King Lear endorses primogeniture—the law which required all property to be passed down to the oldest male child—by showing the disastrous consequences of Lear’s decision to ignore primogeniture and divide his kingdom between several heirs. Shakespeare wrote Lear in 1605, two years after King James of Scotland became king of England as well. Like Lear, King James had three kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland) to pass on to his children. Unlike Lear, James made it clear that he intended to bequeath all three to a single heir, because he shared the widespread belief that primogeniture was essential to the strength and stability of the social order. Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom between three (and then, after Cordelia’s refusal to speak, two) heirs causes the social order to turn upside-down: the nobleman Kent becomes a servant, King Lear and the Duke of Gloucester become wandering beggars, and by the end of the play no one seems to want to be king very much – when Albany tells Kent he and Edgar must help rule, Kent says he’d rather follow Lear in death. In ignoring the laws of primogeniture, Lear has thrown the entire country into chaos.
In the character of Edmund, King Lear also illustrates a widely acknowledged problem with the primogeniture system: disinherited younger sons were prone to resentment and in some cases even revenge against their fathers and older brothers. Much of the suffering in King Lear is caused by Edmund, who is motivated by what he sees as the injustice of primogeniture, which has deprived him of the chance to inherit, “For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines/Lag of a brother” (I.ii). Under primogeniture, Edmund is doubly cursed: even if he were older than Edgar, because he is illegitimate, he still would not be eligible to inherit the kingdom. King Lear suggests that the social disruption caused by a resentful younger brother is not limited to the young man’s family. Once Edmund has successfully taken over his father’s estate, he sets his sights on overturning the social order altogether by marrying either Regan or Goneril to become king. Historically, many kings had illegitimate children, but it was rare for one to become king. One exception is William the Conqueror, also known as William the Bastard, who became king in 1066 after defeating several challengers to the throne.
In writing King Lear, Shakespeare may have been influenced by two sensational contemporary court cases which fuelled anxieties about situations where primogeniture wasn’t an option: situations where daughters inherited, or where several children shared an inheritance. The first case took place in 1603, just as King James was becoming King of England. It involved an aging nobleman, Sir Brian Annesley, the eldest of whose three daughters tried to have him declared insane in order that she could take over his property. His youngest daughter, named Cordell, successfully defended her father in court. As well as the parallels with Lear’s daughters, the maneuvering of Annesley’s eldest daughter recalls the plot Edmund attributes to Edgar: ‘I have often heard him maintain it to be fit that[…]the father should be as ward to the son and the son manage the revenue’ (I.ii.71-74). In an even more sensational case that happened twenty years before Shakespeare wrote Lear, the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Allen, divided his property between his three daughters, intending to stay with each of them in turn. In court his daughters were accused of treating Allen with scorn, depriving him of coal for his fire and insulting his servants. Allen died, just as Lear does, deeply regretting his decision.