“The wonder is, he hath endured so long”: King Lear and the Erosion of the Brutan Histories

Kim Gilchrist

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Using the plays Leir and Shakespeare’s King Lear as case studies, this article argues that the early modern performance of pre-Roman Britain should be understood as emerging from a 500-year tradition in which the British, or more properly the English and Welsh, believed themselves descended from the Trojan exile Brute. Although originating in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135), the traditional term for this account, “Galfridian”, neglects the centuries of cultural transmission through which these narratives became embedded as the authoritative version of British origins. Therefore, I propose the term “Brutan histories” in order to de-centre Geoffrey’s authorship. Brutan pageants and plays can be dated to the fifteenth century. However, by the late Elizabethan era many playgoers may have experienced a sense of dissonance as historiographers’ discovery of the histories’ fictional origins worked outwards into popular consciousness. The Jacobean moment saw renewed focus on Brutan tropes due to their rhetorical value for James VI and I’s project to unite England and Scotland. However, Leir and King Lear’s dissonant approaches to temporality, anachronism and negation may have triggered a disturbing sense of the Brutan histories’ collapse as lived history even as they were utilised in the name of British unity.

© 2019, The Author. The attached document (embargoed until 06/08/2020) is an author produced version of a paper published in SHAKESPEARE uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self- archiving policy. The final published version (version of record) is available online at the link below. Some minor differences between this version and the final published version may remain. We suggest you refer to the final published version should you wish to cite from it.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages44
Publication statusPublished - 6 Feb 2019


  • Leir
  • James I
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Anthony Munday
  • history play
  • Shakespeare
  • King Lear

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