Shakespeare's sources for King Lear
The sources of King Lear
King Lear is no different from the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays in its use of sources. That is, the plot has much that is borrowed from earlier versions of the story as well as much that is new. Indeed it is the changes that Shakespeare made to his source material which help us to see where his dramatic and thematic priorities lie. From a range of diverse elements he weaves a drama which is both entirely his own in terms of its imaginative power and complexity – and yet which manages at the same time to appear rooted in the national collective imagination.
The character of the King has its roots in Celtic history and is part of the history of ancient Britain. It is now impossible to distinguish what, if any, historical fact there is in the story and what is myth. The only evidence that Lear ever lived is that he appears in so many stories and early historians interpreted these stories as factual rather than as imaginative contributions to an idea of national identity. There are possibly as many as forty versions of the King Lear story written before Shakespeare staged his play, of which the following are the most significant.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
The earliest account is by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regium Britanniae (c. 1136), a chronicle of the lives of the kings of the Britons spanning two thousand years, beginning with Trojans founding the nation and ending with the Anglo-Saxons.
Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577-87) is a work frequently consulted by Shakespeare and is the major source of all the English history plays. Lear was a well-established part of the national story and it is not surprising to find the story of the old king and his daughters included in his chronicle.
The True Chronicle History of King Leir
This is a play anonymously written in about 1594 but not published until 1605. It contains many of the basic elements familiar from Shakespeare’s main plot. King Leir decides to hand over his kingdom to his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella – but only after they have passed his love test. As in Shakespeare, Cordella, the youngest daughter, fails the test and is cast out. An adviser called Perillus is banished (just like Kent) when he tries to defend Cordella against her father’s impetuous and irrational behaviour. He becomes the King’s only companion when the old man is turned out by his other two daughters.
After Leir has been reunited with Cordella he appears once more to be a king with full authority. He then marches against Gonorill and Ragan, defeats them easily and then regains his throne. The play has a happy ending that promises the good characters will live happily and that Leir will end his days looked after by a loving Cordella.
It is important to note that Shakespeare was working against his source material. Audience expectations would have been that forgiveness and reconciliation would lead to enlightenment and eventual happiness. This is not the play Shakespeare wanted to write. The world he creates is one in which suffering and enlightenment are not rewarded with lasting happiness. Shakespeare’s world offers no such comforting certainties.
The Mirror for Magistrates
The Mirror for Magistrates is a collection of poetry (pub. 1574) in which various authors retell the lives and tragic ends of historical characters. In the collection’s version of the Lear story, the Cordelia character commits suicide.
The Faerie Queene
In Edmund Spenser’s epic poem (1596) there is a story about Leyr and his daughters, in which Cordelia eventually hangs herself.
In Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590) there is a story which closely resembles the Gloucester subplot in Shakespeare’s King Lear. An outcast son and his blinded father meet while trying to seek shelter from a violent storm. This old, blinded father is the Prince of Paphlagonia who, like Lear, is the victim of his children’s ingratitude and deceit. He has two sons – Leonatus and his illegitimate brother Plexirtus. Like Shakespeare’s Edmund, Plexirtus is ambitious and wants to become king and this leads him to order the execution of Leonatus who in turn has to flee as a hunted outlaw. Plexirtus blinds his father, casts him out and then intends to kill both father and brother – but is thwarted when military help arrives and Leonatus is forced into exile. The Prince and Leonatus then return to Paphlagonia where Leonatus is given the crown by his father. In a scene very reminiscent of Shakespeare, the Prince of Paphlagonia dies, torn between the two emotional extremes of love and grief.