King Lear, like all texts, has been interpreted in a number of ways. The way an audience reads the play is shaped by the time, place and culture in which they live. This is illustrated through the two very different readings of the play: the Elizabethan perspective and Richard Eyre's perspective. While the Elizabethan perspective, revealed through Shakespeare's use of several literary techniques, interprets the play primarily as a social tragedy. Richard Eyre's perspective revealed through the production techniques of the 1998 film version interprets the play primarily as a domestic break down. Thus, these two readings of the play, taken from two different points in history reveal how social and political context can shape very different interpretations of the one text.
When King Lear was originally written, most audiences would have interpreted it through an Elizabethan perspective. The Elizabethan society believed very strongly in social order and structure. Everything in life had its place under God in what was referred to as the "great-chain-of-being", and essentially it was a theocentric (God centered) age. Elizabethans believed that if anyone, particularly someone high up in the social hierarchy, disturbed the great-chain-of-being total chaos would result. So when Lear, the King, decides "to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths" (Act 1 scene 1, lines 34-35), the Elizabethan reading would have interpreted him as actually rejecting his God given role as head of the state and thus disturbing the natural order of society. .
Another social belief of this time that shaped the Elizabethan reading of the play was that natural order could only be maintained if reason ruled over passion within the mind of individuals. When Lear therefore decides to let his emotions rule his reasoning and rashly banishes Cordelia from the kingdom, it was not surprising that disaster resulted.