 1608, when James I was king of England. King James I was already king of Scotland when he took the throne of England in 1603. The Scots had been long time enemies of the English, and James' succession to the throne was disputed by some.
3. Give the students the handout (see below). They will work together to understand the Internet texts of James' speeches and to answer the discussion questions. Allow students to work through the information at their own pace, and make sure everyone is taking notes while they read and discuss.
4. Once everyone has worked through the King James information, ask the class to join you in viewing the title page of the 1608 King Lear Quarto at the following Website (project it for them if possible): http://dewey.lib.upenn.edu/CETI/Furness/index.cfm?TextID=lear_q2&PagePosition=1
What do they notice about the page? What is interesting about the title? Who went to see the play?
5. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare used King Lear as a means of commenting on James I and his rule. Explain to students that it was against the law to portray a reigning monarch on stage in Shakespeare's day, and both Queen Elizabeth and King James I censored plays. If Shakespeare wanted to make a statement about the king's behavior, it couldn't be an explicit one. Not only could the play be censored, but since King James was a patron of Shakespeare's company of actors (the King's Men), he could also revoke his support of the company.
6. Begin a class discussion comparing and contrasting King Lear and King James I. Assuming that Shakespeare was aware of what was going on between James and Parliament, what might King Lear say about aging, paternal kings? Ask students to describe Lear's relationships with his daughters. How does Lear react to the loss of power? to aging? Does Lear feel he has a "right" to be king?
7. Assign an essay for homework. The students must argue one of two points: Shakespeare wrote King Lear as a commentary on James I, or King Lear has little or no relationship to the reign of James I. Students should review their notes and focus on examples from the texts they've read online and from the play. Each student should choose at least one specific topic (i.e. parenthood as metaphor, aging rulers, differences between Lear and James I, or loss of power) to reinforce their arguments.
How Did It Go?
Did students see parallels in Lear's behavior in the play to James' belief in his right to rule? Did they argue differences? Could they identify scenes in the play to support their arguments? Did their essays show analytical thought?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.