About the Play
King Lear was first printed in
1608. This initial printing is now referred to as the First Quarto. Another
Quarto version was printed in 1619, and King Lear appeared again in a 1623 Folio
edition. The First Quarto contains 300 lines not found in the Folio, and the
Folio contains 100 lines not found in the First Quarto. Because many
differences exist between the Quarto and Folio editions, some recent
anthologies of Shakespeare’s works contain play text
from both editions, and may also include a conflated edition derived from a
combination of both the First Quarto and Folio versions.
the text was not printed until 1608, the play was performed in December 1606.
The exact date of composition is not known, so scholars often try to base the
point in time on references in the play itself. Because of this uncertainty and
the textual references, the composition of King Lear may have taken
place anywhere from 1604 to 1606.
The story of King Lear and his daughters was a familiar tale
in Elizabethan England, where it was generally believed to be based on
historical fact, having been taken from ancient British history. A legal case
of the times also may be due credit for contributing to the drama. In an act
that generated extensive publicity, two daughters attempted to have their
father declared insane so that they might seize his estate. The younger
daughter, Cordell, objected.
This similarity of name and plot might have
sparked some interest in resurrecting a familiar plot. However, accounts of King Lear surface in
several texts; so, Shakespeare may have turned to
other sources as well in exploring this ancient story.
Lear’s story appears in
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, published about
1135. This text includes insights into the kings of the ancient, pre-Christian Britain. Years
later, Lear’s story is repeated in Raphael Holinshed’s
1577 book, Chronicles of England, which includes an ending in which Cordelia and Lear both survive her sisters’ treachery. Cordelia succeeds her father to the throne, upon his death;
but she is later imprisoned and commits suicide. The John Higgens
1574 edition of Mirror for Magistrates introduces the name of Albany and includes a
story of Cordelia, in which she commits
suicide—something that does not occur in the older play. The Lear
story is also retold in Edmund
Spenser’s 1590 epic poem, The
Faerie Queene, where Cordelia
commits suicide by hanging. The Gloucester plot
may have been taken from Sir
1590 poem, Arcadia,
in which an old prince is blinded by his illegitimate son, but is ultimately
saved by his legitimate son. Much of the events that occur to Gloucester are derived from this source.
The True Chronicle of King Leir is first entered into
the Stationers’s register in 1594, although there is
no record of its publication until the 1605 edition appears. This source, while
containing the basic Lear story, is grounded in
Christianity, something not contained in the story of the ancient Leir or in Shakespeare’s Lear. Many scholars do find ample evidence of Christian
ideology in King Lear,
but no overt emphasis on Christianity, as there is in Shakespeare's
principle source. The old play has a happy ending, where evil is punished and
good is rewarded, thus reinforcing the Christian belief in divine justice.
Instead of proposing such easy answers, Shakespeare
leaves his audience to ponder the role of God and divine justice. As he did so
often in borrowing from sources, Shakespeare wove
threads of historical accounts and original writings to create the fabric of
his own King Lear.
By the time Shakespeare
was writing King Lear,
the English had survived years of civil war and political and religious
upheaval. Considerable turmoil followed the death of Henry VIII,
and under his oldest daughter’s rule (Mary
I), the country experienced both civil and religious chaos, with the conflict
between Catholicism and the Church of England resulting in much bloodshed.
I assumed the throne, leading to a period of extended peace. In spite of their
contentment with Elizabeth’s
rule, the populace worried significantly about England’s
future because Elizabeth
was unmarried, and she refused to select a possible heir. No citizen wanted a
repeat of the events that marked the earlier transfer of power. Thus, the lack
of an heir created fears about a possible successor to her throne, which were
finally resolved in 1603 when Elizabeth
IV of Scotland to be her heir, and eventually, the new
king of England.
The English understood that a strong country
needed an effective leader to protect it from potential invasion. Elizabeth’s
powerful leadership had saved England
when the Spanish attempted an invasion in 1588, and much of the credit for her
success was attributed to her earlier efforts to unite England and to
end the dissention that was destroying the country. No ruler would have
deliberately chosen to divide a kingdom, not after having witnessed the
conflicts that had marked England’s
recent history. The division of a country would have weakened it, leading to
squabbles between petty lords and the absence of an effective central
government, and thus, the absence of an effective defense. After this long
period of uncertainty, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan
audience would have been horrified at Lear’s choice
to divide his kingdom and so, create disunity.
Structure of the Play
Shakespeare’s King Lear is a
five-act tragedy. Most Elizabethan theatre adheres to the five-act structure,
which corresponds to divisions in the action. The first act is the Exposition,
in which the playwright sets forth the problem and introduces the main
In King Lear, Act I establishes the
nature of the conflict between Cordelia and Lear, among Goneril and Regan and Lear, and between Gloucester
and Edgar. This first act also
establishes the duplicitous, or treacherously twofold, nature of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, while demonstrating that Cordelia and Edgar
are good characters. The remainder of the play’s central characters also make
an appearance in this act.
Act II is the Complication, in which the
entanglement or conflict develops further. The erosion of Lear’s
power begins, the depth of the conflict between Lear
and his daughters is revealed, and the conspiracy that unites Goneril, Regan, and Edmund is established.
Act III is the Climax; and as the name
suggests, this is when the action takes a turning point and the crisis occurs.
In this act, Lear has been cast adrift in the storm,
and his words reveal that his mind is also now lost. Likewise, the extent of
Regan and Cornwall’s depravity is revealed as they torture Gloucester,
ultimately gouging out his eyes.
Act IV is called the Falling Action, which
signals the beginning of the play’s resolution. In this act, Edgar reunites
with his father, although Gloucester is still unaware that Edgar is his son,
and Cordelia returns to Lear, who begins to emerge
from his madness. In action that indicates the approaching downfall of the
conspirators, Cornwall’s death is revealed, and Edgar kills Oswald. The
audience sees in Act IV the tragedy overtaking the hero, as well as the efforts
in progress to aid the hero.
Act V is called the Catastrophe, wherein the
conclusion occurs. As the name suggests, this act brings closure to the play, a
resolution to the conflict, and death to the hero. As the play draws to a
close, Regan and Goneril die, Edmund is killed in a
duel with his brother, Lear and Cordelia die, and
Edgar is chosen to restore peace to the kingdom.
Students of Shakespeare’s plays quickly come
to appreciate the literary devices that the playwright employs in constructing
his tragedy. For example, most Shakespearean tragedy contains elements of comic
relief, designed to provide a sort of catharsis, a chance for the audience to
“catch its breath.” But in this case, no comic relief relieves the tension as
Lear plays out the drama that his decision has set in motion. Characters, who
in other tragedies might contain comedic elements—such as the Fool—are far
removed from comedy. The Fool’s purpose is to make Lear laugh, but instead, he
functions largely as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the action and pointing out
to Lear subtleties of his behavior and dangers that he faces. But his
compassion, tinged with sarcasm, is never funny.
Shakespeare also uses soliloquy
as an important literary device in his plays. Most Shakespearean tragedies
contain soliloquies, because they offer a way for the playwright to divulge a
character’s inner thoughts. The soliloquy requires that the character must
think that he is alone on stage, as he reveals what he is thinking for the
benefit of the audience. King Lear
contains eleven soliloquies, with Edmund using this device most often to
explain his plotting to the audience. Edgar
also uses this device several times, most notably when he explains the reasons
he will henceforth be known as Tom. A
soliloquy is different from a monologue, in which a character speaks aloud his
thoughts, but with other characters present. Shakespeare
also frequently employs the aside, in which the character addresses the audience,
but other characters are not supposed to hear. The aside allows the audience to
learn details that most of the characters on stage do not know. For example, Goneril uses an aside to reveal that she has poisoned
The double plot is another important literary
device in this play. King Lear
is the only Shakespearean tragedy to employ two similar plots, each functioning
in an almost exact parallel manner. With two plots, perfectly intertwined and
yet offering parallel lessons, Shakespeare is able to
demonstrate the tragic consequences that result when man’s law is given
precedence over natural law. Eventually, Gloucester
and Lear learn the importance of natural law with
both finally turning to nature to find answers for why their children have
betrayed them. Their counterparts, Edmund, Goneril,
Regan, and Cornwall,
represent the evil that functions in violation of natural law.
The double plot serves an important function,
emphasizing natural law as an essential facet of both plots. Shakespeare
then uses the two plots to point to how essential an acknowledgment of natural
law is in a moral society. In both plots, the absence of natural law is
destructive, and ultimately even those who are good cannot act to save Cordelia or the other good characters from the ravages of
evil and tyranny.
Shakespeare’s use of doubling
appears throughout King Lear.
For example, Kent’s true
loyalty to the king is paralleled by Oswald’s
corrupt loyalty to Goneril. Lear
also has two sons-in-law. Regan’s husband is the cruel Cornwall, whose only interest is in
furthering his own ambitions. He has no real interest in the well-being of the
kingdom, and sacrificing Lear is an acceptable price
to pay to gain the power he desires. Cornwall’s
parallel is Goneril’s husband, Albany, who has no personal ambitions or
thoughts of personal glory. Albany’s
goal is to preserve the kingdom and save Lear’s
Still another set of doubles is France and Burgundy, whose response to Cordelia’s loss of dowry differs in drastic ways. Where Burgundy has no use for a Cordelia
who lacks money, land, and rank, France is willing to take
Cordelia, even if she has no material possessions.
Thus, France who sees Cordelia
as representing the greatest riches that her father possesses, is a contrasting
double for the self-serving Burgundy.
Shakespeare wrote most of this
play in verse, using iambic pentameter, which sometimes intimidates the
playwright’s audiences. Iambic pentameter is a literary term that defines the
play’s meter and the stresses placed on each syllable. In iambic pentameter,
each complete line contains ten syllables, with each pair of syllables
containing both an accented syllable and an unaccented syllable. Many
Renaissance poets used iambic pentameter because the alternating stresses
create a rhythm that contributes to the beauty of the play’s language. Shakespeare also includes prose passages in his plays, with
prose lines being spoken by characters of lower social rank. In King Lear, Edgar speaks prose when he is disguised as Tom; when he reemerges as Edgar,
he resumes speaking in verse.
A Shakespearean glossary can help in
understanding the language, but the biggest assist comes with practice. Reading and listening to Shakespeare’s words becomes easier with repeated exposure. Reading aloud also helps in
becoming familiar with Early Modern English. Over time, the unfamiliar language
and the rhetorical devices that Shakespeare employs
in writing his texts will cease to be strange, and the language will assume the
beauty that was always hidden within it.
A Brief Synopsis
King Lear opens with a conversation between the
earls of Kent
and Gloucester, in which the audience learns
has two sons: Edgar, who is his
legitimate heir, and Edmund, his younger illegitimate son. This information
will provide the secondary or subplot. Next, King Lear enters to state that he intends to
remove himself from life’s duties and concerns. Pointing at a map, Lear tells those in attendance that he has divided his
kingdom into three shares, to be parceled out to his three daughters, as determined
by their protestations of love. The two elder daughters, Goneril
and Regan, exaggerate their love by telling their father that their affection
for him exceeds all reasonable expectations. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, tells Lear that she
loves him, but only as a daughter should love a father. Lear,
angry and disappointed at what he deems a lack of devotion on Cordelia’s part, divides his kingdom equally between Goneril and Regan, and banishes Cordelia.
agrees to marry the now dowerless and banished Cordelia.
attempts to defend Cordelia, Lear
banishes him as well. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan
decide that if Lear becomes too much of a nuisance,
they will have to decide what disciplinary actions to take.
the developing subplot, Edmund complains of his unhappiness at being an
illegitimate—and thus, disinherited—son. As part of his plot to claim what is
not his, Edmund gives a false letter to his father, Gloucester, declaring that Edgar is proposing that they kill their father and
split the wealth between them. The cunning Edmund easily convinces his father
that Edgar cannot be trusted.
Within a short time, Lear
moves to Goneril’s palace. Goneril
tells Lear that he needs a smaller troop, more
decorous in behavior and better suited to the king’s rank and age. The king is
very angry and says he will pack up his people and move to Regan’s palace. Lear’s anger continues to build, and he calls upon nature to
curse Goneril’s womb. In response, Goneril turns out 50 of Lear’s
As the subplot develops, Edmund wounds himself
slightly, pretending that Edgar has
attacked him. Certain that Edgar will
also try to kill him, Gloucester
promises to find the means to make Edmund his heir. After his escape into the
woods, Edgar decides that he will
disguise himself as a Bedlam beggar, who will be known as Poor Tom. Meanwhile, Cornwall orders an impassioned Kent
placed in the stocks. Lear arrives and quickly
realizes that Regan has joined Goneril in seeking to
reduce Lear’s authority. Lear
reminds his daughters that he gave them all that they now enjoy, but they are
unmoved. An angry Lear calls for his horse, and
rides into the storm with his Fool for protection. Exposed to the storm, the
Fool attempts to reason with his king, but Lear will
have no part of submission, especially before his daughters. Soon the king and
Fool are joined by Edgar disguised as
Gloucester tells Edmund of the
plot to save the king, unaware that he is divulging the plans to a traitor.
Edmund immediately resolves to tell Cornwall
of the plan. Edmund soon receives his reward: Gloucester’s title and lands. The captured
Gloucester is tortured by Regan, who fiendishly plucks at his beard, and
Cornwall, who gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, but not before one of Cornwall’s
servants draws a sword and stabs Cornwall, who soon dies of his wounds.
is both shocked and dismayed when a blinded Gloucester is led in by one of his tenants.
The disguised Edgar agrees to take Gloucester to the cliff he seeks, where he dupes Gloucester into thinking
that he is at the edge of a precipice. After Gloucester jumps and loses consciousness, Edgar easily convinces his father that he has somehow
survived a fall from the cliffs. Oswald
arrives and attempts to kill Gloucester
but is, instead, slain by Edgar. As he
lays dying, Oswald gives Edgar a letter from Goneril
instructing Edmund to murder Albany so that she will be free to wed Edmund.
Goneril and Edmund soon learn
that Albany is a changed man, one who is pleased to learn of the proposed
invasion by France and displeased when he learns that Gloucester has been
replaced by his younger son, Edmund. Meanwhile, Cordelia
learns of her father’s deteriorated mental condition and returns to England
with an army to defend her father. Within a short time, Cordelia
and her father reunite.
In spite of Albany’s intent to save Lear and Cordelia’s lives, Edmund resolves that they will die.
Edmund orders that Lear and Cordelia be imprisoned.
Albany, Goneril, and Regan join Edmund, and a confrontation
erupts between all four characters. Edmund’s treachery is revealed, and he is
wounded in a fight with Edgar, whom Edmund does not recognize as his brother.
Soon, Regan dies, poisoned by Goneril, who then kills
herself. Since he is now dying, Edmund admits that the charges against him are
truthful, and he seeks to know the identity of his killer. Edgar confesses his
lineage as brother and shares the news that their father, Gloucester, has died.
Edmund, who says he wants some good to come
from so much death, reveals his and Goneril’s plan to
have both Lear and Cordelia murdered and to have Cordelia’s death appear a suicide. Efforts to rescind these
orders are too late, and soon Lear enters with a dead Cordelia
in his arms. Unable to accept Cordelia’s death, the
king also dies, his body covering that of his youngest daughter. Albany informs
Kent and Edgar that they must now rule the kingdom together, but Kent replies
that he will soon leave the world to join his master. Edgar is left to speak of
the sad weight of these events, which everyone must now endure.