The Lunar Calendar of Shakespeare's King Lear
Sohmer, Steve. "The Lunar Calendar of Shakespeare's King Lear." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 2.1-17 URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-2/sohmlear.htm.
William Shakespeare's King Lear contains a number of curious temporal allusions. Gloucester declares Edgar "some yeare elder" to his half-brother (1.1.19-20), while Edmund reckons himself "twelve or 14. mooneshines" junior; Lear's banishment of Kent matures to a death-sentence on the fifteenth day in Quarto 1 (1.1.176-81) but on the sixteenth day in the Folio (187-92); Lear, who imposes himself on his daughters "by monthly course" (1.1.134), sounds evocatively self-referential as he speaks of "great ones That ebbe and flow bith' Moone" (5.2.17-18).  In this essay, I suggest that the common denominator of the temporal allusions in Lear is a lunar calendar. I identify this calendar as a primitive pre-Roman (Etruscan) model and establish Shakespeare's ancient source for its form. Finally, I claim that textual evidence in the Q1 Lear suggests that the play was purpose-written (or substantially revised) for performance before King James I on 26 December 1606.
- Scholars accept that Shakespeare was familiar with Holinshed's account of King Leir, who flourished in the ninth century BC, three generations prior to the founding of Rome in 752-750 BC.  Logically, Leir's early date would seem to preclude Shakespeare from applying to Lear the calendars of Pope Gregory XIII (1582), Julius Caesar (45 BC), the Roman Republic (153 BC), or even Numa Pompilius (c. 720 BC).  Various calendars were operative during the historical Leir's era, among them the 355-day Babylonian and Hebrew lunar formulations and the solar 365-day Egyptian. But the invocation of Roman deities in Lear entails that Shakespeare imagined his ancient king and kingdom following some form of primitive Roman festal calendar. Plutarch, Shakespeare's favorite Roman source, provides a concise epitome of the form of the primitive calendar of Rome and its evolution from Etruscan antecedents. Plutarch writes that Romulus' successor, Numa Pompilius
begane also to mende a litle the calendar, not so exactly as he should have done, nor yet altogether ignorantly. For during the raigne of Romulus, they used the moneths confusedly, without any order or reason, making some of them twenty dayes & lesse, and others five & thirtie dayes & more, without knowing the difference betwene the course of the sunne & the moone: & only they observed this rule, that there was three hundred & three score  dayes in the yere. But Numa considering the inequality stoode upon eleven dayes, for that the 12 revolutions of the moone are ronne in 300 fiftie & four  dayes, & the revolution of the sunne, in 365 dayes, he doubled the 11 dayes, whereof he made a moneth: which he placed from 2 yeres to 2 yeres [supintercalated every second year], after the moneth of February, & the Romaines called this moneth put betwene, Mercidinum [Mercedonius], which had 22 dayes. 
Livy concurs that the length of the primitive year was unstable until Numa ordered the intercalation of a month of twenty-two days every second year.  In another of Shakespeare's favoured sources, the Fasti, Ovid records that 1 March had marked the start of the New Year from the Etruscan era until 45 BC when Julius Caesar moved New Year's day to 1 January to concord with the start of the consular year.  From his reading of Plutarch and Ovid (and perhaps Livy), Shakespeare could have deduced that the primitive calendar was lunar, 360 days in length, and kept March as its first month and February as its last. I will suggest that Shakespeare imposed precisely this form of calendar on the action of King Lear.
Certainly, Edmund's remark that he is "some twelve or 14. mooneshines" junior to Edgar implies that Lear's subjects reckon by synodic months (1.2.5). Edmund is glossing Gloucester's remark that Edgar is "some yeare" his elder (1.1.19). I believe Shakespeare made Edmund's reckoning imprecise ("some twelve or 14") because the playwright knew that the length of the lunar year was unstable during Leir's era, a century before Numa's reform.  Likewise, if the calendar in Lear is lunar, the old king's proclamation that he will reside with Gonorill and Regan "by monthly course" must refer to lunar months (1.1.134). This is a useful insight. Editors have noted that Shakespeare emphasizes the abruptness of Lear's departure to take up residence with Gonorill ("I thinke our father will hence to night" 1.1.289, and later, "the King gone to night" 1.2.24).  We moderns think that a lunar month begins in the period of moonless dark we call "new moon." But Etruscan (and Roman) lunar months began when the first crescent of the waxing moon became visible. The Romans called this day the Kalendae.  The primitive lunar day also began and ended at sunset; changing the date at midnight was a later Roman innovation which depended on the invention of clypsedrae and other means of measuring sunless hours. From Lear's abrupt departure, are we to infer a Kalends is at hand and a lunar month is about to begin? I suggest we are meant to receive it so, and thereby to recognize that Shakespeare has set Lear's division of the kingdom (his "darker purpose") on the last of the moonless nights which conclude a lunar month.
- This inference is supported by the presence of strong moonlight in a scene which takes place some two weeks later: Kent's offer to fight Oswald in the courtyard before Gloucester's castle (2.2). The interval between Kent's banishment and the disguised duke's fight with Oswald can be recovered from temporal details in the text.  The benchmark is the sentence itself:
Foure dayes we do allot thee for provision,
To shield thee from disease of the world,
And on the fift to turne thy hated backe
Upon our kingdome, if on the tenth day following,
Thy banisht truncke be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death, away, by Jupiter
This shall not be revokt. (1.1.176-82)
Reckoning inclusively as the Romans did, Lear's sentence spans fifteen days (4 + 1 + 10) and includes the day on which he pronounces it. In 1.4 Shakespeare fixes Kent's entrance into Lear's service on the fifteenth day of this sentence. Kent laments that the grace period preceding his exile has expired and he is "now banisht" and "dost stand comdem'd" (1.4.4-5); that is, no fewer than fifteen days have lapsed since Lear pronounced Kent's doom.  In the same scene Lear deplores the threatened loss of fifty followers "within a fortnight" (1.4.316); that is, Lear has not been resident with Gonorill more than fourteen days. Since Lear pronounced Kent's doom on the Pridie Kalendae and then took up residence with Gonorill on the following day (the Kalendae), by entailment Kent enters Lear's service and Gonorill insists Lear reduce his train to fifty followers on the fourteenth day of a lunar month. This is the virtual midpoint of the lunar cycle -- the period of full moon -- and Shakespeare is aware of that. His Kent offers to fight Oswald by moonlight: "draw you rogue, for though it be night the Moone shines, Ile make a sop of the moone-shine a'you" (2.2.33-4).  A modern reader may find these cues to the moon's phase ephemeral. But before gas and electricity gave humans the power to turn night into day, Shakespeare and his auditors had good reason to be alert to the phase of the moon. And Shakespeare's audience would readily associate a new moon with Lear's decision to decamp to the home of his daughter. New moon was the Elizabethans' traditional time for moving house.  Shakespeare's decision to set Lear's love-test and the division of his kingdom under a new moon on the last day of a lunar month is unprecedented in his sources. In The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir (1605) this occasion is provided by the close of mourning for "our (too late) deceast and dearest Queen" (1.1.2).  The playwright's principal historical source, Holinshed, provides no temporal referent (1.19). Intriguingly, our recognition that Lear follows a lunar calendar and commences under a new moon allows us to recover the month and day on which Shakespeare imagined the old king giving away his lands, his powers, and the daughter he loves most -- and provides compelling circumstantial evidence that Shakespeare drafted the Q1 Lear for its royal performance on 26 December 1606.
Scholars concur that the entry in the Stationers' Register for 26 November 1607 together with the cover of the "Pide Bull" Quarto (1608) substantiate a performance of the Q1 Lear "before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephen's night," Friday 26 December 1606.  Why did the King's Men perform this play on this date? Was the great and dismal tragedy merely a random choice? Or was Lear offered because it was a new play, or because it had been a success at the Globe during the prior summer? Or, perhaps, was there a calendrical connection between Lear's division of his kingdom and Saint Stephen's night? As noted above, I'll propose that textual evidence in Q1 Lear suggests the play was purpose-written (or substantially revised) for performance before King James I on 26 December 1606. But before offering this proof, let me address the reader who may be reluctant to accept that the calendar exercised the profound influence over William Shakespeare and his work that I imply. I will briefly note that several of Shakespeare's plays are now believed to have had occasional beginnings. I will identify instances when Shakespeare's companies apparently scheduled a play for performance on a holy day because its theme matched (or ironically mismatched) the occasion. I will cite evidence that Shakespeare set scenes on holy days, perhaps to add extra dimensions of meaning to his text. Finally, I will recall Shakespeare's own testimony that playwrights revised their texts to suit performance dates and accommodate the lunar calendar.
Early commentators were disinclined to accept that any of Shakespeare's timeless masterpieces could have been written or substantially revised for performance before this-or-that magnifico on a holy day or other auspicious occasion. But in our century the Malone-Hotson arguments for The Merry Wives of Windsor have attracted formidable adherents.  Alan H. Nelson believes The Comedy of Errors was a commissioned occasional play,  and David Wiles provides a similar argument for A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Elsewhere I have suggested that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar with an eye toward the opening of the new Bankside Globe on the Summer Solstice of 1599, and later wrote (or revised) Twelfth Night for a court performance on 3 February 1600.  As to the matching of plays with playing dates, there is evidence Shakespeare's companies did so, sometimes with a wicked sense of irony. We know the King's Men played All is True -- a play about Henry VIII's historic break with the church of Rome -- on the feast of the pope, St. Peter's Day, 29 June 1613.  This biting match of play-and-date could hardly have escaped the notice of a Jacobean audience. We know the Chamberlain's Men performed Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple on 2 February 1602, the old Feast of the Purification of the Madonna.  In this play a character addressed as "Madonna" (Olivia) attempts to seduce a virgin (Viola) -- a racy mismatch of play and holy day which could not have been overlooked by the rowdy barristers-to-be of the Virgin Queen. Thomas Platter's report of a performance of Caesar at the Bankside Globe on 21 September 1599  suggests another linking of play-with-date motivated by the calendar. September 21 was the "official" date of the autumnal equinox. But the English Julian calendar was then ten days in error, and the equinox had been observed in London on 13 September. By playing Caesar on 21 September Julian -- the incorrect date of an equinox -- Shakespeare and company delivered a cheeky comment on Elizabeth's refusal to abandon the discredited Julian calendar. An English audience compelled to live and worship by the defective Old Style calendar would have been alert to this irony.
Of course, prior to the rise of permanent London playing companies in the late 16th century virtually every surviving English play or pageant was written for performance on a pre-determined holy day (e.g. Corpus Christi, Candlemas, Twelfth Night). It should not, therefore, surprise us that Shakespeare exploited the religious and cultural dimension of these and other holy days by linking scenes in his plays to these occasions. "Given that one of the greatest problems of the theatre and dramatic representation generally is to find visual and gestural equivalents to the abstract categories of thought and speech, it is easy to see how Shakespeare seized upon ... the medium of the calendar linked with the various traditions ... of the major festivals [to] endow his plays with the extra semantic dimension of temporal symbolism."  When, for example, theNurse in Romeo and Juliet "refers to the Lammastide festival [1 August] to work out Juliet's age, the Elizabethan public would, as it counted back nine months, immediately arrive at the implied festival of Hallowe'en as the likely date of Juliet's conception."  Elsewhere I have suggested that Shakespeare was familiar with the unique Venetian calendar, the More Veneto, and exploited its nuances in Merchant and Othello in order to link Shrove Tuesday with the sealing of the Antonio-Shylock bond, Lancelot Gobbo's change of masters, the Jessica-Lorenzo elopement, the Bassanio-Gratiano embarkation for Belmont, the Desdemona-Othello elopement, and the Venetians' arrival at Cyprus.  The association with Shrovetide imbues these passages with religious and cultural overtones which may be dim to modern ears. But Shakespeare's "temporal symbolism" would have sounded loudly for Elizabethans whose everyday calendar was the church calendar.
Finally, as to whether playwrights of Shakespeare's era revised their texts to accommodate a playing date and, in particular, the lunar calendar, we have irrefutable evidence in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare presents (and may have enacted) the playwright, Peter Quince. As Quince and the Mechanicals set about their rehearsal, this dialogue ensues:
Snout: Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?
Bottom: A calendar, a calendar -- look in the almanac, find out moonshine, find out moonshine.
Quince: Yes, it doth shine that night. (3.1.48-51) 
The lunar calendar prevails, Robin Starvling is delegated to portray the Moon, and Quince revises his text accordingly (MND 5.1.239, 252-4). 
To this range of evidence of Shakespeare's engagement with calendrical matters I would add one more factor precedential to the King's Men's performance of the Q1 Lear before King James on Saint Stephen's night 1606. We know that Shakespeare's company performed Merchant before James on Shrove Sunday 1605. I believe this old play (1596) was chosen for this occasion because its opening scenes are set on Shrove Tuesday and include episodes of Shrovetide masquing.  James apparently recognized the play's calendrical pertinence. He commanded a reprise of Merchant two nights later on Shrove Tuesday.  This gesture reveals an aspect of James's personality which was certainly familiar to his court: the king was a calendrical man. His tutor, George Buchanan, had met the mathematician-astronomer Tycho Brahe during a visit to the Danish court in 1571, and the pair corresponded thereafter. When James visited Brahe on his island of Hvena (20 March 1590), the king found a portrait of Buchanan hanging in the library.  Brahe and other Protestant mathematicians had endorsed Pope Gregory XIII's calendar reform of 1582, and the English knew James had reformed the Scottish calendar in December 1599. James's interest in the calendar may have inspired Shakespeare to link the night of Lear's division of the kingdom with St. Stephen's night 1606. But to understand how these nights are linked we must identify the pagan holy day of Leir's era which Shakespeare and his principal royal auditor could recognize as the homologue of Saint Stephen's night.
The Western church has celebrated Stephen's martyrdom since the fourth century. We do not know why the commemoration of the protomartyr of Acts 6-7 was allocated to 26 December; Saint Luke's of account contains no temporal referent. But when the early episcopacy could not eradicate a pagan festival, the church fathers often superimposed a Christian holy day on its date to subvert the pagan occasion to a Christian purpose. In this way, the Roman Lupercal became the Christian Shrovetide, and the ancient feast of Cybele supplied the (lost) date of the Annunciation. Early Christians appropriated Julius Caesar's date of the summer solstice (24/25 June) to commemorate the Conception of John Baptist. And they co-opted Caesar's date of the winter solstice -- a solar event long observed in Parthia and Rome as the birthday of Mithras -- to supply the (lost) birthday of Jesus Christ. Since the day of Stephen's martyrdom is unrecorded, the allocation of his feast to 26 December suggests the church fathers introduced this Christian feast to supersede a pagan festival which had proven stubbornly ineradicable. It is tempting to equate the 26 December with the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, which supplied our Christmas wassail tradition. Through the medieval English practice of distributing alms on this date, 26 December has come down to us as "Boxing Day." Certainly, Lear plays a dour Father Christmas, gifting away his power, his crown, his lands and revenues, and his daughter. But the earliest recorded reference to "boxing day" dates from 1833.  Nor was the Saturnalia (nor Christmas) the traditional occasion for gift-giving; in Rome as in Shakespeare's England, 1 January was the established date for exchanging gifts.  Furthermore, from his reading of ancient literature Shakespeare surely knew the Saturnalia was not linked to the new moon. Indeed, this holiday celebrates the last full moon of the agricultural year. The nominal date of the Saturnalia in the calendar of Numa was 14 Kalendae Januarii (19 December); in 45 BC Caesar permanently dissevered the Saturnalia from its lunar roots by fixing its date on 16 Kalendae Januarii (17 December) in his solar calendar.  Obviously, neither date closely corresponds to the 26 December.
By the Roman reckoning, the 26 December was the 7 Kalendae Januarii. Shakespeare was certainly aware that the Kalends of January -- 1 January -- had a special significance for King James that his English subjects did not share. In the wake of Caesar's calendar reform of 45 BC -- and again after Pope Gregory's reform of 1582 -- most of the Western world observed 1 January as the start of the year. But island England stubbornly continued to recognize 25 March as New Year's day, and would do so until Lord Chesterfield's reform (1752). Shakespeare could hardly have been unaware that King James opposed this archaic English practice. In December 1599, James had decreed that 1 January would be observed as New Year's day in Scotland just as it was "in all well governed countries."  This is the essential clue that allows us to identify the homologue of 26 December in the primitive lunar calendar of Lear. By the Jacobean reckoning that identified 1 January as New Year's day, the 26 December became the seventh day before the start of the New Year. In the primitive Etruscan lunar calendar adopted by Romulus and later refined by Numa Pompilius, 1 March was New Year's day. Therefore, the date in the primitive lunar calendar of Lear which corresponds to the Jacobean 26 December is the 7 Kalendae Martii, 23 February. Reckoning inclusively, 26 December and 23 February are the seventh day before the start of their respective new years. These dates have something else in common: the 26 December was the 360th day of the Jacobean year, and the 23 February was the 360th day of the primitive 360-day Roman lunar year. Because the 23 February was the last day of the year, Romans from Numa to the Caesars intercalated immediately after it. One of the principal innovations of the Julian solar calendar was its fixed length of 365.25 days. Caesar's formulation required only one intercalary day every four years and dispensed with the artificial Mercedonius. Caesar could have added this leap day in any of the twelve months of his new calendar. But he ordered the Romans to add their quadrennial leap day after 23 February, and to denote both of the next two days as 24 February. The latter of the two was known as the "bissextile" day, since both this second 24 February and the 25 February were the sixth day before the Kalends of March in a leap year.  In this way Caesar honoured the ancient tradition which had recognised 23 February as the year's last day.
We do not know whether James recognized the correlation between 26 December and the 23rd day of February in the primitive lunar calendar. But I will suggest that textual evidence in the Q1 Lear entails that Shakespeare recognized the connection and exploited its significance. As the last day of the lunar year, 23 February was associated de facto with the final moonless night of the year's final month. If Shakespeare imagined Lear dividing his kingdom on 23 February, the playwright knew from his reading of Ovid's Fasti that he could not choose a more appropriate occasion. The 23 February was the festival of the Terminalia, the feast of the god Terminus, the holy day of boundaries. According to Ovid, the Terminalia rites involved sacrifices at the headstone of Rome on the Capitoline Hill and at the boundaries of every town and village and farm.  Is it coincidence or is Shakespeare acknowledging the Terminalia when Lear begins the division of his kingdom "Of al these bounds, even from this line to this …." (1.1.64)? In the primitive lunar calendar, the night of the Terminalia was New Year's eve. Just as the Terminalia is appropriate to the division of Lear's kingdom, New Year's eve is appropriate to Lear's selection of a husband for Cordelia. In Ovid, Shakespeare read that New Year's day (1 March) was the feast of the Matronalia, when brides-to-be prayed to Juno for a worthy husband. Lear's first order -- "Attend my lords of France and Burgundy, Gloster" (1.1.35) -- signals the time is ripe for Cordelia's marriage (1.1.48). According to Ovid, the Matronalia also marked the first occasion when a father waged war against his daughters' husbands: "itum primum generis intuilit arma socer"(3.202).  Shakespeare, we can be quite certain, was keenly aware of the range of significances attaching to 1 March in the Roman calendar. Although Ovid has not been previously recognized as a source for the opening soliloquy of Richard III, the connection is unmistakable. Ovid introduced the month of March:
Bellice, depositis clipeo paulisper et hasta,
Mars, ades et nitidas casside solve comas.
forsitan ipse roges, quid sit cum Marte poetae:
a te, qui canitur, nomina mensis habet.
ipse vides manibus peragi fera bella Minervae;
num minus ingenuis artibus illa vacat?
Palladis exemplo ponendae tempora sume
cuspidis: invenies et quod inermis agas.
tum quoque inermis eras, cum te Romana sacerdos
cepit, ut huic urbi semina magna dares. (3.1.1-10) 
Hasn't Ovid's thought and diction informed Shakespeare's famous invocation of Mars:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute. (1.1.1-13)
Perhaps Shakespeare co-opted Ovid's diction because Edward IV was crowned at Westminster on 4 March 1461.  But I prefer to believe it was because "this son of York" was Earl of March.
If the primitive Roman 360-day lunar year ended on 23 February and began on 1 March, what of the five intervening days 23 - 28 February? In what is arguably the most informed work in English on the primitive Roman calendar, Michael York takes up the question of these five liminal days. York identifies the Terminalia of 23 February as "the last festival of the official Roman year as a complete or circular unit."  (See Appendix B for the connection between the Terminalia and the Tubilustria of March and May). York concludes that the five liminal days which separated the February Terminalia from the Kalends of March are homologous to the so-called "epagomenal" days that completed the 360-day Egyptian solar calendar. At the end of a year of twelve thirty-day months, the Egyptians intercalated five days devoted to ritual observance.  York suggests that in pre-Roman Italy as in Egypt, this epagomenal period was recognized as "a suspension of time within time and between time" and constituted the original carnival.  These revels began with an important festival, the Regifugium ("flight of the king") on the 6 Kalendae Marti (24 February). The "flight" may signify a temporary relaxation of rules in favor of licensed merry-making. Or the rex may have been the actual king whose temporary abdication allowed a carnival mock-king to supplant him.  If Lear divides his kingdom on the Terminalia, his excursion to his new residence with Gonorill falls on the Regifugium. Is it possible that Shakespeare was aware of this arcane ceremonial of a king's flight when he framed Lear's abrupt departure from the seat of power to a position of dependency in the home of his daughter? Could Shakespeare have known the Regifugium immediately followed the Terminalia, and that the flight of the king was a prerequisite for carnival? Indeed, there can be little doubt he did. Ovid believed the Regifugium memorialized the flight of Tarquin from Rome in AUC 240:
Nunc mihi dicenda est regis fuga: traxit ab illa
sextus ab extremo nomina mense dies.
ultima Targinius Romanae gentis habebat regna …
… dies regnis illa suprema fuit.(2.685-852) 
Shakespeare must have been familiar with this passage. Ovid's tale of the overthrow of Tarquin by Lucius Junius Brutus was a principal source for The Rape of Lucrece. But Ovid was wrong about the provenance of the Regifugium; the ancient festival dated from the founding of Rome or from the prior Etruscan period.  But Shakespeare couldn't have known that. His Lear departs to Gonorill's house on the night of the Terminalia which is the eve of the Regifugium. In the ensuing topsy-turvey, carnivalesque days following Lear's abdication, the discrowned king makes his daughters his mothers (1.4.186-7), endures the "weary negligence" of servants (1.4.49), and changes hats (and places) with his Fool (1.4.121).
Perhaps the most striking evidence that Shakespeare imagined Lear's division of the kingdom taking place on the Terminalia are the terms of Kent's banishment. In Q1 Lear allows Kent four days to prepare, a fifth day to depart, and an additional ten days' grace before the decree matures into a death-sentence - a total of fifteen days. In order to fix the limits of this interval we must remember that Leir's world is governed by a primitive lunar calendar in which the dates 24 - 28 February do not exist. In the 360-day lunar calendar the night of the Terminalia was the eve of the Kalends of March.  Consequently, if Lear gives his order of banishment during the dark of the moon on the final day of the year's last lunar month, Kent's banishment matures into a death sentence on the 14th day of year's first month; that is, on the eve of the Ides of March. This explains one of the play's nagging cruxes: why Kent chooses "Caius" as his nom de guerre. The disguised duke enters Lear's service on the eve of the Ides of March, a date forever linked in memory to Caius Julius Caesar. Shakespeare's trope allows Kent to prefigure Caesar just as Fool will prefigure Merlin at 3.2.95 in the F rewrite. On the eve of the Ides, and again on the day, Gonorill and Regan betray their trusting father (1.4, 2.2) just as Caesar's bastard son, Brutus, conspired against his father on the eve of his assassination (JC 2.1).  Appropriately, Lear proclaims Gonorill a "degenerate bastard" at 1.4.275.
But if Shakespeare construed the terms of Kent's banishment to bring him into Lear's service on the Ides of March, why does the F version of the sentence allow Kent five days to prepare, a sixth for departure, and ten additional days of grace -- an aggregate sixteen days? The answer may be this simple: Shakespeare knew that in leap years the Romans added an additional day to their calendar after 23 February but before 1 March. If Lear pronounced Kent's doom during a leap year, one additional day would be required to mature the death sentence on the Ides of March. The playwright may have amended the terms of Kent's banishment when he revised the Q1 text for performance in a leap year.
Recovering the day of Kent's entry into Lear's service allows us to identify the Roman festal roots of certain action in Act Two. Beginning on the eve of the Ides, Kent engages Oswald in a kind of two-day, cross-country horse race. Kent describes how he arrived bearing Lear's letter, first at Regan's home and then at Gloucester's, with Oswald moments behind him, "Stewd in his hast, halfe breathles, panting forth" (2.4.31). Shakespeare may have found his cue for this mock horse race in Ovid, who recorded that the Equirria, a festival of races in honor of Mars, commenced on the Ides of March.  Kent arrives at the home of Gloucester before dawn of the 17 Kalendae Aprili. Lear and his dwindling troupe arrive that evening to free Kent from the stocks (2.4.5-50). On the night of 17 - 16 Kalendae Aprili Lear and Fool brave the storm (3.2-6) and Gloucester loses his eyes (3.7). After denouncing Gloucester to Cornwall, Edmund becomes heir-apparent to his father's dukedom (3.5.18). Ironically, his promotion appears to fall on the 16 Kalendae Aprili -- the feast of the Liberalia -- the day when young men were granted the right to wear the toga virilis, which signified their entrance into manhood. 
When William Shakespeare, calendrical man, undertook to adapt the story of King Leir for a performance before King James on 26 December 1606, he encountered a nuggety problem. Throughout his career, the playwright had harnessed holy days to endue scenes in his plays with powerful religious and cultural overtones that were audible to Elizabethan playgoers whose everyday lives were regulated by the ubiquitous English church calendar. But when Shakespeare took up the story of Leir he could not, logically, infuse scenes with the subversiveness of Shrovetide as he had done at the opening of Merchant and Caesar. Nor could he enrich his dialogue with overtones of All Souls' Day, Candlemas, and Corpus Christi as he had in Hamlet. The historical Leir lived before Pope Gregory XIII, before Christ, before Julius Caesar -- before the ascendancy of any calendar of holy days which might be familiar to a typical Elizabethan audience. But Shakespeare knew King James had an eye, an ear, and a mind for calendrical details. The king who had declared 1 January the start of the civil year in Scotland and had recognized Shrovetide in the opening scenes of Merchant was an ideal auditor for Shakespeare's calendrical mischief. These considerations, I suggest, inspired the playwright to order the action of his Q1 Lear according to an obscure lunar calendar disused for more than two millennia. Working from his recollection of Plutarch and Ovid (with perhaps a dash of Livy), the playwright harmonized his plot to the primitive Roman festal calendar. Shakespeare must have known well in advance that a royal performance was scheduled for 26 December.  He recognized the feast of Saint Stephen as the 360th day of the English Julian solar year, and set the opening scenes of Lear on the 360th day of the primitive lunar year: 23 February, the feast of the Terminalia, the last dark night of the year's last moon. Then Shakespeare wittily drew attention to the Ides of March with Kent's two sentences of doom -- the first written for a common year, the second revised in a leap year.
APPENDIX A: Problems Inherent in Holinshed's Chronology.
- Holinshed believed that Jesus Christ was born in year 3967 of the world: "about the 23 yeare of the reygne of Kymbaline, and in the 42 of the Emperor Octavius Augusutus … after the building of Rome 750 … from the arrival of Brute [in Britain] 1116.  The historian also wrote that "Leir the son of Baldud was admitted Ruler over the Birtaynes in the yeere of the world 3105 at what time Joas reigned yet in Juda," and that after Leir's restoration "he ruled … by the space of two yeeres, and then died fortie yeeres after he began to raigne.  Subsequently, "Cordeilla the yongest daughter of Leir was admitted Q. … in the yeere of the world 355 [sic] before the building of Rome 54 Uzias then raigning in Juda, & Jereboan over Israell."  There are several difficulties with this chronology. Holinshed seems to say that Leir became king in 862 BC and died in 822 BC. If we read "355" as a misprint for 3155, Cordeilla succeeded Leir in 812 BC, which implies an interregnum of ten years. This seems unlikely. Further, since Holinshed thought Rome was founded in 750 BC, his Leir-Cordeilla arithmetic seems to be displaced 62 years. One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Dr. Thomas Pie, reckoned that the Annunciation to the BVM took place on the vernal equinox (25 March Julian) in the year 4020 after the beginning of the world, and that Jesus Christ was born at the winter solstice in the year of Rome 751 (Protestants) or 752 (Catholics) ab urbe condita.  Pie's date of the founding of Rome (751/2 BC) is accepted by scholars as nearly correct. But Pie's chronology differs from Holinshed's by twenty-three years. From Pie's table of rulers in Palestine we can deduce that Joash reigned in Judah 3119 - 3155. Advancing Holinshed's chronology twenty-three years sets the start of Leir's reign in 3128, which agrees with Pie. Under this scheme, Leir's death would have occurred in 3168. Allowing a ten-year interregnum would bring Cordeilla to the throne in 3178 during the reigns of Jereboam and Uzziah. Holinshed cannot be correct about Cordeilla's dates; Uzziah did not become king of Judah until eighteen years later in 3196. By modern reckoning Joash became king of Judah c. 860 BC, Jereboam became king of Israel in c. 810 BC, and Uzziah became king of Judah c. 785 BC. This would place Leir's accession to the throne c. 850 BC, and Cordeilla's c. 800 BC. Intriguingly, this sorts quite well with Holinshed's statement that Cordeilla became queen fifty-four years before the founding of Rome.
APPENDIX B: Cordelia's Unseasonable Summer
- I have suggested that Shakespeare set Lear's division of his kingdom on 23 February, the last day of the primitive lunar year, and that the principal action of Acts Two and Three takes place in March. But in 4.4, the season takes a sudden and unprepared turn. Cordelia describes her father
Crownd with rankd femiter and furrow weedes,
With hor-docks, hemlocke, netles, cookow flowers,
Darnell and all the idle weedes that grow,
In our sustayning, corne, a centurie sent forth,
Search every acre in the hie growne field,
And bring him to our eye …. (4.4.3-8)
We cannot doubt scenes 4.4 through 5.3 take place in the season of foison. But no commentator has satisfactorily explained the play's abrupt shift from the wintry night of Act Three to the high summer of Act Four. Nor is there any doubt this jarring effect is Shakespeare's device. In his source play, Leir, the correlative speech is delivered by Cambria in Scene 22:As Shakespeare found it, this passage contains no reference to plants, foison, or season. Why did the playwright intrude his reference to summer in his rewrite of the story of Leir? I believe the answer may be found in a conjunction of the Roman festal calendar, the personal history of King James, an error by Ovid, and Shakespeare's ritual of trumpets.
What strange mischance or unexpected hap
Hath thus depriv'd us of our fathers presence?
Can no man tell us what's become of him,
With whom we did converse not two dayes since?
My Lords, let every where light-horse be sent,
To scoure about through all our Regiment.
Dispatch a Poste immediately to Cornwall,
To see if any newes be of him there;
My selfe will make a strickt inquiry here,
And all about our Cities neere at hand,
Till certayne newes of his abode be brought. (1880-1890)
- The author of Leir employs trumpets to herald the entrance of the Gallian King (2388), to amplify scenes of combat (Sc. 26, 29, 31), and to signal the drama's finale (2631). In Q1 Shakespeare marks the first entrance of Lear with a "sennet" (1.1.34 SD). He employs trumpets to signal the entrance of Cornwall and Regan (2.1.80) and Gonorill (2.4.185). Then Shakespeare's trumpets are stilled. "A drum a farre off" sounds at 4.6.290, and music so soft that the Doctor calls out, "louder the musicke there" at 4.7.25. Two "Alarums" are sounded at 5.2.0 and 5.2.4, but the F text calls only for a "drumme" (5.2.0 SD). From Q1 2.4.185 until the single combat in 5.3 Shakespeare reserves his trumpets in silence. Then he employs them in a bracing ritual salvo. Shakespeare's set-piece rite of arms begins as Albany throws down his pledge and Edmund his exchange (5.3.93-97). Albany calls, "A herald ho" and Edmund "A Herald ho, a Herald" (5.3.102). Albany orders, "Come hether Herald, let the trumpet sound, And read out this" (5.3.107-8). A Captain orders, "Sound trumpet?" (5.3.109) The Herald proclaims, "If any man of qualitie or degree, in the hoast of the army, will maintaine upon Edmund supposed Earle of Gloster, that he's a manifold traitour, let him appeare at the third sound of the trumpet, he is bold in his defence" (5.3.110-14). Boldly, Edmund cries, "Sound?" -- the trumpet brays -- "Againe?" (5.3.13-4). In all, the trumpet sounds its challenge three times. Edgar enters "at the third sound, a trumpet before him" (5.3.114 SD). Finally, the combined trumpets signal the commencement of single combat between Edgar and Edmund: "trumpets, speake" (5.3.150). This elaborate rite of trumpets and martial combat not only leads to Edmund's death but seems to depurate him as well. Hearing Edgar's tale of their father's death, the wounded Edmund gasps, "This speech of yours hath moved me, and shall perchance do good" (5.3.199-200). Moments later, as Edmund pants for life he warns Albany of the writ on the lives of Cordelia and Lear (5.3.242-6). Edmund's animadversion and his confession of perfidy amplify our sense an expiatory rite has been performed.
Shakespeare certainly knew the Roman festal calendar included an important rite of purification for their war trumpets: the Tubilustrium, observed on 10 Kalendae Aprili (23 March). Of this days Ovid wrote, "Summa dies e quinque tubas lustrare canoras / admonet et forti sacrificare deo" (3.849-50). "The last day of the five [Quinquartus days honoring Minerva] reminds us to purify the melodious trumpets and to sacrifice to the strong god [Mars]."  The Tubilustrium of 23 March was the climax of the carnival period which began with the Regifugium. Ovid's calendar marks the following day, 24 March, with the letters Q. R. C. F. -- Quando Rex Comitiavit Fas -- when the king returned to the comitia. When Shakespeare drafted the Q1 Lear, I believe he initially conceived an arc of action beginning on the Terminalia 23 February and climaxing on the Tubilustrium 23 March. However, at some time during the drafting of Lear Shakespeare recalled that the 23 March was the date of Queen Elizabeth's death and James' accession to the English throne. No playwright would have wished to link James' accession day with a king gone mad, a French invasion, the murder-suicide of two princesses, the hanging of a third, etcetera. I believe that Shakespeare's solution to this dilemma was to intrude Cordelia's time-shifting speech, a gambit for which he found licence in the Fasti. According to Ovid there were two Tubilustria in the primitive Roman calendar. The first fell on 23 March, the second on 23 May. Of the second Tubilustrium Ovid wrote, "Proxima Volcani lux est. Tubilustria dicunt: / ilustrantur purae, quas facit ille, tubae" (5.725-6). "The next day belongs to Vulcan; they call it Tubilustria. The trumpets which he makes are then cleansed and purified."  Ovid follows this entry with an extraordinary misreading of the festal calendar, the second of two of Ovid's blunders which Shakespeare memorialized in Lear (the first being Ovid's association of the Regifugium with the expulsion of the Tarquins). For the date 24 May Ovid writes, "Quattuor inde notis locus est, quibus ordine lectis vel mos sacrorum vel fuga regis inest" (5.727-8). "The next place is marked by four letters, which, read in order, signify either the custom of the sacred rites or the Flight of the King [Regifugium]."  The letters to which Ovid refers -- Q. R. C. F. -- appear in association with only two dates in the Roman calendar: 24 March and 24 May. They signify Quando Rex Comitiavit Fas, when the rex sacrorum lawfully appeared in the comitia.  Ovid's reference to fuga regis suggests he believed Q. R. C. F. signified Quod Rex Comitio Fugerat, that is: when the king fled the comitia.
- Ovid mistakenly imputed a linkage between the Regifugium of 24 February and both Tubilustria. Taking a (mis)cue from Ovid, Shakespeare bypassed the first, dangerous Tubilustrium (23 March) and, by inserting Cordelia's time-shifting speech, extended the arc of action in Lear to the second Tubilustrium (23 May). Below I will identify evidence in the Q1 text that supports this inference. The month of May, not incidentally, takes its name from Maia, most beautiful of the seven sisters known as the Pleiades, whom Lear understands are not eight because they are not (1.5.38-40). Ovid recalls Maia and the Pleiades (5.83-106).  Ovid records that the Roman spring began on 9 February (2.151). The Roman summer began about the 10th of May.
- Recognizing that Shakespeare set the climactic action of Lear on the May Tubilustrium deeply enriches our understanding of the playwright's diction. When the Gentleman with the bloody knife tells Albany that Gonorill is dead "and her sister / By her is poysoned, she hath confest it," Edmund responds: "I was contracted to them both, all three / Now marie in an instant" (5.3.226-9).  In ancient Rome May was believed an ill-omened month for marriage, and weddings were deferred to June, which became forever associated with matrimony.  The Romans observed their dour feast of the dead -- the Lemuria -- on 9 May. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this somber festival from his reading of Ovid, and it may have informed his invention of the parallel Edgar-Edmund and Gonorill-Regan subplots. Both Edmund and Regan are done to death by a sibling. Ovid records that the Lemuria began as Romulus' expiatory sacrifice for killing his brother, Remus. 
- Above I offered to identify evidence in Q1 which supports the inference that Shakespeare initially conceived of the action of Lear climaxing on the first Tubilustrium of 23 March. Elsewhere I have evinced Shakespeare's habit of borrowing from Scriptural passages that were "officially" linked to dates in his plays by a state document familiar to every Elizabethan, the calendar of liturgical readings in the Book of Common Prayer.  Scholars have previously identified several of Shakespeare's Scriptural borrowings in Lear. The Book of Common Prayer's calendar of readings links some of these to the dates on which I have suggested Shakespeare set the action of Lear. For example, I have identified Lear's division of his kingdom with the Terminalia (23 February), which is also the eve of New Year's day (1 March). During the love-test scene Cordelia says
Good my lord,You have begot me, bred me, loved me,I returne those duties backe as are right fit,Obey you, love you, and most honour you ….(1.1.97-100)
Both the OT reading for 23 February (Deut. 5) and the NT reading for 1 March (Eph. 6) refer to the Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother, etc." On the eve of 1 March Gloucester laments, "the bond crackt betweene sonne and father" (1.2.116-7). The Gospel reading for 1 March was Luke 12: "The father shalbe devided against the sonne, and the sonne against the father" (Lk 12:53).  One could dismiss these echoes as coincidental were it not for a speech of Lear in 5.2 which has occasioned a good deal of scholarly debate:
Upon such sacrifices my Cordelia,The gods themselves throw incense, have I caught thee?He that parts us shall bring a brand from heavenAnd fire us hence like Foxes …. (5.2.20-3)
Muir detected in Lear's imagery an allusion to the story of Samson setting the tails of foxes afire.  Foakes identifies the appearance of "brand" as an echo of the diction of Judges 15:4-5.  In the Book of Common Prayer the OT story of Samson's foxes was calendared for 23 March. I have suggested that Shakespeare imagined the climactic action of Lear taking place on the first Tubilustrium (23 March) but shifted the date to the second Tubilustrium (23 May). I believe this borrowing from the OT reading for 23 March is a vestige of Shakespeare's original draft.
1. Unless noted otherwise, text and lineation from King Lear: 1608 (Pied Bull Quarto), ed. W.W. Greg (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964). Folio citations from The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968), p.792.
3. Although Shakespeare knew Leir lived before the founding of Rome, he allows his characters to swear by Roman deities; Jupiter, Jove, and Juno each receive at least one mention. Also by Apollo (1.1.151-2), a Roman adoptee. The playwright would have found license for this anachronism in Livy and other historians who recorded that the Romans believed their principal gods already existed -- and certain days were already sacred to them (e.g. the Lupercal) -- before the foundation of Rome. See Livy, The Romane Historie Written by T. Livius, etc., trans. Philemon Holland (London 1600), p.155. Also Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. Percival Vaughan Davies (New York: Columbia UP, 1969), 1.17.15.
12. During the lunar months of March, May, July, and October in the ancient Roman calendar, the fifteenth day was the Ides, i.e. the time of full moon. In other months, the Ides fell on the thirteenth day. Below I will cite textual evidence that 2.1 - 2.4 take place on the Ides of the month of March.
14. Text and lineation of "Leir" from Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge, 1978), 7.337. Shakespeare had recently set the opening scenes of Hamlet on the conclusion of another royal trental. Compare Claudius: "for some term / to do obsequious sorrow" (1.2.91-2) with Leir: "Thus to our griefe the obsequies performd" (1.1.1).
26. John Orrell suggests the Globe sharers consulted an almanac (or ephemerides) and so determined the ground plan for the Bankside Globe that the axis of the theater intersects the azimuth of sunrise on the Summer Solstice. The Quest for Shakespeare's Globe (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983), pp. 152ff.
27. According to Duke Theseus' melancholy opening lines, he intends to be wed to Hippolyta on a Kalends: "Four happy days bring in Another moon" (1.1.2-3). By this Shakespeare indicates that the opening scenes of MND are set under the last crescent of the old moon. His audience could infer that the fairies gather for their revels and confound the young couples in the forest during the dark of a new moon.
32. Horace records that New Year's day (1 March) was the time of gift giving in Rome: "Martiis caelebs quid agam Kalendis, quid velint flores et acerra turis plena miraris positusque carbo in caespite vivo …." "What is a bachelor doing on Matron's Day [the Matronalia], the first of March? What can it mean - this cask of incense and these flowers? Why do I lay live embers on the fresh-cut turf?" The Odes of Horace, trans. James Michie (New York: Orion P, 1963), p.197. Juvenal agrees: "imunera femineis tractat secreta kalendis" (9.53). Gives "on the Matron's Day [Matronalia], a lot of presents in secret …" The Satires of Juvenal, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1958), p.115. For the new year gift-giving tradition in medieval and Renaissance England see Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994), pp.15, 51.
37. The feast had a jocund aspect, too. Married women "entertained" their servants on the Matronalia; Regan will suggest that Gonorill has unlawfully entertained Oswald at 4.5.28. W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (London: Macmillan,1899), p.38.
38. Frazer's translation runs: "Come, warlike Mars; lay down thy shield and spear for a brief space, and from thy helmet loose thy glistering locks. Haply thou mayest ask, What has a poet to do with Mars? From thee the month which now I sing doth takes its name. Thyself dost see that fierce wars are waged by Minerva's hands. Is she for that the less at leisure for the liberal arts? After the pattern of Pallas take a time to put aside the lance. Thou shalt find something to do unarmed. Then, too, wast thou unarmed when the roman priestess captivated thee, that thou mightest bestow upon this city a great seed" (Frazer, p.121).
40. Michael York, The Roman Festival Calendar of Numa Pompilius (New York: Peter Lang,1986), p.3. I will indicate that York (and Shakespeare) recapitulated an error of Ovid when they accepted his linkage of the February Terminalia and May Tubilustrium.
44. "Now I have to tell of the Flight of the King, from it the sixth day from the end of the month has taken its name. The last to reign over the Roman people was Tarquin … That day was the last of kingly rule" (Frazer, p.107).
59. There may be other echoes of the Fasti in Lear. Ovid calls May the month Romulus granted to old men (5.75-6). Gaily, Ovid invokes the Mother of Flowers, "Mater, ades, florum, ludis celebranda iocosis!" (5.183), and retells the story of Chloris-Flora (5.193ff). Cf. Varro: "Tertius a maioribus Maius" (6.33); "The third was called Maius 'May' from the maiores 'elders ….' Kent, p.205.
61. Of May as an ill-starred month for marriage Ovid wrote "nec viduae taedis eadem nec virginis apta / tempora: quae nupsit, no diuturna fuit. / hac quoque de cause, si te proverbia tangunt, / mense malas Maio nubere volgus ait" (5.487-90). "The times are unsuitable for the marriage both of a widow and a maid: she who marries then, will not live long. For the same reason, if you give weight to proverbs, the people say bad women wed in May" (Frazer, p.297).
63. Sohmer, Mystery Play, pp.25ff. For example, in Caesar 2.1 Brutus' soliloquies and the conspirators' dialogue contain numerous borrowings from 1 Thessalonians 5, the passage prescribed for reading at the Second Lesson on the eve of the Ides of March.66. Foakes, p.336n. Samson "toke firebrands … and put a firebrand in the middes between two [foxes'] tailes. And when he had set the brandes on fire …." Geneva Bible, p.115.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).