Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Shakespeare's King Lear. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.
- Full Title: The Tragedy of King Lear
- When Written: c. 1605
- Where Written: England
- When Published: 1608; 1623
- Literary Period: The Renaissance
- Genre: Tragedy
- Setting: England, in pre-Christian times
- Climax: Lear raging in the thunderstorm
- Antagonist: Regan, Goneril, Edmund
Poor Tom. The character of Poor Tom or the Bedlam Beggar, as which Edgar disguises himself, is based on vagabonds or madmen considered dangerous in England at the time. "Bedlam" was a slang word for "Bethlehem," which was the name of a mental institution in London.
Two Versions. There are actually two different versions of King Lear—The History of King Lear published in quarto form in 1608 and The Tragedy of King Lear, which was published in the First Folio (1623) and is very substantially revised from the play published in 1608. Before the 1990s, editors usually "blended" the two texts, taking what they believed were the best versions of each scene. In recent times, some editors have started focusing on the "original" 1608 edition.
Poor Fool. In Shakespeare's day, the roles of Cordelia and the Fool were often "doubled"—played by the same actor—since the two characters are never on stage at the same time. Shakespeare alludes to this fact at several points in the play. The first time that Lear summons the Fool, in 1.4, both he and his Knight observe that the Fool has been melancholy ever since Cordelia was sent to France. More famously, in 5.3, upon learning of Cordelia's death, Lear remarks "And my poor fool is hanged" (5.3.369). Sometimes directors staging the play invent a scene in which the Fool himself is hanged, to explain this line, but the tradition of doubling the characters is the better explanation.