King Lear is generally regarded as one of William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. It is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a legendary king of Brythons (Britain). There are two distinct 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 in 1608, and The Tragedy of King Lear which appeared in the First Folio in 1623, a more theatrical version. The two texts are commonly printed in a conflated version, although many modern editors have argued that each version has its individual integrity.
After the Restoration, the play was often modified by theater practitioners who disliked its nihilistic flavor, but, since World War II, it has come to be regarded as one of Shakespeare's supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship on a cosmic scale. The story of family breakdown is a universal human tragedy.
The part of King Lear has been played by many great actors, but despite the fact that Lear is an old man, it is usually not taken on by actors at an advanced age, because it is so strenuous, both physically and emotionally.
Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Leir of Britain, a King of the Britons, whose tale was first written down by the twelfth century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. 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 twelfth 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 possible 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; Michel de 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. King Lear is also a literary variant of a common fairy tale, where a father rejects his youngest daughter on the basis of a statement of her love that does not please him.
Although a precise date of composition cannot be given, many editors of the play date King Lear between 1603 and 1606. The latest it could have been written is 1606, because the Stationers' Register notes a performance on December 26, 1606. The 1603 date originates from words in Edgar's speeches which may derive from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). In his Arden edition, R.A. Foakes argues for a date of 1605-6, because one of Shakespeare's sources, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, was not published until 1605; close correspondences between that play and Shakespeare's suggest that he may have been working from a text (rather than from recollections of a performance). On the contrary, Frank Kermode, in the Riverside Shakespeare, considers the publication of Leir to have been a response to performances of Shakespeare's already-written play; noting a sonnet by William Strachey that may have verbal resemblances with Lear, Kermode concludes that "1604-5 seems the best compromise."
However, before Kenneth Muir set out the case for the play's indebtedness to Harsnett's 1603 text, a minority of scholars believed the play to be much older. In 1936, A.S. Cairncross argued that "the relationship of the two plays (Leir and Lear) has been inverted": Shakespeare's Lear came first and that the anonymous Leir is an imitation of it. One piece of evidence for this view is that in 1594, King Leir was entered into the Stationers' Register (but never published), while in the same year a play called King Leare was recorded by Philip Henslowe as being performed at the Rose theater. However, the majority view is that these two references are simply variant spellings of the same play, King Leir. In addition, Eva Turner Clark saw numerous parallels between the play and the events of 1589-90, including the Kent banishment subplot, which she believed to parallel the 1589 banishment of Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth.
The question of dating is further complicated by the question of revision.
The modern text of King Lear derives from three sources: two quartos, published in 1608 (Q1) and 1619 (Q2) respectively, and the version in the First Folio of 1623 (F1). The differences between these versions are significant. Q1 contains 285 lines not in F1; F1 contains around 100 lines not in Q1. Also, at least a thousand individual words are changed between the two texts, each text has a completely different style of punctuation, and about half the verse lines in the F1 and either printed as prose or differently divided in the Q1. The early editors, beginning with Alexander Pope, simply conflated the two texts, creating the modern version that has remained nearly universal for centuries. The conflated version is born from the presumption that Shakespeare wrote only one original manuscript, now unfortunately lost, and that the Quarto and Folio versions are distortions of that original.
As early as 1931, Madeleine Doran suggested that the two texts had basically different provenances, and that these 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 the Quarto derives from something close to Shakespeare's foul papers, and the Folio is drawn in some way from a promptbook, prepared for production either by Shakespeare's company or someone else. In short, Q1 is "authorial;" F1 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 as well as a conflated version; the New Arden edition edited by R.A. Foakes is not the only recent edition to offer the traditional conflated text.
The first recorded performance on December 26, 1606, is the only one known with certainty from Shakespeare's era. The play was revived soon after the theaters re-opened at the start of the Restoration era, and was played in its original form as late as 1675. But the urge to adapt and change that was so liberally applied to Shakespeare's plays in that period eventually settled on Lear as on other works. Nahum Tate produced his famous or infamous adaptation in 1681—he gave the play a happy ending, with Edgar and Cordelia marrying and Lear restored to kingship. This was the version acted by Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, and Edmund Kean, which earned the praise of Samuel Johnson. The original did not return to the stage until William Charles Macready's production of 1838.
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 favorite. In a fit of senile vanity, he suggests a contest–each daughter shall be accorded lands according to how much they demonstrate their love for him in speech. But the plan misfires. Cordelia refuses to outdo the insincere 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's feelings for him have turned cold, 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" (that is to say, he is a Protestant), 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, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester—and are forced to deal with an army from France, led by Cordelia, sent to restore Lear to his throne. A cataclysmic war is fought. Eventually Goneril poisons Regan over their differences, and stabs herself when Edmund is wounded.
The subplot involves the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, the good Edgar and the evil Edmund. Edmund concocts false stories about his legitimate half-brother, and Edgar is forced into exile, affecting lunacy. Edmund engages in liaisons with Goneril and Regan, and Gloucester is blinded by Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall, but is saved from death by several of Cornwall's servants, who object to the Duke's treatment of Lear; the Duke promptly kills the servant (with the help of Regan) and, after plucking out his eyes, throws Gloucester into the storm in order for him to, "smell his way to Dover."
Edgar, still under the guise of a homeless lunatic, finds Gloucester out in the storm and the Earl asks him whether he knows the way to Dover, to which Edgar replies that he will lead him. Edgar, whose voice Gloucester fails to recognize, is shaken by encountering his own, blinded father and his guise is put to the test.
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 in order to save him and comes off safely, encountering the King shortly after. Lear and Cordelia are briefly reunited and reconciled before the battle between Britain and France. After the French lose, Lear is content at the thought of living in prison with Cordelia, but Edmund gives orders for them to be executed.
Edgar, in disguise, then fights with Edmund, fatally wounding him. On seeing this, Goneril, who has already poisoned Regan out of jealousy, kills herself. Edgar reveals himself to Edmund and tells him that Gloucester has just died. On hearing about the deaths of Gloucester, Goneril, and Regan, Edmund tells Edgar of his order to have Lear and Cordelia murdered and gives orders for them to be reprieved; perhaps his one act of goodness in the entire play.
Unfortunately, the reprieve comes too late. Lear appears on stage with Cordelia's dead body in his arms, having killed the servant who hanged her, then dies himself.
Aside from 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 criticized, and alternative versions were written and performed, in which the leading characters survived and Edgar and Cordelia were married.
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, taking the form of a "love test." David Ball posits an alternate interpretation. 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.
—King Lear, 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."
There are only two clues from the text on how balanced 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 is in 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, it has been 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 theatergoers 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 theater 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's death is soon confirmed.
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 repertoire. Tate's Lear, where the king 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."
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-roles were common 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 the audience 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," that is, present him with a child. As Lear holds the dead body of Cordelia, he remembers holding her in his arms as a baby. (Modern English still uses "foolish" and "childish" as near synonyms.)
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, although at the opening of the play when Gloucester explains Edmund's illegitimacy (in his hearing) to Kent, with coarse jokes, the audience can initially feel sympathetic towards him, until his true character is revealed. Edmund rejects the laws of state and society in favor 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 honor 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 could be said to have proved himself worthy of Gloucester’s blood. However, this last act can also be viewed as a selfish act in the attempt to gain favor from the gods before his death.
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, gives Edmund motivation to betray his brother Edgar and manipulate his way into relationships 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 (his brother) and him more convincing.
A number of significant and diverse readings have emerged from eras and societies since the play was first written; evidence of the ability of Shakespeare to encompass many human experiences. The play was poorly received in the seventeenth century because the theme of fallen royalty was too close to the events of the period; the exile of the court to France. In 1681, Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear to suit the seventeenth century audience; a complete and didactic love story with the brutal scenes omitted. The plot is rewritten; Edgar has unrequited love for Cordelia, the King of France omitted.
As society and time changed to take more notice of pain and suffering, especially in the nineteenth century, more of Shakespeare's unhappy ending was reinstalled.
The twentieth century saw a number of diverse and rich readings of the play emerge as a result of the turbulent social changes of the century. A.C Bradley saw this play as an individual coming to terms with his personality; that Lear was a great man and therefore the play is almost unfathomable. The feminism movement that emerged last century interpreted that the message of the play was that chaos occurred when power was given to women and that order was restored only when men returned to power. This overshadowing message, coupled with a number of Lear's misogynist remarks has fueled this debate.
One of the most important reading of the twentieth century is the existential point of view. The threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental destruction have contributed to this reading which has gained pace throughout the century compounded by WWI, WWII, the cold war, a civil or regional war occurring in almost every year, mass genocides and the propaganda power of the mass media. These events have led to a sense that life is meaningless, has no reward and there is no justice in the universe. This is represented in the play by Edmund's rejection of the Gods, Gloucester's declaration that the Gods are cruel and unjust, and the ruthless animal imagery throughout the play—also an important feature of textual integrity. The storm scene is viewed as the center of ruthless devastation and the lack of hope and futile loss of life at the end of the play looks towards a bleak future. Interestingly, this reading can be seen as a direct contrast to the Aristotlean interpretation which suggests that the audience rejoice in the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia and although the play ends tragically, humanity has learned a lesson and looks toward a brighter future.
The Family Drama reading has also become prevalent in the twentieth century; critics suggesting that the chaos was a result of the inevitable dynamics that can emerge in any family situation. Key issues include the relationship between Lear and Goneril/Regan, between Lear and Cordelia and the relationship between Gloucester and his sons.
The play has been interpreted by many societies. Communist Russia emphasized the suffering of the common people and the oppressive nature of the monarch in Korol Lear (1970), while the Jewish community emphasized other aspects of the play.
Since the 1950s, there have been various "reworkings" of King Lear. These include:
All links retrieved April 18, 2018.
|William Shakespeare and his works|
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