King Lear



The Tragedy of King Lear, generally considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest dramas, was originally performed in 1608 for an audience that included King James I. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear is loosely based upon historical events from several centuries earlier. The play is set in the eighth century B.C. in pre-Christian Britain, and it includes two tragic stories: that of King Lear and that of Gloucester. Each of these stories, which Shakespeare crafted into the main plot of Lear and its parallel subplot, come from different sources.

The source Shakesepeare probably used for the story of Lear is Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, first published in 1577. Holinshed relates the story of Leir and his daughters Gonorilla, Regan and Cordeilla. As in Shakespeare’s play, the ancient Leir sought to divide his kingdom among his daughters based upon their protestations of love. Because the youngest, Cordeilla, would not flatter him, he disowned her and gave her elder sisters each one half of the kingdom. The elder sisters then turned against Leir and cast him out of their homes. The historical account sees Leir restored to ruling his kingdom after Cordeilla and her husband lead an army to take it back. Shakespeare’s tragedy includes no such victory.

The subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, Edmund and Edgar, was likely taken from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, published in 1590. Sidney’s version includes a legitimate son who cares for Gloucester after he is blinded by his treacherous, illegitimate son. In King Lear, Shakespeare weaves this separate story into the ancient story of Lear and his daughters, drawing significant parallels between the families.

Shakespeare’s 1608 audience would likely have been familiar with both of these source stories, but they would also have recognized contemporary themes in the play. Within King Lear are the echoes of two well-known true stories of the...

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Essays About King Lear