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The Autumn King: Remembering the Land in King Lear

Jayne Archer, Richard Marggraf Turley, and Howard Thomas

Food insecurity and botanical-political tropes were deeply embedded in the discourses of early modern Britain. Food shortages in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries heightened awareness among the populace of its vulnerability to failing harvests and corrupted food. In the properties and behavior of plants and plant disease, Shakespeare found a complex web of metaphors that he used in his plays of the 1590s and early 1600s to interrogate issues of political legitimacy, treachery, treason, and the relationship between the (gendered) body of the monarch and his or her land. In particular, King Lear’s engagement with such themes enables us to understand how shifts to early agrarian capitalism were accompanied by transformations in contemporary views of ecological relationships. Starting with a new reading of Cordelia’s description of her father’s crown, made of “darnel” and other plants considered weeds, and insisting on an ecocritical dimension often neglected in historicist criticism, the authors argue that Shakespeare deploys images of crop contamination to register enduring anxieties over relations between court and country, legitimacy and bastardy, elite power and popular resistance. A primary set of meanings in King Lear, encompassing land ownership, management of natural resources, and the relationship between the monarchy and the land, is bound up with the politics of food supply and articulated through recurring botanical tropes of mimicry and subversion.

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