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King Lear

Samuel Phelps as King Lear, c.1860

Illustrations to the play

The illustrations are mainly taken from the H.R. Forrest Collection; 76 folio scrap book volumes of illustrations to Shakespeare's works by many different artists up to the year 1890. These include title pages, artist impressions of scenes from the play and portraits of famous actors.

Criticism, texts, production history and film versions of the play on video and DVD are all available in Birmingham Libraries; some can be borrowed for use at home.

Edwin Forrest as King Lear

The text of King Lear

Shakespeare probably wrote King Lear around 1605. The story of Lear and his daughters was known from an earlier play, but the text we know was first published in 1608. A substantially revised version was printed in the First Folio, 1623. This text probably represents the acting practise of Shakespeare company. All acting texts required the Lord Chamberlain license before performance, making it necessary for playwrights to submit very complete texts, with the inclusion of material which might not subsequently be used on stage. Modern acting practise usually uses text from both versions.

Carl Grunert as Lear , 1858

The plot

King Lear is set in ancient Britain, but the play is timeless, concerning family rivalries, aged parents, rebellious children, inheritance, and responsibility, themes and emotions everyone experiences. The play unfolds relentlessly to its tragic end; so remorseless that from 1681 to 1838 it was considered too harrowing and a very successful version by Nahum Tate, with a happy ending, took the place of Shakespeare's original. The original source play also had a happy ending, which has led some critics to speculate that Shakespeare's pessimistic play reflected some personal crisis in his own life.

Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters

The Division of the Kingdom

Tell me, my daughters
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge? Goneril,
Our eldest born, speak first.

Act 1 scene 1.

King Lear announces to his Court that he will resign his crown and divide his kingdom and all his property between his three daughters, the eldest, Goneril, married to the Duke of Albany, the second, Regan, married to the vicious Duke of Cornwall, and the youngest, Cordelia, who is being courted by the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. They must show they deserve their dowry by declaring publicly how much they love their father.

Cordelia is disinherited

Cordelia is disinherited

Now our joy...
What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak
Nothing, my lord.....
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart in to my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more, no less.'

Act 1 sc.1

His favourite daughter, Cordelia, refuses. Lear flies into a rage, disinherits Cordelia and banishes her. He divides her portion of the kingdom between her sisters Goneril and Regan, and disowns her. He also banishes the Earl of Kent for daring to speak in her defence.

King Lear Cordelia and her sisters

Cordelia leaves for France

The Duke of Burgundy withdraws his offer of marriage, but the King of France accepts her without her dowry. She departs for France, leaving the care of Lear to her 'cunning' sisters. Lear, attended by a hundred knights, will live with each of them in turn.

'Ye jewels of our father, with washed eyes
Cordelia leaves you. I know you what you are,
And like a sister am most loath to call
Your faults as they are named. Love well our father.
Act 1 scene 1

Edmund plots to disinherit Edgar

Edmund plots to gain Edgar's inheritance

...Why "bastard"? Wherefore "base",
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With "base"?...
Now God stand up for bastards

Act 1 scene 2.

The sub-plot concerns the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, the legitimate eldest son Edgar, and the illegitimate Edmund, who has been brought up away from the Court. His father has paid for his upbringing but will not treat him equally with his brother Edgar. Edmund plans to steal Edgar's inheritance. He convinces his father that his half brother Edgar is trying to kill Gloucester so that he can have his inheritance. Edgar has to flee for his life, disguised as a mad, naked beggar.

Lear curses Goneril

Lear curses Goneril

Lear, attended by his Fool and a hundred knights, is living with his eldest daughter, Goneril and her husband the Duke of Albany. Lears knights brawl and quarrel with Goneril's servants. Goneril, demands that he dismiss them and submit to behaving in a way she feels would be more suitable to his age. Lear flies into a rage and flings a dreadful curse at her:

Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her...
I have another daughter
Who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable..
Act 1 scene 4

Kent in the stocks

Regan has Lear's servant put into the stocks

Lear servant Kent has disguised himself to stay near his master. Lear sends Kent to tell Regan that he is leaving Goneril's house and coming to hers. Goneril also sends a messenger, Oswald, to warn her sister.

Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall immediately leave their home as an excuse not to take Lear in. They go to Gloucester's house. Here Kent and Oswald meet and Kent starts a fight with Oswald. Regan and the Duke of Cornwall punish Kent with the stocks.

  Lear finds his servant Kent in the stocks

Regan confronts her father

When Lear arrives at Gloucester's house he finds his servant in the stocks and Regan first refusing to see him, and then also determined to control him. Regan tells her father he should return to Goneril , ask her pardon, and dismiss half his servants.

O sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine. You should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than yourself.'

Act 2 scene 2

A victorian illustration of Lear and his Fool in the storm

Goneril and Regan unite against their father

Goneril and the Duke of Albany arrive, and the King turns from one daughter to the other, reduced to bargaining for his status and treatment. They act together, refuse to allow him any of his own servants, tell him he is old and weak. Weeping and enraged he calls for his horse and rushes out into the stormy night. They let him go although the storm is up and there is no shelter for miles around:

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall I will do such things
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep.
No, I'll not weep. I have full cause of weeping.
But this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!'

Act 2 scene 2

Lear and his Fool in the storm

In the storm

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow,
You cataracts and hurricanes....
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man.

Act 3 scene 2

Out in the storm, with his Fool, Lears grief is turning to madness as he curses his ungrateful, cruel, daughters.

Lear, the Fool and Edgar, Fuseli

They meet Edgar, disguised as a mad beggar

Away, the foul fiend follows me....
Didst thou give all to thy two daughters,
And art come to this?
Act 3 scene 2

Kent finds them and leads them to a hovel where they can shelter from the storm. Here Edgar, disguised as poor mad Tom the beggar, is hiding.

  Lear, the fool and Kent meet Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom

Gloucester tries to help Lear

Gloucester follows them and takes them all to a better shelter, and in some texts, Poor Tom and Lear hold a mock trial of Lear daughters. Lear, exhausted, sleeps, but Gloucester son Edmund has betrayed them to Regan and her husband who send soldiers to kill them. Kent carries Lear away towards Dover, where Cordelia and the King of France have launched an invasion.

The mock trial of a stool

The function of the Fool in King Lear

Fool sings:
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That its had its head bit off by its young
Act 1 scene 4

The function of the Fool in King Lear is to show the stark consequences of Lears actions, from Lear's point of view. Some feminist critics have looked at the play from other angles, and tried to imagine the family background which has led to Lear's elder daughters' treatment of their father.

Here the mad Lear conducts a mock-trial of his cruel daughters.

The blinding of Gloucester

Gloucester is blinded by Regan and her husband

All dark and comfortless. Where is my son Edmund?....
Out villain!
Thou callst on him that hates thee. It was he
That made the overtures of thy treason to us
...Go thrust him out at the gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Act 3 scene 7

Regan and Cornwall, in revenge, tear out Gloucester's eyes. He is turned out of doors to beg his way to Dover. The Duke of Cornwall is killed by a servant trying to prevent them.

Gloucester and Edgar at Dover cliff

Edgar leads his father to the edge of Dover cliffs

Gloucester's son Edgar, still disguised as a beggar, finds his father, and protects him, guiding him to Dover. There Gloucester intends to end his life by throwing himself from Dover cliff, but Edgar prevents him:

... How fearful
And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and chough that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles....
..The murmuring surge
That on th' unnumbered idle pebbles chafes
Cannot be heard so high....

Act 4 scene 5.

Lear crowned with flowers

Lear is found wandering, crowned with flowers

Edgar and his father meet Lear, wandering on the heath, crowned with weeds and flowers, talking with mad sanity about his daughters:
Here Cordelia finds him and they are reconciled.

'Pray do not mock.
I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward,
Not an hour more nor less; and to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind...
Act 5 scene 6

  Lear and Cordelia are captured and led away to prison

Lear and Cordelia are captured

Edmund and his army capture Lear and Cordelia and they are led away to captivity.

'Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage...'
Act 5 scene 3

Duel between Edgar and Edmund

Edgar challenges Edmund

To both these sisters have I sworn my love,
Each jealous of the other as the stung
Are of the adder...

Act 5 scene 3.

Both Regan and Goneril have fallen in love with Edmund. Regan, the widow of Cornwall, claims Edmund, but Goneril poisons her. As Regan is dying, Edgar appears, still hiding his identity, and challenges Edmund to single combat, accusing him of treachery. Edgar mortally wounds Edmund, and then reveals his identity, telling them that his father, Gloucester, is dead.:

My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
Act 5 scene 3.

The death of Edmund

Edmund is filled with remorse

Yet Edmund was beloved.
The one the other poisoned for my sake,
And after slew herself.
Act 5 scene 3

Knowing that Edmund is dying, Goneril stabs herself. As the bodies of Regan and Goneril are brought in and laid out, Edmund, filled with remorse, tells them that he has sent orders for Lear and Cordelia to be killed.

The death of Cordelia

The death of Lear and Cordelia

Albany sends soldiers to rescue them, but they are too late. Lear enters, carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms.

...No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never....
Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.
Look there, look there
Act 5 scene 3

Lear dies.

  The Victorian actor Charles Macready as Lear

Adaptions and film versions of the play

Many writers and directors have been inspired by this dark and powerful tragedy of family relationships. Some of the best known are the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's Ran, the British playwright Edward Bond's Lear, Howard Barker's Seven Lears, and the American Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres, set in the American prairies, filmed in 1997.

  The death of Cordelia, 1854 print

There are many film versions of the play available. Some of the most important are the Russian Grigori Kozintsevs, 1971; Peter Brooks film based on the RSC production with Paul Scofield, also 1971; Michael Hordern as Lear in the 1982 BBC TV version; Laurence Olivier, 1984 for Channel 4 TV; the film based on Richard Eyres 1998 Royal National Theatre production staring Ian Holm; and the RSC 2007 stage production starring Ian McKellan, released on film in 2008. Anthony Hopkins is about to star in a film for probable release in 2010.
There is an excellent detailed production history available on Wikipedia.

Introduction to William Shakespeare
The Birmingham Shakespeare Library
Contents of the Sir Barry Jackson and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive