The Future of History

Thursday, 5 July 2012

King Lear

They might have lived a thousand years apart, but there are several connections between my two main subjects: Arthur and Shakespeare (Art & Will - geddit?).  One of them is the legendary King Lear.

Like a great deal of Arthurian source material, the Lear legend has been ignored or overlooked because, on the face of it, it has nothing whatever to do with Arthur.  The problem is one of names.

Historically, names are a problem.  Let's take an individual from the lifetime of William Shakespeare.  Sir Robert Cecil was the deformed, diminutive son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served as chief minister and adviser to Elizabeth I.  Robert succeeded his father, and went on to serve James I.  Together, William and Robert Cecil were among the most ruthless and rapacious statesmen this country has ever known.

In 1603, Sir Robert Cecil became Baron Cecil of Essenden.  The following year, he was made Viscount Cranborne.  The year after that, he was elevated to the earldom of Salisbury.  Over a period of just a couple of years, Cecil's name changed more than once. It was proper to refer to him as Lord Cranborne and, later, the Earl of Salisbury.

He also had nicknames, and plenty of them.  Robertus Diabolus, the Toad, King James's 'little beagle' ...

Now, if we were to apply the "only one name per historical individual" rule which is routinely applied to Arthurian studies, then Sir Robert Cecil ceased to exist in about 1603 (he actually died in 1612).  Out of nowhere appeared another person altogether, known as Salisbury.

And Will Shakespeare, of course, was not indicating Robert Cecil in the impish character of Robin Goodfellow ('Puck') or the malignant and deformed Richard 'Crookback' of Richard III.  No way.  Shakespeare would never have done such thing (except that he did).

You see the problem?  If we insist that everybody in history only ever had the one name, and the one name only, we're not going to make much sense of history, are we?  (In The King Arthur Conspiracy I also cite the example of General Schwarzkopf, who commanded the allied forces in the first Gulf War: he was also known as "Stormin' Norman" and "The Bear" - which would appear to have made him three different people.)

The character of Llyr (Irish: Lir) occurs in British tradition.  His name meant "Sea".  If we approach this character with our modern-day heads on, pretending that everyone throughout history has only ever had one name (so that Margaret Thatcher and the Iron Lady were obviously not the same person), then we are stuck.  Who was Llyr, or Lir?  No idea.  Probably a myth.

Or maybe he was a lord of the sea-kingdom of Dalriada, the homeland of the Scots on the "Coastland of the Gael" (Argyll).  Which would have made him, effectively, Arthur's father.  Aedan mac Gabrain, the father of the historical Arthur, did become King of Dalriada in 574.  He was renowned for his powerful navy.

Now, let's take this further.  In the traditional legend of King Lear, as used by one William Shakespeare, the king has three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.  During the course of my Arthurian researches, I found three women intimately connected with Arthur's father.  They were:

Gwenhwyfar - Arthur's wife (and therefore Aedan's daughter-in-law)
Muirgein - Arthur's half-sister (Aedan's first daughter)
Creiddylad - Arthur's mother (Aedan's lover)

The second of these was not exclusively known as Muirgein.  Several of her alternative names derive from rigan, an Early Irish word for a "princess", which obviously developed into the more familiar "Regan".  Creiddylad also had other names.

According to the Welsh sources, Arthur's last battle was brought about by a quarrel between two sisters, Gwenhwyfar and Gwenhwyfach.  These can be identified as Arthur's wife and his half-sister, Gwenhwyfar ("Goneril") and Muirgein ("Regan"), who did end up on opposing sides.

The Lear legend suggests that two of the King's daughters betrayed him while the third remained constant.  In the case of Arthur - or rather, his father - it could be argued that Aedan's two daughters, Gwenhwyfar and Muirgein, brought about the cataclysmic battle which claimed the life of his son, although his lover Creiddylad appears to have played no part in that. 

The lovely Creiddylad was essentially subordinate - a "daughter" - to Aedan, the lord of the isles and King of Dalriada.  The earlier, pre-Shakespearean versions of the legend have King Lear reunited with his beloved Cordelia after his other two daughters very nearly ruined the kingdom: in fact, Aedan did live for another fourteen unhappy years after the quarrel between his two daughters brought about the death of his son by Creiddylad.

This is a quick summary, of course, but the basics are there: the legend of King Lear and his three daughters corresponds with the historical situation of Aedan, the father of Arthur, who had two squabbling daughters (one being his daughter-in-law) and a third princess, whom he truly loved.  The names of Lear's daughters can all be derived from the original princesses in Aedan's immediate family circle, while the name of Lear himself relates to Aedan's role as the lord of the sea.

(While we're on the subject, in Shakespeare's King Lear, Goneril marries the Duke of Albany - another name for Scotland.  Regan marries the Duke of Cornwall, a place frequently, and mistakenly, associated with south-west Britain in Arthurian lore - in the book, I explain what "Cornwall" really meant.)

What, then, of Arthur?  Well, British - i.e. Welsh - tradition preserves several legends of the Children of Llyr.  And in my next blogpost, I'll explain where Arthur fits into that tradition, albeit under another name.

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