One of Shakespeare's later tragedies (see tragedy), King Lear was written around 1605 and first published in 1608 in a quarto edition entitled, 'M William Shak-spear: His True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters'. It was probably first performed at the Globe Theatre by the King's Men in 1606. Principal sources of the play are an anonymous play entitled The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir (1594), in which Lear finally regains the throne and is reunited with his daughter Cordelia, and Holinshed's Chronicles. During the 17th and 18th centuries, versions of the play with a happy ending (by Nahum Tate among others) proved very popular. The play, set in Ancient Britain, explores themes of family duty, madness, political power, vision and blindness, and appearance and reality.
Lear, aged King of a pre-Christian Britain, decides to abdicate, dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. He demands that each of them makes a declaration of love for him in return for her share. Cordelia, his youngest and only honest daughter, says that although she loves him as a father, one day she will love a husband too. Lear angrily disinherits her, and she leaves England to marry the King of France. Lear's two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, ingratiate themselves with their father by making the avowal of love he insists on, but they know nothing of love and it is mere pretence. Ambitious for power, and as ruthless as each other, the two sisters quarrel with their stubborn old father over the housing of his huge retinue of knights. Lear rages at their ingratitude; heart-broken, he rushes out into a storm, with his Fool as his only companion. Wandering about on a heath, Lear descends into madness, although insanity brings with it, in the end, a new self-knowledge and human compassion. There, he meets the ragged figure of 'Poor Tom'. 'Tom' is in reality Edgar, son of Gloucester, also banished from home. He is also the victim of family treachery after his scheming illegitimate brother Edmund falsely accuses him of plotting to kill their father. Gloucester is Lear's faithful friend, and, finding the old King on the heath, gives him shelter. The wicked Edmund discovers this and betrays his father to Regan, who with her husband, has Gloucester's eyes gouged out in punishment. Like Lear, Gloucester is also thrown out, destitute, onto the storm-ravaged heath. He meets his son Edgar, still disguised as 'Poor Tom', but does not recognize him. In despair, Gloucester asks for Edgar's help to leap from Dover Cliffs, but Edgar tricks his father out of suicide and into a stoical resignation. Cordelia, learning of her father's plight, returns from France with an army to save her father, and in a touching moment of reconciliation, meets him at Dover. The forces of Goneril and Regan defeat Cordelia's army, but evil destroys itself. Both sisters are in love with Edmund, and Goneril poisons Regan, before stabbing herself, while Edmund is killed, unrepentant, by his brother Edgar. This comes too late to save Cordelia, who has been hanged on Edmund's orders. Lear recovers his sanity only to die, overwhelmed with grief, as he cradles Cordelia's body in his arms, believing in a moment of hope that she is still breathing. The survival of Edgar points to the triumph of good over evil, and a restoration of order in the kingdom.
See alsoAlbany, Duke of, allusion, Bernhardt, Sarah, Burgundy, Duke of, Cibber, Colley, Cordelia, Cornwall, Duke of, Curan, Doctors, Edgar, Edmund, fool, Fool, France, King of, Gentleman, Gloucester, Earl of, Goneril, Heralds, Holinshed's Chronicles, Jacobean Drama, Kent, Earl of, Lear, madness, Nuncle, Officers, Old Man, Oswald, parallelism, Regan, Servants and Servingmen, Shakespeare's Plays, sub-plot, Tate, Nahum, tragedy
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Credit: Scene from King Lear by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Lithograph, 19th century / De Agostini Picture Library / A. Dagli Orti / The Bridge