King Lear

Fast facts

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the world was in lockdown, it was often discussed that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a period of quarantine in London, though it wasn’t the only play he worked on while the plague ravaged the capital.
  • The story of King Lear has been the inspiration for countless TV and film adaptations. More recently, HBO’s Succession and Danny Strong and Lee Daniels’ Empire have captivated audiences. Earlier examples include Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), and Jocelyn Moorhouse’s A Thousand Acres (1997), starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, based on the 1991 novel by Jane Smiley.
  • King Lear features more references to nature and animals than any other Shakespeare play.
  • King Lear contains the earliest known reference to the phrase ‘football player’. In the play it is used as an insult: “Thou base football player…” (Act 1, Scene 4).
  • Because King George III experienced mental illness during his lifetime, King Lear – a play about a king who goes mad – was banned from being performed during the later years of his reign.
  • The earliest version of the story of King Lear was written in 1135 and appeared in Geoffrey Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. This story, and the many adaptations that followed it, all have happy endings. Shakespeare’s play was the first version to have a tragic ending.
  • In Shakespeare’s England, limited sound and lighting effects were available to performers. To imitate the sound of a storm, thunder was created by drums, or by rolling a cannonball on a metal sheet. Lightning was created using small fireworks, called squibs.
  • One of the most iconic images in the play is of King Lear standing on a heath in the middle of a storm. However, no mention of a heath actually appears in the Quarto or Folio versions of the play. The heath was first added to the stage directions by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, and many editors since have included it in their editions of the play. In fact, throughout King Lear, the location of the action is almost never explicitly given. The play seems to exist in a nebulous, non-descript space, leaving plenty of room for interpretation and creative reimagining.
  • Popular attitudes to King Lear have shifted considerably over the last 400 years. During the Restoration, the play was disliked for its bleak outlook, and in 1681 the poet Nahum Tate rewrote it to have a happy ending. This revised version was performed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that performers reverted to the original text. Since then, King Lear has become increasingly popular – in fact, the original text has been performed more times in the last 50 years than it ever was in the 350 years prior.
  • Most modern editions of King Lear are made up of a combination of the original texts. The first version of King Lear was published in 1608, and a revised version was published in 1619. The 1623 First Folio edition is dramatically different from these earlier versions, containing roughly 100 new lines, and missing around 300 lines from the original versions, including all of Act 4, Scene 3.

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