King Lear

King Lear
"King Lear and the Fool in the Storm" by William Dyce (1806–1864)

King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The title character descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. It has been widely adapted for the stage and motion pictures, and the role of Lear has been coveted and played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.

The play was written between 1603 and 1606 and later revised. Shakespeare's earlier version, The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, was published in quarto in 1608. The Tragedy of King Lear, a more theatrical version, was included in the 1623 First Folio. Modern editors usually conflate the two, though some insist that each version has its individual integrity that should be preserved.[1]

After the Restoration, the play was often revised with a happy ending for audiences who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century Shakespeare's original version has been regarded as one of his supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear".[2]



  • Lear, King of Britain
  • Goneril (sometimes written Gonerill), eldest daughter of Lear
  • Regan, second daughter of Lear
  • Cordelia, youngest daughter of Lear[3]
  • Duke of Albany, husband to Goneril[4]
  • Duke of Cornwall, husband to Regan
  • Earl of Gloucester (sometimes written as Gloster)
  • Earl of Kent, often appearing under the guise of Caius
  • Edgar, son of Gloucester
  • Edmund (sometimes written Edmond), illegitimate son of Gloucester
  • Oswald, steward to Goneril
  • Fool
  • King of France, suitor and later husband to Cordelia
  • Duke of Burgundy, suitor to Cordelia
  • Curan, a courtier
  • Old man, tenant of 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


Cordelia's Portion by Ford Madox Brown

King Lear, who is elderly, wants to retire from power. He decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, which pleases him. For Cordelia, there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she speaks honestly but bluntly, which infuriates him. In his anger he disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Kent objects to this unfair treatment. Lear is further enraged by Kent's protests, and banishes him from the country. Cordelia's two suitors enter. Learning that Cordelia has been disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her.

Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, agreeing that Lear is old and foolish.

King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey

Edmund resents his illegitimate status, and plots to supplant his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise under the name of Caius, and Lear hires him as a servant. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to behave better and reduces his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him outlaw.

Kent meets Oswald at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall. When Lear arrives, he objects, but Regan takes the same line as Goneril. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and echoes Regan. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests against Lear's mistreatment. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets Edgar, in the guise of Tom o' Bedlam, that is, a madman. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Kent leads them all to shelter.

Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges out his eyes. As he is doing so, a servant is overcome with rage by what he is witnessing and attacks Cornwall, killing him. Regan kills the servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him; then she turns him out to wander the heath too. Edgar, in his madman's guise as Tom, meets blinded Gloucester on the heath. Gloucester begs Tom to lead him to a cliff so that he may jump to his death.

Goneril meets Edmund and discovers that she finds him more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as cowardly. Albany is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces Goneril. Kent leads Lear to the French army, which is accompanied by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and terribly embarrassed by his earlier follies. Albany leads the British army to meet the French. Regan too is attracted to Edmund, and the two sisters become jealous of each other. Goneril sends Oswald with letters to Edmund and also tells Oswald to kill Gloucester if he sees him. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. They meet Lear, who is now completely mad. Lear rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.

Lear and Cordelia by Ford Madox Brown

Oswald tries to kill Gloucester but is slain by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds a letter from Goneril to Edmund suggesting the murder of Albany. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness largely passes. Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that they fight the French invaders but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters lust for Edmund, who has made promises to both. He considers the dilemma and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives Goneril's letter to Albany. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund sends them off with secret orders for execution.

The victorious British leaders meet, and Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan collapses; Goneril has poisoned her. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears to fight Edmund and fatally stabs him in a duel. Albany shows Goneril's letter to her; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself; Gloucester dies offstage from the overwhelming shock and joy of this revelation.

Offstage, Goneril stabs herself and confesses to poisoning Regan. Dying Edmund reveals his order to kill Lear and Cordelia, but it is too late: Cordelia is dead though Lear slew the killer. Lear carries the dead Cordelia in his arms onstage. Lear recognises Kent. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but Lear is too far gone in grief and hardship. Lear collapses and dies. Albany offers to share power between Kent and Edgar. At the end, either Albany or Edgar (depending on whether one reads the Quarto or the Folio version)[5] is crowned King.


Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Celtic figure Leir of Britain, whose name may derive from the Celtic god Lir/Llŷr. Shakespeare's most important source is probably 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, that 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 Lear.

Other possible sources are the anonymous play King Leir (published in 1605); 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, Love Like Salt, Aarne-Thompson type 923, in which a father rejects his youngest daughter for a statement of her love that does not please him.[6]

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.[7]

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 (despite the fact that Cordelia was already married to the King of France).

Date and text

Title page of the first quarto edition, published in 1608

Although an exact date of composition cannot be given, many academic editors 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 26 December 1606. The 1603 date originates from words in Edgar's speeches which may derive from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603).[8] 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).[9] Conversely, 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".[10]

The modern text of King Lear derives from three sources: two quartos, published in 1608 (Q1) and 1619 (Q2)[11] 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.

Analysis and criticism

The words “nature,” “natural” and “unnatural” occur over forty times in the play. There was a debate in Shakespeare’s time about what nature really was like, a debate that pervades the play and finds symbolic expression in Lear’s changing attitude to Thunder. John F. Danby, in his Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature – A Study of King Lear (1949), argues that Lear dramatises, among other things, the current meanings of “Nature.” There are two strongly contrasting views of Nature in the play: that of the Lear party (Lear, Gloucester, Albany, Kent), exemplifying the philosophy of Bacon and Hooker, and that of the Edmund party (Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan), akin to the views later formulated by Hobbes. Along with the two views of Nature, Lear contains two views of Reason, brought out in Gloucester and Edmund’s speeches on astrology (1.2). The rationality of the Edmund party is one with which a modern audience more readily identifies. But the Edmund party carries bold rationalism to such extremes that it becomes madness: a madness-in-reason, the ironic counterpart of Lear’s “reason in madness” (IV.5.167) and the Fool’s wisdom-in-folly. This betrayal of reason lies behind the play’s later emphasis on feeling.

The two Natures and the two Reasons imply two societies. Edmund is the New Man, a member of an age of competition, suspicion, glory, in contrast with the older society which has come down from the Middle Ages, with its belief in co-operation, reasonable decency, and respect for the whole as greater than the part. King Lear is thus an allegory. The older society, that of the medieval vision, with its doting king, falls into error, and is threatened by the new machiavellianism; it is regenerated and saved by a vision of a new order, embodied in the king’s rejected daughter. Cordelia, in the allegorical scheme, is threefold: a person; an ethical principle (love); and a community. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s understanding of the New Man is so extensive as to amount almost to sympathy. Edmund is the last great expression in Shakespeare of that side of Renaissance individualism – the energy, the emancipation, the courage – which has made a positive contribution to the heritage of the West. “He embodies something vital which a final synthesis must reaffirm. But he makes an absolute claim which Shakespeare will not support. It is right for man to feel, as Edmund does, that society exists for man, not man for society. It is not right to assert the kind of man Edmund would erect to this supremacy.” [12]

The play offers an alternative to the feudal-machiavellian polarity, an alternative foreshadowed in France’s speech (I.1.245–256), in Lear and Gloucester’s prayers (III.4. 28–36; IV.1.61–66), and in the figure of Cordelia. Until the decent society is achieved, we are meant to take as role-model (though qualified by Shakespearean ironies) Edgar, "the machiavel of goodness," [13] endurance, courage and "ripeness." [14]

Since there are no literal mothers in King Lear, Coppélia Kahn[15] provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the “maternal subtext” found in the play. According to Kahn, Lear in his old age regresses to an infantile disposition, and now seeks for a love that is normally satisfied by a mothering woman. Her characterisation of Lear is that of a child being mothered, but without real mothers, his children become the daughter-mother figures. Lear’s contest of love serves as the binding agreement; his daughters will get their inheritance provided they care for him, especially Cordelia, whose “kind nursery” he will greatly depend on. Her refusal to love him more than a husband is often interpreted as a resistance from incest, but Kahn also inserts the image of a rejecting mother. The situation is now a reversal of parent-child roles, in which Lear’s madness is essentially a childlike rage from being deprived of maternal care. Even when Lear and Cordelia are captured together, this madness persists as Lear envisions a nursery in prison, where Cordelia’s sole existence is for him. However, it is Cordelia’s death that ultimately ends his fantasy of a daughter-mother, as the play ends with only male characters left.

Freud asserted that Cordelia symbolises Death. Therefore, when the play begins with Lear rejecting his daughter, it can be interpreted as him rejecting death; Lear is unwilling to face the finitude of his being. The play’s poignant ending scene, wherein Lear carries the body of his beloved Cordelia, was of great importance to Freud. In this scene, she causes in Lear a realisation of his finitude, or as Freud put it, she causes him to “make friends with the necessity of dying”.[16] It is logical to infer that Shakespeare had special intentions with Cordelia’s death, as he was the only writer to have Cordelia killed (in the version by the anonymous author, she continues to live happily, and in Holinshed’s, she restores her father and succeeds him).[citation needed]

A study by psychologist Rachel E. Goldsmith and others suggests that Lear's temporary amnesia of his daughters' betrayal is consistent with psychogenic amnesia.[17]

Points of debate


Goneril and Regan by Edwin Austin Abbey

The play opens with a formal ceremony in which King Lear seemingly divides his kingdom among his daughters according to their avowals of their love for him. If this were a 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.[18] 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.

—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.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the King's "contest" has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia.[19]

Tragic ending

King Lear mourns Cordelia's death, James Barry, 1786–1788

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 was familiar to the average English Renaissance 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 Fool, important in the first half of the play, disappears without explanation in the third act.

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 played 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).


Performance history

17th and 18th Centuries

Cover of Tate's The History of King Lear

Shakespeare wrote the role of Lear for his company's chief tragedian, Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare was incrementally writing older characters as their careers progressed.[20] It has been speculated either that the role of the Fool was written for the company's clown Robert Armin, or that it was written for performance by one of the company's boys, doubling the role of Cordelia.[21] Only one specific performance of the play during Shakespeare's lifetime is known: before the court of King James I at Whitehall on 26 December 1606.[22] Its original performances would have been at The Globe, where there were no sets in the modern sense, and characters would have signified their roles visually with props and costumes: Lear's costume, for example, would have changed in the course of the play as his status diminished: commencing in crown and regalia; then as a huntsman; raging bareheaded in the storm scene; and finally crowned with flowers in parody of his original status.[23]

All theatres were closed down by the puritan government on 6 September 1642. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, two patent companies (the King's Company and the Duke's Company) were established, and the existing theatrical repertoire divided between them.[24] And from the restoration until the mid nineteenth-century the performance history of King Lear is not the story of Shakespeare's version, but instead of The History of King Lear, a popular adaptation by Nahum Tate. Its most significant deviations from Shakespeare were to omit the Fool entirely, to introduce a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive, and to develop a love story between Cordelia and Edgar (two characters who never interact in Shakespeare) which ends with their marriage.[25] Like most Restoration adapters of Shakespeare, Tate saw himself as improving the crude works of Shakespeare's untutored genius, saying of his task that he found the tragedy: "a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolish't; yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceiv'd I had seiz'd a treasure."[26] Other changes included giving Cordelia a confidante named Arante, bringing the play closer to contemporary notions of poetic justice, and added titilating material such as amorous encounters between Edmund and both Regan and Goneril, and a scene in which Edgar rescues Cordelia from Edmund's attempted kidnap and rape.[27] The play ends with a celebration of "the King's blest Restauration", an obvious reference to Charles II.[28]

In the early 18th Century, some writers began to express objections to this (and other) Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare. For example, in The Spectator on 16 April 1711 Joseph Addison wrote "King Lear is an admirable Tragedy ... as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chymerical Notion of poetical Justice in my humble Opinion it hath lost half its Beauty." Yet on the stage, Tate's version prevailed.[29]

David Garrick was the first actor-manager to begin to cut back on elements of Tate's adaptation in favour of Shakespeare's original: he retained Tate's major changes, including the happy ending, but removed many of Tate's lines, including Edgar's closing speech.[30] He also reduced the prominence of the Edgar-Cordelia love story, in order to focus more on the relationship between Lear and his daughters.[31] His version had a powerful emotional impact: Lear driven to madness by his daughters was (in the words of one spectator, Arthur Murphy) "the finest tragic distress ever seen on any stage" and, in contrast, the devotion shown to Lear by Cordelia (a mix of Shakespeare's, Tate's and Garrick's contributions to the part) moved the audience to tears.[32]

The first professional performances of King Lear in North America are likely to have been those of the Hallam Company (later the American Company) which arrived in Virginia in 1752 and who counted the play among their repertoire by the time of their departure for Jamaica in 1774.[33]

19th Century

Charles Lamb established the Romantics' attitude to King Lear in his 1811 essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation" where he says that the play "is essentially impossible to be represented on the stage", preferring to experience it in the study. In the theatre, he argues, "to see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting" yet "while we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear, – we are in his mind, we are sustained by a granduer which baffles the malice of daughters and storms."[34]

King Lear was politically controversial during the period of George III's madness, and as a result was not performed at all in the two professional theatres of London from 1811 to 1820: but was then the subject of major productions in both, within three months of his death.[35] The nineteenth century saw the gradual reintroduction of Shakespeare's text to displace Tate's version. Like Garrick before him, John Philip Kemble had introduced more of Shakespeare's text, while still preserving the three main elements of Tate's version: the love story, the omission of the Fool, and the happy ending. Edmund Kean played King Lear with its tragic ending in 1823, but failed and reverted to Tate's crowd-pleaser after only three performances.[36] At last in 1838 William Macready at Covent Garden performed Shakespeare's version, freed from Tate's adaptions.[37] The restored character of the Fool was played by an actress, Priscilla Horton, as, in the words of one spectator, "a fragile, hectic, beautiful-faced, half-idiot-looking boy."[38] And Helen Faucit's final appearance as Cordelia, dead in her father's arms, became one of the most iconic of Victorian images.[39] John Forster, writing in the Examiner on 14 February 1838, expressed the hope that "Mr Macready's success has banished that disgrace [Tate's version] from the stage for ever."[40] But even this version was not close to Shakespeare's: the nineteenth-century actor-managers heavily cut Shakespeare's scripts: ending scenes on big "curtain effects" and reducing or eliminating supporting roles to give greater prominence to the star.[41] One of Macready's innovations – the use of Stonehenge-like structures on stage to indicate an ancient setting – proved enduring on stage into the twentieth century, and can be seen in the 1983 television version starring Laurence Olivier.[42]

In 1843, the Act for Regulating the Theatres came into force, bringing an end to the monopolies of the two existing companies and, by doing so, increased the number of theatres in London.[43] At the same time, the fashion in theatre was "pictorial": valuing visual specatcle above plot or characterisation and often required lengthy (and time consuming) scene changes.[44] For example, Henry Irving's 1892 King Lear offered spectacles such as Lear's death beneath a cliff at Dover, his face lit by the red glow of a setting sun; at the expense of cutting 46% of the text, including the blinding of Gloucester.[45] But Irving's production clearly evoked strong emotions: one spectator, Gordon Crosse, wrote of the first entrance of Lear, "a striking figure with masses of white hair. He is leaning on a huge scabbarded sword which he raises with a wild cry in answer to the shouted greeting of his guards. His gait, his looks, his gestures, all reveal the noble, imperious mind already degenerating into senile irritability under the coming shocks of grief and age."[46]

The importance of pictorialism to Irving, and to other theatre professionals of the Victorian era, is exemplified by the fact that Irving had used Ford Madox Brown's painting Cordelia’s Portion as the inspiration for the look of his production, and that the artist himself was brought in to provide sketches for the settings of other scenes.[47] A reaction against pictorialism came with the rise of reconstructive movement, believers in a simple style of staging more similar to that which would have pertained in renaissance theatres, whose chief early exponent was the actor-manager William Poel. Poel was influenced by a performance of King Lear directed by Jocza Savits at the Hoftheater in Munich in 1890, set on an apron stage with a three-tier Globe-like reconstruction theatre as its backdrop. Poel would use this same configuration for his own Shakespearean performances in 1893.[48]

20th and 21st Centuries

The character of Lear in the nineteenth century was often that of a frail old man from the opening scene, but Lears of the twentieth century often began the play as strong men displaying regal authority, including John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Donald Sinden.[49] Cordelia, also, evolved in the twentieth century: earlier Cordelias had often been praised for being sweet, innocent and modest, but twentieth-century Cordelias were often portrayed as war leaders. For example, Peggy Ashcroft, at the RST in 1950, played the role in a breastplate and carrying a sword.[50] Similarly, the Fool evolved through the course of the century, with portrayals often deriving from the music hall or circus tradition.[51]

By mid-century, the actor-manager tradition had declined, to be replaced by a structure where the major theatre companies employed professional directors as auteurs. The last of the great actor-managers, Donald Wolfit, played Lear on a Stonehenge-like set in 1944 and was praised by James Agate as "the greatest piece of Shakespearean acting since I have been privileged to write for the Sunday Times".[52] Wolfit supposedly drank eight bottles of Guinness in the course of each performance.[53]

At Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, Peter Brook (who would later film the play with the same Lear, Paul Scofield) set the action simply, against a huge, empty white stage. The effect of the scene where Lear and Gloucester meet, two tiny figures in rags in the midst of this emptiness, was said (by the scholar Roger Warren) to catch "both the human pathos ... and the universal scale ... of the scene."[54]

In 1974, Buzz Goodbody directed Lear, a deliberately appreviated title for Shakespeare's text, as the inaugural production of the RSC's studio theatre The Other Place. The performance was conceived as a chamber piece, the small intimate space and proximity to the audience enabled detailed psychological acting, which was performed with simple sets and in modern dress.[55] Peter Holland has speculated that this company/directoral decision – namely choosing to present Shakespeare in a small venue for artistic reasons when a larger venue was available – may at the time have been unprecedented.[55]

Brook's vision of the play proved influential, and directors have gone further in presenting Lear as (in the words of R. A. Foakes) "a pathetic senior citizen trapped in a violent and hostile environment". When John Wood took the role in 1990, he played the later scenes in clothes that looked like cast-offs, inviting deliberate parallels with the uncared-for in modern Western societies.[56] Indeed, modern productions of Shakespeare's plays often reflect the world in which they are performed as much as the world for which they were written: and the Moscow theatre scene in 1994 provided an example, when two very different productions of the play (those by Sergei Zhonovach and Alexei Borodin), very different from one another in their style and outlook, were both reflections on the break-up of the Soviet Union.[57]

Like other Shakespearean tragedies, King Lear has proved amenable to conversion into other theatrical traditions. In 1989, David McRuvie and Iyyamkode Sreedharan adapted the play then translated it to Malayalam, for performance in Kerala in the Kathakali tradition – which itself developed around 1600, contemporary with Shakespeare's writing. The show later went on tour, and in 2000 played at Shakespeare's Globe, completing (in Anthony Dawson's words) "a kind of symbolic circle".[58] Perhaps even more radical was Ong Keng Sen's 1997 adaptation of King Lear, which featured six actors each performing in a separate Asian acting tradition and in their own separate languages. A pivotal moment occurred when the Jingju performer playing Older Daughter (a conflation of Goneril and Regan) stabbed the Noh-performed Lear whose "falling pine" deadfall, straight face-forward into the stage, astonished the audience, in what Yong Li Lan describes as a "triumph through the moving power of noh performance at the very moment of his character's defeat".[59]

A number of women have played male roles in King Lear; most commonly the Fool, who has been played (among others) by Judy Davis and Emma Thompson but also, significantly, Lear himself, played by Marianne Hoppe in 1990 and by Kathryn Hunter in 1996-7.[60]


The first film of King Lear was a five minute German version made around 1905, which has not survived.[61] The oldest extant version is a ten-minute studio-based version from 1909 by Vitagraph, which made (in Luke McKernan's words) the "ill-advised" decision to attempt to cram in as much of the plot as possible.[62] Two silent versions, both titled Re Lear, were made in Italy in 1910. Of these, the version by director Gerolamo Lo Savio was filmed on location, and it dropped the Edgar sub-plot and used frequent intertitling to make the plot easier to follow than its Vitagraph predecessor.[63] A contemporary setting was used for Louis Feuillade's 1911 French adaptation Le Roi Lear Au Village, and in 1914 in America, Ernest Warde expanded the story to an hour, including spectacles such as a final battle scene.[64]

The only two significant big-screen performances of Shakespeare's text date from the early 1970s: Grigori Kozintsev was working on his Korol Lir[65] at the same time as Peter Brook was filming his King Lear.[66] Brook's film starkly divided the critics: Pauline Kael said "I didn't just dislike this production, I hated it!" and suggested the alternative title "Night of the Living Dead".[67] Yet Robert Hatch in The Nation thought it as "excellent a filming of the play as one can expect" and Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it "an exalting Lear, full of exquisite terror".[68] The film drew heavily on the ideas of Jan Kott, in particular his observation that King Lear was the precursor of absurdist theatre: in particular, the film has parallels with Beckett's Endgame.[69] Critics who dislike the film particularly draw attention to its bleak nature from its opening: complaining that the world of the play does not deteriorate with Lear's suffering, but commences dark, colourless and wintry, leaving (in Douglas Brode's words) "Lear, the land, and us with nowhere to go".[70] Cruelty pervades the film, which does not distinguish between the violence of ostensibly good and evil characters, presenting both savagely.[71] Paul Scofield, as Lear, eschews sentimentality: this demanding old man with a coterie of unruly knights provokes audience sympathy for the daughters in the early scenes, and his presentation explicitly rejects the tradition (as Daniel Rosenthal describes it) of playing Lear as "poor old white-haired patriarch".[72]

By contrast, Korol Lir has been praised, for example by critic Anikst Alexander, for the "serious, deeply thoughtful" even "philosophical approach" of director Grigori Kozintsev and writer Boris Pasternak. Making a thinly-veiled criticism of Brook in the process, Alexander praised the fact that there were "no attempts at sensationalism, no efforts to 'modernise' Shakespeare by introducing Freudian themes, Existentialist ideas, eroticism, or sexual perversion. [Kozintsev]... has simply made a film of Shakespeare's tragedy."[73] Dmitri Shostakovich provided an epic score, its motifs including an (increasingly ironic) trumpet fanfare for Lear, and a five-bar "Call to Death" marking each character's demise.[74] Kozintzev described his vision of the film as an ensemble piece: with Lear, played by a dynamic Yuri Yarvet, as first among equals in a cast of fully developed characters.[75] The film highlights Lear's role as king by including his people throughout the film on a scale no stage production could emulate, charting the central character's decline from their god to their helpless equal; his final descent into madness marked by his realisation that he has negelected the 'poor naked wretches'.[76] As the film progresses, ruthless characters – Goneril, Regan, Edmund – increasingly appear isolated in shots, in contrast to the director's focus, throughout the film, on masses of human beings.[77]

Jonathan Miller has twice directed Michael Hordern in the title role for English television, the first for the BBC's Play of the Month in 1975 and the second for the BBC Television Shakespeare in 1982. Horden received mixed reviews, and was considered a bold choice due to his history of taking much lighter roles.[78] Also for English television, Laurence Olivier took the role in a 1983 TV production for Granada Television. It was his last screen appearance in a Shakespearean role, its pathos deriving in part from the physical frailty of Olivier the actor.[79]

In 1985 a major screen adaptation of the play appeared: Ran, directed by Akira Kurosawa. At the time the most expensive Japanese film ever made, it tells the story of Hidetora, a fictional sixteenth-century Japanese warlord, whose attempt to divide his kingdom among his three sons leads to an estrangement with the youngest, and ultimately most loyal, of them, and eventually to civil war.[80] In contrast to the cold drab greys of Brook and Kozintsev, Kurosawa's film is full of vibrant colour: external scenes in yellows, blues and greens, interiors in browns and ambers, and Emi Wada's Oscar-winning colour-coded costumes for each family member's soldiers.[81] Hidetora has a back-story: a violent and ruthless rise to power, and the film portrays contrasting victims: the virtuous characters Sue and Tsurumaru who are able to forgive, and the vengeful Kaede (Mieko Harada), Hidetora's daughter-in-law and the film's Lady Macbeth-like villain.[82]

The play's plot, or major elements from it, have frequently been used by film makers. Joseph Mankiewicz' 1949 House of Strangers is often considered a Lear adaptation, but the parallels are more striking in its 1954 Western remake Broken Lance in which a cattle baron played by Spencer Tracy tyrannises over his three sons, of whom only the youngest, Joe, played by Robert Wagner, remains loyal.[83] A scene in which a character is threatened with blinding in the manner of Gloucester forms the climax of the 1973 parody horror Theatre of Blood.[84] Comic use is made of Sir's inability to physically carry any actress cast as Cordelia opposite his Lear in the 1983 film of the stage play The Dresser.[85] John Boorman's 1990 Where the Heart Is features a father who disinherits his three spoilt children.[86] Francis Ford Coppola deliberately incorporated elements of Lear in his 1990 sequel The Godfather Part III, including Michael Corleone's attempt to retire from crime throwing his domain into anarchy, and most obviously the death of his daughter in his arms. Parallels have also been drawn between Andy Garcia's character Vincent and both Edgar and Edmund, and between Talia Shire's character Connie and Kaede in Ran.[87]

In 1997, Jocelyn Moorhouse directed A Thousand Acres, based on Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, set in 1990s Iowa.[88] The film is described, by scholar Tony Howard, as the first adaptation to confront the play's disturbing sexual dimensions.[87] The story is told from the viewpoint of the elder two daughters, Ginny played by Jessica Lange and Rose played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who were sexually abused by their father as teenagers. Their younger sister Caroline, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh had escaped this fate and is ultimately the only one to remain loyal.[89]

The play was again adapted to the world of gangsters in Don Boyd's 2001 My Kingdom, a version which differs from all others in commencing with the Lear character, Sandeman, played by Richard Harris, in a loving relationship with his wife. But her violent death marks the start of an increasingly bleak and violent chain of events (influenced by co-writer Nick Davies' documentary book Dark Heart) which in spite of the director's denial that the film had "serious parallels" to Shakespeare's play, actually mirror aspects of its plot closely.[90] Unlike Shakespeare's Lear, but like Hidetora and Sandeman, the central character of Uli Edel's 2002 American TV adaptation King of Texas, John Lear played by Patrick Stewart, has a back-story centred on his violent rise to power. Daniel Rosenthal comments that the film was able, by reason of having been commissioned by the cable channel TNT, to include a bleaker and more violent ending than would have been possible on the national networks.[91] 2003's Channel 4-commissioned two-parter Second Generation set the story in the world of Asian manufacturing and music in England.[92]

See also



  1. ^ Taylor & Warren 1983.
  2. ^ Shaw and Wilson p.111.
  3. ^ While it has been claimed that "Cordelia" derives from the Latin "cor" (heart) followed by "delia", an anagram of "ideal", this is questionable. A more likely etymology is that her name is a feminine form of coeur de lion,meaning "lion-hearted". Another possible source is a Welsh word of uncertain meaning; it may mean "jewel of the sea" or "lady of the sea".
  4. ^ This title and the titles of nobility held by other characters are all grossly anachronistic. Their actual use did not occur till 1067–1398.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Soula Mitakidou and Anthony L. Manna, with Melpomeni Kanatsouli, Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights, p 100 ISBN 1-56308-908-4; see also D. L. Ashliman, "Love Like Salt: folktales of types 923 and 510"
  7. ^ The Role of Edmund in King Lear
  8. ^ Frank Kermode, 'King Lear', The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1249.
  9. ^ R.A. Foakes, ed. King Lear. London: Arden, 1997, 89–90.
  10. ^ Kermode, Riverside, 1250.
  11. ^ The 1619 quarto is part of William Jaggard's so-called False Folio.
  12. ^ John Danby, Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London, 1949), p.50
  13. ^ Danby, p.151
  14. ^ Danby, p.50. For B. S. Stephan's summary of John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (1949), see
  15. ^ Kahn, Coppèlia. “The Absent Mother in King Lear”. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Eds. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986. p. 33-49.
  16. ^ Writings on Art and Literature by Sigmund Freud, Foreword by Neil Hertz, Standford University Press (page 120)
  17. ^ Goldsmith, R.E., Cheit, R.E., and Wood, M.E. (2009) Evidence of Dissociative Amnesia in Science and Literature: Culture-Bound Approaches to Trauma in Pope, Poliakoff, Parker, Boynes, and Hudson (2007). Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Volume 10, Issue 3 July 2009, pp. 237 – 253, DOI: 10.1080/15299730902956572
  18. ^ Ball, David; (1983). Backwards & Forwards. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-1110-0
  19. ^ McLaughlin, John. "The Dynamics of Power in King Lear: An Adlerian Interpretation." Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978): 39.
  20. ^ Taylor, Gary (b) p.5
  21. ^ Thomson p.143; Taylor, Gary (b) p.6.
  22. ^ Shakespeare and Hunter p.45; Taylor, Gary (b) pp.18–19.
  23. ^ Gurr and Ichikawa, pp.53–54.
  24. ^ Marsden p.21.
  25. ^ Taylor, Michael pp.324–325.
  26. ^ Armstrong p.312; Jackson (c) p.190.
  27. ^ Potter p.186; Marsden p.28.
  28. ^ Marsden p.28, citing Tate's Lear line 5.6.119.
  29. ^ Cited by Marsden p.30.
  30. ^ Tatspaugh p.528.
  31. ^ Marsden p.33
  32. ^ Marsden p.30, citing Gray's Inn Journal 12 January 1754.
  33. ^ Morrison p.232.
  34. ^ Moody p.40; Shakespeare and Hunter p.50.
  35. ^ Potter p.189.
  36. ^ Potter pp.190–191; Wells (b) p.62.
  37. ^ Potter pp.190–191.
  38. ^ Potter, p.191.
  39. ^ Gay p.161.
  40. ^ Wells (b) p.73.
  41. ^ Shakespeare and Hunter p.51.
  42. ^ Shakespeare and Foakes pp.30–31.
  43. ^ Potter p.191.
  44. ^ Schoch pp.58–75 and 67.
  45. ^ Potter p.193.
  46. ^ Jackson (c) p.206.
  47. ^ Schoch p.63; and see: [1].
  48. ^ O'Connor p.78.
  49. ^ Shakespeare and Foakes p.24.
  50. ^ Shakespeare and Foakes pp.36–37.
  51. ^ Shakespeare and Foakes p.52.
  52. ^ Quoted in Wells (b) p.224; Shakespeare and Foakes p.89.
  53. ^ According to Ronald Harwood, quoted in Wells (b) p.229.
  54. ^ Warren p.266.
  55. ^ a b Holland p.211.
  56. ^ Shakespeare and Foakes pp.27–28.
  57. ^ Holland p.213.
  58. ^ Dawson p.178.
  59. ^ Lan, p.532; Gillies, Minami Li and Trivedi p.265.
  60. ^ Gay p.171.
  61. ^ Brode p.205
  62. ^ McKernan and Terris p.83
  63. ^ McKernan and Terris p.84; this version appears on the British Film Institute video compilation Silent Shakespeare (1999).
  64. ^ Brode pp.205–206.
  65. ^ The original title of this film is Cyrillic (Король Лир) and the sources anglicise it with different spellings. Rosenthal has Korol Lir, Brode has Karol Lear.
  66. ^ Brode p.206.
  67. ^ Pauline Kael's New Yorker review cited by Brode pp.206&209.
  68. ^ Both cited by Brode p.206.
  69. ^ Brode pp.206–207.
  70. ^ Brode pp.206–210, quotation p.207.
  71. ^ Rosenthal p.82.
  72. ^ Rosenthal p.83.
  73. ^ Cited by Brode p.211.
  74. ^ Rosenthal p.81
  75. ^ Brode pp.211–212.
  76. ^ Rosenthal pp.79–80; King Lear III iv 28.
  77. ^ Guntner pp.129–130.
  78. ^ McKernan and Terris pp.85–87.
  79. ^ McKernan and Terris pp.87–88.
  80. ^ Rosenthal p.84.
  81. ^ Guntner p.131; Rosenthal p.84.
  82. ^ Rosenthal pp.84–87; Jackson(b) p.225.
  83. ^ McKernan and Terris pp.84–85.
  84. ^ McKernan and Terris p.85
  85. ^ McKernan and Terris p.87
  86. ^ Howard p.308.
  87. ^ a b Howard p.299.
  88. ^ Rosenthal p.88.
  89. ^ Rosenthal pp.88–89; Brode p.217.
  90. ^ Rosenthal pp.90–91; Lehmann pp.72–89.
  91. ^ Rosenthal pp.92–93.
  92. ^ Greenhalgh and Shaughnessy p.99.

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