An Africa-centred appreciation of Shakespeare’s King Lear: Part Two


AS its title suggests, King Lear is a play about kingship, written during a period when the monarchy was of central importance, and the role of the monarch was under constant scrutiny and subject to endless theorisation.
James VI, on the throne when Lear was written and performed, himself extensively theorised the political role of the monarch as absolute ruler with divine right.
The preceding reign of Elizabeth I was itself marked by continued efforts to justify her rule — both as a result of her gender and of her uneasy familial claim to the throne — including through the theory of the ‘king’s two bodies’, whereby her person was understood to be divided between her mortal ‘body natural’ and the immortal ‘body politic’ of the kingship.
These theories were not just abstractions, but had a very real effect on life in Shakespeare’s England, and in early modern Europe as a whole.
In the 1600s, both country and continent were still feeling the world-shattering impact of Henry VIII’s decision to separate from the Catholic Church nearly a century earlier.
The far-ranging political, spiritual and societal consequences of such an event exemplified the degree to which the monarch’s personal desires and actions could affect the destiny and structure of an entire country, seemingly on a whim.
In the 1590s, Shakespeare often dwelt on the nature of monarchy, and the history plays of the period can be read not just as historical narratives featuring kings, but also as meditations on monarchical rule.
In King Lear, Shakespeare tackles the issue of patriarchal monarchy, where the king is figured as head of both his own family and of the state, a staple of Jacobean understandings of the relationship between monarch and country that saw in it an analogy to the relationship between a patriarch and his household.
King Lear articulates pressing contemporary concerns about the power of early modern kings.
Although the text was not printed until 1608, the play was performed in December 1606.
The exact date of composition is not known, so scholars often try to base the point in time on references in the play itself.
Because of this uncertainty and the textual references, the composition of King Lear may have taken place anywhere from 1604 to 1606.
By the time Shakespeare was writing King Lear, the English had survived years of civil war and political and religious upheaval.
Considerable turmoil followed the death of Henry VIII, and under his oldest daughter’s rule (Mary I), the country experienced both civil and religious chaos, with the conflict between Catholicism and the Church of England resulting in a lot of bloodshed.
After Mary’s death, Elizabeth I assumed the throne, leading to a period of extended peace.
In spite of their contentment with Elizabeth’s rule, the populace worried significantly about England’s future because Elizabeth was unmarried (a point I stressed last week), and she refused to select a possible heir.
No citizen wanted a repeat of the events that marked the earlier transfer of power.
Thus, the lack of an heir created fears about a possible successor to her throne, which were finally resolved in 1603 when Elizabeth appointed James IV of Scotland to be her heir, and eventually, the new king of England.
The English understood that a strong country needed an effective leader to protect it from potential invasion.
Elizabeth’s powerful leadership had saved England when the Spanish attempted an invasion in 1588, and much of the credit for her success was attributed to her earlier efforts to unite England and to end the dissention that was destroying the country.
No ruler would have deliberately chosen to divide a kingdom, not after having witnessed the conflicts that had marked England’s recent history.
This is a background that is meant to indict Lear’s folly.
The division of a country would have weakened it, leading to squabbles between petty lords and the absence of an effective central government, and thus, the absence of an effective defence.
After this long period of uncertainty, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have been horrified at Lear’s choice to divide his kingdom and socreate disunity.
The dominant assumption of the Elizabethan period is clearly in line with Western individualism.
From the way Lear is presented, it is apparent for whatever crimes he has committed there is no obligation or accountability to the community he is supposed to serve.
The divine right of kingship seems to suggest Lear’s responsibility is to God alone, not to his subjects.
Not that the Western notion of kingship rests on four main statements:
the monarchy is a divinely ordained institution;
heredity right (the right acquired by birth to rule must not be forfeited through any acts of usurpation);
kings are accountable to God alone;
Non-resistance and passive obedience are enjoined by God (under any circumstances resistance to a king is a sin, and ensures damnation).
African philosophy is clearly different.
If you judge Lear by these tenets, you will find his decision less offensive.
But if you judge him by people-centred African ethics, you will find him extremely irresponsible and objectionable to the extreme.
The community spirit in African theory and practice is philosophically concentrated in notions such as ubuntu and communalism.
Ubuntu is a traditional African theory/philosophy that encompasses all those qualities that maintain harmony and the spirit of sharing among the members of a society.
It implies an appreciation of traditional beliefs and constant awareness that an individual’s actions today are a mirror image of the past and will have long lasting consequences for the future.
A person with ubuntu knows his or her place in the world and is therefore able to interact compassionately with other individuals.
One characteristic of ubuntu is that at all times, the individual effectually represents his/her clan and as such tries to behave according to the highest standards and exhibit the virtues upheld by his or her society.
Inkosi Luthuli provides a very insightful outline of what the role of a traditional leader should be in Africa.
This is what he says: “A chief is primarily a servant of his people.
“He is the voice of his people.
“He is the voice of his people in local affairs.
“He is part and parcel of the tribe.”
In a nutshell, the King’s accountability is to his people.
Lear rules people like his objects hence he can afford to indulge in distributing his kingdom without even consulting them.
From Lear’s example, you can see that dictatorship is a phenomenon of Western traditions of power and leadership.


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