This article is about Shakespeare's play. For the legendary figure, see Leir of Britain. For other uses, see King Lear (disambiguation).
King Lear is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. It depicts the gradual descent into madness of the title character, after he disposes of his kingdom giving bequests to two of his three daughters based on their flattery of him, bringing tragic consequences for all. Derived from the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king, the play has been widely adapted for the stage and motion pictures, with the title role coveted by many of the world's most accomplished actors.
The first attribution to Shakespeare of this play, originally drafted in 1605 or 1606 at the latest with its first known performance on St. Stephen's Day in 1606, was a 1608 publication in a quarto of uncertain provenance, in which the play is listed as a history; it may be an early draft or simply reflect the first performance text. The Tragedy of King Lear, a more theatrical revision, was included in the 1623 First Folio. Modern editors usually conflate the two, though some insist that each version has its own individual integrity that should be preserved.
After the English Restoration, the play was often revised with a happy, non-tragic ending for audiences who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century Shakespeare's original version has been regarded as one of his supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear."
- Lear – King of Britain
- Goneril – Lear's eldest daughter
- Regan – Lear's second daughter
- Cordelia – Lear's youngest daughter
- Duke of Albany – Goneril's husband
- Duke of Cornwall – Regan's husband
- Earl of Gloucester
- Earl of Kent – later disguised as Caius
- Edgar – Gloucester's son
- Edmund – Gloucester's illegitimate son
- Oswald – Goneril's loyal steward
- Fool – Lear's fool
- King of France – suitor and later husband to Cordelia
- Duke of Burgundy – suitor to Cordelia
- Curan – courtier
- Old man – tenant of Gloucester
- Officer – employed by Edmund
- Gentleman – attends Cordelia
- Knights of Lear's retinue
- Officers, Messengers, Servants, Soldiers, and Attendants
King Lear of Britain, elderly and wanting to retire from the duties of the monarchy, decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and declares he will offer the largest share to the one who loves him most. The eldest, Goneril, speaks first, declaring her love for her father in fulsome terms. Moved by her flattery Lear proceeds to grant to Goneril her share as soon as she has finished her declaration, before Regan and Cordelia have a chance to speak. He then awards to Regan her share as soon as she has spoken. When it is finally the turn of his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, at first she refuses to say anything ("Nothing, my Lord") and then declares there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she speaks honestly but bluntly, that she loves him according to her bond, no more and no less. Infuriated, Lear disinherits Cordelia and divides her share between her elder sisters.
The Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent observe that, by dividing his realm between Goneril and Regan, Lear has awarded his realm in equal shares to the peerages of the Duke of Albany (Goneril's husband) and the Duke of Cornwall (Regan's husband). Kent objects to Lear's unfair treatment of Cordelia; enraged by Kent's protests, Lear banishes him from the country. Lear then summons the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, who have both proposed marriage to Cordelia. Learning that Cordelia has been disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her nonetheless. The King of France is shocked by Lear's decision because up until this time Lear has only praised and favored Cordelia (". . . she, who even but now was your best object, the argument of your praise, balm of your age . . . "). Meanwhile, Gloucester has introduced his illegitimate son Edmund to Kent.
Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, revealing that their declarations of love were fake, and that they view Lear as a foolish old man.
Gloucester's bastard son Edmund resents his illegitimate status, and plots to dispose of his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks his father with a forged letter, making him think that Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise (calling himself Caius), and Lear hires him as a servant. At Albany and Goneril's house, Lear and Kent quarrel with Oswald, Goneril's steward. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to reduce the number of his disorderly retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool reproaches Lear with his foolishness in giving everything to Regan and Goneril, and predicts that Regan will treat him no better.
Edmund learns from Curan, a courtier, that there is likely to be war between Albany and Cornwall, and that Regan and Cornwall are to arrive at Gloucester's house that evening. Taking advantage of the arrival of the duke and Regan, Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him an outlaw.
Bearing Lear's message to Regan, Kent meets Oswald again at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him again, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall. When Lear arrives, he objects to the mistreatment of his messenger, but Regan is as dismissive of her father as Goneril was. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and supports Regan's argument against him. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests against Lear's mistreatment. With Lear's retinue of a hundred knights dissolved, the only companions he has left are his Fool and Kent. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Edgar, in the guise of a madman named Tom o' Bedlam, meets Lear. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Kent leads them all to shelter.
Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan and Goneril. He reveals evidence that his father knows of an impending French invasion designed to reinstate Lear to the throne; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Once Edmund leaves with Goneril to warn Albany about the invasion, Gloucester is arrested, and Regan and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester's eyes. As he is doing so, a servant is overcome with rage by what he is witnessing and attacks Cornwall, mortally wounding him. Regan kills the servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him; then she turns him out to wander the heath, too.
Edgar, in his madman's guise, meets his blinded father on the heath. Gloucester, sightless and failing to recognise Edgar's voice, begs Tom to lead him to a cliff at Dover so that he may jump to his death. Goneril discovers that she finds Edmund more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as cowardly. Albany has developed a conscience — he is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear and Gloucester -- and denounces his wife. Goneril sends Edmund back to Regan. After receiving news of Cornwall's death, she fears her newly widowed sister may steal Edmund and sends him a letter through Oswald. Now alone with Lear, Kent leads him to the French army, which is commanded by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and terribly embarrassed by his earlier follies. At Regan's instigation, Albany joins his forces with hers against the French. Goneril's suspicions about Regan's motives are confirmed and returned, as Regan rightly guesses the meaning of her letter and declares to Oswald that she is a more appropriate match for Edmund. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. Lear appears, by now completely mad. He rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald appears, still looking for Edmund. On Regan's orders, he tries to kill Gloucester but is killed by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds Goneril's letter, in which she encourages Edmund to kill her husband and take her as his wife. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness quickly passes. Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that they fight the French invaders but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters lust for Edmund, who has made promises to both. He considers the dilemma and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives Goneril's letter to Albany. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund sends Lear and Cordelia off with secret-joint orders from him (representing Regan and her forces) and Goneril (representing the forces of her estranged husband, Albany) for the execution of Cordelia.
The victorious British leaders meet, and the recently widowed Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan falls ill, having been poisoned by Goneril, and is escorted offstage, where she dies. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears masked and in armour, and challenges Edmund to a duel. No one knows who he is. Edgar wounds Edmund fatally, though he does not die immediately. Albany confronts Goneril with the letter which was intended to be his death warrant; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself, and reports that Gloucester died offstage from the shock and joy of learning that Edgar is alive, after Edgar revealed himself to his father.
Offstage, Goneril, her plans thwarted, commits suicide. The dying Edmund decides, though he admits it is against his own character, to try to save Lear and Cordelia; however, his confession comes too late. Soon after, Albany sends men to countermand Edmund's orders, Lear enters bearing Cordelia's corpse in his arms, having survived by killing the executioner. Kent appears and Lear now recognises him. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but as with Gloucester, the trials Lear has been through have finally overwhelmed him, and he dies. Albany then asks Kent and Edgar to take charge of the throne. Kent declines, explaining that his master is calling him on a journey and he must follow. Finally, Albany (in the Quarto version) or Edgar (in the Folio version) implies that he will now become king.
Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Brythonic figure Leir of Britain, whose name has been linked by some scholars to the Brythonic god Lir/Llŷr, though in actuality the names are not etymologically related. Shakespeare's most important source is probably 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. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, published 1590, also contains a character named Cordelia, who also dies from hanging, as in King Lear.
Other possible sources are the anonymous play King Leir (published in 1605); The Mirror for Magistrates (1574), by John Higgins; The Malcontent (1604), by John Marston; The London Prodigal (1605); Montaigne's Essays, which were translated into English by John Florio in 1603; An Historical Description of Iland of Britaine (1577), by William Harrison; Remaines Concerning Britaine (1606), by William Camden; Albion's England (1589), by William Warner; and A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures (1603), by Samuel Harsnett, 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, Love Like Salt, Aarne–Thompson type 923, in which a father rejects his youngest daughter for a statement of her love that does not please him.
The source of the subplot involving Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund is a tale in Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1580–90), with a blind Paphlagonian king and his two sons, Leonatus and Plexitrus.
Changes from source material
Besides the subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, the principal innovation Shakespeare made to this story was the death of Cordelia and Lear at the end; in the account by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cordelia restores Lear to the throne, and succeeds him as ruler after his death. During the 17th century, Shakespeare's tragic ending was much criticised and alternative versions were written by Nahum Tate, in which the leading characters survived and Edgar and Cordelia were married (despite the fact that Cordelia was previously betrothed to the King of France). As Harold Bloom states: "Tate's version held the stage for almost 150 years, until Edmund Kean reinstated the play's tragic ending in 1823."
Date and text
Although an exact date of composition cannot be given, many academic editors of the play date King Lear between 1603 and 1606. The latest it could have been written is 1606, as the Stationers' Register notes a performance on 26 December 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). Conversely, 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". Dr. Naseeb Shaheen dates the play c1605-6 per line 1.2.103 "These late eclipses in the sun and moon" which relates to the lunar eclipse of 27 September 1605 and the solar eclipse of 2 October 1605.
The 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 hypothesis that Shakespeare wrote only one original manuscript, now unfortunately lost, and that the Quarto and Folio versions are distortions of that original. Others, such as Nuttall and Bloom, have identified Shakespeare himself as having been involved in reworking passages in the play to accommodate performances and other textual requirements of the play.
As 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 the only recent edition to offer the traditional conflated text. Both Anthony Nuttall of Oxford University and Harold Bloom of Yale University have endorsed the view of Shakespeare having revised the tragedy at least once during his lifetime. As Bloom indicates: "At the close of Shakespeare's revised King Lear, a reluctant Edgar becomes King of Britain, accepting his destiny but in the accents of despair. Nuttall speculates that Edgar, like Shakespeare himself, usurps the power of manipulating the audience by deceiving poor Gloucester."
Analysis and criticism
Analysis and criticism of King Lear over the centuries has been extensive.
What we know of Shakespeare's wide reading and powers of assimilation seems to show that he made use of all kinds of material, absorbing contradictory viewpoints, positive and negative, religious and secular, as if to ensure that King Lear would offer no single controlling perspective, but be open to, indeed demand, multiple interpretations.
John F. Danby, in his Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature – A Study of King Lear (1949), argues that Lear dramatizes, among other things, the current meanings of "Nature". The words "nature," "natural" and "unnatural" occur over forty times in the play, reflecting a debate in Shakespeare's time about what nature really was like; this debate pervades the play and finds symbolic expression in Lear's changing attitude to Thunder. There are two strongly contrasting views of human nature in the play: that of the Lear party (Lear, Gloucester, Albany, Kent), exemplifying the philosophy of Bacon and Hooker, and that of the Edmund party (Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan), akin to the views later formulated by Hobbes. Along with the two views of Nature, Lear contains two views of Reason, brought out in Gloucester and Edmund's speeches on astrology (1.2). The rationality of the Edmund party is one with which a modern audience more readily identifies. But the Edmund party carries bold rationalism to such extremes that it becomes madness: a madness-in-reason, the ironic counterpart of Lear's "reason in madness" (IV.6.190) and the Fool's wisdom-in-folly. This betrayal of reason lies behind the play's later emphasis on feeling.
The two Natures and the two Reasons imply two societies. Edmund is the New Man, a member of an age of competition, suspicion, glory, in contrast with the older society which has come down from the Middle Ages, with its belief in co-operation, reasonable decency, and respect for the whole as greater than the part. King Lear is thus an allegory. The older society, that of the medieval vision, with its doting king, falls into error, and is threatened by the new Machiavellianism; it is regenerated and saved by a vision of a new order, embodied in the king's rejected daughter. Cordelia, in the allegorical scheme, is threefold: a person; an ethical principle (love); and a community. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's understanding of the New Man is so extensive as to amount almost to sympathy. Edmund is the last great expression in Shakespeare of that side of Renaissance individualism – the energy, the emancipation, the courage – which has made a positive contribution to the heritage of the West. "He embodies something vital which a final synthesis must reaffirm. But he makes an absolute claim which Shakespeare will not support. It is right for man to feel, as Edmund does, that society exists for man, not man for society. It is not right to assert the kind of man Edmund would erect to this supremacy."
The play offers an alternative to the feudal-Machiavellian polarity, an alternative foreshadowed in France's speech (I.1.245–256), in Lear and Gloucester's prayers (III.4. 28–36; IV.1.61–66), and in the figure of Cordelia. Until the decent society is achieved, we are meant to take as role-model (though qualified by Shakespearean ironies) Edgar, "the machiavel of goodness", endurance, courage and "ripeness".
Psychoanalytic and psychosocial interpretations
King Lear provides a basis for "the primary enactment of psychic breakdown in English literary history". The play begins with Lear's "near-fairytale narcissism".
Given the absence of legitimate mothers in King Lear, Coppélia Kahn provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the "maternal subtext" found in the play. According to Kahn, Lear's old age forces him to regress into an infantile disposition, and he now seeks a love that is traditionally satisfied by a mothering woman, but in the absence of a real mother, his daughters become the mother figures. Lear's contest of love between Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia serves as the binding agreement; his daughters will get their inheritance provided that they care for him, especially Cordelia, on whose "kind nursery" he will greatly depend.
Cordelia's refusal to dedicate herself to him and love him as more than a father has been interpreted by some as a resistance to incest, but Kahn also inserts the image of a rejecting mother. The situation is now a reversal of parent-child roles, in which Lear's madness is a childlike rage due to his deprivation of filial/maternal care. Even when Lear and Cordelia are captured together, his madness persists as Lear envisions a nursery in prison, where Cordelia's sole existence is for him. It is only with Cordelia's death that his fantasy of a daughter-mother ultimately diminishes, as King Lear concludes with only male characters living.
Sigmund Freud asserted that Cordelia symbolises Death. Therefore, when the play begins with Lear rejecting his daughter, it can be interpreted as him rejecting death; Lear is unwilling to face the finitude of his being. The play's poignant ending scene, wherein Lear carries the body of his beloved Cordelia, was of great importance to Freud. In this scene, Cordelia forces the realization of his finitude, or as Freud put it, she causes him to "make friends with the necessity of dying". Shakespeare had particular intentions with Cordelia's death, and was the only writer to have Cordelia killed (in the version by the Nahum Tate, she continues to live happily, and in Holinshed's, she restores her father and succeeds him).
Alternatively, an analysis based on Adlerian theory suggests that the King's contest among his daughters in Act I has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia. This theory indicates that the King's "dethronement" might have led him to seek control that he lost after he divided his land.
In his study of the character-portrayal of Edmund, Harold Bloom refers to him as "Shakespeare's most original character".
"As Hazlitt pointed out", writes Bloom, "Edmund does not share in the hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan: his Machiavellianism is absolutely pure, and lacks an Oedipal motive. Freud's vision of family romances simply does not apply to Edmund. Iago is free to reinvent himself every minute, yet Iago has strong passions, however negative. Edmund has no passions whatsoever; he has never loved anyone, and he never will. In that respect, he is Shakespeare's most original character."
The tragedy of Lear's lack of understanding of the consequences of his demands and actions is often observed to be like that of a spoiled child, but it has also been noted that his behaviour is equally likely to be seen in parents who have never adjusted to their children having grown up.
Critics are divided on the question of whether or not King Lear represents an affirmation of a particular Christian doctrine. Among those who argue that Lear is redeemed in the Christian sense through suffering are A. C. Bradley and John Reibetanz, who has written: "through his sufferings, Lear has won an enlightened soul". Other critics who find no evidence of redemption and emphasise the horrors of the final act include John Holloway and Marvin Rosenberg. William R. Elton stresses the pre-Christian setting of the play, writing that, "Lear fulfills the criteria for pagan behavior in life," falling "into total blasphemy at the moment of his irredeemable loss".
In the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by the Brothers Grimm, the Anhang (appendix) entry to No. 71 Princess Mouse-skin included a note: "as the father here, so asks King Lear his daughter". The English translation of this story by Oliver Loo begins as follows: "A king had three daughters; thereon he wanted to know, which loved him most, let them come in front of him and asked them. The eldest spoke, she loved him more, than the whole kingdom; the second, more than all the precious stones and pearls in the world; but the third said, she loved him more than salt. The king was so upset, that she compared her love of him with such a small thing, gave her to a servant and commanded, he should take her into the forest and kill her."
King Lear has been performed by esteemed actors since the 17th century, when men played all the roles. From the 20th century, a number of women have played male roles in the play; most commonly the Fool, who has been played (among others) by Judy Davis, Emma Thompson and Robyn Nevin. Lear himself has been played by Marianne Hoppe in 1990, by Janet Wright in 1995, by Kathryn Hunter in 1996–67, by Clare Coulter in 2013, by Glenda Jackson in 2016, and by Diane D'Aquila in 2017.Marcia Gay Harden plays Lear in a few scenes from the play in the 2012 Canadian film If I Were You.
Shakespeare wrote the role of Lear for his company's chief tragedian, Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare was writing incrementally older characters as their careers progressed. It has been speculated either that the role of the Fool was written for the company's clown Robert Armin, or that it was written for performance by one of the company's boys, doubling the role of Cordelia. Only one specific performance of the play during Shakespeare's lifetime is known: before the court of King James I at Whitehall on 26 December 1606. Its original performances would have been at The Globe, where there were no sets in the modern sense, and characters would have signified their roles visually with props and costumes: Lear's costume, for example, would have changed in the course of the play as his status diminished: commencing in crown and regalia; then as a huntsman; raging bareheaded in the storm scene; and finally crowned with flowers in parody of his original status.
All theatres were closed down by the Puritan government on 6 September 1642. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, two patent companies (the King's Company and the Duke's Company) were established, and the existing theatrical repertoire divided between them. And from the restoration until the mid-19th century the performance history of King Lear is not the story of Shakespeare's version, but instead of The History of King Lear, a popular adaptation by Nahum Tate. Its most significant deviations from Shakespeare were to omit the Fool entirely, to introduce a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive, and to develop a love story between Cordelia and Edgar (two characters who never interact in Shakespeare) which ends with their marriage. Like most Restoration adapters of Shakespeare, Tate admired Shakespeare's natural genius but saw fit to augment his work with contemporary standards of art (which were largely guided by the neoclassical unities of time, place, and action). Tate's struggle to strike a balance between raw nature and refined art is apparent in his description of the tragedy: "a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolish't; yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceiv'd I had seiz'd a treasure." Other changes included giving Cordelia a confidante named Arante, bringing the play closer to contemporary notions of poetic justice, and adding titilating material such as amorous encounters between Edmund and both Regan and Goneril, a scene in which Edgar rescues Cordelia from Edmund's attempted kidnap and rape, and a scene in which Cordelia wears men's pants that would reveal the actress's ankles. The play ends with a celebration of "the King's blest Restauration", an obvious reference to Charles II.
In the early 18th century, some writers began to express objections to this (and other) Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare. For example, in The Spectator on 16 April 1711 Joseph Addison wrote "King Lear is an admirable Tragedy ... as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chymerical Notion of poetical Justice in my humble Opinion it hath lost half its Beauty." Yet on the stage, Tate's version prevailed.
David Garrick was the first actor-manager to begin to cut back on elements of Tate's adaptation in favour of Shakespeare's original: he retained Tate's major changes, including the happy ending, but removed many of Tate's lines, including Edgar's closing speech. He also reduced the prominence of the Edgar-Cordelia love story, in order to focus more on the relationship between Lear and his daughters. His version had a powerful emotional impact: Lear driven to madness by his daughters was (in the words of one spectator, Arthur Murphy) "the finest tragic distress ever seen on any stage" and, in contrast, the devotion shown to Lear by Cordelia (a mix of Shakespeare's, Tate's and Garrick's contributions to the part) moved the audience to tears.
The first professional performances of King Lear in North America are likely to have been those of the Hallam Company (later the American Company) which arrived in Virginia in 1752 and who counted the play among their repertoire by the time of their departure for Jamaica in 1774.
Charles Lamb established the Romantics' attitude to King Lear in his 1811 essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation" where he says that the play "is essentially impossible to be represented on the stage", preferring to experience it in the study. In the theatre, he argues, "to see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting" yet "while we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear, – we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms."
King Lear was politically controversial during the period of George III's madness, and as a result was not performed at all in the two professional theatres of London from 1811 to 1820: but was then the subject of major productions in both, within three months of his death. The 19th century saw the gradual reintroduction of Shakespeare's text to displace Tate's version. Like Garrick before him, John Philip Kemble had introduced more of Shakespeare's text, while still preserving the three main elements of Tate's version: the love story, the omission of the Fool, and the happy ending. Edmund Kean played King Lear with its tragic ending in 1823, but failed and reverted to Tate's crowd-pleaser after only three performances. At last in 1838 William Macready at Covent Garden performed Shakespeare's version, freed from Tate's adaptions. The restored character of the Fool was played by an actress, Priscilla Horton, as, in the words of one spectator, "a fragile, hectic, beautiful-faced, half-idiot-looking boy." And Helen Faucit's final appearance as Cordelia, dead in her father's arms, became one of the most iconic of Victorian images.John Forster, writing in the Examiner on 14 February 1838, expressed the hope that "Mr Macready's success has banished that disgrace [Tate's version] from the stage for ever." But even this version was not close to Shakespeare's: the 19th-century actor-managers heavily cut Shakespeare's scripts: ending scenes on big "curtain effects" and reducing or eliminating supporting roles to give greater prominence to the star. One of Macready's innovations – the use of Stonehenge-like structures on stage to indicate an ancient setting – proved enduring on stage into the 20th century, and can be seen in the 1983 television version starring Laurence Olivier.
In 1843, the Act for Regulating the Theatres came into force, bringing an end to the monopolies of the two existing companies and, by doing so, increased the number of theatres in London. At the same time, the fashion in theatre was "pictorial": valuing visual spectacle above plot or characterisation and often required lengthy (and time consuming) scene changes. For example, Henry Irving's 1892 King Lear offered spectacles such as Lear's death beneath a cliff at Dover, his face lit by the red glow of a setting sun; at the expense of cutting 46% of the text, including the blinding of Gloucester. But Irving's production clearly evoked strong emotions: one spectator, Gordon Crosse, wrote of the first entrance of Lear, "a striking figure with masses of white hair. He is leaning on a huge scabbarded sword which he raises with a wild cry in answer to the shouted greeting of his guards. His gait, his looks, his gestures, all reveal the noble, imperious mind already degenerating into senile irritability under the coming shocks of grief and age."
The importance of pictorialism to Irving, and to other theatre professionals of the Victorian era, is exemplified by the fact that Irving had used Ford Madox Brown's painting Cordelia's Portion as the inspiration for the look of his production, and that the artist himself was brought in to provide sketches for the settings of other scenes. A reaction against pictorialism came with the rise of the reconstructive movement, believers in a simple style of staging more similar to that which would have pertained in renaissance theatres, whose chief early exponent was the actor-manager William Poel. Poel was influenced by a performance of King Lear directed by Jocza Savits at the Hoftheater in Munich in 1890, set on an apron stage with a three-tier Globe-like reconstruction theatre as its backdrop. Poel would use this same configuration for his own Shakespearean performances in 1893.
By mid-century, the actor-manager tradition had declined, to be replaced by a structure where the major theatre companies employed professional directors as auteurs. The last of the great actor-managers, Donald Wolfit, played Lear in 1944 on a Stonehenge-like set and was praised by James Agate as "the greatest piece of Shakespearean acting since I have been privileged to write for the Sunday Times". Wolfit supposedly drank eight bottles of Guinness in the course of each performance.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear".
The character of Lear in the 19th century was often that of a frail old man from the opening scene, but Lears of the 20th century often began the play as strong men displaying regal authority, including John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Donald Sinden. Cordelia, also, evolved in the 20th century: earlier Cordelias had often been praised for being sweet, innocent and modest, but 20th-century Cordelias were often portrayed as war leaders. For example, Peggy Ashcroft, at the RST in 1950, played the role in a breastplate and carrying a sword. Similarly, the Fool evolved through the course of the century, with portrayals often deriving from the music hall or circus tradition.
At Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962 Peter Brook (who would later film the play with the same actor, Paul Scofield, in the role of Lear) set the action simply, against a huge, empty white stage. The effect of the scene when Lear and Gloucester meet, two tiny figures in rags in the midst of this emptiness, was said (by the scholar Roger Warren) to catch "both the human pathos ... and the universal scale ... of the scene." Some of the lines from the radio broadcast were used by The Beatles to add into the recorded mix of the song "I Am the Walrus". John Lennon happened upon the play on the BBC Third Programme while fiddling with the radio while working on the song. The voices of actors Mark Dignam, Philip Guard, and John Bryning from the play are all heard in the song.
Like other Shakespearean tragedies, King Lear has proved amenable to conversion into other theatrical traditions. In 1989, David McRuvie and Iyyamkode Sreedharan adapted the play then translated it to Malayalam, for performance in Kerala in the Kathakali tradition – which itself developed around 1600, contemporary with Shakespeare's writing. The show later went on tour, and in 2000 played at Shakespeare's Globe, completing (in Anthony Dawson's words) "a kind of symbolic circle". Perhaps even more radical was Ong Keng Sen's 1997 adaptation of King Lear, which featured six actors each performing in a separate Asian acting tradition and in their own separate languages. A pivotal moment occurred when the Jingju performer playing Older Daughter (a conflation of Goneril and Regan) stabbed the Noh-performed Lear whose "falling pine" deadfall, straight face-forward into the stage, astonished the audience, in what Yong Li Lan describes as a "triumph through the moving power of noh performance at the very moment of his character's defeat".
In 1974, Buzz Goodbody directed Lear, a deliberately abbreviated title for Shakespeare's text, as the inaugural production of the RSC's studio theatre The Other Place. The performance was conceived as a chamber piece, the small intimate space and proximity to the audience enabled detailed psychological acting, which was performed with simple sets and in modern dress. Peter Holland has speculated that this company/directoral decision – namely choosing to present Shakespeare in a small venue for artistic reasons when a larger venue was available – may at the time have been unprecedented.
Brook's earlier vision of the play proved influential, and directors have gone further in presenting Lear as (in the words of R. A. Foakes) "a pathetic senior citizen trapped in a violent and hostile environment". When John Wood took the role in 1990, he played the later scenes in clothes that looked like cast-offs, inviting deliberate parallels with the uncared-for in modern Western societies. Indeed, modern productions of Shakespeare's plays often reflect the world in which they are performed as much as the world for which they were written: and the Moscow theatre scene in 1994 provided an example, when two very different productions of the play (those by Sergei Zhonovach and Alexei Borodin), very different from one another in their style and outlook, were both reflections on the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In 2002 and 2010, the Hudson Shakespeare Company of New Jersey staged separate productions as part of their respective Shakespeare in the Parks seasons. The 2002 version was directed by Michael Collins and transposed the action to a West Indies, nautical setting. Actors were featured in outfits indicative of looks of various Caribbean islands. The 2010 production directed by Jon Ciccarelli was fashioned after the atmosphere of the film The Dark Knight with a palette of reds and blacks and set the action in an urban setting. Lear (Tom Cox) appeared as a head of multi-national conglomerate who divided up his fortune among his socialite daughter Goneril (Brenda Scott), his officious middle daughter Regan (Noelle Fair) and university daughter Cordelia (Emily Best).
In 2012 Peter Hinton directed an all-First Nations production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, with the setting changed to an Algonquin nation in the 17th century. The cast included August Schellenberg as Lear, Billy Merasty as Gloucester, Tantoo Cardinal as Regan, Kevin Loring as Edmund, Jani Lauzon in a dual role as Cordelia and the Fool, and Craig Lauzon as Kent. This setting would later be reproduced as part of the Manga Shakespeare graphic novel series published by Self-Made Hero, adapted by Richard Appignanesi and featuring the illustrations of Ilya.
In 2015 Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille staged a production set in Upper Canada, against the backdrop of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. This production starred David Fox as Lear.
In the summer of 2015–2016, The Sydney Theatre Company staged King Lear, directed by Neil Armfield with Geoffrey Rush in the lead role and Robyn Nevin as the Fool. About the madness at the heart of the play, Rush said that for him "it's about finding the dramatic impact in the moments of his mania. What seems to work best is finding a vulnerability or a point of empathy, where an audience can look at Lear and think how shocking it must be to be that old and to be banished from your family into the open air in a storm. That's a level of impoverishment you would never want to see in any other human being, ever."
In 2016 Talawa Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Manchester co-produced a production of King Lear with Don Warrington in the title role. The production, featuring a largely black cast, was described in The Guardian as being "as close to definitive as can be".The Daily Telegraph said "Don Warrington's King Lear is a heartbreaking tour de force".King Lear was also staged by Royal Shakespeare Company, with Antony Sher in the lead role. The performance was directed by Gregory Doran, and was described as having "strength and depth".
The play's plot, or major elements from it, have frequently been used by film makers.
The first film of King Lear was a five-minute German version made around 1905, which has not survived. The oldest extant version is a ten-minute studio-based version from 1909 by Vitagraph, which made (in Luke McKernan's words) the "ill-advised" decision to attempt to cram in as much of the plot as possible. Two silent versions, both titled Re Lear, were made in Italy in 1910. Of these, the version by director Gerolamo Lo Savio was filmed on location, and it dropped the Edgar sub-plot and used frequent intertitling to make the plot easier to follow than its Vitagraph predecessor. A contemporary setting was used for Louis Feuillade's 1911 French adaptation Le Roi Lear Au Village, and in 1914 in America, Ernest Warde expanded the story to an hour, including spectacles such as a final battle scene.
Joseph Mankiewicz' 1949 House of Strangers is often considered a Lear adaptation, but the parallels are more striking in its 1954 Western remake Broken Lance in which a cattle baron played by Spencer Tracy tyrannises over his three sons, of whom only the youngest, Joe, played by Robert Wagner, remains loyal.
The only two significant big-screen performances of Shakespeare's text date from the early 1970s: Grigori Kozintsev was working on his Korol Lir[a] at the same time as Peter Brook was filming his King Lear. Brook's film starkly divided the critics: Pauline Kael said "I didn't just dislike this production, I hated it!" and suggested the alternative title "Night of the Living Dead". Yet Robert Hatch in The Nation thought it as "excellent a filming of the play as one can expect" and Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it "an exalting Lear, full of exquisite terror". The film drew heavily on the ideas of Jan Kott, in particular his observation that King Lear was the precursor of absurdist theatre: in particular, the film has parallels with Beckett's Endgame. Critics who dislike the film particularly draw attention to its bleak nature from its opening: complaining that the world of the play does not deteriorate with Lear's suffering, but commences dark, colourless and wintry, leaving (in Douglas Brode's words) "Lear, the land, and us with nowhere to go". Cruelty pervades the film, which does not distinguish between the violence of ostensibly good and evil characters, presenting both savagely. Paul Scofield, as Lear, eschews sentimentality: this demanding old man with a coterie of unruly knights provokes audience sympathy for the daughters in the early scenes, and his presentation explicitly rejects the tradition (as Daniel Rosenthal describes it) of playing Lear as "poor old white-haired patriarch".
By contrast, Korol Lir has been praised, for example by critic Alexander Anikst for the "serious, deeply thoughtful" even "philosophical approach" of director Grigori Kozintsev and writer Boris Pasternak. Making a thinly veiled criticism of Brook in the process, Anikst praised the fact that there were "no attempts at sensationalism, no efforts to 'modernise' Shakespeare by introducing Freudian themes, Existentialist ideas, eroticism, or sexual perversion. [Kozintsev]... has simply made a film of Shakespeare's tragedy."Dmitri Shostakovich provided an epic score, its motifs including an (increasingly ironic) trumpet fanfare for Lear, and a five-bar "Call to Death" marking each character's demise. Kozintzev described his vision of the film as an ensemble piece: with Lear, played by a dynamic Jüri Järvet, as first among equals in a cast of fully developed characters. The film highlights Lear's role as king by including his people throughout the film on a scale no stage production could emulate, charting the central character's decline from their god to their helpless equal; his final descent into madness marked by his realisation that he has neglected the 'poor naked wretches'. As the film progresses, ruthless characters – Goneril, Regan, Edmund – increasingly appear isolated in shots, in contrast to the director's focus, throughout the film, on masses of human beings.
Jonathan Miller twice directed Michael Hordern in the title role for English television, the first for the BBC's Play of the Month in 1975 and the second for the BBC Television Shakespeare in 1982. Hordern received mixed reviews, and was considered a bold choice due to his history of taking much lighter roles. Also for English television, Laurence Olivier took the role in a 1983 TV production for Granada Television. It was his last screen appearance in a Shakespearean role, its pathos deriving in part from the physical frailty of Olivier the actor.
In 1985 a major screen adaptation of the play appeared: Ran, directed by Akira Kurosawa. At the time the most expensive Japanese film ever made, it tells the story of Hidetora, a fictional 16th-century Japanese warlord, whose attempt to divide his kingdom among his three sons leads to an estrangement with the youngest, and ultimately most loyal, of them, and eventually to civil war. In contrast to the cold drab greys of Brook and Kozintsev, Kurosawa's film is full of vibrant colour: external scenes in yellows, blues and greens, interiors in browns and ambers, and Emi Wada's Oscar-winning colour-coded costumes for each family member's soldiers. Hidetora has a back-story: a violent and ruthless rise to power, and the film portrays contrasting victims: the virtuous characters Sue and Tsurumaru who are able to forgive, and the vengeful Kaede (Mieko Harada), Hidetora's daughter-in-law and the film's Lady Macbeth-like villain.
"The film has two antecedents--biblical references to Joseph and his brothers and King Lear".
Shakespeare plays on the word "nothing" and the idea of nothingness or emptiness throughout King Lear. (Psst: that's one of the reasons this play is so insanely bleak.)
Here are a few significant moments from the play: In Act 1, when Lear stages his love test and asks Cordelia "What can you say to draw a third [of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters?", Cordelia replies, "Nothing." Lear can't believe what he's hearing. "Nothing will come of nothing," he tells her. "Speak again." (In other words, you'll get absolutely nothing from me unless you speak up about how much you love me.)
By the way, the phrase "Nothing can come of nothing" is a variation on the famous phrase "ex nihilo nihil fit"— that's Latin for "from nothing, nothing comes," which is an ancient Greek philosophical and scientific expression. It's the opposite of the biblical notion that God created the world (which is a whole lot of something) out of nothing (Genesis 1:1).
The word "nothing" shows up again in the play when the Fool tells Lear he is nothing without his crown and power: "now thou art an O / without a figure. I am better than thou art now. I / am a Fool, thou art nothing" (1.4.197-199).
According to the Fool, King Lear is a zero and is no better than a "shealed peascod" (an empty peapod). The Fool also calls the retired king "Lear's shadow," which suggests that Lear, without his crown, is merely a shadow of his former self. The idea is that Lear, (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title. Check out our discussion of the theme of "Power" for more on this.