King Lear is a tragedy by
William Shakespeare, considered one of his greatest works, and is ****d
on the legend of King Leir of Britain. The part of Lear has been played
by many great actors.
There are two distinct versions of the
play: The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King
Lear and His Three Daughters, which appeared in quarto in 1608, and The
Tragedy of King Lear, which appeared in the First Folio in 1623, a more
theatrical version. The two texts are commonly printed in a conflated
version, although many modern editors have argued that each version has
its individual integrity.
After the Restoration the play was
often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its nihilistic
flavour, but since World War II it has come to be regarded as one of
Shakespeare's supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted
for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and
kinship on a cosmic scale.
Cordelia's Portion by Ford Madox Brown
Cordelia's Portion by Ford Madox Brown
play is ****d on various accounts of the semi-legendary Leir.
Shakespeare's most important source is thought to be 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, which was
written in the 12th century. The name of Cordelia was probably taken
from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, published in 1590. Spenser's
Cordelia also dies from hanging, as in King Lear.
sources are A Mirror for Magistrates (1574), by John Higgins; The
Mal******* (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, where a father rejects his
youngest daughter on the basis of a statement of her love that does not
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
Date and text
Although a precise date
of composition cannot be given, many 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 December 26,
1606. The 1603 date originates from words in Edgar's speeches which may
derive from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish
Impostures (1603). 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). On the contrary, 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".
before Kenneth Muir set out the case for the play's indebtedness to
Harsnett's 1603 text, a minority of scholars believed the play to be
much older. In 1936, A.S. Cairncross argued that "the relationship of
the two plays [Leir and Lear] has been inverted": Shakespeare's Lear
came first and that the anonymous Leir is an imitation of it. One
piece of evidence for this view is that in 1594, King Leir was entered
into the Stationers' Register (but never published), while in the same
year a play called King Leare was recorded by Philip Henslowe as being
performed at the Rose theatre. However, the majority view is that
these two references are simply variant spellings of the same play,
King Leir. In addition, Eva Turner Clark, an Oxfordian denier of
Shakespeare's authorship saw numerous parallels between the play and
the events of 1589-90, including the Kent banishment subplot, which she
believed to parallel the 1589 banishment of Sir Francis Drake by Queen
The question of dating is further complicated by the question of revision (see below).
modern text of King Lear derives from three sources: two quartos,
published in 1608 (Q1) and 1619 (Q2)  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.
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.
first recorded performance on December 26, 1606 is the only one known
with certainty from Shakespeare's era. The play was revived soon after
the theatres re-opened at the start of the Restoration era, and was
played in its original form as late as 1675. But the urge to adapt and
change that was so liberally applied to Shakespeare's plays in that
period eventually settled on Lear as on other works. Nahum Tate
produced his famous — or infamous — adaptation in 1681: he gave the
play a happy ending, with Edgar and Cordelia marrying, and Lear
restored to kingship. This was the version acted by Thomas Betterton,
David Garrick, and Edmund Kean, and praised by Samuel Johnson. The play
was suppressed in the late 18th and early 19th century by the British
government, which disliked the dramatization of a mad monarch at a time
when George III was insane. The original text did not return to the
stage till William Charles Macready's production of 1838. Other
actors who were famous as King Lear in the nineteenth century were
Samuel Phelps and Edwin Booth.
The play is among the most
popular of Shakespeare’s works to be staged in the twentieth century.
The most famous staging may be Paul Scofield's 1962 performance as
Lear, directed by Peter Brook; it was voted as the greatest performance
in a Shakespearean play in the history of the RSC in a 2004 opinion
poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and immortalized on
film in 1971. The longest Broadway run of King Lear was the 1968
production starring Lee J. Cobb as Lear, with Stacy Keach as Edmund,
Philip Bosco as Kent, and René Auberjonois as the Fool. It ran for 72
performances: no other Broadway production of the play has run for as
many as 50 performances. A Soviet film adaptation was done by Mosfilm
in 1971, directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with black-and-white
photography and a score by Shostakovich. The script is ****d on a
translation by Boris Pasternak, and Estonian actor Jüri Järvet
plays the mad king.
Other famous actors to play King Lear in the twentieth century are:
* William Devlin, who starred in a drastically shortened live television version in 1948, directed by Royston Morley.
Orson Welles, who starred in another live television version (now
preserved on kinescope) in 1953 for CBS. This one severely condensed
the play to ninety minutes, and eliminated the Edgar-Edmund subplot.
Laurence Olivier, who decided to tackle the role for the second time at
the age of 75 in a television production in 1982 with an all-star cast
that included Diana Rigg, John Hurt, and Colin Blakely. Olivier had
played Lear previously in 1946, at the age of thirty-nine at the Old
Vic, but without much success. His 1982 Lear was telecast in the United
States in 1984 as a two hour and forty minute production, which was
widely acclaimed; Olivier received the last of his several Emmy Awards
as Best Actor for his performance.
* John Gielgud was 26 when he
first played Lear at the Old Vic Theatre in 1931, and played the part
in three additional stage productions. He was 90 when he took on the
part for the final time in a 1994 radio production with a cast that
included Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, and Derek Jacobi.
Welles again played Lear at the New York Civic Center in 1958, breaking
his ankle during the run and playing most of the performances in a
* Donald Wolfit was considered one of the great Lears,
keeping the role in his repertory for over ten years and playing it on
Broadway and for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
* Ian Holm won a
Laurence Olivier Award for his performance of Lear at the Royal
National Theatre and an Emmy nomination for the 1997 television
version. Minimalist sets put the focus on the acting.
* James Earl
Jones played Lear in the New York Shakespeare Festival, with Raul Julia
as Edmund, Paul Sorvino as Gloucester, and Rene Auberjonois as Edgar.
This production was videotaped and telecast in 1974 by PBS.
* Michael Hordern, who played Lear in a 1982 PBS telecast shown as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare series.
first great 21st century Lear may be Christopher Plummer, who became
the first actor to receive a Tony Award nomination for playing King
Lear in the 2004 Broadway production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
recent Lears were Stacy Keach in a production at the Goodman Theatre in
Chicago, and Kevin Kline in a critically reviled production at the New
York Shakespeare Festival.