The Artistic Interpretation of the Mythological Motifs in W. Shakespeare’s

Художня інтерпретація міфологічних мотивів у "королі лірі" В. Шекспіра
The Artistic Interpretation of the Mythological Motifs in W. Shakespeare’s "King Lear"

Author(s): Olena Kolesnyk
Subject(s): Customs / Folklore, Studies of Literature, 16th Century, 17th Century
Published by: Національна академія керівних кадрів культури і мистецтв
Keywords: "King Lear"; "Mabinogion"; mythopoetics; W. Shakespeare;

Summary/Abstract: The sources of the Shakespearean plots are considered to be well-studied, especially since Kenneth Muir published The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays. Still, it seems that the Bard also indirectly borrowed the ideas from the other corpus of texts. It is especially true about King Lear. It is well-known that for the main plot of his tragedy Shakespeare utilized the Chronicles by R. Holinshed, the play The True Chronicle History of King Lear and some other texts. But all these are just different variants of the same story, first written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of Britain. This work was enormously popular and became one of the books that shaped the European culture. Some passages in his tragedy suggest that Shakespeare was acquainted with this "original" story. For example, it is quite possible to trace the characters of Edgar and Edmund to Cordelia’s nephews, not only to the two princes in Sidney’s Arcadia, as it is usually stated. Thus the "two plots" of Shakespearean King Lear can be viewed as inseparable parts of one complex but completely logical fabula. Geoffrey’s text belongs to the class of pseudo-histories, that combine historical facts with both myths and fantasy. His sources are chiefly unknown; but being Welsh by origin he had an access to fragments of very ancient Celtic tradition. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who connected the folk-tale about the father and his three daughters with the name of the Celtic sea-deity Llyr or Ler. In another text this sea-god was mentioned as the father of Creiddiladd, whose story is told in Culhwch ac Olwen, one of the tales of the Mabinogion. The story itself belongs to the lovetriangle class, very common in the British tradition. But it unique in the clarity of representation of the mythologeme of the War of the Seasons / War of the Middle-world and Otherworld. Shakespeare echoes the myth in such motifs as Cordelia’s two suitors; the rivalry of the "northern" and the "southern" dukes; the opposition of the "lawful" and "unlawful" brother; and the final war of the two "superpowers". In the tragedy we can see all the cosmological implications, present in Culhwch ac Olwen, but absent in the numerous pre-Shakespearean tales of the old king and his daughters. There are quite numerous other parallels that suggest Shakespeare’s acquaintance with the tales of Mabinogion. Of course the extent of this knowledge is difficult to judge. One more possible source of the tragedy is Geoffrey’s Latin poem Vita Merlini. It is radically different from the History, and much less known. But it is there we can find the theme absent in the "official" sources, but all important for Shakespearean King Lear – the druidic frenzy of the self-exiled king. The protagonist of Geoffrey’s story is Merlin, a very complicated part-mythological and part-historical character, which came to be seen as one of the embodiments of Britain itself. Vita Merlini can be compared with Shakespearean plays in its cosmological character: it presents all manifestations of the terrestrial world. Besides this, there are some motifs that definitely parallel King Lear: 1) a king’s loss of common reason compensated by mystical wisdom; 2) privations the hero voluntarily suffers; 3) his refusal to return to people; 4) the cure of the madness by means of music and the consequent highly emotional reunion with the female relative(s); 5) king’s condemnation of avarice; 6) his meeting with one more inspired madman; 7) making of the "community of the wise" alternative to the profane world. All this is too much for a coincidence. It seems that Shakespeare knew either Vita Merlini or some retelling of the poem, and was attracted by its problematic. Thus King Lear becomes comparable with Merlin as a key figure of the British mythos. The well-known main source of King Lear’s "subplot" is Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. But it is not the only text that could have inspired the author. Besides the already mentioned connections of Gloucester’s sons and Cordelia’s nephews, there are some parallels with the Mabinogion, including two separate mentions of the city of Gloucester in extremely interesting mythological contexts. One of these cases takes place in the story of Peredur, which (along with the tale of Ywain and some other romances) has an episode of turning of an almost-perfect knight into a mad semianimal. It is very close to Edgar’s assuming the role of an "unaccomodated man". Playing this part, he memorably mentions the hawthorn – the sacred plant, associated with Creiddiladd. We perceive that King Lear’s two seemingly heterogeneous plots, constantly refer to the British mythological and folklore tradition that unites them and brings the whole play into a corresponding context without which all the richness of the text can’t be appreciated. It can be concluded that Shakespeare’s combining the two separate plots was not arbitrary. Logically only together they form a complete story. Mythologically they explore the principles of being the "British man" and the existence of humankind in general. In the folklore studies it is well-known that a potent image can draw to itself other characters and stories. For Shakespeare Lear became just such a centric image. It imbibed so many archetypes that reached the level of an authentic mytho-epic tradition. All the characters and situations in the tragedy remain individual and alive, but at the same time they go beyond the mundane and reach the mythical. That’s why it is quite possible to compare Lear simultaneously with King Arthur and Merlin, Cordelia – with Creiddiladd, Edgar – with Perceval and so on. It doesn’t mean that Shakespeare imitated myth. He made it anew.

  • Issue Year: 2013
  • Issue No: 1
  • Page Range: 10-15
  • Page Count: 6
  • Language: Ukrainian