Historical Background

Composition and early performances

Scholars believe Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of King Lear around 1605-6. The title page of the 1608 Quarto edition dates the first performance of the play to 1606. There is only evidence of one other performance of the play – in Yorkshire in 1610 – until after the Restoration.

Contemporaneous records suggest that the role of Lear was originally played by Richard Burbage, the lead actor of the King’s Men. The role of the Fool may have been written for the company’s lead comic actor, Robert Armin. However, some scholars believe that boy actor playing Cordelia may also have doubled as the Fool. This would explain the Fool’s sudden disappearance before her return.

Source material

Shakespeare's play is based on the legend of King Leir, a king of a pre-Roman and pagan Britain. The first recorded version of this story appears in Geoffrey Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, published in 1135. It was later included in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and was narrated in the poems A Mirror for Magistrates and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. An anonymous play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella, was recorded in the Stationers' Register in 1594, roughly a decade before Shakespeare’s play was first performed. Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare relied closely on this earlier version of the play when he was writing his own version.

Shakespeare’s King Lear contains significant deviations from its source material. Every other version of the story has a happy ending, with Lear being restored to the throne (although in The Faerie Queen, Cordelia is also hanged). Shakespeare introduced the tragic ending in which Lear dies, and incorporated new characters: The Earl of Kent, The Fool, and Oswald. He was also the first person to include Lear’s madness in the plot. In the original story, Lear only gives away half his kingdom, and his daughters and their husbands rebel and seize the other half. In Shakespeare’s version, Lear gives the entirety of his kingdom away, thereby more directly bringing about his own downfall.

Monmouth’s original story is set around the 8th Century BC. Shakespeare’s version does not explicitly mention a time period, although evidence from the text suggests that it is set in pagan, pre-Roman Britain.

Historical context

Both Elizabethan, and later Jacobean England under James I, were hierarchical societies. Deference and respect were shown not only to the noble and wealthy, but also to parents and the elderly. Adults would kneel to receive their father’s blessing, and children were expected to remove their caps when addressing their elders. In this context, the treatment of Lear at the hands of his daughters would have been particularly shocking.

In the year 1603, an event occurred that bears striking similarity to the story of King Lear. The eldest daughter of a gentleman named Sir Bryan Annesley tried to have him declared insane so that she could take control of his property. Annesley’s youngest daughter Cordell (a name uncannily similar to Cordelia) successfully defended her father against her sister in court. Some have conjectured that this occurrence might have prompted the 1605 publication of the anonymous play King Leir, and may even have influenced Shakespeare’ decision to write his own version.

As a member of The King’s Men, Shakespeare had a clear incentive to write a play about the negative effects of dividing up a kingdom. In 1603, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne and became James I. He immediately indicated his intention of uniting England and Scotland under a United Kingdom of Great Britain. In his first parliament, he is quoted as saying, “Hath not God first united these Two Kingdoms both in Language, Religion, and Similitude of Manners? . . . What God hath conjoined then, let no Man separate.” James I had previously written a treatise on government, in which he warned against dividing territories between children. The King’s two sons were also the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, creating a clear parallel between the political situation of the time, and Shakespeare’s play.

Publishing history

None of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts (also referred to as ‘foul papers’) have survived. However, three early published versions of the play exist. King Lear originally appeared in quarto form (a smaller text that was cheaper to publish), first in 1608 and later in 1619. The First Quarto is riddled with errors, including verse being printed as prose and prose as verse. The Second Quarto is believed to have been based on the First Quarto and corrects many of its errors. King Lear was also included in the 1623 First Folio, which is a compilation of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, released by members of the King’s Men after Shakespeare’s death. There are significant differences between the Folio and Quarto texts: the Folio lacks nearly 300 lines found in the First Quarto, and adds more than 100 lines not included in it. Their titles are also different: the First Quarto was entitled The History of King Lear and the Folio, The Tragedy of King Lear.

According to R. A. Foakes, the First Quarto and First Folio were based on different original copies of the play. Throughout its publishing history, editors have often borrowed from both the Quarto and Folio versions to produce a final text.

Adaptations

In 1681, after Charles II was restored to the throne and theatres were reopened, Nahum Tate rewrote Shakespeare’s text to give it a happy ending. In Tate’s version, Lear survived, and so did Cordelia, who also married Edgar. This version was performed for another 150 years, until Shakespeare’s original made a return in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1810, performances of King Lear ceased when King George III began to experience mental illness. However, within months of George III’s death in 1820, two professional productions of the play were staged.

The story of King Lear has been adapted multiple times since the twentieth century. Adaptations include Lear’s Daughters by the Women’s Theatre Group and Elaine Feinstein; Lear by Edward Bond (a violent and politicised reworking); and Seven Lears by Howard Barker. Other notable versions are Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Ran, Gordon Bottomley's King Lear's Wife, and Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres.

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