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Materialism in Renaissance England as Seen in Utopia and King Lear

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  1. The sixteenth century, which set the stage for the Early Modern Period, was characterized by an influx of humanist ideals to England
  2. In Utopia, wealth is not eschewed entirely
  3. The society depicted in Shakespeare's King Lear is at the extreme opposite of ideals.
  4. In the end, Lear has experienced the utter betrayal of his two daughters and finds himself captured and facing prison with his one faithful daughter.
  5. As seen, William Shakespeare and Thomas More take two very different approaches to the subject of material wealth.
  6. Though Shakespeare's King Lear and More's Utopia touch on a number of themes, each author placed within the works notable emphasis on these excesses and the inherent tragedy and absurdity of wealth.

The sixteenth century, which set the stage for the Early Modern Period, was characterized by an influx of humanist ideals to England. The literature from this period takes new stances on issues that were not subjected to such intense scrutiny before. Thomas More's Utopia envisions a world entirely transformed by radical changes in institutional arrangements. The court system continued to dominate politics in England, a world with which More was intimately familiar. It was an environment of relentless squabbling, deceit, favoritism, and economic exploitation. Outside the courtly surrounding of More's peerage, William Shakespeare wrote plays and poetry that tackle salient issues of the period.

[...] usurer hangs the cozener./Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;/Robes and furred gowns hide all.? (Act IV, Scene lines 161-2) In the end, Lear has experienced the utter betrayal of his two daughters and finds himself captured and facing prison with his one faithful daughter. In the face of despair, though, he has transcended the needs of power and prestige. He becomes joyous at the thought of spending time with his daughter, free from the hassles of court life, able to observe if we were God's spies packs and sects of great ones,/That ebb and flow by the moon.? (Act Scene lines 17, 18-19) The image of the moon's cycles indicate a realization that power is temporal and that Lear now identifies it as insignificant. [...]


[...] The society depicted in Shakespeare's King Lear is at the extreme opposite of ideals. Those in power are representative of the society's values and motivated throughout by wealth and prestige. Lear himself at the beginning insists that he retain the trappings of his position, even while he has ceded his actual power to his daughters. When Lear wishes to stay with them, they refuse to allow him his entourage. First, Regan cuts his one hundred retainers to fifty, and he takes it as a personal insult. [...]

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