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King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606. It is considered one of his greatest works. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. It has been widely adapted for stage and screen, with the part of Lear played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.

There are two distinct versions of the play: The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, which appeared in quarto in 1608, and The Tragedy of King Lear, a more theatrical version, which appeared in the First Folio in 1623. The two texts are commonly printed in a conflated version, although many modern editors have argued that each version has its individual integrity.

After the Restoration the play was often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century it has been regarded as one of Shakespeare's supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship.


  • Lear, King of Britain
  • Goneril (sometimes written Gonerill), eldest daughter of Lear
  • Regan, second daughter of Lear
  • Cordelia, youngest daughter of Lear
  • Duke of Albany, husband to Goneril
  • Duke of Cornwall, husband to Regan
  • Earl of Gloucester
  • Earl of Kent, who appears throughout much of the play under the guise of Caius
  • Edgar, son of Gloucester
  • Edmund (sometimes written Edmond), illegitimate son of Gloucester

  • Oswald, steward to Goneril
  • Fool
  • King of France, suitor and later husband to Cordelia
  • Duke of Burgundy, suitor to Cordelia
  • Curan, a courtier
  • Old man, tenant of Gloucester.
  • A Doctor, an Officer employed by Edmund, a Gentleman attending on Cordelia, a Herald, Servants to Cornwall. Knights of Lear's Train, Officers, Messengers, Soldiers, and Attendants


Lear, who is old, wants to retire from power. He decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, which pleases him. Cordelia speaks temperately and honestly, which annoys him. In his anger he disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between the other two. Kent objects to this unfair treatment. Lear is further enraged by Kent's contradiction, and banishes him from the country. Cordelia's two suitors enter. Learning that she is disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of Francemarker is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway.

Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, agreeing that Lear is old and foolish.
Edmund resents his illegitimate status, and plots to supplant his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise under the name of Caius, and Lear hires him as a servant. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to behave better and reduce his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him outlaw.

Kent meets Oswald at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall. When Lear arrives, he objects, but Regan takes the same line as Goneril. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and echoes Regan. 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 Lear's mistreatment. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets Edgar, in the guise of Tom o' Bedlam, that is, a madman. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Gloucester leads them all to shelter.

Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges out his eyes. But one of Cornwall's servants is so outraged by this that he attacks and fatally wounds Cornwall. Regan kills the mutinous servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund tricked him; then she turns him out to wander the heath too. Edgar, in his madman's guise as Tom, meets blinded Gloucester on the heath. Gloucester begs Tom to lead him to a cliff, so that he may jump to his death.

Edmund meets Goneril, and she finds him more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as milk-livered. Albany is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces Goneril. Kent leads Lear to the French army, which is accompanied by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and terribly embarrassed by his earlier follies. Albany leads the British army to meet the French. Regan too is attracted to Edmund, and the two sisters become jealous. Goneril sends Oswald with letters to Edmund, and also tells Oswald to kill Gloucester if he sees him. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. They meet Lear, who is now completely mad. Lear rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald tries to kill Gloucester, but is slain by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds a letter from Goneril to Edmund suggesting the murder of Albany. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness largely 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 them off with secret orders for execution.

The victorious British leaders meet, and Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril, and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan collapses; Goneril has poisoned her. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears to fight Edmund, and fatally stabs him in a duel. Albany shows Goneril's letter to her; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself.

Offstage, Goneril stabs herself, and confesses to poisoning Regan. Edmund, dying, reveals his order to kill Lear and Cordelia. But it is too late: Cordelia is dead, though Lear slew the killer. Lear recognizes Kent. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but Lear is too far gone in grief and hardship. He collapses and dies. Albany offers to share power between Kent and Edgar but Kent, overwhelmed with sadness, refuses. At the end, either Albany or Edgar (depending on whether one reads the Quarto or the Folio version) is crowned King.


Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Celtic figure Lear/Lir/Llŷr. 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 A Mirror for Magistrates (1574), by John Higgins; The Malcontent (1604), by John Marston; The London Prodigal (1605); Arcadia (1580–1590), by Sir Philip Sidney, from which Shakespeare took the main outline of the Gloucester subplot; Montaigne's Essays, which were translated into English by John Florio in 1603; An Historical Description of Iland of Britaine, by William Harrison; Remaines Concerning Britaine, by William Camden (1606); Albion's England, by William Warner, (1589); and A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures, by Samuel Harsnett (1603), 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, 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, 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. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this tragic ending was much criticised, and alternative versions were written and performed, in which the leading characters survived and Edgar and Cordelia were married (despite the fact that Cordelia was already married to the King of France.)

Date and text

Although a date of composition cannot be given, many editions of the play date King Lear between 1603 and 1606. The latest it could have been written is 1606, because the Stationers' Register notes a performance on December 26, 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). On the contrary, 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".

However, before Kenneth Muir set out the case for the play's indebtedness to Harsnett's 1603 text, a minority of scholars believed the play to be much older. In 1936, A. S. Cairncross argued that "the relationship of the two plays [Leir and Lear] has been inverted": Shakespeare's Lear came first and that the anonymous Leir is an imitation of it. One piece of evidence for this view is that in 1594, King Leir was entered into the Stationers' Register (but never published), while in the same year a play called King Leare was recorded by Philip Henslowe as being performed at the Rose theatremarker. However, the majority view is that these two references are simply variant spellings of the same play, King Leir. In addition, Shakespeare authorship researcher Eva Turner Clark, who believed the plays were written by the Earl of Oxford, saw numerous parallels between the play and the events of 1589–90, including the Kent banishment subplot, which she believed to parallel the 1589 banishment of Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth. The question of dating is further complicated by the question of revision (see below).

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 presumption that Shakespeare wrote only one original manuscript, now unfortunately lost, and that the Quarto and Folio versions are distortions of that original.

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 not the only recent edition to offer the traditional conflated text.

Performance history

The first recorded performance on December 26, 1606 is the only one known with certainty from Shakespeare's era. The play was revived soon after the theatres re-opened after the 1660 Restoration, and was played in its original form as late as 1675. But the urge to adapt and change that was so liberally applied to Shakespeare's plays in that period eventually settled on Lear as on other works. Nahum Tate produced an adaptation in 1681: he gave the play a happy ending, with Edgar and Cordelia marrying, and Lear restored to kingship. The Fool was eliminated altogether, and Arante, a confidant for Cordelia, was added. This was the version acted by Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, and Edmund Kean, and praised by Samuel Johnson. The play was suppressed in the late 18th and early 19th century by the British government, which disliked the dramatization of a mad monarch at a time when George III was suffering mental impairment. The original text did not return to the London stage until William Charles Macready's production of 1838. Other actors who were famous as King Lear in the nineteenth century were Samuel Phelps and Edwin Booth.

20th Century

The play is among the most popular of Shakespeare’s works to be staged in the 20th century. The most famous staging may be the 1962 production directed by Peter Brook, with Paul Scofield as Lear' Alec McCowen as The Fool. In a 2004 opinion poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Scofield's Lear was voted as the greatest performance in a Shakespearean play in the history of the RSC . and immortalized on film in 1971. The longest Broadwaymarker run of King Lear was the 1968 production with Lee J. Cobb as Lear, Stacy Keach as Edmund, Philip Bosco as Kent, and Rene Auberjonois as the Fool. It ran for 72 performances: no other Broadway production of the play has run for as many as 50 performances. A Soviet film adaptation was done by Mosfilm in 1971, directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with black-and-white photography and a score by Shostakovich. The script was based on a translation by Boris Pasternak, and Estonianmarker actor Jüri Järvet played the mad king.

Other famous actors played Lear in the twentieth century.

21st Century

The first great 21st century Lear may be Christopher Plummer, who became the first actor to receive a Tony Award nomination for playing Lear in the 2004 Broadway production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatremarker.

Ian McKellen (who had previously appeared as Edgar and Kent, winning a Drama Desk Award for the former) was triumphant as Lear in April 2007, with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avonmarker. This production was taken on a world tour with a cast that included Romola Garai as Cordelia, Sylvester McCoy as the Fool, Frances Barber as Goneril, Monica Dolan as Regan, William Gaunt as Gloucester, and Jonathan Hyde as Kent. It continued at the New London Theatremarker, Drury Lanemarker, where it ended its run on 12 January 2008 and netted McKellen a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. The production, which was directed by Trevor Nunn and was alternated with The Seagull, was later videotaped and broadcast on Great Performances on PBS, garnering McKellen an Emmy Award nomination.

Other recent Lears were:

Points of debate


I, Scene I features a ceremony in which King Lear divides his kingdom among his daughters. Lear seemingly partitions his kingdom according to the verbal expressions of his daughters' love for him. If this were a test, it would make most sense for Lear to hear out all three daughters before starting to divide the kingdom. David Ball posits an alternate interpretation. He bases this analysis on the conversation between Kent and Gloucester which are the first seven lines of the play and serve to help the audience understand the context of the drama about to unfold.

Ball interprets this statement to mean that the court already knows how the King is going to divide his kingdom; that the outcome of the ceremony is already decided and publicly known.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the King's "contest" has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia.

Tragic ending

The adaptations that Shakespeare made to the legend of King Lear to produce his tragic version are quite telling of the effect they would have had on his contemporary audience. The story of King Lear was familiar to the average English Renaissance theatre goer (as were many of Shakespeare's sources) and any discrepancies between versions would have been immediately apparent.

Shakespeare's tragic conclusion gains its sting from such a discrepancy. The traditional legend and all adaptations preceding Shakespeare's have it that after Lear is restored to the throne, he remains there until "made ripe for death" (Edmund Spenser). Cordelia, her sisters also dead, takes the throne as rightful heir, but after a few years is overthrown and imprisoned by nephews, leading to her suicide.

Shakespeare shocks his audience by bringing the worn and haggard Lear onto the stage, carrying his dead youngest daughter. He taunts them with the possibility that she may live yet with Lear saying, "This feather stirs; she lives!" But Cordelia's death is soon confirmed.

This was indeed too bleak for some to take, even many years later. King Lear was at first unsuccessful on the Restoration stage, and it was only with Nahum Tate's happy-ending version of 1681 that it became part of the repertory. Tate's Lear, where Lear survives and triumphs, and Edgar and Cordelia get married, held the stage until 1838. Samuel Johnson endorsed the use of Tate's version in his edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765): "Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor."

Cordelia and the Fool

The Fool, important in the first act, disappears without explanation in the third act. He appears in Act I, scene four, and disappears in Act III, scene six. His final line is "And I'll to bed at noon", a line that many think might mean that he is to die at the highest point of his life, when he lies in prison separated from his friends.

A popular explanation for the Fool's disappearance is that the actor playing the Fool also played Cordelia. The two characters are never on stage simultaneously, and dual-roling was common in Shakespeare's time. However, the Fool would have been played by Robert Armin, the regular clown actor of Shakespeare's company, who is unlikely to have been cast as a tragic heroine. Even so, the play does ask us to at least compare the two; Lear chides Cordelia for foolishness in Act I; chides himself as equal in folly in Act V; and as he holds the dead Cordelia in the final scene, says "And my poor fool is hanged" ("fool" could be taken as either a direct reference to the Fool, or an affectionate reference to Cordelia herself, or it could refer to both the fool and Cordelia).

In the Trevor Nunn production of King Lear, which was shown on PBS and stars Ian McKellen, the play is slightly revised so that the Fool (portrayed by Sylvester McCoy) is hanged on stage, just after Gloucester is captured by Cornwall's men.

In Elizabethan English, "fool" was a term used to mean "child" (cf. foal). For example, in Hamlet, Polonius warns Ophelia that if she does not keep her distance from Hamlet, she'll "tender me a fool," i.e. present him with a child. As Lear holds the dead body of Cordelia, he remembers holding her in his arms as a baby.

Adaptations and cultural references

  • Portions of a radio performance of the play on BBC Radio 3 in the UK were used by John Lennon in The Beatles' song "I Am the Walrus", starting at about the halfway point, but most audible towards the end and during the long fadeout. Lennon added the BBC audio (live as it was being broadcast) during mixing of the track. The character Oswald's exhortation, "bury my body", as well as his lament, "O, untimely death!" (Act IV, Scene VI) were interpreted by fans as further pieces of evidence that band member Paul McCartney was dead.
  • A lake in Watermead Country Parkmarker, Leicestershiremarker is named King Lear's Lake, owing to its proximity of the legendary burial tomb of King Leir. A statue in the lake depicts the final scene of Shakespeare's play.
  • The Liverpool based band The Wombats make reference to the play in their song "Lost in the Post."
  • At the beginning of the video game Final Fantasy IX, the play 'I Want To Be Your Canary' played in front of Queen Brahne is heavily inspired from King Lear (the two plays share both the characters' names and the plot) .
  • Canadian band The Tragically Hip have a song called "Cordelia" inspired by King Lear on their album Road Apples


A number of significant and diverse readings have emerged from eras and societies since the play was first written; evidence of the ability of Shakespeare to encompass many human experiences. The play was poorly received in the 17th century because the theme of fallen royalty was too close to the events of the period; the exile of the court to France. In 1681 Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear to suit a 17th century audience: Tate's The History of King Lear changed Shakespeare's tragedy into a love story with a happy ending. The King of France and the Fool are omitted; Edgar saves Cordelia from ruffians on the heath; Lear defeats the assassins sent to kill him and Cordelia, and Edgar and Regan are betrothed in a final scene, where Edgar declares that "Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed."

As society and time changed, especially in the nineteenth century, Shakespeare's tragic ending was reinstalled, first, briefly, by Edmund Kean in 1823, then by William Charles Macready in 1834. Macready removed all traces of Tate in an abridged version of Shakespeare's text in 1838, and Samuel Phelps restored the complete Shakespearean version in 1845.

The only recent production of Tate's version was staged by the Riverside Shakespeare Company in 1985, directed by W. Stuart McDowell, at The Shakespeare Center in New York City.

Critical analysis

The twentieth century saw a number of diverse and rich readings of the play emerge as a result of the turbulent social changes of the century. A. C. Bradley saw this play as an individual coming to terms with his personality; that Lear was a great man and therefore the play is almost unfathomable.

The Family Drama reading has also become prevalent in the 20th century. King Lear can be read as being about the dynamics in the relationship between parent and children. Key issues include the relationship between Lear and Goneril/Regan, between Lear and Cordelia and the relationship between Gloucester and his sons.

The play has been interpreted by many societies. Communist Russia emphasised the suffering of the common people and the oppressive nature of the monarch in the film Korol Lear (Король Лир 1970).

Lear's suffering as a form of purgatory, within a shifting religious landscape in contemporary England, has also been put forward and has been extended onto other Shakespeare dramas like Hamlet.


Since the 1950s, there have been various "reworkings" of King Lear. These include:


Graphic Novels

ILYA link


  • The play Lear by Edward Bond
  • The play Lear's Daughters by W. T. G. and Elaine Feinstein
  • The play Seven Lears by Howard Barker
  • The play Lear Reloaded by Scot Lahaie
  • The play Aspects of Lear directed by Joseph Timko
  • The Play The Fool, by Christopher Moore, retells the story of King Lear from the perspective of The Black Fool.


Film adaptations

Notable performers as King Lear

Charles H.
Cameron as King Lear (1872) / print by A.L.

See also


External links

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