Background and Summary of King Lear
Background of King Lear
King Lear was written between 1603 and 1606, and is considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. The main plot was drawn from an old chronicle play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters, supplemented by treatments of that story in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, and perhaps others. The subplot of Gloucester and his two sons comes from Sir Philip Sidney’s popular romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Shakespeare also makes considerable use of Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603) for Edgar’s language of demonic possession as Poor Tom and the mock exorcism he works to cure the blinded Gloucester’s despair.
The play was performed December 26, 1606, for King James, as part of the court’s Christmastide celebrations, as well as on the public stage at the Globe. Recoiling from the bleakness of the play’s tragic vision, Naham Tate revised it in 1681, providing interpolated love scenes between Edgar and Cordelia and a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive: his version held the stage for a century and a half. Dr. Samuel Johnson and the Romantic poets testified to the original play’s greatness–Shelley terming it “the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry existing in the world”–but they also began a critical tradition that judged the work too large and sublime for the stage. Lear has, however, proved notably successful in the modern theatre, accustomed to nonrealistic stage techniques and Samuel Beckett’s apocalyptic dramas as well as to the contemporary horrors of concentration camp and Gulag. – Norton, 888
Summary of King Lear
This tragedy play tells of the downfall of King Lear and the death of his daughter Cordelia. The play begins with the old Lear, deciding to retire, plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.. With his daughters and men gathered around him, Lear asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (Act I, Scene 1. 43). Both Goneril and Regan reply with flattering words of love which satisfied their old father, in turn he gave each of them a third of his kingdom. Cordelia, Lear’s favorite daughter, answers with words from her heart, saying that she loves him as much as he loved her and as she should. However, Lear sees her words as disrespectful and demands Cordelia to reply again like how her sisters did, with flattering words.