Creation of the play
Shakespeare probably created King Lear in 1605 or 1606. The play was entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1607. King Lear could not have been written before the publication in 1603 of two works which significantly influenced the language of the play, A Declaration of Popish Impostures by Samuel Harsnett, and The Essayes of Michel de Montaigne.
There are records of only two performances of King Lear. One is referred to on the titlepage of the first quarto, and mentioned in the 1607 entry on the Stationers’ Register. This was the performance by the King’s Men before King James I at Whitehall Palace on 26 December 1606. The other was a performance in 1610 for Sir Richard Cholmeley at Gowthwaite Hall, Nidderdale, in Yorkshire by a provincial company. It has been suggested that in London Richard Burbage played the title role in King Lear, and that Shakespeare created the role of the Fool for Robert Armin.
Publication in quarto and folio
There were four editions of King Lear before 1642.
On 26 November 1607 ‘a booke called Mr. William Shakespeare his historye of King Lear’ was entered on the Stationers’ Register by Nathaniel Butter and John Busby. The first quarto appeared in 1608, printed by Nicholas Okes for Butter. The second quarto appeared in 1619, but with a false imprint stating that it had been ‘printed for Nathaniel Butter’ in 1608. It was, in fact, one of a group of ten plays printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in 1619. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent.
British Library copies of King Lear contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.
Several sources were important in the creation of King Lear.
Story of the play
King Lear is set in Britain at an unspecified period in the past.
(Act 1) Lear, King of Britain, declares his intention to abdicate and divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, according to their love for him. Goneril and Regan make extravagant protestations, but Cordelia remains silent. Lear disowns Cordelia. Although she is now without a dowry, the King of France agrees to marry her. Lear divides Britain between Goneril and Regan. Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, tells his father that Edgar (Gloucester’s legitimate son) plans to kill him. Goneril quarrels with her father over his large and unruly retinue. Lear leaves her court in anger to stay with Regan.
(Act 2) Edmund tricks Edgar into fleeing from his father and the court. Edgar becomes a fugitive disguised as Poor Tom, while Edmund enters the service of Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall. Regan quarrels with Lear, and reduces his retinue. Goneril visits Regan, and the sisters together remove Lear’s retinue altogether.
3) Enraged by the treatment of his daughters, Lear walks
out into a raging storm accompanied by his Fool. His grief
and rage drive him mad. He meets Edgar as Poor Tom, and then
Gloucester who persuades him to seek shelter and safety.
When Gloucester returns to court, Regan and the Duke of Cornwall
blind him as a traitor.
(Act 5) The Duke of Cornwall has died, and Edmund has become Regan’s lover. Cordelia’s army is defeated by that of Goneril and Regan. She and Lear are imprisoned on the orders of Edmund. Goneril and Regan quarrel over Edmund. Albany accuses Edmund of treason and calls for a champion to appear against him. Edgar enters disguised in armour. He and Edmund fight, Edmund falls and Edgar reveals his identity. Goneril and Regan have killed each other, and Edmund is carried off to die. Lear enters with the dead body of Cordelia, hanged on Edmund’s orders. Lear dies of grief. Albany and Edgar are left to oversee the ravaged kingdom.
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