King Lear is set in ancient Britain, several centuries before the arrival of Christianity. In Shakespeare’s day, historians believed pre-Christian Britain had been a single united kingdom that was later divided into Britain and Scotland. When Shakespeare wrote the play, King James I ruled both England and Scotland and wanted to reunite his two kingdoms. James’s plan was vigorously opposed by both the English and the Scots. When King Lear was performed at James’s court, the King would have been pleased to see that Lear’s decision to separate the kingdom of Britain ends in disaster, implicitly suggesting the two kingdoms belong together. Even though Shakespeare’s play supports the King’s cause, the play doesn’t explicitly address the topic of reunifying contemporary Britain directly. Playwrights could be imprisoned for writing anything too political. By setting his story in the distant past, Shakespeare freed himself to tackle this important topic.
Without its pre-Christian setting, the nihilistic and despairing tone of King Lear might have been unacceptable to Shakespeare’s audience. In Shakespeare’s England, Christianity was the state religion. Most people believed that the world had been made by God. Life was meaningful and worthwhile because it was an opportunity to serve God. To publicly express the belief that life is meaningless and miserable would have turned away a vast majority of Shakespeare’s audience. King Lear is set before the arrival of Christianity in England. Its characters talk about the pagan “gods” instead of the Christian “God.” This means they can openly express the view that life is not only meaningless but cruel: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods / They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.). The play seems to endorse this point of view, by making its characters suffer horribly for no obvious reason. King Lear’s pre-Christian setting allows Shakespeare to present a bleak vision of a world devoid of meaning while avoiding religious offense.
The first half of King Lear is set in the safe, comfortable palaces of Lear, Gloucester and Lear’s daughters. However, as the play progresses, an increasing number of its scenes take place in dirty, unsafe surroundings: the heath in a violent storm, a hovel in the middle of nowhere, the fields and beaches near Dover during a military invasion. This shift from safe, interior spaces to threatening, outdoor locations reflects Lear’s gradual loss of his wealth and status. The movement from indoors to outdoors also reminds the audience that shelter and security are privileges one can lose. When Lear gives up his power, he is certain he will spend the rest of his life in comfort. Instead, he ends up in a position of less comfort and safety than he has ever experienced before. Lear’s mistake is believing that comfort and safety are guaranteed. King Lear shows that it’s all too easy for people to lose everything.