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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 Llyr, 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.
- King Lear is ruler of Britain. He's a patriarchal figure whose misjudgement of his daughters brings about his downfall.
- Goneril is Lear's treacherous eldest daughter and wife to the Duke of Albany.
- Regan is Lear's treacherous second daughter, and wife to the Duke of Cornwall.
- Cordelia (poss. "heart of a lion" ¹) is Lear's youngest daughter.
- The Duke of Albany² is Goneril's husband. Goneril scorns him for his "milky gentleness." He turns against his wife later in the play.
- The Duke of Cornwall² is Regan's husband. He has the Earl of Kent put in the stocks, leaves Lear out on the heath during a storm, and gouges out Gloucester's eyes. After his attack on Gloucester, one of his servants attacks and mortally wounds him.
- The Earl of Gloucester² is Edgar's father, and the father of the illegitimate son, Edmund. Edmund deceives him against Edgar, and Edgar flees, taking on the disguise of Tom of Bedlam.
- The Earl of Kent² is always faithful to Lear, but he is banished by the king after he protests against Lear's treatment of Cordelia. He takes on a disguise and serves the king without letting him know his true identity.
- Edmund is Gloucester's illegitimate son. He works with Goneril and Regan to further his ambitions, and the three of them form a romantic triangle.
- Edgar is the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Disguised as Tom of Bedlam, he helps his blind father. At the end of the play, he assumes reign of the kingdom.
- Oswald is Goneril's servant, and is described as "a serviceable villain." He tries to murder Gloucester, but is instead murdered by Edgar.
- The Fool is a jester who is devoted to Lear and Cordelia. 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. The Fool and Cordelia never appear on stage together; it is likely that in original productions they were played by the same actor, Robin Armin, but some have also speculated that the characters themselves could be identical (near the end of the play, Lear says "and my poor fool is hanged", a line which could refer to the Fool, but in context is more likely to refer to the hanged Cordelia), assuming that Cordelia's frame was not too voluptious for her to conceal it beneath a tight-fitting renaissance doublet.
The play begins with the earl of Gloucester commending his bastard son Edmund to the Earl of Kent. Thereafter we find King Lear taking the decision to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom equally between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The eldest two are married, but Cordelia is much sought after as a bride, partly because she is her father's favourite. However, when Lear attempts to auction off his kingdom to the most admiring and flattering of his daughters, the plan backfires. Cordelia refuses to outdo the flattery of her elder sisters, she feels it would only cheapen her true feelings to flatter him purely for reward, and 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, sees value in her honesty and insists on wedding her, even after she has been disinherited.
Almost as soon as 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.
Sources for King Lear
King Llyr was a semi-legendary king who reigned in Cornwall and Devonshire in present-day England. According to the Historia Britonum, Llyr may have been taken as a prisoner to Rome, and this traditional lore may be the origin of Shakespeare's play. Lear may also be Lir, a god of the sea in Celtic mythology; there, Lir's children include Bran and Mannanan , eponymous creator of the Isle of Man.
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.
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; 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).
Points of debate
The modern reader 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.
Scene one features King Lear testing the extent of his daughters' loyalty and love for him. He is preparing to abdicate. Lacking a male heir, he decides to divide his land between the sisters and, for two of them, their husbands. He devises a test for them, asking "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?". This may strike us as somewhat senile, because if Lear has already made up his mind as to how the land is shared, the trial appears pointless. On the other hand, Shakespeare may have intended Lear's statement ("Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge") to have been a mere formality or piece of rhetoric. Shakespeare has overlooked (purposely or absent-mindedly) the crux of the situation, which is that in another version (the anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Leir) Cordelia has already vowed to marry for love, not whoever her father should choose, and Lear assumes that his youngest daughter will play along with his game. 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 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 Spencer). 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. A popular explanation for this 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. Without going that far, the play does ask us to at least compare the two; Lear chides Cordelia for foolishness in Act I, and chides himself as equal in folly in Act V.
A more elaborate suggestion is that Cordelia never went to France but stayed behind disguised as Lear's Fool, serving her father in much the same manner as Edgar served his father Gloucester in the subplot. It has been suggested that Cordelia was aided in this service by the King of France who was disguised as a Servant/Knight/Gentleman. It has been objected that the fool was in Lear's service long before Cordelia was dismissed, and one of Lear's knights observes, "Since my young lady [Cordelia]'s going into France, sir, the fool hath much pined away."
- 1915 - The play Hobson's Choice by Harold Brighouse is a comic version which takes place in Manchester in the 1880s. This in turn has been adapted to film numerous times, most notably by David Lean in 1954.
- 1953 - Directed by Andrew McCullough with Orson Welles as Lear. This one does not feature the subplot of Gloucester and his sons, and has Poor Tom as a character in his own right.
- 1969 - Directed by Grigori Kozintsev with Jüri Järvet as Lear, music by Dmitri Shostakovich. What makes this movie unique is the original interpretation of the King Lear's character and plot's clarity. It is considered one of the best adaptations of the tragedy by some critics. See
- 1971 - Directed by Peter Brook with Paul Scofield as Lear. The text has been severely cut and the remainder has been reassembled. All is bleak in this black and white, existential experience.
- 1974 - A live recorded performance directed by Edwin Sherin .
- 1982 - Directed by Jonathan Miller with Michael Hordern as Lear. Part of the Shakespeare Plays series, this version follows the text closely.
- 1984 - Directed by Michael Elliott with Laurence Olivier as Lear. The film begins and ends at Stonehenge, and features Diana Rigg as Regan, John Hurt as the Fool, and Robert Lindsay as Edmund.
- 1985 - Akira Kurosawa adapted King Lear for the basis of his film Ran.
- 1987 - Jean-Luc Godard's version is set in a post-apocalyptic world with Burgess Meredith as gangster Don Learo and Molly Ringwald as Cordelia.
- 1991 - A modern retelling, set on a farm in Iowa, was Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. This novel attempted to explain the elder sisters' hatred of their father, was later adapted as a 1997 film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and starring Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Colin Firth.
- 1997 - Directed by Richard Eyre with Ian Holm as Lear.
- 1999 - Starring (as Lear) and directed by Brian Blessed.
- 2002 - Patrick Stewart played John Lear in a television adaptation called King of Texas, set in frontier Texas and directed by Uli Edel.
- ¹ While it has been claimed that "Cordelia" derives from the Latin "cor" (heart) followed by "delia", an anagram of "ideal", this is highly questionable. A more likely etymology is that her name is a feminine form of coeur de lion, meaning "lion-hearted". Another possible source is a Welsh word of uncertain meaning; it may mean "jewel of the sea" or "lady of the sea."
- ² These titles are anachronistic. The first use of the title of Duke of Albany occurred in 1398. The first use of the title of Duke of Cornwall took place about 1140. The first use of the title of Earl of Gloucester took place in 1122. The first use of the title Earl of Kent was in 1067.
- the complete text of King Lear with Quarto and Folio Variations, Annotations, and Commentary
- King Lear - Project Gutenberg e-text
- The Tragedie of King Lear - HTML version of this title.
- Cordelia, King Lear and His Fool Free online book.
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