William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear ranks among his best-known works. The main plot of this play is a story of an old king who wants to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. With this purpose, he inquires for the extent of his daughters’ love for him. Upon his children’s answers, he passes his kingdom only on the two eldest, who flattered him successfully in the love-test, and banishes Cordelia, the youngest one, who only told him the truth. This misjudgement does not go unpunished. Lear finds out about the ill nature of his eldest daughters and with Cordelia’s help, he gets back all his power, and the two daughters are punished for the mistreatment of their father. However, this does not end with a happy ending. Lear’s beloved youngest daughter dies and so does the old king. This story of naivety, greed and intrigues, but also of true love and forgiveness, has had a great influence upon other dramatists and playwrights since it was published. Numerous performances and adaptations have made this play familiar to almost everyone. However, Shakespeare not only inspired his followers, but he also relied on the previous reworkings of the primary story of King Lear. Wilfrid Perrett in his book The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare mentions fifty-seven works, which were written before Shakespeare’s tragedy and which include variants of King Lear’s story. This thesis focuses on nine works chosen out of the list and aims at considering them as far as their relevance to Shakespeare’s tragedy is concerned and pointing out the similarities between them and King Lear. Successively, Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Holinshed’s Chronicles, the True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Sidney’s Arcadia, Higgins’ Mirror for Magistrates, Spenser’s Faery Queene, Marston’s Malcontent, Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, and three essays of Michel de Montaigne will be discussed.
1.1 King Lear
As David G. Byrd and Edward F. Nolan state, the first mention of King Lear dates back to 26th November 1607, when the play appears in the Stationers’ Register. The date of King Lear’s first appearance in a printed form, is the year 1608, when Nathaniel Butter published the First Quarto with an inscription “M. William Shak-speare: His True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR (being stressed) and his three Daughters. With the vnfortunate life of Edgar, fonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his fullen and affumed humor of TOM of Bedlam: as it was played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes” on its title page. The play later appeared also in the Second Quarto, which had the date 1608 on its title-page, but was actually printed in 1619 from a copy of the First Quarto. King Lear’s next appearance was in 1623, when it was included among Shakespeare’s tragedies in the First Folio, which was prepared by Shakespeare’s fellow actors after his death. This was followed by three more Folios (1632, 1664, and 1685) and the Third Quarto in 1655. The exact date of the actual composition of King Lear is, however, more difficult to find. The dates of composition of other plays and works should be taken into account, above all those works which Shakespeare relied upon and used when writing his King Lear. As observed by Byrd and Nolan, this concerns mainly Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures from the year 1603 (the exact date of its entry into the Register being March 16, 1603). In this work, we can find names of various devils which Edgar as Poor Tom mentions in his speeches. (Byrd and Nolan, 1). According to Kenneth Muir, King Lear was written between March 1603 and Christmas 1606, but the most usual date of Lear’s composition is in the winter of 1605 and 1606 (Muir, xxi).
1.2 Lear’s Story
The story of King Lear and his three daughters derives from a folklore tradition, which had been adapted and incorporated into several subsequent works. These alternations that helped Shakespeare to shape King Lear’s plot, episodes and the characters themselves are of different kinds. They range from a mythological king ‘Ler’, ‘Leir’ or ‘Lyr’ in British and Irish mythology, various chronicles and annals, to the works of the playwrights of the 1590s.
The earliest appearance of Lear’s story can be found in old folk-tales and ballads. The love-test given by an old father to his three daughters is, for example, in a tale called Cap o’ Rushes. This is a story of a very rich gentleman, who wanted to know how his three daughters loved him. The eldest two valued their love more than their lives, but the youngest one’s answer was “I love you as fresh meat loves salt” (Briggs, 387). Because of her answer, she was banished from the house. At the end of this story, she invites her father to her wedding and serves him meat without salt. This makes the old man recall his mistreatment of the youngest daughter and he regrets deeply his doings. The link between this old tale and the story of King Lear is that of the love-test and the similar manner of the daughter’ answers. The eldest two flatter their father in order to gain the maximal profit, but the youngest daughter’s speaks of her love as being based on a duty of a child to his parent.
The first written account of Lear’s story can be found in the History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135. As Perrett states, Monmouth was later followed by several translations and adoptions by other historians, priests, clerks and authors of various historical collections (Perrett, 24). The first chronicle in English was written by Layamon in about 1205. The works ensuing that of Monmouth were written in Latin and English as well as in French or German. Among these works, compiled by Perrett, were for example the Latin Annales by Alfred of Beverley (1149), the Anglo-French versification of the British history the Müncher Brut (the exact date is not known),“Caxton’s” Chronicle (1480), or the chronicle of Robert Fabyan. In the sixteenth century, the passages from British history including the story of Lear appeared also in the French prose romance of Perceforest (1528), The Mirror for Magistrates (1557) by John Higgins, Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), William Warner’s Albion’s England (1586), Edmund Spenser’s the Faery Queene (1590)or the old anonymous The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters (printed 1605).
In 1603 and 1605, there also appear two actual historic cases that may have had reminded Lear’s story and thus had an influence upon revival of the interest in this tale. The first case, mentioned by Chudoba, happened in October 1603. It is a story of Sir Brian Annesley, a wealthy pensioner of Queen Elizabeth and his three daughters (Chudoba, 34). Brian’s eldest daughter Lady Grace Wildgoose wanted to have her father declared lunatic, so that she and her husband Sir John Wildgoose could take over the management of his affairs. As in Shakespeare’s story, the youngest daughter named Cordell opposed firmly her sister’s intention and appealed to Sir Robert Cecil, which was successful, because after her father’s death Cordell gained all his possessions and property. This case could have caused the revival of interest in Lear’s story and it could have given Shakespeare the idea of Lear’s madness. The second event that is known to have happened and which might have had some influence upon Shakespeare’s King Lear, but which might have influenced him to incorporate another source is, according to Foakes, the story of Sir Robert Dudley. Dudley was a bastard son of Earl of Leicester and desired for establishing his legitimacy. This could have made Shakespeare incorporate the sub-plot of Gloucester and his legitimate and illegitimate sons into his tragedy.
Although Shakespeare was much inspired by the previous reworkings of the old tale and by others works of his time, he enriched Lear’s story with a lot of his own elements. The fool, presented by Poor Tom, and his bitter remarks, the storm, Lear’s madness, which makes his fate even more tragic, and the death as a punishment of Regan and Goneril, cannot be found in any of the preceding variants of the story. Shakespeare is also the first author, who gave his play a tragic end, which is doubled by Lear’s and Cordelia’s death at the same moment. Byrd and Nolan remark that Shakespeare did not want to continue his story with Cordelia’s succession of Lear, because this would have shifted the emphasis from the tragic person of the old king and would destroy the unity of the play (Byrd and Nolan, 4). Above all, by letting Lear witness the death of his beloved daughter, whom he had lost and found only to lose her for ever; the tragic outcome has even a greater effect.
1.3 King Lear’s Sources
All the various tales, pamphlets and works which preceded Shakespeare’s Lear and influenced the composition of his tragedy, are too heterogeneous as to be summarized into one category. Moreover, all the numerous inspirations influencing King Lear can be looked upon and examined from various perspectives; they can be studied chronologically or according to their reliance to the play.
This thesis focuses on the first approach and divides the six works taken out of Perrett’s compilation into three categories, according to the degree of their importance and relationship to the tragedy. The first group consists of works which provided Shakespeare with the primary story of King Lear or with subplots and important characters. Geoffrey Monmouth’s Histories, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters belong to this category.The following group includes plays which presents variants of the story. Here, Edmund Spenser’s Faery Queene and John Higgins’ Mirror for Magistrates will be discussed. The last category contains works which did not provide any fundamental additions and new elements, but which were rather sources of ideas and inspirations as far as the characters, language and style is concerned. John Marston’s Malcontent, Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures and three essays of Michel de Montaigne will be mentioned here.
2 Main Sources
2.1 Historic Surveys and Accounts
Works dealing with the history of British kings are among the most important of all the Shakespeare’s sources, because they provided the dramatist with the core story of his tragedy. As has been already said, the story of king called Lear, Leir or Llyr was handled in many chronicles and historic surveys and treated by various writers. However, all these works are based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae or The History of the Kings of Britain from 1135. Despite of all the subsequent reworkings of Monmouth’s work, the chronicle which Shakespeare mostly relied upon when writing his plays is Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles.
2.1.1 Historia Regum Britanniae
Historia Regum Britanniae is a survey of British history, composed in 1135 by a Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth. It comprises the history of Britons form their founder, Brutus, to the last British king Cadwallader. In Monmouth’s work, we can find the first account of King Lear, the king being referred to as Leir. Leir’s story is almost identical to the main plot of King Lear, only with the differences concerning the names of the characters, several added scenes and above all, the ending of the story. As far as the similarities are concerned, Geoffrey’s Histtories include the division of Lear’s kingdom, the love-test and all the following scenes till the victorious battle. According to Lee, from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries Geoffrey’s fables of Lear and his line were accepted as authentic history, and were in continuous process of recapitulation (Lee, xxiii).
Monmouth describes Leir as a son of king Bladud, who reigned for thirty years and built the city of Leicester. Just like Shakespeare’s king Lear, Monmouth’s Leir had no male heir “his only children being three daughters Gonorilla, Regan and Cordeilla, whom all he did love with marvellous affection, but most of all the youngest born, to wit, Cordeilla” (Monmouth, 29). Leir’s decision to divide his kingdom, the following love-test and the manners of Leir’s daughters’ answers are comparable to those in King Lear. The old king first asks his eldest daughter Gonorilla. Monmouth describes her answer that “her father was dearer to her heart than the very soul that dwelt within her body” (Monmouth, 29), meaning that she loved her father more than her own life, which we can read in King Lear as well, but in different words. Regan, taking an example from her sister, answers “that she loved him better than all the world beside.” And finally Cordeilla says “I have ever loved thee as a father, nor never from that love will I be turned aside” (Monmouth, 30). Subsequently, Leir marries Gonorilla to Maglaunus, the Duke of Cornwall, and Regan to Henvin, the Duke of Albany. A “king of the Franks” called Aganippus, upon hearing about Cordeilla’s beauty, asks her to marry him, even if she has not received any part of her father’s land. After Aganippus’ proposal, Cordeilla is sent to the land of Gaul. Later on, the Dukes rebel against Leir and after that, a concord is made. Maglaunus agrees on Leir keeping hundred of his knights and the old king goes to live with the Duke of Cornwall and his daughter Gonorilla for two years. After this period, Gonorilla becomes dissatisfied with the number of her father’s servants and allows him to keep only half of them. Monmouth’s Leir, as well as Shakespeare’s Lear, refuses to do so and leaves for his other daughter Regan and her husband Henvin, hoping for better treatment. However, at the Duke of Albany’s court, the situation is similar as before: “a year had not passed before discord again arose betwixt those of King’s household and those of the Duke’s, insomuch as that Regan, waxing indignant, ordered her father to dismiss all his company save five knights only to do him service” (Monmouth, 31). Leir comes back to Gonorilla wanting to keep the promised thirty knights, but his eldest daughter sets a condition of only one knight. This corresponds with the gradual decreasing of Lear’s train in Shakespeare, ended by Regan’s “What need one?” (2.3.57). Finally, Leir is driven out of Britain by his sons-in-law, seeks Cordeilla and begs for help. Cordeilla’s husband Aganippus gathers an army and sets out for Britain to restore Leir to his throne.
At this point, Monmouth’s and Shakespeare’s versions of Lear’s story are different. Monmouth continues his narrative after the king’s restoration. In the Histories, Leir reigns for three more years, and then he dies and is succeeded by his youngest daughter. Cordeilla is thrown down by her rebelling nephews, is imprisoned and at the end commits suicide. Other differences are the absence of rebelling Dukes in King Lear, where all the plotting is led by the king’s eldest daughters, and the fact that Cordelia goes with an army to Britain not upon her father’s personal urgency as she does in Monmouth, but because of Kent’s letter.
2.1.2 Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed
Raphael Holinshed’s the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande is the main historic source of many of Shakespeare’s plays. However, Holinshed derives much of his work from above discussed Monmouth’s Histories. The first edition of this historic survey of Britain appeared in 1577 and the modernized second edition with added passages was produced ten years later, in 1587. W. G. Boswell-Stone says that “the historical authority used by Shakespeare when writing some of his plays was apparently the second edition of Holinshed” (Boswell-Stone, ix). This concerns mainly King Lear, Cymbeline, Macbeth and the historical plays King John, Richard II, Henry II, Henry V, VI, Richard III, and Henry VIII. As R. A. Foakes states in his introduction to the Arden edition of Shakespeare, the account of Holinshed was derived from Monmouth’s Histories via the chronicles of Robert Fabyan (1516) and other sources. Foakes continues that Holinshed’s version follows Geoffrey’s in its emphasis on civil wars, on the sons-in-law rising against Leir, and their sons rebelling against Cordeilla when she succeeds Leir (Foakes, 95). Other common features are the division of the kingdom, the love-test with the daughters’ answers, Lear’s flight to France, his restoration and also Cordeilla’s imprisonment and death. Because of all these similarities, I will point out only those parts and scenes of Holinshed’s work which differ form Monmouth’s Histories.
Similarly as Monmouth, Holinshed calls his king “Leir”, but gives the year of 3015 as the exact date of Leir’s accession to the throne. Leir’s three daughters are referred to by the same names as in Monmouth. The course of the love-test as well as the daughters’ answers is basically similar to that in the Histories. However, Holinshed changes the names of Leir’s eldest daughters’ husbands and calls them ‘Hennius the Duke of Cornwall’ and ‘Maglanus, the Duke of Albania’, who are in Monmouth referred to as “Henvin, the Duke of Albany” and “Maglaunus, the Duke of Cornwall”. Cordeilla’s husband Aganippus is in Holinshed called a “prince of Galia” not as “king of the Franks” as in Monmouth. Holinshed continues with Lear’s travelling from one daughter to another and repeats the motif of only one soldier being left to the old king, although he leaves out the preceding reductions of their numbers:
“Going from one to another, he was brought to that miseries, that scarcely they would allow him one seruant to wait vpon him” (Holinshed, 4). This was probably taken from Higgins’ Mirror for Magistrates, which although was published before Holinshed will be discussed later on as one of the subsidiary sources. The subsequent scenes are identical to that in Monmouth. Leir flees to Galia to seek Cordeilla, who receives him at the court and his son-in-law immediately sets out an army to restore Leir to his kingdom. After their arrival in Britain, Cordeilla and her husband beat the two dukes and slay them. Leir is restored to his throne and rules for two more years and after his death, Cordeilla succeeds him and reigns for five years. After that period the sons of her sisters rebel against her and sent her into prison, where she commits suicide.
As stated above, Holinshed’s account is the one which Shakespeare used as a source for his King Lear, perhaps because of its better accessibility, because Monmouth’s work was not available in English. The Chronicles are probably the source, from which Shakespeare took the titles of his Dukes. All the additional events and scenes which are not included in Holinshed, he used from works which will be discussed later.
2.2 The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters
This pre-Shakespearean story of King Lear first appeared on 6 April 1594. On April 8 a piece which Philip Henslowe called Kinge Leare, was acted at the Rose Theatre in London (Lee, 9) and in 1605 a play called “The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella, as it hath bene divers and sundry times lately acted” was published anonymously, one year before Shakespeare’s King Lear was acted at court. Byrd and Nolan remark that some scholars believe Shakespeare read the True Chronicle History after its publication. Others, however, argue that Leir’s story was published after William Shakespeare’s play in order to capitalize upon its popularity. It is also believed that Shakespeare became familiar with the old play not through its printed copy from 1605, but from earlier reading of a manuscript or from seeing it on the stage (Byrd and Nolan, 2).
However, as Muir says, the most usual hypothesis is that Shakespeare used the 1605 edition of the True Chronicle History (Muir, xxiv).
This anonymous play follows the basic line of Lear’s story, as it was told by Monmouth or Holinshed, but its author introduced several important additions, some of which were later taken over by Shakespeare. The characters of Lear’s companion Perillus; his counsellor Skalliger; a messenger, who is appointed to kill the king and Perillus; and the Gallian King’s companion Mumford appear for the first time right in this old play. The first meeting of Cordella and the Gallian King is also original. They fall in love without any knowledge of each other’s identity. The conclusion of the story comes much earlier than in the previous versions. The author of the old play ends his work with the restoration of Leir to his throne and Cordella’s leave with her husband for France. In comparison with Monmouth or Holinshed, there is no mention of their life stories after this scene. As Foakes mentions, in Leir, the emphasis is shifted from the civil wars and the rebellion as in the previous versions to the sole person of king Leir and his misfortunes (Foakes, 95). Shakespeare shares this extent of the story with all its fundamental events with the only exception of the beginning of his tragedy. He leaves out the first scene of Leir, which functions as a kind of introduction and presents information of events that precede the love-test, such as the death of the queen or Gonorill’s and Ragan’s plotting. Shakespeare shortened this prologue in order to focus only on the subsequent events.
Shakespeare used the True Chronicle History also as an inspiration for several characters in his play. The inspiration can be traced in his Kent. Lear’s councellor is also a faithful companion to his king and acts in the same manner as Perillus does, advises Lear, helps him and accompanies him after the king leaves his daughters. However, in comparison with his counterpart, Kent is not banished by his king and therefore has no need to be in disguise. Other characters which can be mutually compared are Shakespeare’s Oswald on one hand and Skalliger and the messenger on the other. Shakespeare took the two negative characters of the old play and used them as a model for Goneril’s dishonest steward Oswald. In King Lear, Oswald plays a role of messenger, being the carrier of Goneril’s letters to her sister and to Edmund. At the end of the play, Oswald is ordered to murder Gloucester, just as the messenger is commanded to kill Leir and Perillus. The common feature is also the messenger’s and Oswald’s failure to carry out their tasks.
When treating The True Chronicle History, Shakespeare took over whole passages and epilogues of the text, which he copied or paraphrased, maintaining the meaning. Such corresponding passages can be found throughout the play. Because the main plot of King Lear is almost identical to that of the anonymous play (only with several differences, which will be discussed further on), I will focus more on those very passages, which are mutually comparable. Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom and the reason of it is almost identical to that of Leir:
Leir: And I would fain resign these earthly cares (1.1.25)
Lear: To shake all cares and business form our age (1.1.42)
The course of the subsequent love-test, especially the manner of Lear’s children’s answers is very similar. The only new features in this part of the play are Cordelia’s asides and commentaries on her elder sisters’ answers, which Shakespeare adopted from the anonymous play:
Cordella: O, how I do abhor this flattery! (1.3.55)
Did never flatterer tell so false a tale (1.3.75)
Cordelia: What shall Cordelia do? Love, and be silent. (2.2.65)
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love's
More richer than my tongue. (1.1.80)
The manner of Leir’s reaction to Perillus’ appeal for mercy for Cordella is similar to that of Kent’s:
Leir: Urge this no more, and if thou love thy life (2.3.99-103)
Lear: Peace Kent! […]
Kent, on thy life, no more! (1.1.158)
Kenneth Muir points at another similarity in the passages. In Act 3, scene 4 of the old play, Leir speaks of himself as a pelican. This refers to the division of his kingdom between his eldest daughters. He resignes on all his power and property and leaves nothing to himself:
Leir: I am as kind as is the pelican,
That kills itself, to save her young ones’ lives. (2.3.42)
In King Lear, Act III, scene IV, there is a parallel to this image. In the storm, Lear comments on Edgar’s appearance as a Poor Tom. He thinks that Edgar is such a wretch, because he gave everything to his daughters, as well as Lear did:
Lear: It is the fashion, that discarded fathers
Should have this little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment! ‘t was this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters. (3.4.73 – 75)
When Leir realizes the true nature and the malicious intentions of his daughters, he makes a speech, which is similar to that of Shakespeare’s Lear after he has been deprived of the whole of his train:
Lear: O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,-
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks! (2.4.259-273)
Leir: Nay, if thou talk of reason, then be mute;
For with good reason I can thee confute.
If they, which first by nature's sacred law,
Do owe to me the tribute of their lives;
If they to whom I always have been kind,
And bountiful beyond comparison;
If they, for whom I have undone myself,
And brought my age unto this extreme want,
Do now reject, contemn, despise, abhor me,
What reason moveth thee to sorrow for me? (3.3.79-88)
As far as the motifs are concerned, Shakespeare adopted the motif of letters. In the True Chronicle History, several scenes with letters appear. Gonorill’s husband Cornwall worries about Leir, because he has no news of the king’s arrival at Ragan’s house, and wants to send her a letter addressed to Leir, in order to inquire what has become of him. Gonorill, however, changes the order and sends the messenger to Ragan with a letter, which describes her father’s behaviour towards her, his ill will and speeches and plotting against her and her husband. Because not all of that is true, Gonorill orders the messenger to make Ragan believe it.
Gonorill: These things (although it be not so)
Yet thou must affirm them to be true (3.5.93-94)
Similarly, in King Lear, Goneril sends her sister a letter, advising Regan to treat Lear in the same manner as she did. Goneril bids Oswald, who is to deliver it, to make is as believable as possible.
Goneril: Inform her full of my particular fear;
and thereto add such reasons of your own,
as may compact it more. (1.5.342-344)
This motif is used once more at the end of the story. In Leir, Ragan is convicted of her plan to kill her father by the means of the letter she had received from Gonorill. In Lear, a letter of Goneril’s passion for Edmund is presented against her by Edgar. Shakespeare also incorporated this motif into his subplot. Edmund gives Gloucester a fictive letter, to make him believe that his legitimate son Edgar plots against him. Another motif, which appears both in the True Chronicle History and King Lear, is as Muir observes, the act of kneeling between the king and his youngest daughter (Muir, xxvii). In the fifth act, fourth scene of the old play, Leir meets disguised Cordella, the Galian king and Mumford. When Cordella reveals herself to her father, she kneels down before him, but Leir, asking for forgiveness, kneels as well and several reciprocal kneeling and rising of the two characters occur. In the fourth act and seventh scene of King Lear a similar scene appears. Lear has just found out that the lady, who takes care of him, is his daughter Cordelia and he kneels down in front of her, to beg her pardon of his previous actions.
Next, the parts that differentiate King Lear from the old play will be discussed.
As far as the characters of the old play are concerned, Gonorill is married to the King of Cornwall and Regan to the King of Cambria. Shakespeare changed the royal titles of the eldest daughters’ husbands into ducal titles and also switched the pairs. Thus in his tragedy, Goneril is married to the Duke of Albany, and Regan to the Duke of Cornwall. Cordelia’s husband, who is in the True Chronicle History called the Galian king, corresponds with the King of France and the character of the Duke of Burgundy is Shakespeare’s own addition. Another difference can be found at the beginnings of the plays. Shakespeare omits Skalliger’s betrayal of Leir’s idea of the love-test to Gonorill and Ragan, so as Foakes mentions, their flattering answers are the result of their previous knowledge, whereas in Lear, the daughters answer their father just in their natural and characteristic way (Foakes, 97). In Shakespeare’s version, Cordelia has two husbands competing for her – the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France - and finally becomes married to the French king, who is the only one who wanted to marry her although she had no dowry. In the Chronicle history, Cordella is disinherited and because there is no one to propose to her, she has to leave and make her own living. Cordella is banished from the kingdom and on her march away from home she meets the Gallian king, who comes with his companion disguised in order to find out about the beauty of Leir’s daughters. On the contrary, Lear marries Cordelia directly to the French king, who takes her to France. Shakespeare’s treatment of his youngest daughter is gentler than that of the author of the old play.
In treating the True Chronicle History, Shakespeare used only those events, scenes and passages of the old play that helped him to place greater emphasis on the story of Lear himself. He left out the secondary episodes in Dover and all that takes place in Galia, keeping his setting only in Britain. On the other hand, the True Chronicle History does not mention the reduction of Leir’s train by his daughters, which appears in King Lear. There is an only slight likeness to this action by Skalliger’s advice to Gonorill on abridging Leir’s allowance to a half. This process of the reduction of king’s train Shakespeare probably used from Higgins’ the Mirror for Magistrates.
Although the two plays end with the king’s restoration to the throne, the scenes and actions preceding and following this event are different. In the True Chronicle History, the eldest daughters and their husbands fly away unpunished when being defeated by the Galian army and after Leir’s restoration, Cordella and the Galian king leave Britain. Shakespeare’s closing is enriched with scenes which contribute to the play’s tragic ending. Lear and his youngest daughter are taken prisoners and till Albany succeeds in releasing them, Cordelia is dead and Lear dies of grief afterwards. Regan and Goneril kill each other because of their love for Edmund.
Philip Sidney’s Arcadiais included in this category of the main sources because it provided Shakespeare with a supplementary story.
Sidney’s work itself has two different versions and was modified by his sister Countess of Pembroke and later in the seventeenth century by Sir William Alexander. Although the exact date of its composition is not known, Maurice Evans finds it probable for the first version of Arcadia to be started in 1577 and finished in 1580 (Evans, 13). The first edition of Arcadia was published in 1590, while King Lear was composed several years later. This makes it possible for Shakespeare to get familiar with Sidney’s work and to find some inspiration in it. Most importantly, Arcadia is the source of Shakespeare’s subplot of Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar, which is based upon the story of the Paphlagonian king and his two sons from the tenth chapter of the second book. According to Byrd and Nolan, Shakespeare incorporated this subplot in King Lear for several reasons. One of them is the possibility of regarding Lear’s disinheritance of his youngest daughter and his own cruel treatment by the other two daughters as too unnatural and unbelievable, but with Gloucester being in a situation similar to that of Lear, the reader is more liable to believe this may happen in real life (Byrd, Nolan, 5). Furthermore, two similar plots make the common problem even more visible and stressed.
Sidney’s story of the Paphlagonian king, his legitimate son Leonatus and illegitimate Plexirtus takes place in a kingdom of Galacia (Galatia) and begins in a snow storm. Two princes, already known from the previous parts of the book, hide themselves in a shallow rock and overhear a conversation of two men. The old one is a former king of Paphlagonia, who was deceived by his bastard son Plexirtus, made to dislike, hate and later expel his legitimate son and at the end was deprived of his property and blinded. After Plexirtus has driven him out, the king is guided and guarded by his other son Leonatus, whom he initially rejected.
Shakespeare preserved this main theme of Sidney’s story, but made several adaptations and additions of his own. In King Lear, Gloucester is similarly to the Paphlagonian king tricked by ill intentions of his bastard son Edmund, who desires for power. Gloucester upon Edmund’s intrigues believes that his legitimate son Edgar makes an effort to kill him. Therefore, he chases Edgar out and favours his bastard son, which is identical to Sidney’s king’s actions. As Kenneth Muir points out, another common element is the old men’s desire for death. After both the Paphlagonian king and Gloucester have realized how idly they misunderstood and mistreated their only son who actually loved them and how unjustly they preferred their deceitful illegitimate son, they desire for death and want their companions to help them. In Arcadia, the Paphlagonian king tells his son: “Well Leonatus since I cannot persuade thee to lead me to that which should end my grief, and thy trouble, let me now entreat thee to leave me” (Sidney, 276). And later he says “I craved of him to lead me to the top of this rock” (Sidney, 279). A similar speech appears in Shakespeare’s Lear, where Gloucester says:
There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep.
Bring me but to the very brim of it. (4.1.73-75)
As far as the differences between Shakespeare’s and Sidney’s work are concerned, the most significant one is their ending. In Arcadia, the Paphlagonian king together with his son and the two princes beat Plexirtus. After the victory, he makes his son Leonatus his successor, and shortly afterwards dies. In Shakespeare, Gloucester is accompanied by Edgar in the disguise as Poor Tom, but after he had ‘fallen’ from the cliff, Edgar appears as a different person. Since this scene, Edgar calls Gloucester ‘father’. However, it seems that Gloucester’s despair and suffering is too great for him to realize, who his companion actually is. By the old man’s ignorance, Shakespeare increases the agony of already so misfortunate Gloucester.
One of the elements of Sidney’s Arcadia, which Shakespeare did not involve in his tragedy, is the Paphlaganian king’s determination to have his legitimate son murdered. Leonatus is spared and let go away from the court. As soon as he learns that his father has been relieved of his power, and Plexirtus has become the king, he comes back to give his father assistance. Gloucester in King Lear does not make an attempt on Edgar’s life, but orders only the pursuit of his son. Also the meeting of Gloucester, who has just been blinded, and Edgar dressed as Poor Tom, is not initiated from Edgar’s own will, but is merely a matter of chance.
Besides this parallel between Gloucester and the Paphlagonian king, a parallel to the main plot of King Lear may be found in Sidney’s story as well. As R. A. Foakes states, the old king in the Arcadia is deprived of all his property and power, as well as King Lear in Shakespeare (Foakes, 102). The Paphlagonian king says: “I had left myself nothing but the name of a king” (Sidney, 278), which corresponds with Lear’s situation, when at the end, he has no land and no more than one servant left.
There is one more element, which Shakespeare might have taken form Sidney. In Arcadia, Leonatus and the king are wandering in a winter storm. This could have made Shakespeare to incorporate a storm as a setting for several of his scenes.
3 Other Variants of King Lear’s Story
The primary story of King Lear has been innumerably reworked and modified since its origin. The following works contain the basic plot of the story as it was previously mentioned in Monmouth, but their authors elaborated on some new features, and added their own inventions.
3.1 Mirror for Magistrates
Among the texts which provided Shakespeare with important innovations is a text from the year 1575 by John Higgins called A Mirror for Magistrates (somewhere stated also as A Mirror of Magistrates). This text includes a story called The Tragoedye of Cordila”, with an additional line: Cordila shewes how by despaire when she was in prison she slue herselfe and the time setting of this tragedy is 800 before Christ. In this text, we can find another paraphrase of the principal story of King Lear. Higgins’ text contains a narrative about an old king ‘Leire’, the son of Bladud. When he grew old, he decided to divide the kingdom between his three daughters Gonerell,Ragan and the youngest Cordila. Once again, the most obvious common features here are the love-test and the style of daughter’s answers. Both Gonerell and Ragan flatter Leire and declare that they love their father more than their own life:
they lov'de him well and more
Then they themselves did love, or any worldly wight. (84-85)
Leire’s youngest daughter expresses her love as a matter of duty and obeisance, similarly as Cordelia in Lear does:
I lov'de you ever as my father well,
No otherwyse, if more to know you crave:
We love you chiefly for the goodes you have. (96-99)
Analogously to the previous versions of Lear’s story, Higgins slightly alternates the names of king’s daughters’ husbands. In the Mirror, Gonerell is married to the king of Albany and Ragan to “Hinnine”, a prince of “Camber and Cornwall”, who appear in Shakespeare’s play as the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Cordila is later married to the French king Aganippus, who hears of her beauty and comes to Britain to make her his queen. After having been asked by Leire, whether he minds the absence of Cordila’s dowry, he answers that “vertue was of dowries all the best” (136), which is comparable to Shakespeare’s “She is herself a dowry” (1.1.241). Further on, Higgins repeats the motif of the successive reductions of king Leare’s knights, but he describes it in more details. According to Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare adopted from the Mirror this very subsequent decreasing of king’s knights. Higgins describes the gradual reduction of king’s “threscore knightes & squires” (150), which can be compared to Goneril’s reference to “a hundred knights and squires” (1.4.231):
So halfe his garde she and her husband refte:
And scarce alowde the other halfe they lefte. (154-155)
After Leire leaves for Ragan, she lets him only ten and at the end only five of his knights:
But then they tooke, all his retinue from him quite
Save only ten, and shewde him dayly spite,
Which he bewailde complaining durst not strive,
Though in disdayne they laste alowde but five. (168 – 172)
and finally Gonerell:
Bereav'de him of his servauntes all save one,
Bad him content himselfe with that or none. (178-179)
The continuance of Higgins’ narrative is the same as in all the previous versions of the story. Leire is restored and succeeded by his youngest daughter, who is later taken by her nephews to prison, where she commits suicide. On the contrary to the previous versions, where no detail about her death is given, Higgins’s Cordila chooses death by knife.
The exceptionality of Higgins’ work lies in the style of its narrative. Higgins perceives his story from the perspective of Cordila and makes her also the narrator. On the other hand, Shakespeare focuses on the story of the king, initially refusing his beloved youngest daughter, and preferring his two elder only to be deceived by them later. In King Lear, this is stressed by the added subplot of Gloucester and his two sons.
3.2 Faery Queene
Edmund Spenser’s poetic work the Faery Queene is also one of the works which include the version of Lear’s story adopted from the above mentioned historic accounts. It contains king’s decision to divide his kingdom, the love-test and daughters’ answers, Lear’s flight to France and all the scenes after his restoration.
The Faery Queene comprises of seven books. The first three books were published in 1590 and their second edition came out in 1596, which is also the year when Books IV to VI were published for the first time. The fragmentary last Seventh Book appeared first in 1609. I will focus only on the Second Book of Faery Queene, where the story of Lear can be found. This Book concerns the cultural tradition and history of Britain and its Canto X starts with a sub-title:
A Chronicle of Briton Kings,
From Brute to Uthers rayne;
And rolles of Elfin emperours,
Till time of Gloriane.
Spenser’s story of Lear is very similar to those found in previous historic surveys. In the Faery Queene, we can find an account of the land named Albion and its kings. One of them is referred to as ‘Leyr’, son of Bladud and has three daughters named Gonorill, Regan and Cordelia. However, as Perrett notes, in the first edition is Cordelia refered to as Cordeill (Perrett, 91). The similar manner of Leyr’s daughters’ answers to his love-test can be found here. Gonorill’s answer “much more than her owne life him lov’d” (Spenser, 131) is comparable with Shakespeare’s “no less than life” (1.1.58) and in Faery Queene, Cordelia “loved him as behoov’d” (Spenser, 131), similarly as in King Lear “according to her bond” (1.1.93).
As many of his predecessors, Spenser introduces his own variants of the characters’ names. This concerns mainly Leyr’s daughters’ husbands. They are referred to as “Maglan, king of Scots” and the other as “king of Cambria” and Cordelia is sent to “Aganip of Celtica”.
Spenser continues with Leyr’s travelling from one daughter to another, his final flight to France and his restoration. On the contrary to the previous accounts and to Shakespeare, in Faery Qeene, there is no further account of the diminishing of Leyr’s train. Spenser also introduces a new manner of Cordelia’s suicide. Here it comes to the first of the two important elements of Spenser’s work which Shakespeare incorporated into his tragedy. The first innovation that appears in none of the previous treatment of King Lear’s story is this very manner of Cordelia’s suicide. Spenser introduces it as distinct to all the preceding and in the case of the True Chronicle History also following versions of king’s youngest daughter’s story. In the Mirror for Magistrates, Higgins’s Cordila finishes her life by stabbing herself in the prison. Spenser’s hanging of Cordelia probably inspired Shakespeare in the way he let the youngest daughter die in his play. In Act V, Scene III, Edmund and Goneril order one of the captains:
to hang Cordelia in the prison and
To lay the blame upon her own despair. (5.3.255-256)
The second important idea, which Shakespeare got and used after he became familiar with Spenser’s work, is the written form of Cordelia’s name. Its spelling differs from work to work. Holished writes about “Cordeilla”, Higgins about “Cordila”, in the True Chronicle History the form of her name is “Cordella”, but the spelling “Cordelia”, which Shakespeare used, appears first in the Faery Queene.
4 Sources of Ideas and Inspiration
While writing his King Lear, Shakespeare did not only use those above mentioned works to enrich his play with new scenes, plots and characters, but he also relied on writings, which provided him with new ideas and thoughts on one hand and language innovations on the other. So far, I have demonstrated the factual similarities between Shakespeare’s King Lear and other works, but as R. A. Foakes points out, the philosophical, religious, politic and other themes that can be identified in King Lear cannot be traced to a particular source (Foakes, 93). However, I chose three works to illustrate Shakespeare’s ideological inspirations. Moreover, Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures and the English translations of Montaigne’s Essays also help to appoint the date of King Lear’s origin. Furthermore, these two works had a great influence on the language of the play as well.
The Malcontent by John Marston falls into the third category of Shakespeare’s sources. This play was performed for the first time in 1603 by ‘The Children of the Chapel Royal’ and was printed in 1604 in three separate quarto editions. As far as the date of its composition is concerned, it is early enough for Shakespeare to make use of this work. Marston’s Malcontent did not provide Shakespeare with such important matters as plots or the names for his characters. This play inspired Shakespeare with the Malcontent itself, who might have been the model for the character of Edgar disguised as Poor Tom as well as the Fool.
The Malcontent is a story of Altofronto, a former Duke of Genoa, who was banished from his court and in order to regain his position, he has to stay in disguise of a crazy and insane person called Malcontent. He adapts his behaviour and above all his speech so as to gain trust and not to be discovered. Being regarded upon as mad, he can afford to say anything he wants to without being punished. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s King Lear Edgar pretends to be mad Poor Tom, so as not to be caught by his father’s men, who try to get him because of his alleged plotting against Gloucester. The Fool does not appear in any disguise, but because of his ‘foolishness’, he is the only person, who can dare to tell Lear the truth. The Fool keeps reminding Lear of the mistake, which he made when he gave all to his elder daughters and reserved nothing for himself. In Malconent, the disguised duke says:
this disguise doth yet afford me that
Which kings do seldom hear or great men use,
I may speak foolishly, ay, knavishly,
Always carelessly, yet no-one thinks it fashion
To poise my breath. (Marston, 124)
As for the possible parallel between Marston’s and Shakespeare’s plays, in Malcontent there is one very interesting fact, which can also be found in King Lear. Towards the end of Marston’ play, Malcontent’s speech is more clear and sensible, as if he has forgotten to play the fool. However, this goes unnoticed. In Act IV scene IV of King Lear, Edgar as Poor Tom alters the expressions he uses as well, but this time Gloucester takes notice of this change:
Gloucester: Methinks, thy voice is alter’d; and thou speak’st
in better phrase, and matter, than thou didst.
Edgar: You’re much deceived: in nothing am I
chang’d, but in my garments.
Gloucester: Methinks, you’re better spoken (4.6.8-12)
This common idea of a mad person suddenly speaking clearly may be another link between the two plays. As far as the character of Fool is concerned, it is Shakespeare’s sole invention and does not appear in any of the previous versions of the story, but he might have been inspired by Malcontent. However, Shakespeare used the character of Fool in other of his plays as well, so the link between Malcontent’s “free speech” and that of the Fool may be only accidental.
4.2 Essays of Michel de Montaigne
In 1603, John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays was published in London and made this work available to the English readers, as well as to Shakespeare. The dramatist is said to have used several of Montaigne’s Essays as a source of ideas and inspirations which appear in King Lear. According to R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare used not only Montaigne’s ideas, but also a lot of words, that had not appeared in any of his plays before. In this chapter, the essays Of the Affection of Fathers to their Children, Of Solitude and Apology for Raimond de Sebonde will be discussed.
In the first mentioned essay, Montaigne gives advice on what the relationship between parents and children should be and above all, how the aged fathers should deal with their property. As for the father’s property and treasures, he “ought voluntarily to surrender to those to whom by the order of nature they belong” (Montaigne, 186). In connection to this, Montaigne warns against giving everything away, so the father should always reserve something to himself. According to the first advice, the old Lear divides his property between his children, but not obeying the second, he disposes of all his land and above all, of all his power. He leaves to himself only a hundred soldiers, but Goneril and Regan deprive him of all of them. Thus at the end, he leaves his eldest daughters’ courts alone and poor. Further on, Montaigne says that the children should be let to govern father’s affairs, but he should have power to control their behaviour. This directly opposes Lear’s actions. Regan and Goneril govern their father; he has no power over them and after having been disposed of all his knights, he has no means to control his daughter’s actions.
In this essay, there is also a passage concerning the bequest, which could relate to Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia. “I think we ought not, without great and manifest cause, to take away that from one which his fortune has allotted him, and to which the public equity gives him title; and that it is against reason to abuse this liberty, in making it serve our own frivolous and private fancies” (Montaigne, 190). Montaigne remarks that we should not deprive any of the persons, who have the right to our property, of receiving it. Cordelia’s answer in the love-test is perceived by Lear as inadequate and insufficient and upon this interpretation, he disinherits her. He acts in the contrary to Montaigne’s advice, acting rashly and influenced by his emotions.
As Collington states, in his second essay Of Solitude Montaigne compares active and solitary life, elevating the benefits of the latter. He argues that a wise man should seek solitude and gradually dispose of all their unnecessary possessions and not only to change the place, but above all, he must “sequester and come again to himself” (Montaigne, 108). Similarly as in his treatment of Montaigne’s first essay, Shakespeare uses the initial passages as inspiration, but later on, his Lear acts in total opposite. As Collington further says, Montaigne's essay outlines physical and psychological benefits of solitude; whereas King Lear depicts various nefarious effects of public life and companionship on the individual self. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Lear speaks about retiring, which directly echoes Montaigne’s ideas about getting rid of all our cares and the gradual preparation for death:
Lear: `tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death. (1.1.37-40)
Further on, several resamling notions and ideas can be found, but their resemblance in rather in the means of opposite. According to Collington, Montaigne urges us to prepare ourselves for death. We should gradually dispose of all our possessions and to learn, how to “laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, train, or attendance, to the end, that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any of all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them’ (Montaigne, 109). Instead of following Montaigne’s instructions, Shakespeare’s Lear insists on having all his attendants and all the gradual breaking away is done by Goneril and Regan, who deprive their protesting father of all his knights.
The motif of the Apology for Raimond de Sebonde is the relation between humans and beasts. Montaigne regards humans as equal to animals. He argues we perceive animals as inferior to us, but actually, we have been created by the same power and therefore, the difference between us is not such as it seems. Montaigne claims “we are the only animal abandoned, naked upon the bare earth, tied and bound, not having wherewithal to arm and clothe us, but by the spoil of others” (Montaigne, 217). Similarly, when Lear talks to disguised Edgar, he says: “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal” (3.4.101-102).
Furthermore, as R. A. Foakes mentions, Montaigne and his attitude to human beings, their weaknesses and limitations echo in King Lear through the voice of Edmund (Foakes, 105). He describes all the “knaves, thieves and treachers” (1.2.124) and all the ill deeds they are capable of. The trace of Montaigne can also be found in the second scene of the very first act, when Edmund comments on Gloucester’s statement that everything bad is caused by the stars:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that
when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own
behaviour, we make quilty of our disasters the sun, the
moon and stars (1.2.115-118).
This corresponds to a Latin line from the work by Manilius, cited in Montaigne’s essay: “Men’s lives and actions depend on the stars” (Montaigne, 214).
The link between Montaigne’s and Shakespeare’s works can be noticed also in other speeches of Lear. Especially, after he has found out about the true nature of his elder daughters and complains about his situation. When Goneril and Regan did not allow him any knight, he grieves: “Man’s life is cheap as beast” (2.4.262). In the storm, Lear refers to Edgar as Poor Tom: “Is man no more than this?” (3.4.97-98). This echoes Montaigne’s vision of humans: „the most wretched and frail of all creatures is man” (Montaigne, 214).
From the above mentioned examples, it is obvious that Shakespeare definitely used Montaigne’s ideas and suggestions in his King Lear, but the way of the inspiration is discutable. It seems that after following the very first of Montaigne’s advice, Shakespeare’s King Lear acts in contradiction with the suggestions that appear in the essays. According to Collington, Lear’s behaviour seems patently to contravene every recommendation found in Montaigne's essays. Therefore, Montaigne’s essays may be called as sort of ‘anti-sources’ to Shakespeare’s play (Collington, 2).
4.3 Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures
Harsnett’s pamphlet, devoted to the “seduced Catholigues of England”, was written in 1603 and comments on the events of a series of exorcisms that took place in the town of Denham in the years 1585 and 1586. These exorcisms were practised by Catholic priest and hundreds of people were claimed to be converted and freed from devils that possessed them. As Wolf points out, it is argued that Shakespeare used the language, symbols and details in Harsnett's book to contradict the message conveyed by the book itself. He does this by contrasting possession with true madness and presenting sympathetic images of demoniacs, human cruelty and evil.
The Declaration contains descriptions of places and time of the exorcism as well as the people participating in it either as the exorcists or the seduced persons. Harsnett describes every single event of exorcism, with all the details and names both of all the involved people and the mentioned spirits. As Hopkins says, the connection between the Declaration and King Lear can be supported by the names that Harsnett gives to his devils and that Edgar uses as Poor Tom. “The names of their punie spirits cast out of Trayford were these Hilco, Smolkin, Hillio, Hiallito” (Harsnett, 47). A name very similar to that of “Smolkin” is mentioned also by Edgar: “Peace, Smulkin, peace, thou fiend” (3.4.132). Another obvious similarity is between Harsnett’s “Frateretto, Fliberdigibett and Hoberdidance” (Harsnett, 49) and Edgar’s “Flibbertigibbet” (3.4.108), “Frateretto” (3.6.6) and “Hobbididance” (4.1.59). Later on, Harsnett mentions “Maho was general Dictator of hell […] and himself was vnder the duck of Modu, the graund devil in Ma: Maynie” (Harsnett, 50). This corresponds to Edgar’s “The prince of darkness is a gentleman. Modo he’s called, and Mahu.” (3.3.134-135). Apart from these names of devils that Shakespeare used, he took over from Harsnett many other words. As Kenneth Muir remarks, some of them are “meiny”, “propinquity”, “auricular”, “carp”, and “gaster”, “benediction”, “yoke-fellow” and “asquint” (Muir, xxxvii). Muir continues with an observation of one more similarity that can be found between Shakespeare’s tragedy and Harsnett’s Declaration – the exorcists’ measures and Shakespeare’s treatment of Gloucester. In the Declaration, Harsnett describes that when treating a possessed woman, the exorcists “need her fit downe in a chayre” (Harsnett, 39) and they blindfolded her with towels. Gloucester is treated in a similar way, after it has been revealed that he sent a letter to France. The Duke of Cornwall orders “to this chair bind him” (3.7.33), and Gloucester is deprived of his eyes.
As Hopkins concludes, Harsnett’s work served Shakespeare both as a source for the names of the devils and as an inspiration for his characterization of Edgar. When disguised as Poor Tom, Edgar is described as a mad wretch creature, acting like being possessed (Hopkins, 3).
There have been numerous disputes over the sources and inspirations of Shakespeare’s plays and the tragedy of King Lear is not an exception. Although Shakespeare incorporated several motifs and elements of his own, he definitely did not invent the whole story and was dependent on other authors for models and inspirations.
As has been mentioned, Wilfrid Perrett states a vast number of reworkings and variants of Lear’s story before Shakespeare. R. A. Foakes admits that the motif of submitting three daughters to a love-test is very common in literary works, being part of medieval literature as well as folklore (Foakes, 98). Furthermore, Foakes mentions a link between British history and some of Shakespeare’s characters. He points out that the characters of Gloucester’s sons Edmund and Edgar may be derived from history as well. Edmund was the name of several kings, especially Edmund, King of East Anglia, and Edgar was the historical King of England from 959 to 975. Moreover, Shakespeare might have taken the ducal title of the sons of King James I. Prince Henry, the eldest son, had the title of the Duke of Cornwall and the second son was Prince Charles, the Duke of Albany (Foakes, 155).
5.1 Summary of the Sources
Unquestionably, the sources of historic character had the greatest influence upon Shakespeare, above all Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, most importantly its second edition. This work provided Shakespeare with the primary story for the main plot of his tragedy. Despite the fact that the story of King Lear was first told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historie Regum Britanniae and was included in other chronicles that followed that of Monmouth, Holinshed’s work is concerned to be the very one which Shakespeare used. Holinshed’s contribution to King Lear is not only that of supplying him with the main story, but Shakespeare also used the ducal titles of the husbands of Goneril and Regan from Raphael’s work.
The subsequently mentioned True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters from 1605 is the second chief Shakespeare’s source. This anonymous play tells the story of King Lear (although named Leir) and does it without the additional final scenes as the chronicles do. The importance of the Chronicle History to King Lear can be demonstrated on three groups of similarities. The characters, scenes and motifs which reappear in Shakespeare either preserved or slightly varied were discussed.
As far as the first group is concerned, the old play includes several new characters which Shakespeare used in his tragedy and which were not contained in any previous version. The first character is Perillus, Leir’s companion, who served as a model for Kent. Shakespeare preserved the story of Perillus, as a guide to Leir when he was rejected by his own daughters, but made his Kent a more tragic character. Kent is not Shakespeare’s only character whose origins can be traced in the Chronicle History. Oswald, Goneril’s steward bears some of the negative characteristics of both Skalliger and the messenger acting in the old play. As far as the common scenes are concerned, they are elaborated at length in the section concerning the Chronicle history, but in general, their extent ranges from whole passages (as in the love-test) to only a few lines or phrases, which, however, are very similar. Finally, two main motifs are common for both the plays. The more elaborated is the motif of letters as a means of plotting and intrigues of the king’s elder daughters. Goneril and Regan inform each other on the course of actions which should be taken against their father. At the end of both the plays, the letters also serve as proofs against the daughters’ crimes. Furthermore, Shakespeare incorporated this motif also into his subplot of Gloucester and his two sons, again as an instrument of Edmund’s schemes against his brother Edgar. The second motif is, according to Kenneth Muir, that of reciprocal kneeling of the king and Cordelia (Muir, 36). Although this is not as widely used as the motif of letters is, it appears in both the plays in the scenes of reunion of Lear and his youngest daughter.
The third and last principal source of King Lear is Philip Sidney’s Arcadia published in 1590. This work is also of a great importance because it provided Shakespeare with one very important element of his tragedy –the subplot of Gloucester, his legitimate son Edgar and his bastard Edmund. Shakespeare preserved the main line of Sidney’s story about the Paphlagonian king and his sons Leonatus and Plexirtus, but made several adaptations. He made Gloucester’s story more tragic than that of the Paphlagonian king and did not let Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, to reveal himself to his father, and thus made Gloucester’s grief greater.
Further on, the adaptations and variants of the primary story of King Lear were discussed. These works Shakespeare did not use for his main plot, but for various details, which although subsidiary, constitute an important part of the tragedy. The first of the two mentioned works is the Mirror for Magistrates by John Higgins including the story of Lear as well, but narrated from the perspective of Lear’s youngest daughter. Shakespeare assuredly used the motif of gradual diminishing of Lear’s train, which is not elaborated in any of the previous versions of the story. Thirteen years later, it reappears in Holinshed, but is mentioned only partly and not in such detail as it is told by Higgins. The second discussed work was Edmund Spenser’s Faery Queene published in 1596. Apart from the spelling ‘Cordelia’, Shakespeare used the act of hanging, which Spenser designed for Cordelia and which appears for the first time right in this very work.
At the end, three works which Shakespeare used as sources of various themes and ideas were examined. To identify such influence is very difficult, because it cannot be always supported by direct evidence. Furthermore, Shakespeare might have read more various works on such themes and then might have just chosen the best ideas. However, at least the motif of the alternation of Malcontent’s speech in Marston’s play, the above mentioned lines linking Shakespeare to some of Montaigne’s essays and the names of devils used by Edgar pointing at Harsnett’s Declaration, may be considered as proofs sufficient to except these works as Shakespeare’s sources.
Several studies have been made on the possible sources of Shakespeare’s King Lear, resulting in several different findings. As I have already stressed, it is very difficult to point directly at specific works and proclaim them to be Shakespeare’s inspirations. The identification of possible similarities between the tragedy and other works is a matter of personal attitude and the work one scholar claims to be the explicit source, the others may consider only as a subsidiary matter. However, there are still clear connections that link Shakespeare’s King Lear to such works as Holinshed’s Histories, the old play or various sixteenth-century texts as well as to works by Sidney, Spenser, Marston and Montaigne.
6 Works Cited
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by Jana Pavlíčková
Web site to visit: https://is.muni.cz/
Author of the text: indicated on the source document of the above text
ON KING LEAR
BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
These notes compiled are a personal reflection by Lucille O'Flanagan, director of the adaptation.
Shakespeare often took stories and adapted them, and, thanks to his genius and poetry greatly improved them, creating as he did, the most well known masterpieces of drama in the English language.
The story of a KING called LEAR had several sources:
‘HISTORIA REGIUM BRITANNIAE’ by Godffrey of Monmouth, written in the twelfth century. In the time of William Shakespeare this would have been available only in Latin. This book featured a King Leir with his daughters Gonorilla, Regan and Cordeilla (who marry the Duke of Albania and Duke of Cornwall). In this story Cordeilla offends Lear and runs away to Gaul (old name for France in English).
THE TRUE CHRONICLE HISTORY OF KING LEAR AND THIS THREE DAUGHTERS which was staged around 1594 and published around 1605 – the same time as Shakespeare’s’ KING LEAR. The main Lear family story is very close to the Shakespeare but the Gloucester family are not there. But this story was much lighter – still tragic but a comedy with lighter sub plot characters.
Shakespeare’s audience would probably have been aware of a pseudo-historical king called Lir or Leir. He was supposed to be an ancient king of the Britains, who would have ruled before the Romans arrived in Britain. So this would be before the birth of Christ making the Christian references in the play of course illogical. Also the ancient Britains did not have Earls or Dukes and indeed court jesters and knights were more medieval than the timescale in which the play is set. But the story is clearly part fairy tale and part mock history – and there is no denying the wonderful romantic connotations that this setting gives the piece.
We have also chosen to place our adaptation of KING LEAR in ‘no time’ but this time pointing up the physical setting. We have chosen to take the idea that to be in the palace (within the crown/throne) is to be safe – where one has power and of course where one is at home. But to be expelled as the old men Lear and Gloucester are in this story is to be outside and lost.
The poignancy of this of course is that through this journey into the unknown do the old men finally learn the truth about themselves and their children. Edgar (the sole principal character to survive) also takes a journey into the unknown, into poverty and (feigned) madness. He is strengthened by his journey and is able to return to ‘civilisation’, destroy his half-brother and survive all the stronger.
It is interesting that Shakespeare is liberal about the geographical setting of the play – the proximity to Dover is peculiar. Gloucester is attempting to commit suicide by jumping off the famous high white cliffs of Dover. Cordelia meanwhile has landed in Dover with her French army from France. Dover being the closest point to cross the English Channel of course to Calais. For the English, Dover is a wild region that inspires national pride and provides a dramatic backdrop.
WHEN KING LEAR WAS WRITTEN, PUBLISHED AND PRODUCED
It was around 1605 that William Shakespeare wrote KING LEAR. It was published in 1608. It is not always clear how the plays the came to be printed but its seems that Shakespeare’s works could be printed by actors, publishers, prompters or even the audience. In the case of this play however, Shakespeare did have a hand in the rewriting and the ‘First Quarto’ was published of called THE TRUE CHRONICLE HISTORY OF KING LEAR.
There is a title page in this book which shows that there was a performance given for the king of England (King James) in his palace at Whitehall on ‘St Stephens Night’ 26 December 1607.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that St Stephens Night at this time was a feast day on which ‘the high were to look out in pity on the tribulations of the low’.
KING LEAR was thought to be un-performable in its original because of the dark quality of the work i.e. the blinding of Gloucester; often quoted as being the most difficult scene to stage of all time. The death of Cordelia was also shocking for a long time and in Nahum Tates adaptation (1681), he removed the character of the Fool completely, removed the character of the King of France and had Edgar marrying Cordelia and living happily ever after. He even had Lear and Gloucester surviving and going off to a happy retirement.
In 1838 there was a breakthrough on the English stage when a version of the play was performed with most of the text back in.
In 1904 the first full-length version in the French language was staged at the Theatre Antoine in Paris (translated by Pierre Loti) and some critics state this was the first ever-complete Shakespeare play to be performed in French.
There have been numerous versions in many languages since then, using modern clothes, setting the piece in the World War Two and so on.
Should you wish to see a film version, I can recommend two versions; one by the director JONATHAN MILLER and another by the famous English actor SIR LAURENCE OLIVIER where he sets the piece in ancient Britain with the opening scene beautifully staged on Stonehenge. (* Stonehenge is a well-preserved impressive ancient stone circle in north Wiltshire – but a long walk from Dover!)
Web site to visit: http://theatre.anglais.free.fr/
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