King Lear

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King Lear Study Guide

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.

Brief Biography of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's father was a glove-maker, and Shakespeare received no more than a grammar school education. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582, but left his family behind around 1590 and moved to London, where he became an actor and playwright. He was an immediate success: Shakespeare soon became the most popular playwright of the day as well as a part-owner of the Globe Theater. His theater troupe was adopted by King James as the King's Men in 1603. Shakespeare retired as a rich and prominent man to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, and died three years later.
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Historical Context of King Lear

In the period in which King Lear was written—from 1604 to 1607—King James VI, King of Scotland and England, was trying to persuade English Parliament to approve the union of the two countries into one nation. (It was James who first used the term "Great Britain" to describe the unity of the Celtic and Saxon lands: England, Scotland, and Wales.) Such a combination of nations is called "accession." In his speeches to Parliament, he regularly referred to the misfortunes that had been brought about by the disunion of England under King Leir, the historical source of Shakespeare's play. The historical context of Shakespeare's King Lear is thus twofold. Reading it you should keep in mind both the history of King Leir and the discussions on union/disunion of Great Britain in Shakespeare's own time.

Other Books Related to King Lear

Shakespeare drew the main plot of King Lear—that is, the story of a ruler who divides his kingdom among his children and is consequently ruined—from several sources describing the legendary British king of that name. Scholars believe that the most important source was the second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587); Holinshed himself had taken the story of Lear from the History of the British Kingdom by Geoffrey of Monmouth, written in the twelfth century. (Critics have also pointed out that Lear's rejection of Cordelia resembles numerous classical British fairy tales, where a father rejects a daughter on the grounds that he does not believe she loves him enough.) Shakespeare drew further subplots from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen (1590), which also features a character named Cordelia, who dies by hanging; and from Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1580-90), which contains an outline of the Gloucester subplot.
Key Facts about King Lear
  • 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

Extra Credit for King Lear

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 LearThe 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.