Next to Hamlet, King Lear is probably the greatest of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, and gives his deepest insights into human weakness. It’s thought to have been written late in 1605, and was performed at court on Boxing Day the following year. Since then it has had a complicated history itself. The original printed version, known as The History of King Lear, appears to have been revised into a second version, referred to as The Tragedy of King Lear. By the late seventeenth century, it had been completely revised by Nahum Tate, whose play was performed from 1681 to 1845, before Shakespeare’s original was revived.
From the late eighteenth century onwards it has been one of the most painted of Shakespeare’s plays. Because of the number of paintings shown here, and the length and complexity of its plot, I have divided my account into two articles, the second of which follows tomorrow to retain continuity.
I’ll first introduce its main characters. King Lear is the King of Britain at some time in the distant past, and has three daughters:
- Goneril (or Gonoril), the eldest, is married to the Duke of Albany, which is effectively Scotland;
- Regan, the middle daughter, is married to the Duke of Cornwall;
- Cordelia, the youngest, is unmarried, with suitors the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy.
There are two important British Earls:
- Gloucester, whose first-born son is Edgar, but who also has an illegitimate son Edmund;
- Kent, who disguises himself as Caius.
Gustav Pope shows the three Daughters of King Lear in his painting from 1875-76. The plainly dressed Cordelia is at the right, and already her two older sisters are showing hatred towards her.
In one of his three paintings of this play, Ford Madox Brown shows the opening scene in his Cordelia’s Portion from 1866. The king is pointing to a map of Britain on the floor as he explains his plan to divide his kingdom between his daughters. Goneril and Regan stand behind him to the left, as Cordelia at the right is being attended by her suitors.
Edwin Austin Abbey’s later painting from 1898, of King Lear, Act I, Scene I, rearranges the daughters in a frieze, with Cordelia at the centre, and Lear with his back to the viewer.
William Frederick Yeames’ simpler portrait of Cordelia from 1896 depicts her naïve and innocent.
King Lear is growing old, and has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters according to their love for him. The older two, Goneril and Regan, flatter him, but Cordelia refuses to compete, in which she’s supported by Kent. Lear is infuriated, so banishes Cordelia and Kent immediately. That leads Burgundy to withdraw his suit for her, leaving the King of France as her remaining suitor. Lear then announces that he will retain his title and retinue of a hundred knights, and will live alternate months with his two older daughters. When he has left, the pair reveal their jealousy towards their younger sister and impatience with their father.
Edmund plots to usurp his half-brother Edgar’s inheritance, and tricks his father into believing that Edgar is encouraging Edmund to conspire to seize their father’s estates. Edmund then tells his half-brother that their father is displeased with him (Edgar).
Lear has gone to stay his first month with Goneril and her husband Albany, but she instructs her steward to treat them rudely, and will write to her sister Regan advising her to do the same. Kent returns from exile disguised as Caius and Lear engages him in his retinue. He then mocks Goneril’s steward for his insolence. When Goneril complains to her father of the behaviour of his retinue, Lear curses her and departs to stay with Regan. Both Goneril and Lear send letters to Regan in advance of the King and his retinue.
In Gloucester’s house, with Regan and her husband Cornwall approaching, Edmund tricks Edgar into fleeing after faking an attack which convinces their father of Edgar’s ill intentions towards him. For this Gloucester declares his legitimate son an outlaw and disinherits him. Regan and Cornwall arrive, receive Goneril’s letter, and take Edmund into their service as a reward for his loyalty to his father. Kent (as Caius) arrives with the King’s letter to Regan, quarrels again with Goneril’s steward and Regan has him put in the stocks as punishment. When Lear arrives he is enraged by this mistreatment, but Regan dismisses his concerns.
When Goneril arrives, Regan tells her father to return to Goneril, dismiss half his retinue, and then come to stay with her. Lear is insistent that he will keep his full retinue, and won’t return to Goneril, but Regan tells him she’ll only accommodate twenty-five, and finally the king decides he will go back to Goneril. Lear leaves them, going out with his Fool into a building storm.
When Kent (as Caius) is told that the king is out in the storm with his Fool, he goes to help the two of them. There are also reports of an invasion force coming from France. A message is sent to Cordelia telling her of the king’s plight.
Ary Scheffer’s watercolour of King Lear and the Fool from 1834 places the pair on Shakespeare’s bleak heath.
In William Dyce’s King Lear and the Fool in the Storm from about 1851, the king is having a good rant into the wind of the storm, his body language profuse. Resting with his head propped on the heels of his hands, the Fool also looks up to the heavens.
Lear rages against the storm and his daughters, and Kent (as Caius) persuades him to seek shelter in a hut. Before the king enters, he prays for all who suffer from the storm. Inside is the outlawed Edgar, near-naked and disguised as a madman. Lear appropriately presumes that he was driven insane by his daughters, and removes his own clothing in sympathy. Gloucester arrives, and they all shelter in the hut.
Benjamin West painted one of the earlier works showing King Lear in the Storm in 1788. This shows Lear in the centre, outside the hovel or hut in which they take shelter.
Cornwall decides to revenge himself on Gloucester, who is accused by Edmund of allying himself with France, and assures Edmund that he will soon succeed his father.
Gloucester goes to seek help, leaving the king, who is now overtly mad, conducting a mock trial of his two daughters. The king falls asleep, and Gloucester arranges for him to be carried in a litter to Dover.
Cornwall is preparing to take revenge on Gloucester when he hears that the king is on his way to Dover. He sends Edmund away with Goneril, then orders Gloucester to be brought to him. The earl is tied to a chair and Regan plucks him by the beard until he reveals the king’s whereabouts. Cornwall gouges one of Gloucester’s eyes out, but a servant fights with him, injuring Cornwall, until Regan stabs the servant to death, and Cornwall removes Gloucester’s other eye. Regan then reveals to Gloucester that he was tricked about his son Edgar, and the earl is turned out onto the heath, where he asks a madman (his son Edgar in disguise) to lead him to the edge of the cliff at Dover.
Edmund reaches Goneril, who sends him with a loving kiss to expedite Cornwall and his forces against the French landing. Goneril’s husband, Albany, enters and expresses disgust at what Lear’s two daughters have done to the king. News reaches them that Cornwall has died of the wounds sustained in the fight with his servant, when he was blinding Gloucester.
Cordelia sends soldiers to find her father, out of love rather than any ambition. She is told of the approach of British armies.
Regan, jealous of her sister, tried to discover the contents of letters sent to Edmund by Goneril. She sends a token of her love for him, and promises promotion to anyone who kills the blind Gloucester.
Edgar convinces Gloucester that they are standing at the edge of the cliff at Dover, and his father tries to throw himself down a cliff that isn’t there. Lear arrives, going madly through his past in a mixture of clear insights and madness before falling asleep.
Peter F. Rothermel’s The King and the Beggar from 1856 shows the blind Gloucester recognising the voice of King Lear.
Edgar starts to lead Gloucester to safety from the cliffs and impending battle, but Goneril’s steward arrives, recognises the earl and intends to kill him. Edgar kills the steward, who in his dying moments asks him to carry letters to Edmund. Edgar discovers one of those from Goneril incites Edmund to kill Albany, her husband.
Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.