When having a close look at the English drama, it should be noted that the historical dimension of its development is essential for understanding the dynamics of its formation. In this respect, while Shakespearean influence is widely recognized, pre-Shakespearean drama should not be underestimated because of its historical impact despite the fact it is less popular. The comparison of Gorboduc and Kind Lear reveals that, by the time of Shakespeare, certain trends and plots of tragedies had already been shaped; moreover, they affected Shakespeare’s choice of sources and themes. When speaking about the two tragedies under analysis, it should be noted that they use the same pattern of a family tragedy, when greed, pride, and struggle for power ruin the bloodline. Yet, although they both use the plot that is based on feuds, betrayal, and massacres of family members, these two works have considerable differences too. King Lear is a rather reflective than didactic play that is less preoccupied by moralizing; it is a new type of drama while Gorboduc is a classical Senecan tragedy, an example of an older genre.
Similarities Between Gorboduc and King Lear
First, it should be noted that indeed there are similarities between Gorboduc and King Lear. Presumably, Shakespeare took the former as the basis for his tragedy. When looking at the two plots in a more detail, it should be admitted that there is a certain pattern that unites the two works. Gorboduc, otherwise known as Ferrex and Porrex, originally was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in 1562 in order to be staged and performed for Queen Elizabeth I. This detail is crucial because it reveals the purpose of the play, which had to go in alignment with the historical situation of the time period. It had to focus mainly on the idea that monarchy is sacred and that feuds lead to tragedy; it was supposed to warn against the danger of ambition. Showing the consequences of greed for power, the play is didactic and speaks in favor of the state’s unity, at the same time. The plot of the tragedy is based on the King Gorboduc’s decision to share his kingdom between his sons, Ferrex and Porrex, which led to feud between the two. As a result of their argument, one brother murdered the other one, and enraged Queen, killed her remaining son. The people of the kingdom could not accept these events and rebelled against their monarchs, and in the end murdered them. After the death of King and Queen, rebellion was repressed, but the people in power had fought for a long time to decide on the heir. Thus, the plot discloses the authors’ idea of a monarchy, and it should not be forgotten that the play was supposed to be approved by Queen Elizabeth I. The message of the play goes about the necessity of power’s succession rather than division; in addition, it asserts that it is the monarch’s respect for authority that ensures people’s respect for a monarch’s power in return.
Just as Gorboduc, King Lear uses a similar plot pattern, where the King resigns and divides his power and possession between his three daughters. Scholars suggest that the story used by the authors of both works is quite an ancient one, “The plots have a literary precedent in two legends found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historiae Regum Britanniae (1136)… Both legends recount the disastrous effects of an old monarch’s decision to divide his kingdom between his sons” (Martinez 100). Yet, it should be noted that, unlike Gorboduc, King Lear’s plot and message are far more layered and sophisticated. While Gorboduc deals with a social conflict and direct moral appeal, King Lear demonstrates the development of the English drama genre into a more complex entity. Therefore, despite some similarity of a plot, there is a significant difference between the two works because King Lear is not only about the importance of monarchy, but also about a personal choice and tragedy. At the same time, the similarity between the two plays lies in the fact that they are historically rooted in the events that took place in England at the time when the works were created. Thus, the problem of unity and order was an important issue in Shakespeare’s time. This fact was reflected in the play: chaos around the throne was similar to that of the epoch when the tragedy was written. At the same time, historical reference is less important to Shakespeare because his aim was to draw a universal parable of a human being and temptation of power.
When comparing Gorboduc and King Lear, it should be noted that evolution of a tragedy genre could be traced between pre-Shakespearean and Shakespearean drama. Thus, Gorboduc is labeled a Senecan play because it followed classical ancient drama traditions. Danson asserted, “Seneca’s style is declamatory and self-consciously rhetorical; his characters speak lengthily” (37). For instance, researchers point out that it contains structural elements of the Greek theater such as Chorus, which serves as a transmitter of an ethical message. Therefore, as Danson notices, whenever characters express negative emotions or intentions, they are commented in a moralizing manner. For instance, when Gorboduc is eager to revenge his son for killing his sibling, his “anger is quickly contained by the moralizing Chorus, who comes on to tell us blandly that “the lust of kingdom knows no sacred faith” and can turn child against parent, brother against brother. King Lear may include the same commonplace, but neither the play nor its massively demanding central character can be pacified with a political slogan”. Thus, it can be concluded that the moral of Gorboduc is more straightforward, as it is typical of classical Greek drama. The plots of ancient plays were known to all spectators; the pathos and ethos were at the core of each performance, and the moral message had to be explained clearly. It is quite different with King Lear; though, this makes it a more complicated work in terms of ethical message. While in Gorboduc, a message is declared, in King Lear it is implied, which makes the last a modern play. Apparently, the moral dilemma of King Lear is more controversial because the evil is not condemned directly but is presented as part of reality. Therefore, it is up to the reader to make conclusions about the characters and their actions. This approach reflects the evolution of Elizabethan English drama and literature in general. The world becomes more complex, less predictable, and the morality becomes less stable. People’s ability to think and decide on their own values is revealed as part of Renaissance ideal. However, the world is no less gloomy as it was in Gorboduc. Nevertheless, the causes for this are different: King Lear is not “like Gorboduc didactic warnings about the evils of ambition and the pitfalls of royal succession, but their deeply troubled engagement with issues of inheritance and legitimacy is a product of the troubled times”.
Thus, it would be true to say that there is a certain similarity between Gorboduc and King Lear, because they use the same literary and historical sources as background. The themes of feud, family, monarchy, and authority are raised in both plays, though they are interpreted and presented in different ways because of genre and historical differences. Based on Senecan play tradition, Gorboduc has a less complex structure but a more didactic character. It employs Chorus as a composition element that is used to declare the author’s moral position, to condemn the evil and praise the good. In contrast, King Lear does not have an aim of teaching people in a straightforward way. This tragedy is rather Shakespeare’s contemplation about human nature and the essence of power, and how easily a person is tempted by the evil. The complexity of the play’s structure and the message made King Lear a step forward in the development of the English drama.