King Lear by William Shakespeare.

King Leir and his Daughters from the Chronica Majora (13th Century).
King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare and was written 1605 - 1606 and is based on the legend of King Leir, or Leir of Britain. Shakespeare's main source was The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed (1587), which in turn found information in The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136), which I actually just finished reading this weekend, and in which Leir's story is first told. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that King Leir was a direct descendant of King Brutus, supposed to be the first king of Britain (12th Century B.C.) and reigned in the 8th Century B.C. having succeeded his father Bladud (who, like Daedalus and Icarus) tried to fly with artificial wings. Lier was the last male descendant of Brutus and he had three daughters, Gonerill (the eldest; also spelled 'Goneril'), Regan, and Cordelia (the youngest, who would become Cordelia of Britain after her father's death). Leir had reigned for sixty years when he decided to marry off his daughters, and divide the country into three for each sister. Gonerill and Regan both flattered their father, so Gonerill was married to the Duke of Albany (the title was actually established in 1398) and Regan to the Duke of Cornwall (the present Duke of Cornwall is the Prince of Wales; title established in 1337). Cordelia, her father's favourite, refused to flatter him and so she was not given any land and she was married to King Aganippus of France. Consequently Gonerill and Regan were given half of King Leir's land (that's a quarter of the land each) with the intention of bequeathing it all after his death. However Gonerill and Regan rebel and force Leir to flee to France and beg Cordelia's forgiveness. Cordelia and King Aganippus then invaded Britain and overthrew the sisters, and King Leir reigned for a further three years before his death. Cordelia was then queen of Britain for five years, however the sons of Gonerill and Regan, Marganus and Cunedagius, rebelled against her and imprisoned her. She killed herself in prison; Marganus went on to become king of the north of Britain (Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, "That region which extends beyond the Humber in the direction of Caithness), and Cunedagius ruled the south. Ultimately Cunedagius killed Marganus and he became king of Britain.

King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey (1898).
Shakespeare's version of the legend of King Leir is for the most part very similar, however their are a few points of departure. As in Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, King Lear wishes to divide his country into three to share between each daughter. He says,
Tell me, my daughters,
Since now we will divest us both of rule.
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
The Three Daughters of King Lear (Las tres hijas del rey Lear)
by Gustav Pope (1875-6).
Both Gonerill and Regan grossly flatter him, however Cordelia, King Lear's favourite, refuses to do so:
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.
Lᴇᴀʀ: How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little
Lest you may mar your fortunes.
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
I return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Lᴇᴀʀ: But goes thy heart with this?
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: Ay, my good lord.
Lᴇᴀʀ: So young and so untender?
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: So young, my lord, and true.
Lear then disinherits her, and marries her off without a dowry. But Cordelia is the sister who proves her love for her father - Gonerill and Regan confess to each other their declarations were false.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce (1851).
Lear then divides his time between the two sisters, attended by his 'Fool' and his servant Caius (who is actually the banished Earl of Kent in disguise) along with one hundred knights. Gonerill, who is unnerved by the presence of the knights, instructs him to dismiss half of them, or else he and all the knights must leave. Leave he does, however Regan is equally unsympathetic and she and Gonerill plot between them, wishing Lear to dismiss seventy-five knights. Here Lear shows his descent into madness: he leaves Regan's home for the heath where he stays during a violent storm. 

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester suffers his own family problems. His illegitimate son Edmund is attempting to convince everyone around him that Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. Edgar fears for his life so he adopts the disguise of 'Poor Tom' or 'Tom o' Bedlam'. In this disguise Edgar encounters Lear on the heath, and here the two stories collide. The group go to Dover and they discover a French invasion is planned by Cordelia and her husband to reinstate Lear to the throne. This plan however is unsuccessful - both Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. At the same time, both Regan and Goneril have become entangled with Edmund. Goneril's husband Albany demands that Edmund and Goneril both be imprisoned for treason, however Edgar arrives and a duel takes place: Edgar kills Edmund. Shortly after Regan dies, having been poisoned by Goneril who later kills herself. As Edmund dies he reveals he has instructed Cordelia and Lear to be executed; Cordelia is hung, but Lear is saved though he dies of a broken heart. It is a very bleak and bloody ending.

King Lear is a very complex play on power, betrayal, and family. The plot is very complicated: I've been exceptionally simplistic in this review! It was interesting to read straight after Geoffrey of Monmouth's account in The History of the Kings of Britain - I would say I preferred the latter account on the whole, but nevertheless Shakespeare's King Lear is an exciting and energetic work. Certainly one of his finest plays.

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear by Sir John Gilbert (1873).
That was my ninth title for the Deal Me In Challenge: next week, The White Bull by Voltaire.


  1. Replies
    1. I haven't - hadn't heard of it either until you commented. Just reading about it on Wikipedia - I'll look out for it :)

  2. I had no idea that the play King Lear was based on a historical legend. That's fascinating.

    1. I didn't know either until very recently! One of those things I feel I ought to have known by now being as I am British :)

  3. a fine exegesis; my mental acuity is on the wane, i fear. i'd merely recollected all the battles and wars in "kings of britain", but obviously there was much more. many thanks for the lucid explication...

  4. I read this in depth a couple of years ago and had so many thoughts flying inside my head that I never did get a review up. I loved the background history. I'm impressed that you can fly from the Greeks to early Modern to the Middle Ages and still keep everything straight and organized. Wow!

    1. I'm really getting into the Middle Ages to be honest. I know I'll be making myself a list for when I've finished my Ancient Greek and Romans! :)


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