King Lear is generally regarded as one of William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. It is believed to have been written in 1605 and is based on the legend of King Leir, a king of pre-Roman Britain. His story had already been told in chronicles, poems and sermons, as well as on the stage, when Shakespeare undertook the task of retelling it.
After the Restoration, the play was often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its nihilistic flavour, but, since World War II, it has come to be regarded as one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements. The part of King Lear has been played by many great actors, but is generally considered a role to be taken on only by those who have reached an advanced age.
There are two significant versions of the play, The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, which appeared in quarto, and The Tragedy of King Lear which appeared in the First Folio. The two texts are commonly printed in a conflated version.
The play begins with King Lear taking the decision to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The eldest two are married while Cordelia is much sought after as a bride, partly because she is her father's favourite. However, when Lear attempts to divide his kingdom amongst his three admiring and flattering daughters, the plan backfires. Cordelia refuses to outdo the flattery of her elder sisters, as she feels it would only cheapen her true feelings to flatter him purely for reward. Lear, in a fit of pique, divides her share of the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia is banished. The King of France however marries her, even after she has been disinherited inasmuch as he sees value in her honesty or as a casus belli to subsequently invade England.
Soon after Lear abdicates the throne, he finds that Goneril and Regan have betrayed him, and arguments ensue. The Earl of Kent, who has spoken up for Cordelia and been banished for his pains, returns disguised as the servant Caius, who will "eat no fish", in order to protect the king, to whom he remains loyal. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan fall out with one another over their attraction to Edmund -- and are forced to deal with an army from France, led by Cordelia, sent to restore Lear to his throne. Eventually Goneril poisons Regan over their differences, and stabs herself when Edmund is wounded.
Another subplot involves the Earl of Gloucester, whose two sons, the good Edgar and the evil Edmund, are at loggerheads, the bastard Edmund having concocted false stories about his legitimate half-brother. Edgar is forced into exile, affecting lunacy. Edmund engages in liaisons with Goneril and Regan, and Gloucester is blinded by Regan's husband, but is saved from death by Edgar, whose voice he fails to recognise.
Lear appears in Dover, where he wanders about raving and talking to mice. Gloucester attempts to throw himself from a cliff, but is deceived by Edgar and comes off safely, encountering the King shortly after.
Besides the subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, the principal innovation Shakespeare made to this story was the death of Cordelia and Lear at the end. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this tragic ending was much criticised, and alternative versions were written and performed, in which the leading characters survived and Edgar and Cordelia were married.
Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Leir, a King of the Britons, whose tale was first written down by the twelfth century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth.
One of Shakespeare's sources was an earlier play, King Leir. In this play Cordella and the King of France serve Leir disguised as rustics. However, the ancient folk tale of Lear had existed in many versions prior to that, and it's possible that Shakespeare was familiar with them.
Shakespeare's most important source is thought to be the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, published in 1587. Holinshed himself found the story in the earlier Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was written in the 12th century.
The name of Cordelia was probably taken from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, published in 1590. Spenser's Cordelia also dies from hanging, as in King Lear.
Other likely sources are A Mirror for Magistrates (1574), by John Higgins; The Malcontent (1604), by John Marston; The London Prodigal (1605); Arcadia (1580-1590), by Sir Philip Sidney, from which Shakespeare took the main outline of the Gloucester subplot; Montaigne's Essays, which were translated into English by John Florio in 1603; An Historical Description of Iland of Britaine, by William Harrison; Remaines Concerning Britaine, by William Camden (1606); Albion's England, by William Warner, (1589); and A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures, by Samuel Harsnett (1603), which provided some of the language used by Edgar while he feigns madness.
Points of debate
Scene one features a ceremony in which King Lear bequeaths his kingdom to his daughters. The plain sense of the opening is that this is an auction giving his kingdom to the most admiring and flattering of his daughters. David Ball posits an alternate interpretation³ . He bases this analysis on the conversation between Kent and Gloucester which are the first seven lines of the play and serve to help the audience understand the context of the drama about to unfold.
Kent: I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
Gloucester: It did always seem so to us, but now in the division of the kingdom it appears not which of the Dukes he values most, for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety. (Act I, Scene I)
Ball interprets this statement to mean that the court already knows how the King is going to divide his kingdom; that the outcome of the ceremony is already decided and publicly known. If the court knows that the outcome of the contest is not going to change, then they must also be aware that it is only a formality, or in Ball's words "a public relations stunt."³
There are only two clues from the text on how ballanced the king's division of the kingdom that the audience needs to take into account for understanding the nature of this ceremony. The first is the above quoted section where Gloucester describes the shares as equal. The second in is Lear's description that while Regan's portion of the kingdom is "No less in space, validity, and pleasure/Than that conferred on Goneril." (Act I/Scene 1) but for Cordelia's "more opulent than her] sisters" (Act I/Scene 1). There is a contradiction in how the court views the coming action and how the king presents it.
Alternatively, some citation needed have suggested that the King's "contest" has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia. On receiving her proclamations of devout love and loyalty, he plans to force her into a marriage which she could not possibly object to after claiming such stolid obedience. Of course, the trap fails disastrously for all parties. It is not clear whether or not Shakespeare intended his audience to be aware of this subtext, or whether he assumed the details of the situation were not relevant.
The modern viewer of King Lear could benefit from the demystification of some subtleties in the text, as Shakespeare often brushes over details that are made clearer in his sources, and were perhaps more familiar to Elizabethan theatregoers than to modern ones.
The adaptations that Shakespeare made to the legend of King Lear to produce his tragic version are quite telling of the effect they would have had on his contemporary audience. The story of King Lear (or Leir) was familiar to the average Elizabethan theatre goer (as were many of Shakespeare's sources) and any discrepancies between versions would have been immediately apparent.
Shakespeare's tragic conclusion gains its sting from such a discrepancy. The traditional legend and all adaptations preceding Shakespeare's have it that after Lear is restored to the throne, he remains there until "made ripe for death" (Edmund Spenser). Cordelia, her sisters also deceased, takes the throne as rightful heir, but after a few years is overthrown and imprisoned by nephews, leading to her suicide.
Shakespeare shocks his audience by bringing the worn and haggard Lear onto the stage, carrying his dead youngest daughter. He taunts them with the possibility that she may live yet with Lear saying, "This feather stirs; she lives!" But Cordelia is dead.
This was indeed too bleak for some to take, even many years later. King Lear was at first unsuccessful on the Restoration stage, and it was only with Nahum Tate's happy-ending version of 1681 that it became part of the repertory. Tate's Lear, where Lear survives and triumphs, and Edgar and Cordelia get married, held the stage until 1838. Samuel Johnson endorsed the use of Tate's version in his edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765): "Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor".
Cordelia and the Fool
The character of Lear's Fool, important in the first act, disappears without explanation in the third. He appears in Act I, scene four, and disappears in Act III, scene six. His final line is "And I'll go to bed at noon", a line that many think might mean that he is to die at the highest point of his life, when he lies in prison separated from his friends.
A popular explanation for the fool's disappearance is that the actor playing the Fool also played Cordelia. The two characters are never on stage simultaneously, and dual-roling was popular in Shakespeare's time. However, the Fool would have been performed by Robert Armin, the regular clown actor of Shakespeare's company, who is unlikely to have been cast as a tragic heroine. Even so, the play does ask us to at least compare the two; Lear chides Cordelia for foolishness in Act I; chides himself as equal in folly in Act V; and as he holds the dead Cordelia in the final scene, says "And my poor fool is hanged" ("fool" could be taken as either a direct reference to the Fool, or an affectionate reference to Cordelia herself).
In Elizabethan English, "fool" was a term used to mean "child" (cf. foal). For example, in Hamlet Polonius warns Ophelia that if she doesn't keep her distance from Hamlet, she'll "tender me a fool," i.e. present him with a child. As Lear holds the dead body of Cordelia, he remembers holding her in his arms as a baby. It's understandable why Samuel Johnson found this scene unbearable. (Modern English still uses "foolish" and "childish" as near synonyms.)
Edmund (Bastard son to Gloucester)
Gloucester’s younger illegitimate son is an opportunist, whose ambitions lead him to form a union with Goneril and Regan. The injustice of Edmund’s situation fails to justify his subsequent actions. Edmund rejects the laws of state and society in favour of the laws he sees as eminently more practical and useful—the laws of superior cunning and strength. Edmund’s desire to use any means possible to secure his own needs makes him appear initially as a villain without a conscience. But Edmund has some solid economic impetus for his actions, and he acts from a complexity of reasons, many of which are similar to those of Goneril and Regan. To rid himself of his father, Edmund feigns regret and laments that his nature, which is to honour his father, must be subordinate to the loyalty he feels for his country. Thus, Edmund excuses the betrayal of his own father, having willingly and easily left his father vulnerable to Cornwall’s anger. Later, Edmund shows no hesitation, nor any concern about killing the king or Cordelia. Yet in the end, Edmund repents and tries to rescind his order to execute Cordelia and Lear, and in this small measure, he does prove himself worthy of Gloucester’s blood.
Because of primogeniture, Edmund will inherit nothing from his father. That, combined with Gloucester's poor treatment of Edmund in the opening lines of the play, give Edmund motivation to betray his brother Edgar and manipulate his way into a relationship with both Goneril and Regan. If Lear, Cordelia, and Kent represent the old ways of Monarchy, order, and a distinct Hierarchy, then Edmund is the most representative of a new order which adheres to Machiavellian thoughts which justify his betrayals. His determination to undo his brother and claim his father's title causes him to cut his own arm early in the play to make an imaginary fight between Edgar and him more convincing.
The modern text of King Lear derives from three sources: two quartos (Q), published in 1608 and 1619 respectively, and the version in the First Folio of 1623 (F). The differences between these versions are significant. Q contains 285 lines not in F; F contains around 100 lines not in Q. The early editors, beginning with Alexander Pope, simply conflated the two texts, leading to a fairly long play by the standards of the time. Although the differences between the sources were remarked on, this traditional combination remained nearly universal for centuries. As early as 1931, Madeleine Doran suggested that the two texts had basically different provenances, and that the differences between them were critically interesting. This argument, however, was not widely discussed until the late 1970s, when it was revived, principally by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor. Their thesis, while controversial, has gained significant acceptance. It posits, essentially, that Q derives from something close to Shakespeare's original papers; F, from something like a playhouse version, prepared for production by Shakespeare or someone else. In short, Q is "authorial"; F is "theatrical." In criticism, the rise of "revision criticism" has been part of the pronounced trend away from mid-century formalism. The New Cambridge Shakespeare has published separate editions of Q and F; the most recent Pelican Shakespeare edition contains both the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 Folio text; the New Arden edition edited by R.A. Foakes is not the only recent edition to offer the traditional conflated text.
Since the 1950s, there have been various "reworkings" of King Lear. These include:
Portions of a radio performance of the play on BBC Radio 3 in the UK was used by the Beatles for the song "I Am the Walrus"; it can be heard at the end of the song. The character Oswald's exhortation, "bury my body", as well as his lament, "O, untimely death!" (Act IV, Scene VI) were interpreted by fans as further pieces of evidence that band member Paul McCartney was dead.