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King Lear

Written: 1605/06; Texts: Quartos 1608, 1619, First Folio 1623 (Tragedy)
SourcesThe True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1590); Holinshed, Raphael (c. 1528-c. 1580). The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. (2nd ed., 1587); Sidney, Philip (1554-86). The Arcadia (1590); Spenser, Edmund (c.1552-99). The Faerie Queene (1590)
Characters: King Lear, Edgar, Earl of Kent, Earl of Gloucester, Edmund, Regan, Goneril, Fool, Cordelia, Duke of Albany
Setting: England
Time: c. Eighth Century


Like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, the texts of King Lear differ in the First Folio from what was written in the previous quartos. The first quarto of Lear contains about 300 lines not in the First Folio. And the Fool's prophesy in Act 3, Scene 2 of the Folio does not appear in the quarto. Even the endings of the two editions are different.

Scholars point to a couple of bits of evidence to date Shakespeare's authorship of the play. First, the play was recorded in the Stationers' Register on November 26, 1607. The entry mentions, “…as yt was played before the Kinges maiestie at Whitehall vppon Sainct Stephens night at Christmas Last.” That would have been December 26, 1606. The first quarto edition was not published however until 1608. The latter part of 1606 then is the latest date it may have been written. Another piece of evidence scholars point to is the reference in Act 1, Scene 2, “…these late eclipses in the sun and moon.” Such eclipses actually occurred in September and October, 1605. Shakespeare occasionally inserted contemporary references into his plays. Henry V and Romeo and Juliet contain similar allusions. So the latter months of 1605 appear to be the earliest dates King Lear may have been written, especially when one of the sources is taken into account.

The sources of Shakespeare's Lear give clues to the dating of his writing. The legends and folk tales of an ancient king and three daughters go back centuries to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae in the twelfth century and later to Holinshed's Chronicles. But the most immediate source of Shakespeare's Lear would have been the play The True Chronicle History of King Leir. This play whose author is unknown was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1594 and performed by Philip Henslowe's company that same year. It was not printed until 1605 when Shakespeare might have read it. Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, was not above stealing other authors' materials but to his credit he always improved them.

For example, Shakespeare brilliantly interweaves into his Lear the story of Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund, which did not appear in the former Leir. Instead, Shakespeare stole that piece from Philip Sidney's The Arcadia. In addition, Shakespeare added the business about Lear's madness, which Lear's daughters attributed to his old age. Some scholars suggest that Lear's condition may be a form of dementia. That interpretation suffers from the fact that in the play Lear is cured of his madness. Finally, Shakespeare gives his Lear a tragic, not a happy, ending, which adds depth and poignancy to the play. And of course the poetry of Shakespeare's language and the complexity of his characters transcend the previous play.

Lear Act One Scene One

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King Lear’s first scene is notable in its length and structure. At over 300 lines, with more characters on stage than in all but the last scene of the play, and being divided into three sub-scenes, this first scene is almost a play in itself.

It begins, as do so many of Shakespeare’s plays, with a few minor characters whose dialogue introduces some of the play’s central themes.
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Demons & Madness

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Passages with obscure references send scholars on treasure hunts in search of the influences on Shakespeare’s works. In King Lear, Act 3 Scene 6, one such hunt starts with the question, “Who were Frateretto and Hoppedance, or Purr the cat for that matter?” Turns out that in 1603, Samuel Harsnett, the Vicar of Chigwell, wrote a short tract titled, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures,
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I thought the King had more affected the Duke

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Kent
I thought the King had more affected the Duke
of Albany than Cornwall.
Gloucester
It did always seem so to us, but now in
the division of the kingdom, it appears not which
of the dukes he values most, for equalities are so
weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice
of either’s moiety.
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Act 1
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Lear Act One Scene One

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose

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Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.—
Give me the map there. He is handed a map.
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall
And you,
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Act 1
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Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter

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Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
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Now, our joy, Although our last and least

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King Lear
Now, our joy,
Although our last and least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interessed, what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’? Speak.
Cordelia
Nothing, my lord.
King Lear
Nothing?
Cordelia
Nothing.
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Royal Lear, Whom I have ever honored as my king

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Kent
Royal Lear,
Whom I have ever honored as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers—
King Lear
The bow is bent and drawn. Make from the shaft.
Kent
Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart.
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Act 1
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Fare thee well, king

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Fare thee well, king. Sith thus thou wilt appear,
Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here.
To Cordelia.
The gods to their dear shelter take thee, maid,
That justly think’st and hast most rightly said.
To Goneril and Regan.
And your large speeches may your deeds approve,
That good effects may spring from words of love.—
Thus Kent,
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Act 1
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Line 204

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This is most strange

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France
This is most strange,
That she whom even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time
Commit a thing so monstrous to dismantle
So many folds of favor. Sure her offense
Must be of such unnatural degree
That monsters it,
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Act 1
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Is it but this—a tardiness in nature

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Is it but this—a tardiness in nature
Which often leaves the history unspoke
That it intends to do?—My lord of Burgundy,
What say you to the lady? Love’s not love
When it is mingled with regards that stands
Aloof from th’ entire point. Will you have her?
She is herself a dowry.
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Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor

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France
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised,
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon,
Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away.
Gods, gods! ‘Tis strange that from their cold’st neglect
My love should kindle to enflamed respect.—
Thy dowerless daughter, king, thrown to my chance,
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Sister, it is not little I have to say

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Goneril
Sister, it is not little I have to say of what
most nearly appertains to us both. I think our
father will hence tonight.
Regan
That’s most certain, and with you; next month
with us.
Goneril
You see how full of changes his age is; the
observation we have made of it hath not been
little.
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Act 1
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