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King Lear
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King Lear

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 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 flavor, 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.

Table of contents
1 Characters
2 Plot
3 Sources for King Lear
4 Noteworthy innovations
5 Film adaptations
6 Notes
7 External links


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 second daughter, and wife to the Duke of Cornwall.

Cordelia ("ideal heart"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 his 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. He is one of Shakespeare's darkest, yet charismatic, villains.

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 takes rule 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 Coredila. He appears in Act I, scene four, and disappears in Act III, scene six, with no suggestion of what his destiny would be. It has been suggested that Cordelia never left England but went into disguise as Lear's Fool, unbeknown to Lear, and it wasn't until after she died and Lear is holding her dead body that he realizes that she has been his Fool, pronouncing, "And my poor Fool is hanged...."


The play begins with 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 bidder of his daughters, the plan backfires. Cordelia refuses to outdo the flattery of her elder sisters, 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 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 blindeded by Regan's husband, but is saved from death by Edgar, whose voice he fails to recognise.

The plot is extremely convoluted, and King Lear is generally regarded as a "difficult" play, with many incongruities. For example, the character of Lear's Fool, important in the first act, disappears without explanation. 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. It has also been alleged 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.

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 likely that Shakespeare was familiar with them. One of them is the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century.

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.

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; 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).

Noteworthy innovations

Confusing opening

The modern reader of King Lear could benefit from the demystification of some subtlties in the text, as Shakespeare often brushes over details that are made clearer in his sources. This is where a few of the incongruous elements of the plot can be explained.

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?" (Act I scene i line 50) This may strike us as somewhat senile, because if he has already made up his mind as to how the land is shared, the trial appears pointless. Shakespeare has overlooked (purposely or absent mindedly) the crux of the situation, which is that in another version (The True Chronicle History of King Lear - anonymous) Cordelia has already vowed to marry for love, not whoever her father should choose. 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 couldn't possibly object to after claiming such stolid obedience. Of course, the trap fails disastrously for all parties.

Tragic ending

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!" (Act V, scene iii, line 265). We then have the most devastating line ever written by The Bard: "Never, never, never, never, never!" (Act V, scene iii, line 308)

This was indeed too bleak for some to take, even many years later. Samuel Johnson wrote in his The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765) that, "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 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." Later yet, Charles Lamb wrote, "To see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting."

Film adaptations


External links