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On Sources of William Shakespeare's “King Lear”

The earliest reference to King Lear is probably from, "an entry in the Stationers’ Register on 26 November 1607, for Nathaniel Butter and John Busby . . . A booke called Master William Shakespeare his historye of Kinge Lear as yt was played before the Kinges Majestie ar Whitehall uppon Sainct Stephens night at Christmas Last, by his majesties servantes playing usually at the Globe on the Banksyde." (Bullough, 269) This places the play some time later than The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters (Leir), which was produced in 1605 by an unknown playwright. Although the sources of Shakespeare’s King Lear (Lear) may be numerous and diverse, it is Leir which was probably the most influential. While the story of a king dividing his kingdom amongst his children was a popular story around Shakespeare’s time, the most probable sources for Shakespeare’s play are the earlier Leir; a recent (1603) factual account of Cordell Annesley, who defended her father’s sanity similarly to King Lear; and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Of these works, it is difficult to say which of them influenced Shakespeare’s pen, but the similarities in plot, character and names suggests these as some of his possible sources. It must be noted, as well, that there are numerous other stories and histories which may or may not have influenced Shakespeare as he wrote King Lear, and this is by no means a complete list.

Leir is the most obviously similar work to that of Lear, for the names of the characters are nearly identical, and the plot is largely similar except in its ending. First, there are the kings, Lear and Leir. Next, the three daughters of Lear are Cordelia, Goneril and Regan, while in Leir, they are Cordella, Gonorill and Ragan. The opening scene of Leir shows an aging king who asks his three daughters to show how much they love him, so that he may divide his "crown" among them:

Leir. I am resolv’d, and even now my mind
Doth meditate a sudden stratagem,
To try which of my daughter loves me best:
Which till I know I cannot be in rest.
This graunted, when they joyntly shall contend,
Eche to exceed the other in their love:
Then at the vantage will I take Cordella,
Even as she doth protest she loves me best,
Ile say, Then, daughter, graunt me one request,
To shew thou lovest me as thy sisters doe . . . (Bullough, 337)

As in Lear, Cordella states only that she loves her father as she should and no more, as she states, " . . . do not mistake my words, / Nor my playne meaning be misconstrued; / My toung was never usde to flattery" (Bullough, 344). Gonerill and Ragan, however, each speak of there love with hyperbole and without true feelings. Leir then divides his kingdom between Gonerill and Ragan and dispossess himself of Cordella. One striking difference between the two plays is that Leir gives foreknowledge of the king’s scheme to Gonerill and Ragan, while in Lear, they simply act out of their naturally evil character. Lear does open, though, with a very similar plot, and it is the unfair treatment of Cordella/Cordelia that drives both plays.

Shakespeare does not simply "borrow" the plot of Leir, rather, he adds more characters and sub-plots. The tempest in act three of Lear becomes a major force in the maddening of the king, while the bad weather is simply used as an omen in Leir. The parallel relationship between Lear and his daughters and of Gloucester to his sons is new to Shakespeare, as well as many other plot-strengthening techniques and heightened language. Shakespeare’s ending is unique in that most other accounts end with the king regaining his throne, which makes for a much more resonating and tragic end.

From Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an opening scene similar to Leir is played:

The eldest Gonorill gan to protest,
That she much more then hew owne life him lov’d:
And Regan greater love to him profest,
Then all the world, when ever it were proov’d;
But Cordeill said she lov’d him, as behoov’d:
Whose simple answer, wanting colours faire
To paint it forth, him to displeasance moov’d,
That in his crowne he counted her no heir,
But twixt the other twaine his kingdome whole did share.
(Bullough, 333)

The first mention of Cordelia’s death by hanging is introduced by Spenser, and was probably here that Shakespeare received the idea. After replacing King Leyr to his throne, Gonorill and Regan have her in imprisoned where, "Through proud ambition, against her rebeld, / And overcummen kept in prison long, / Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong." (Bullough, 334)

The most probable inspiration for Shakespeare’s reanimation of this old story was an article of current events. In October of 1603, Cordell Annesley was forced to prove the sanity of her father, Bryan, who was accused of senility by Cordell’s sister, Grace:

According to your letter of the 12th of this present, we repaired into the house of Bryan Annesley, of Lee, in the county of Kent, and finding him fallen into such imperfection and distemperature of mind and memory, as we thought him thereby become altogether unfit to govern himself or his estate, we endeavored to take a perfect inventory of such goods and chattels as he possessed in and about his house. But Mrs. Cordall, his daughter . . . refuseth to suffer any inventory to be taken, until such time as she hath had conference with her friends, by reason whereof we could proceed no farther in the execution of your letter.’From Lee, 18 Oct, 1603.

Signed: John Wildegos, Tymothe Lawe, Samuel Lennard.
(Bullough, 309)

Bryan Annesley was, apparently, in a similar situation to King Leyr/Leir/Lear, in that he had three daughters, one named Cordell, and there was a power struggle when he proposed to divide his estate between them. Cordell, remaining faithful to her father’s wishes, successfully held off the maneuvers of her sisters to have him judged insane’much like Cordelia of Lear (Bullough, 270). Furthermore, as Geoffrey Bullough states, "One of the executors was Sir William Harvey, third husband of the Dowager Countess of Southampton, mother of Shakespeare’s early patron. And after that lady’s death in 1607, he married Cordell Annesley." (Bullough, 271).

While the essential plot of Lear may have been "borrowed", the play is all Shakespeare in its language, style and outcome. Shakespeare gives a tremendous depth to his characters and deals with very complex issues in a very short space of time.

An Introduction to William Shakespeare’s "King Lear"

King Lear has been described many times as Shakespeare’s finest work in tragedy, and it lives up to its expectations. Shakespeare’s characters cover, in one play, an entire range of human emotion. There is King Lear, who makes a tragic mistake and plunges from supreme regal control to total madness, from the depths of despair and guilt, to hope and contentment. There is Cordelia, who lacks the articulation of her sisters but is kind and loving, and there are Goneril and Regan who display true evil with no remorse. The fool, truly innocent, stands with Lear when all else abandoned him, and Kent, the abused subject who remains faithful to the end, uses his wits and cunning to protect the king. The other characters display themselves well, as Shakespeare leaves us with a deep commentary on human nature.

The first act introduces the major players in quick order. With a brief opening, the Earls of Kent and Gloucester discuss, rather candidly, Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, whom he describes as coming " . . . something saucily to the world before he was sent for . . . there was good sport at his making . . ." (I. i. 21-23). The king then enters and makes his purpose known:

Lear. Mean time we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom; and ’tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Confering them on younger strengths, while we

Unburthen’d crawl toward death . . . (I. i. 36-41)

Lear has decided to abdicate his power, informally, to his daughters and their suitors so that he can enjoy he last years. This in itself does not bring about his tragic flaw, but he indulges too much in self-adoration when he asks his daughters to profess their love for him, and this leads to tragic consequences. The eldest two daughters, Goneril and Regan, are quick to use hyperbole and speak of their magnificent love for Lear, though false, as Goneril says, "Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty / Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare / No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;" (I. i. 56-58). Her words and those of Regan are foreshadowed as untrue by Cordelia, the youngest and Lear’s fondest, child: "[Aside.] Then poor Cordelia! / And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s / more ponderous than my tongue." (I. i. 77-79). Cordelia presents herself as a true and trustworthy daughter with her simple and unadorned speech. Lear then gives ample thirds of his kingdom to Regan and Goneril, and he looks forward to what Cordelia will say to "Draw a third more opulent than [her] sisters . . ." (I. i. 86). The next exchange is the foundation of the play, for Cordelia, not as quick to curry favor for false praise and perhaps unable to speak as flamboyantly as her sisters, says nothing:

Lear. Nothing?

Cor. Nothing.

Lear. Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.

Cor. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty

According to my bond, no more nor less. (I. i. 88-93)

Lear, misunderstanding her words as stingy, flies into rage and divests her of all inheritance. Kent attempts to intervene, but he is quickly put down by the furious Lear: "Come not between the dragon and his wrath" (I. i. 122). Kent argues in a vain attempt for Cordelia’s sake, and the "mad" Lear banishes him. The scene ends with the King of France gratefully accepting Cordelia’s hand, now disinherited by Lear. The most faithful of Lear’s subjects, as will be seen in the later acts, are treated horribly, and the truly evil are left to rule the kingdom. Shakespeare sets the stage for Goneril and Regan to show the darkest nature of their cruelty to Lear, though unseen in the first act, their actions become more and more contemptible.

The Lear that is introduced in the first scene has already gone through wild variations in mood and temper. He has shown vanity, by asking the daughters to tell of their love; and mad rage and rashness, for banishing Kent and disinheriting Cordelia. The Lear of the first act is not a pitiable character, rather he is despicable in his actions, but Shakespeare works with him as the play progresses, and he soon becomes, "a man more sinned against than sinning." (III. ii. 59-60) as he states, ironically, before he is greatly "sinned" against. By the end of the play, few would disagree with this assertion.

The second scene of act one delivers a monologue by Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, and the beginnings of a parallel to Lear and his daughters forms:

Edm. Thou nature, art my goddess, to thy law

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true . . .

. . . Edmund the base

shall top th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper:

Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (I. ii. 1-22)

Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester, and the heir to his estate, is seen as an inconvenient bar to Edmund’s desire for inheritance, and so he begins to turn Gloucester’s favor away from Edgar with a forged letter that condemns him. Gloucester, unlike Lear, is then tricked into despising Edgar for allegedly wanting his inheritance before it is due:

Edm. It is his hand my lord; but I hope his heart is

Not in the contents.

Glou. Has he never before sounded you in this business?

Edm. Never, my lord. But I have heard him oft

maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers

declin’d, the father should be as ward to the son, and

the son manage his revenue. (I. ii. 67-74)

The cunning of Edmund is so perfect that Gloucester believes his every word as Edmund builds his lie. To add to his device, he "warns" Edgar of his father’s anger, and so nets him into his plan as well, making him an outlaw. The parallels to Lear are subtle, but both sets of characters are driven by desire and inheritance’Lear rashly putting out Cordelia and Kent, while Gloucester is all to easily deceived by Edmund’so that the greedier siblings profit and the faithful are banished.

Goneril’s character begins to develop in the third scene of act one. She becomes annoyed with Lear and his "riotous" knights, and she orders her servants to give them "colder looks among you" (I. iii. 22). The knights are not at all riotous, and this merely displays her evil nature as she seems to have no patience for the king or his servants. She simply wants them gone. Scene four offsets Goneril’s harshness as Kent returns to Lear’s service in disguise, while Lear’s fool sticks close to him and speaks volumes about Lear’s "foolish" behavior:

Fool. That lord that cousell’d thee

To give away thy land,

Come place him here by me,

Thy sweet and bitter fool

Will presently appear:

The one in motley here,

The other found out there.

Lear. Dost thou call me fool boy?

Fool. All thy other titles thou hast given away,

that thou was born with. (I. iv. 140-150)

It is ironic that the fool seems to have far more wisdom than Lear at this point. While his words seem harsh, it is only his devotion to Lear that motivates the fool. The fool continues to remind Lear of his terrible error, and Lear begins to understand his folly as well: "How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! . . . Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in / And thy dear judgement out!"(I. iv. 267-272), as he beats his hand against his head. For Lear, though, it is already too late to regret his mistake, and he begins to feel his rashness return as he says, "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! / Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!" (I. v. 46-47). The sentiment he expresses is commendable as he attempts to control his anger so he does not repeat his previous errors. What happens, however, is that Goneril becomes so disrespectful, that Lear leaves her to seek comfort with Regan, but Goneril dismisses most of his entourage before he leaves. This infuriates Lear, but Regan throws him out altogether and places Kent (in disguise) in the stocks. Lear’s use of the word "mad" at line 46 foreshadows his fall into despair and insanity when he leaves Regan, determined to live as a homeless beggar in the midst of a terrible storm. Only Gloucester shows concern for his well-being as Lear and his fool brave the elements unsheltered. Gloucester’s loyalty to Lear earns him Regan’s wrath, as she takes control of his castle.

Act three takes Lear through an absolute frenzy of emotions. Having given away his kingdom, he is mentally crushed by the treachery and inhuman treatment he has suffered with Goneril and Regan. The tempest serves as heightened symbol of Lear’s mind as he struggles to maintain his wits amidst his uncontrollable rage and frustration:

Lear. Blow, winds, and crack your checks! Rage, blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder

Strike the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!

Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once

That makes ungrateful man! (III. ii. 1-8)

Lear continues to howl the storm, himself and his eldest daughters, and Shakespeare shows the human mind in torment as it is faced with irrepressible anger, guilt and rage. The tempest in his mind is perhaps more foul than the storm itself, as Lear cannot accept what he has lost. Gloucester, in parallel, has been thrown out of power in his castle by Regan, as she has had her fill of him as well. Gloucester then, foolishly trusting Edmund, gives him information about letters he has received concerning revenge by the French and Cordelia. Edmund makes his intentions of selfish betrayal known as Gloucester exits:

Edm. This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the Duke

Instantly know, and of that letter too.

This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me

That which my father loses: no less than all.

The younger rises when the old doth fall. (III. iii. 21-25)

Edmund does not truly realize the implications of his action, but in later scenes this proves to be a wretched maneuver.

Scene four introduces Edgar in the disguise of a bedlam beggar’which keeps him from being arrested under the false reports of Edmund. Edgar occupies a hovel where Lear, the fool and Kent seek shelter, and he is mostly naked and covered with muck and filth’he plays the part of "Poor Tom" the madman as Gloucester happens upon them. Lear, having lost his battle with his mind, finds company in "Poor Tom" and rips off his clothes so that he can be more like him. The parallels continue as Lear identifies, in his madness, with Edgar. Lear finds comfort in his new-found companion, referring to him as "philosopher" (III. iv. 154) and "learned Theban" (III. iv. 158) while asking him inane questions about thunder etc., which confirms his infirmity. Scene six shows Lear in complete madness as he holds a "trial" for Goneril and Regan, using the fool and "Poor Tom" as court:

Lear. I’ll see their trial first, bring in their evidence.

To Edgar. Thou robed man of justice, take thy


To the Fool. And thou, his yoke-fellow of equity

Bench by his side.

To Kent. You are o’ the’ commission,

Sit you too. (III. vi. 34-39)

Lear’s trust in these three is partly madness and partly his own recognition of their fidelity, for he retains his sense of their faithfulness despite his condition. Lear speaks quite eloquently, at times, even as his grasp on reality weakens, and he seems calmly curious about Regan’s motives: "Then let them anatomize Regan; see what / breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature / that make these hard hearts?"

At the peak of Edmund’s treachery, Gloucester is brought before Goneril, Regan and the Duke of Cornwall. With the information given to them on his loyalty to the King, they decide to "pluck out his eyes" (III. vii. 5) by Goneril’s suggestion, and without the presence of Edmund, as he would surely have put a stop to it. At this display of inhuman cruelty, one of Gloucester’s former servants takes up a sword and mortally wounds Cornwall as he goes to pluck out Gloucester’s second eye. Regan stabs the servant in the back, and Cornwall plucks out his other eye even though he is dying. Even as he is wounded, he shows no mercy. Gloucester is then sent out to "smell his way to Dover" (III. vii. 93) where the French will land in an attempt to restore Lear to the throne. Gloucester’s remaining loyal servants tend to his wounds and lead him to "Poor Tom", whom they believe will not be accosted, to lead him to Dover. Gloucester sums up the events: " ’Tis the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind." They leave with Gloucester resolved to suicide, Edgar, as "Poor Tom", resolved to save him. The heroic temperament of Edgar is enviable as he continues to play his part, with an occasional aside to assure the audience of his inner turmoil, yet it is his love for his father that urges him on.

Shakespeare continues his parallel of Gloucester and Lear, as both are now befriended by their faithful subjects in disguise; Lear, losing his mind and accompanied by Kent, Gloucester losing his eyes and accompanied by his son. Both men are fated for their tragic flaws’Lear in being too rash and Gloucester in being too gullible’but they become valiant in their struggles.

Act four, scene six has some of the only relief from tragedy in the play. Gloucester, led by Edgar, asks to be led to a cliff where he will jump and end his life. Edgar tricks him into living in comedic fashion, but his ploy works on the gullible Gloucester:

Glou. When shall I come to th’ top of that same hill?

Edg. You do climb up it now. Look how we labor.

Glou. Methinks the ground is even . . .

. . . Methinks thy voice is alter’d, and thou speak’st

In better phrase and matter than thou didst.

Edg. Y’ are much deciv’d. In nothing am I chang’d

But in my garments. . . (IV. vi. 1-8)

Edgar leads Gloucester to what he thinks is the brink of the cliff, where he blesses Edgar, renounces life, and jumps. He lands a foot or so in front of where he jumped. Edgar runs up to him in the guise of a different person, and tells him how he witnessed his salvation, and he shows amazement at the miracle:

Edg. Hadst thou been aught but goss’mer feathers, air

(So many fathom down precipitating),

Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg: but thou dost breathe,

Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.

Ten masts at each make not the altitude

Which thou hast perpendicularly fell.

Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again. (IV. vi. 48-55)


Edgar then tells him how a monster was with him on the cliff, and Gloucester, being so naive, believes it’pointing out that he thought something was wrong with "him", meaning the "previous" Edgar. The comedic element serves as a much needed break from the suffering and awful human behavior of the first four acts.

The comedy is short lived, though, when Lear enters the scene wearing a crown of flowers and weeds, a pitiful sight. The fool has mysteriously vanished from the play, perhaps dead, but Shakespeare does not give us the account, or perhaps the exit of the fool was lost. Gloucester recognizes Lear’s voice: "The trick of that voice I do well remember, / Is’t not the King?" (IV. vi. 106-107), to which Lear, in a tear-jerking line replies, "Ay, every inch a king!" (IV. vi. 108). The pathetic image of the ruined king allows the reader/viewer to absolve him of any bad judgement, and Edgar is overwrought as well when he says, "[Aside] I would not take this from report, it is, / and my heart breaks at it." (IV. vi. 141-143). The loyal Gentleman who comes along is moved too:

Gent. A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch,

Past speaking of in a king! Thou hast one daughter

Who redeems nature from the general curse

Which twain have brought her to. (IV. vi. 204-207)

Scene seven brings back Cordelia, missing from most of the play, and she holds Lear in high regard despite his cruel actions toward her. She asks the gods in a sincere tone, " . . . to / Cure this great breach in his abused nature, / Th’ untun’d and jarring senses, O, wind up / Of this child-changed father!" (IV. vii. 13-16). Lear, now under the care of doctors and having had some sleep, recovers most of his faculties. He speaks kindly to Cordelia and presents himself as, "a very foolish fond old man" (IV. vii. 59), in a touching act of regret and shame.

Act five does not deliver the "happy ending" we hope for, as Cordelia’s forces are defeated by her older siblings’. Edgar, though, gets his chance for revenge on Edmund in and "affair of honor", but Cordelia and Lear have been imprisoned. Lear sees this as tolerable, and given the suffering he has been through, surely nothing could be worse, indeed, with Cordelia, it would be contenting to him:

Lear. No, no,no,no! Come let’s away to prison:

We two alone will sing like birds I’ th’ cage;

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At guilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news . . . (V. iii. 8-14)

During the course of the "affair of honor", Edmund falls to Edgar’s sword and suddenly becomes repentant upon hearing the reconciliatory words of his brother. This sudden change of heart is unexpected, but we are grateful for it, to see at least one "bad" character redeemed. Perhaps it is the cruel blinding of his father that moves him so. Goneril, however, poisons Regan over her jealousy of Edmund, whom she was in love with, and she kills herself in her grief. It is a fitting end to their despicable lives. Edmund has taken his loss as an opportunity to do good before he dies:

Edm. I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,

Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send

(Be brief in it) to th’ castle, for my writ

Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia. (V. iii. 244-247)

Edmund’s change of heart comes too late, as Lear enters the scene:

Lear. Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!

Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so

That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!

I know when one is dead, and when one lives . . .

Cordelia has been hanged by Edmund’s assassin, and Lear, once again, is dealt a crushing blow. Although he has sustained this far, he cannot recover from Cordelia’s death. She was his sole purpose in living for the future, and she is dead. He reminisces and grieves as she lies in his arms:

Lear. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!

I might have saved her, now she’s gone for ever!

Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!

What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,

Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.

I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.

Gent. ’Tis true, my lords, he did.

Lear. Did I not, fellow?

I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion

I would have made them skip. I am old now,

And these same crosses spoil me. (V. iii. 270-279)

The image of Lear, first carrying Cordelia’s body, and telling how he killed the assassin, is one of Shakespeare’s finest moments on stage. The range of human condition that Lear experiences is astounding, but totally convincing. He plunges from regality to fury, madness to sanity, hope to happiness, only to be plunged deeper into despair each time he recovers. Lear dies, at last, over Cordelia’s body, for he who was strong enough to surmount, in old age, the trying passions of his experiences, could not cope with the death of Cordelia, his favorite daughter.

Even with the dreadful deaths of so many, the ending of King Lear is not totally tragic. Much in the play’s characters confirmed the goodness of man. Kent, the fool, Cordelia, Edgar, and even Edmund, display the highest levels of honor and love, which helps to offset the malice and evil of Goneril and Regan. Unfortunate circumstances and bad judgement are the real villains to Lear, and so we mourn for him and Cordelia. Lear as a whole was a good man, strong of heart and enviable in stamina, but weakened in his old age by rash judgement. Shakespeare plays a perfect combination of all that humans are, or could be, in King Lear.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare 2nd edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol 7. Columbia UP.
8 vols. 1957-75.

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