'The art of known and feeling sorrows': Rethinking Capitalist Transition, and the Performance of Class Politics, in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Chris J Fitter


The historiographic paradigm of early capitalist emergence through a conflict of bourgeois individualism with the traditional authority and values of the feudal warrior aristocracy proved immensely influential through the twentieth century for the reading of Shakespeare's King Lear. Tracing that mediated tradition which posited an essentially pro-feudal Lear, this essay seeks to terminate it. Sketching the new paradigm of capitalist emergence which has supplanted the old, this paper rethinks the play and its treatment of class-conflict in sharply different terms, as dramatizing the reciprocal hostility of paranoid authority and agggrieved populism around the beginning of the seventeenth century. It further argues that Shakespeare, prudentially, builds criticism of government policy into concealed stagecraft effects, scarcely visible on the page read by the censor. Through reading Lear thus in terms of historical topicality and close attention to staging, new dimensions of Shakespeare's social protest and political scepticism are recovered.


Shakespeare; King Lear; stagecraft; capitalism; feudalism; class-conflict; Poor Law.

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