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King Lear

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.

Early performances

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.

  • First quarto, 1608. It is now accepted that the text was printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers. It has also been suggested that this manuscript may represent a version of the play earlier than the author’s final draft.
  • Second quarto, dated 1608 on the titlepage but published in 1619. Printed from the first quarto.
  • First folio, 1623. It is now agreed that the second quarto was used in the printing of the text. It has been suggested that the printers used a transcription of an annotated copy of the second quarto, rather than the printed text. The folio text lacks nearly 300 lines found in the first quarto, and adds more than 100 lines not included there. Modern scholars regard the quarto and folio texts as two distinct plays, with the quarto text deliberately revised (possibly by Shakespeare himself) to produce the folio text.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

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.

Shakespeare’s sources

Several sources were important in the creation of King Lear.

  • The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and His Three Daughters (1605). This play, presumably that staged by the Queen’s Men and the Earl of Sussex’s Men as early as April 1594, was Shakespeare’s major source for his King Lear. He probably used the printed version rather than recalling earlier performances.

    Titlepage, The True Chronicle History of King Leir
    Titlepage, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, 1605. British Library, C.34.l.11. Larger image

  • Raphael Holinshed, The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles (1587). Shakespeare used Holinshed’s account of the Lear story, taking such details as the titles Duke of Albany and Duke of Cornwall (married to Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan respectively in the play).
  • John Higgins, The First Parte of the Mirour for Magistrates (1574). Shakespeare drew on Higgins for Goneril’s marriage to the Duke of Albany, and Cordelia’s to the King of France, as well as such details as the successive reductions in Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.

    Lear’s daughters, John Higgins, The First Parte of the Mirour for Magistrates
    Lear's daughters, John Higgins, The First Parte of the Mirour for Magistrates, 1574. British Library, C.21.c.33.(1), f. 49. Larger image

  • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1596). Spenser’s work provided Shakespeare with the name Cordelia, and the manner of her death (by hanging).
  • Sir Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1590). Book 2, chapter 10 of Sidney’s work influenced the scene in which the blinded Earl of Gloucester asks the help of his son Edgar (in disguise as Poor Tom) to commit suicide.
  • Samuel Harsnett, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). Harsnett’s work not only influenced Shakespeare’s language in King Lear, but also his characterization of Edgar as Poor Tom.
  • Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio, The Essayes or Morall, Politike and Millitarie Discourses (1603). Florio’s translation of Montaigne influenced Shakespeare’s language in King Lear.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

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.

(Act 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 4) Edgar meets his father, and Gloucester (not knowing who he is) seeks his help in committing suicide. Goneril and Edmund have become lovers, and she spurns her husband the Duke of Albany. Cordelia arrives at the head of an army to rescue Lear from Goneril and Regan. Edgar prevents his father’s suicide. He and Gloucester meet the mad Lear, and the two old men share their woes. Cordelia is reunited with her father and Lear is restored to his senses.

(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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