The True Chronicle History of King Leir was performed during the 1590s by the Queen’s and Sussex’s Men at the Rose Theatre. It is one of the most direct sources for Shakespeare’s play, although it has some variations, including: the plot of Gonorill and Ragan to murder Leir; a happy ending where Cordella triumphs in battle and restores her father to the throne; and the absence of the characters Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund. The True Chronicle History’s courtiers Perillus and Skalliger are the main source of inspiration for Shakespeare’s Kent and Oswald.
There is some debate as to how Shakespeare knew this play, relating to uncertainty about the date of King Lear. One theory suggests that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in or after 1605, using the published text of The True Chronicle History as a source. Another suggests that The True Chronicle History was published in 1605 to take advantage of the success of Shakespeare’s play, already being performed on the stage, and that its influence came from Shakespeare either remembering a previous performance, having previously been involved in a production, or having access to a script or draft of the text.
In this copy, someone has written ‘Wm Sheakespear’ on the title page. A subsequent hand has crossed this out and written ‘Anonymous’ instead. The extract digitised here is the opening of the play. It shows Leir in a more sympathetic light than Shakespeare’s version as he mourns his dead wife, muses on his love for his daughters, and contrives the love test for greater reason than just a whim or his own vanity. Gonorill and Ragan are immediately painted in a negative light, shown harbouring a jealous hatred for their younger sister and, on being warned about the love test by Skalliger, scheming to outdo her with their pre-prepared responses.