It comes as no shock that Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear
is full of references to mythology, particularly British folklore. At the play's foundation is the story of King Leir
, as set out by Geoffrey of Monmouth
's History of the Kings of Britian
--here we are introduced to Cordelia
, and Regan
, and of the madness of King Leir. Leir is derived from the Celtic
, god of the sea, whose distinctive trait is the desolation of his kingdom and the deaths of his children through inter-familial strife. (See The Three Sorrows of Storytelling
, Children of Llyr
, Family of Lir/Llyr/Lear
But there are other references--such as Edgar adopting the persona of Tom O'Bedlam, a figure from a (English? Scottish?) ballad, similar to Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. Moreover, when playing the role of the madman, he speaks of the Childe Roland:
Childe Rowland to the dark tower came
His song was still "Fie fo and fum
I smell the blood of a British man"
King Lear : Act 3, Scene 4
The Fool makes reference to Merlin:
I'll speak a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors' tutors;
No heretics burn'd, but wenches' suitors;
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues;
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i' the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
Then comes the time, who lives to see't,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.
Shakespeare is specific in setting this well before the time of King Arthur, which is only correct to legend. The Fool also makes reference to Albion, an ancient, poetic name for Britain.
What is most interesting is that an older version of King Lear has references to the Christian God, while Shakespeare's does not, replacing God with Jupiter, Minerva, and the like--the gods that Julius Caesar attributed to the Celts. Lear himself has been identified with Janus, god of thresholds.