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What is King Lear?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, written sometime between 1603 and 1606. The first recorded performance was on 16 December 1606. Because of the play’s extremely tragic ending, it has waxed and waned in popularity through the years, and even led to some completely contradictory adaptations.

Shakespeare’s play is believed to be based on a popular legend of his time. In Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Irelande and Geoffery Of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, there exists a story of a King Leir who rejects his daughter because she refuses to display her love for him, leading to both of their deaths. It is likely that Shakespeare would have heard versions of this story, inspiring him to write his play.

Shakespeare’s version involves a double story about the complex relationship between fathers and their children. King Lear is an arrogant man who wants to abdicate the throne, parceling his land out to his three daughters according to which makes the best verbal declaration of her love for him. Unfortunately, Lear prefers the flowery speeches of his oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, over the pure and modest love his youngest, Cordelia, offers. King Lear disinherits Cordelia and exiles her, leading to his eventual downfall and resulting in Cordelia’s death only after the king realizes his mistake.

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In a mirror subplot, the Duke of Gloucester prefers his illegitimate son Edmund over his faithful, if bland, legitimate child, Edgar. Edmund is in truth a traitor plotting to supplant his father and brother as Duke. Edmund succeeds in overthrowing his father and Gloucester ends up being tortured and blinded before dying of his wounds. Yet Edgar, the good son who aids his dying father and discovers Edmund’s treason, is the only main character to survive the play, and is assumed to lead the country after the death of King Lear and all three of his daughters.

King Lear is considered an exceptional tragedy because it does not conform to the end of the legend as known in Shakespeare’s day. In almost all recorded versions of the story, Lear, having repented his arrogance, is returned to the throne, and Cordelia becomes his heir. In Shakespeare’s version, Lear begins the play as a vain and extremely foolish man, undergoes a remarkable transformation, and instead of receiving reward for repentance, he dies. His daughter Cordelia, who is an innocent character wrongly disowned by her father, receives no reward for her modesty and morality either, and also dies.

The total tragedy of the ending was so disturbing to audiences, that the play was rarely performed after Shakespeare’s death. Nearly eighty years after the debut of the play, Nahum Tate, an Irish poet and playwright, rewrote the ending to restore Lear to the throne and marry Cordelia off to Edgar. This “happy ending” version proved so preferable to audiences, most if not all productions used it until 1838, when the original version regained popularity.

There have been at least 17 film and television adaptations of King Lear, with many of the great actors of the 20th and 21st century taking the part of Lear. Notable versions include the 1971 film directed by famed British filmmaker Peter Brook, Japanese director Akiro Kurasawa’s Ran, and Patrick Stewart starring as King Lear in a loose adaptation called King Of Texas. King Lear remains an extremely popular play to produce live, and is considered by some critics to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

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