plain sense

King Lear


King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606, and is considered one of his greatest works. The play is based on the legend of King Leir of Britain. It has been widely adapted for stage and screen, with the part of Lear being played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.

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 theatre practitioners who disliked its nihilistic flavour, 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.


Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Leir. 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. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, published 1590, also contains a character named Cordelia, who also dies from hanging, as in King Leir.

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; 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.'

The source of the subplot involving Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund is a tale in Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, with a blind Paphlagonian king and his two sons, Leonatus and Plexitrus.

Date and text

Although a precise date of composition cannot be given, many editions 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 theatre. However, the majority view is that these two references are simply variant spellings of the same play, King Leir. In addition, Eva Turner Clark, an Oxfordian denier of Shakespeare's authorship 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 (see below).

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 are 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 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.

Performance history

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 theatres 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 an adaptation in 1681: he gave the play a happy ending, with Edgar and Cordelia marrying, and Lear restored to kingship. The Fool is eliminated altogether, and a confidant for Cordelia - Arante - is added. This was the version acted by Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, and Edmund Kean, and praised by Samuel Johnson. The play was suppressed in the late 18th and early 19th century by the British government, which disliked the dramatization of a mad monarch at a time when George III was insane. The original text did not return to the London stage until William Charles Macready's production of 1838. Other actors who were famous as King Lear in the nineteenth century were Samuel Phelps and Edwin Booth.

The play is among the most popular of Shakespeare’s works to be staged in the 20th century. The most famous staging may be Paul Scofield's 1962 performance as Lear, directed by Peter Brook; it was voted as the greatest performance in a Shakespearean play in the history of the RSC in a 2004 opinion poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and immortalized on film in 1971. The longest Broadway run of King Lear was the 1968 production starring Lee J. Cobb as Lear, with Stacy Keach as Edmund, Philip Bosco as Kent, and Rene Auberjonois as the Fool. It ran for 72 performances: no other Broadway production of the play has run for as many as 50 performances. A Soviet film adaptation was done by Mosfilm in 1971, directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with black-and-white photography and a score by Shostakovich. The script is based on a translation by Boris Pasternak, and Estonian actor Jüri Järvet plays the mad king.

Other famous actors to play King Lear in the twentieth century are:

The first great 21st century Lear may be Christopher Plummer, who became the first actor to receive a Tony Award nomination for playing King Lear in the 2004 Broadway production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

Other recent Lears were Stacy Keach in a production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and Kevin Kline in a critically reviled production at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Ian McKellen (who had performed the play twice before in the roles of Edgar and the Earl of Kent, winning a Drama Desk Award for the former) was also triumphant as King Lear after opening in the play at the Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company in April 2007 before taking the production on a world tour with a cast that included Romola Garai as Cordelia, Sylvester McCoy as the Fool, Frances Barber as Goneril, Monica Dolan as Regan, William Gaunt as the Earl of Gloucester and Jonathan Hyde as the Earl of Kent. It then took up residence at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, where it ended its run on 12 January 2008 and netted McKellen a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. The play was directed by Trevor Nunn and was being played alternatively with The Seagull.


  • King Lear is ruler of Britain. He is a patriarchal figure whose misjudgment of his daughters brings about his downfall.
  • Goneril (sometimes written Gonerill) 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" ) is Lear's youngest daughter and personifies truth. At the beginning of the play, she has yet to marry and has two suitors: the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France.
  • The Duke of Albany is Goneril's husband. Goneril scorns him for his "milky gentleness". He turns against his wife later in the play.
  • The Duke of Cornwall 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 Gloucester 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 O'Bedlam.
  • The Earl of Kent 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 (Caius) and serves the king without letting him know his true identity.
  • Edmund (sometimes written Edmond) 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 O'Bedlam, he helps his blind father. At the end of the play he assumes rule of the kingdom and the 'Divine Right of Kings' is restored.
  • Oswald is Goneril's servant, and is described as "a serviceable villain". He tries to murder Gloucester, but instead he is killed by Edgar.
  • The Fool is a jester who is devoted to Lear and Cordelia, although his relationships with both are quite complex. Although he misses Cordelia when she is gone, we never see the two together. He has a privileged relationship with Lear; no one else would get away with taunting him the way the Fool does, through riddles and insults. When Lear begins to consider the feelings of others and the effects of his actions, he first thinks to help the Fool.
  • King of France and Duke of Burgundy are both suitors to Cordelia, who ultimately marries the King of France.
  • Curan is a courtier.
  • Old man is a tenant to Gloucester.

A Doctor, an Officer employed by Edmund, a Gentleman attending on Cordelia, a Herald, Servants to Cornwall. Knights of Lear's Train, Officers, Messengers, Soldiers, and Attendants


The play begins with King Lear making the decision to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The eldest two are already married, while Cordelia is much sought after as a bride, partly because she is her father's favourite. It is announced that each daughter shall be accorded lands according to how much she demonstrates her love for him in speech. To his surprise Cordelia refuses to outdo the flattery of her elder sisters, as she cannot be compelled to describe her love with dishonest hyperbole. Lear, in a fit of pique, divides her share of the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia is disown. The King of France however marries her, even after she has been disinherited.

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. When Lear's daughters refuse to house his rowdy escort of knights, he rejects their suggestion of firing the knights and is turned out into the stormy darkness, along with his Fool. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan fall out with one another over their attraction to Edmund, the 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.

Meanwhile, there is the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar and Edmund. The illegitimate 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. Gloucester is confronted 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; one of the servants wounds the duke (but is killed by Regan). Cornwall plucks out Gloucester's eyes and Regan throws him out at the gates of his own castle , to "...let him smell his way to Dover". Cornwall dies of his wound shortly thereafter.

Edgar, still under the guise of a homeless lunatic, finds Gloucester out in the storm. 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 recognise, is shaken by encountering his blinded father and his guise is put to the test.

Lear appears in Dover, wandering and raving. 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 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 this, and of Goneril and Regan's deaths, Edmund tells Edgar of his order to have Lear and Cordelia murdered and gives orders for them to be reprieved.

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.

Changes from Source Material

Besides the subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his 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.

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, taking the form of a 'love test'. It cannot however be taken as an auction from the order of events. In an auction all bids are called and the lot goes to the highest bidder. Lear hears only one of his daughters' "bids" of love before awarding her "lot". If this were an auction or test, it would make most sense for Lear to hear out all three daughters before starting to divide the kingdom. 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.|30px|30px|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.

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 Early Modern 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 dead, 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 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 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 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, or it could refer to both the fool and Cordelia).

In Elizabethan English, "fool" was a term used to mean "child" (cf. foal). For example, in Hamlet, Polonius warns Ophelia that if she does not 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.

Adaptations and cultural references

  • Portions of a radio performance of the play on BBC Radio 3 in the UK were used by John Lennon in The Beatles' song "I Am the Walrus", starting at about the halfway point, but most audible towards the end and during the long fadeout. Lennon added the BBC audio (live as it was being broadcast) on a whim during mixing of the track. 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.
  • A lake in Watermead Country Park, between Birstall and Thurmaston, Leicester is named King Lear's Lake, owing to its proximity of the legendary burial tomb of King Leir. A statue in the lake depicts the final scene of Shakespeare's play.


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 17th 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 a 17th century audience: Tate's History of King Lear changed Shakespeare's tragedy into a love story with a happy ending. The plot is rewritten, though much of Shakespeare's text retained: the King of France and the Fool are omitted; Edgar saves Cordelia from ruffians on the heath; Lear defeats the assassins sent to the dungeon to kill him and Cordelia, and Edgar and Cordelia are betrothed in a final scene, where Edgar declares that "Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed.

As society and time changed to take more notice of pain and suffering, especially in the nineteenth century, Shakespeare's tragic ending was reinstalled, first, briefly, by Edmund Kean in 1823, then by William Charles Macready in 1834. Macready removed all traces of Tate in an abridged version of Shakespeare's text in 1838, and Samuel Phelps restored the complete Shakespearean version in 1845.

The only recent production of Nahum Tate's seventeenth century version of the play, History of King Lear, was staged by the Riverside Shakespeare Company in 1985, directed by W. Stuart McDowell, at The Shakespeare Center in New York City.

Critical Analysis

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. A feminist reading of the play reveals a number of Lear's misogynist remarks and has fueled the debate over whether the play's chaos occurred because power was given over to women, with order restored only when men were returned to their leadership roles.

The Family Drama reading has also become prevalent in the 20th century. King Lear can be read as being about the dynamics in the relationship between parent and children. 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 emphasised the suffering of the common people and the oppressive nature of the monarch in Korol Lear (1970).

Lear's suffering as a form of purgatory, within a shifting religious landscape in contemporary England, has also been put forward and has been extended onto other Shakespeare dramas like Hamlet.


Since the 1950s, there have been various "reworkings" of King Lear. These include:

Film adaptations

Notable performers as King Lear

See also


External links

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