King Lear (1602-3)

National Galleries of Scotland; The Madness of King Lear

The literary sources for this play are derived from “The True Chronicle of King Lear” which features in the Historia Regum Brittanae 1140 by Geoffrey of Monmouth as well as Hollinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland. In none of these records is the character described as mad and it seems Shakespeare colours King Lear as “deranged” purely for dramatic effect. It has been presumed by some academics that he was partly inspired by Sir Phillip Sydney’s “Paphlagonia” in Arcadia (1554-86) and the Llyr of Irish or Celtic legend. The roles of the brothers Edmund and Edgar were taken from Sir Phillip Sydney’s work. We know from listed records that a certain William Shakespeare had also performed in an earlier version known as the True Chronicle Historie of King Leir dated around 1590-94, (registered at the Stationer’s Office by Adam Islip on the 14th May 1594) but this version (whose entry was originally entered by Edward White) was not actually published until 1605 and entered by Simon Stafford. The play is also analogous with royal sovereignty, their offspring and their subjects’ deference to authority. With many allusions to the fairy tale of Cinderella, the form of Cordelia was derived from Mirror for Magistrates (1584) and the Faerie Queene by the poet Edmund Spenser (1590). A source for other characters was Harsnett’s Declaration of Popish Impostures (1603). Two early texts survive which have academics in contention over their authenticity and combined discrepancies, the First Quarto (Historie of King Lear printed 1608 by Nicholas Okes) and the First Folio versions (Tragedie of King Lear 1623, printed in 1619). As a result there are numerous variants or amalgams of the two texts over time that have given further cause for concern. It would appear that as a result of research conducted in the 1960’s and 1970’s that the general opinion is that the 1608 version was originally written by Shakespeare and the Folio version one he had substantially revised from a playhouse manuscript. A mere 12 copies survive of the First Quarto compiled from Shakespeare’s handwritten papers that were used by Nicholas Okes for printing. Okes also printed Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece for John Morrison (1607) and the Quarto of Othello for Thomas Walkley (1622). The Folio version divides the text into scenes and acts, while a second quarto was printed in 1619 with amendments and corrections, probably annotated from a mysterious copy. The title page of the first Quarto printed in 1608 by Nicholas Okes confirms that it was played before King James 1st in Whitehall on St. Stephens Night during the Christmas festivities by the King’s Men (1605), although an earlier performance is quite likely around 1603. The play’s earlier performance coincides with a lawsuit in late 1603 between an aged Sir Brian Annesley and his two daughters who attempted to legally certify their father as insane in order to get their hands on his estate. One other record of its performance was in Gowthwaite Hall, Nidderdale, Yorkshire in 1610. The youngest daughter’s name was Cordell and she corresponds closely to Cordelia who attempts to rescue her father from the clutches of his unscrupulous elder daughters. The play deals with the consequences of succession and inheritance in the absence of a male heir.  A similar dilemma existed in the story of Gloucester and his two sons (Edgar and Edmund), one illegitimate, the other legitimate in an episode from Sir Phillip Sydney’s prose romance Arcadia. Having purchased Fisher’s Folly, Edward de Vere lived near a bedlam house and would have had some personal experience into the debilitating effects of destitution and madness. We know that it was played before King James in Whitehall on St. Stephens Night during the Christmas festivities by the King’s Men (1605), although an earlier performance is quite likely around 1603. Where historically King Lear is overthrown by his three daughters and their husbands but eventually restored to the throne by the King of France, in Shakespeare’s play Cordelia dies and is mourned by King Lear who dies shortly afterwards to be replaced by Edgar. In actual fact Cordelia ruled successfully for several years after the death of her father and when deposed by her nephews committed suicide. The final act where King Lear enters the stage carrying the dead body of his daughter is dramatically touching but essentially untrue and difficult to perform on stage.

The Lord Of Silence

A view of sunset at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice

In the opening act we are introduced to the earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester, and his bastard son Edmund. Soon after king Lear arrives accompanied by his three daughters, Goneril, Reagan and Cordelia, and his two son-in-laws, the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall. He declares to the assembly that, being now close to the end of his years, that he has resolved to divide his estate and wealth equally among his next of kin, but bestowing the greater part only on that daughter who can prove she loves him above all else. Goneril and Reagan are eager to declare their deep respect, and unconditional love but on reflection Cordelia is undecided on the matter of her love and allegiance to the King. She remains frankly silent, and uncommitted thereby infuriating the King the more. Meanwhile, nearby her two potential suitors, the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy await an audience with her. King Lear being affronted by young Cordelia’s silent condemnation disclaims her inheritance and awards it to Goneril and Reagan. He then enlists a hundred knights and vows to live a month with each of the two respectful daughters in turn. The Earl of Kent intervenes on behalf of Cordelia but is summarily dismissed by the bitterly enraged King. When the Duke of Burgundy discovers that Cordelia has been dispossessed he withdraws his suit, disclosing his true intent, but the King of France remains sincere to his word. She then takes leave of her family’s company and joins the King’s Company.

Meanwhile, Edmund, the bastard son contrives to discredit and dishonour his legitimate brother, Edgar by incriminating him in a plot to kill his father, Gloucester. After a few days and as a result of a disagreement King Lear moves out of Goneril’s house, and into Reagan’s, while Edmund has succeeded in incriminating Edgar. King Lear having conceded power to his two daughters is neglected and ill-treated by Goneril and her servants. The Earl of Kent assumes a disguise and is taken into the service of the King. The Fool remonstrates that Lear was himself a fool to hand power to his daughters and banish his youngest Cordelia. The Duke of Cornwall and his wife Reagan arrive at Gloucester’s castle in the hope of avoiding King Lear’s retinue. The Kent and Oswald arrive, each with messages from the King and Goneril. A domestic quarrel ensues in which Kent, still in disguise is placed in the stocks by Cornwall. Meanwhile, Edgar having escaped, assumes the disguise of a “Tom O’Bedlam”, a mad beggar. The King is shocked to discover Kent in the stocks and demands an explanation. Kent is finally released but Goneril and Reagan continue to defy and humiliate the King. In act III a great storm is raging, equal to the King’s own torment and indignation. The Earl of Kent, while seeking out Lear with urgent news is told by a traveller that he is on the heath with his Fool. When Gloucester finds him he tells Kent that Cornwall and Albany are divided and at odds over rulership and that a relief force from France is imminent, having landed at Dover. While endeavouring to inform Cornwall of current developments he the finds King Lear taking refuge in a hovel on the heath in the company of “Mad Tom”. Gloucester does not realise he is in the company of his son Edgar, and the Earl of Kent. Furthermore he discovers that his bastard son has already betrayed him to Cornwall, being handsomely rewarded by the promise of his own title. Meanwhile, the old King rehearses a mock trial of his two daughters but Gloucester fearing discovery hastens them away in the direction of Dover. He is nevertheless arrested and brought before Cornwall and Reagan who request the whereabouts of the King. He refuse, is tortured and his eyes put out, then told of Edmunds’ treachery against him. A loyal servant attempts to intervene, wounding Cornwall but is killed by Reagan.

In act IV Edgar meets his blinded father being led by a trusted servant, he then takes him on the road to Dover. At Albany’s residence we discover that Goneril is besotted with Edmund, and Edmund is spoilt for choice between her and Reagan. Albany now distanced by his wife’s apparent wickedness and savagery hears that French forces have arrived at Dover accompanied by Lear’s banished daughter. Cordelia sends a search party out for her father. Gloucester, now intent on suicide instructs “Mad Tom” to take him to the cliff’s edge where he might throw himself off. However, Tom takes him instead to a safe spot with a short drop below. Thinking he has leapt to his death, he is surprised to discover he is still alive, but Tom reassures him with the notion that he is now on his way to Heaven’s gate. Then Lear appears, in strange bedraggled garb of lichens and wild flowers, ranting on about hypocrisy and injustice and Gloucester, recognising his voice, calls out to him. At first when Cordelia’s men arrive on the scene Lear escapes, then Oswald enters and while attempting to kill Gloucester is killed by Edgar (Tom). Lear is finally found fatigued and distraught, maddened he thinks he is in hell but brought before Cordelia, he then imagines he is in heaven and that she is the Lord’s administering angel. However, when he recovers his wits he realises that it is indeed Cordelia.

Act V begins with Reagan chiding her new lover Edmund while Albany deliberates on his next move in view of the ensuing conflict. Edgar, still disguised as a beggar, arrives with a letter discovered on Oswald’s body. Cordelia’s forces are defeated, she and the King are taken prisoner, while Edmund plans their execution. In the midst of turmoil and defeat Lear is temporarily overjoyed being restored to the love of his youngest daughter. Meanwhile, Reagan and Goneril quarrel over Edmund who is arrested by Albany and challenged to open combat, unless, at the sound of a trumpet, another will relieve him of this duty. Whereupon an unknown knight (Edgar) steps forward and in the combat mortally wounds Edmund. Edgar now informs Albany of Gloucester’s death while we are informed that Goneril has poisoned Reagan and then stabbed herself in remorse. The Earl of Kent arrives to hear Edmund’s dying confession that he has ordered the execution of Cordelia and the King, hastening him to cancel his order. Unfortunately his plea arrives too late as Lear enters carrying the body of his dead daughter, Cordelia. Soon after, overcome with grief and despair King Lear also dies. Albany then calls upon Edgar and Kent to rule jointly, but Kent declines out of loyalty to the old King.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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