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


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