Henry Irving (1838–1905) was a popular Victorian actor-manager who directed and performed in numerous Shakespeare plays throughout his career. He also campaigned for the recognition of acting as a legitimate art form like painting or music, and was a great populariser of theatre with the public.

In 1892 Irving directed and starred in a production of King Lear at the Lyceum Theatre in London. This collection item is a printed proof of the script for this production. It contains various annotations and revisions in Irving’s hand thus revealing a part of the process of preparing the play for the stage. The textual revisions include cuts, alterations and additions to dialogue, which have mostly been incorporated into the subsequent printing of this acting edition. There are also annotations relating to the development of the performance including underlining of important words or lines, stage directions and brief notes on interpretation.

Although Irving used Shakespeare’s text rather than Tate’s, he still tried to protect his audience from the play’s brutality; in heavily cutting the play for length, Irving also chose to omit ‘all superfluous horrors’, for example leaving out the scene of Gloucester’s blinding and Lear’s obsession with sexuality.

Digitsed extracts

  • pp. 17v–18: amendments to the Fool’s speech outside Goneril and Albany’s castle.
  • pp. 34–39: scene outside Regan and Cornwall’s castle. Irving adds a character note for Lear to be ‘very natural and weak’ when asking how his man came to be put in the stocks.
  • pp. 64–66: scene in the French camp where Lear and Cordelia are reunited. Irving’s annotations mark Lear’s sighs and his directions to cry and place his head on Cordelia’s breast. Irving’s performance was full of pathos and Ellen Terry, playing Cordelia, is reported to have wept real tears.