King Lear

From Academic Kids

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"King Lear and the Fool in the Storm" by William Dyce (1806-1864)

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 Leir of Britain, 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 voluptuous 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 among 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, 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, 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

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

Confusing opening

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.

Tragic ending

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King Lear mourns Cordelia's death, James Barry, 1786-1788

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.".

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 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 does prove himself worthy of Gloucester’s blood.


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, among others, has published separate editions of Q and F; 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 are the major works:

Film adaptations


  • ¹ While it has been claimed that "Cordelia" derives from the Latin "cor" (heart) followed by "delia", an anagram of "ideal", this is 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.

External links

Template:Wikisourcepar Template:Wikiquote

  • 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.

Template:Shakespeareda:King Lear de:König Lear es:El rey Lear fr:Le Roi Lear fy:Kening Lear he:המלך ליר pl:Król Lear


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