Title of Paper : King Lear
Grade Received on Report : 96

King Lear


Historians en masse have
determined that Shakespeare was most definitely not the first one to come up with the general plot lines
contained in King Lear. Though the play revolves mainly around the conflict between the King and his
daughters, there is a definite and distinct sub-plot dealing with the plight and tragedy of Gloucester as well.
The play (both stories really) has origins in many different sixteenth century works, with nearly all the
pertinent facts such as the name of the King, the three daughters, their husbands, the answers of the three
daughters when Lear asks them to profess their love, Cordelia's ensuing disgrace, and the cruelty of the two
dukes and duchesses to the King contained in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. (Chapters five and seven of
the Second Book of the History of England, second ed., 1587) Shakespeare is also believed to have
borrowed, significantly less however, from a play that was entered in the Stationer's Register, 14!
May 1594, called, The moste famous Chronicle historye of Leire kinge of England and his Three
Daughters. This piece was considered to be "quite un-Shakespearian" and untragical, and was entered
subsequently on the Stationer's Register as The Tragecall historie of Kinge Leir and his Three Daughters, as
it was latelie acted. Much of Shakespeare's account of the Gloucester story was borrowed from Sir
Philip Sydney's Arcadia, 1590. In terms of the Gloucester-Edmund-Edgar plot, we can find many
similarities in the second book of Arcadia, chapter ten, in a narrative called, The pitifull state, and story of
the Paphlagonian unkind king, and his kind son, first related by the son, then by the blind father. The main
difference here, of course, is that Shakespeare has intertwined this plot with the plight of Lear and his three
daughters.
There are many differences between these texts and the Shakespearian version of King Lear.
None of these earlier works had the signature character of the Fool, and Shakespeare creatively transformed
what was known earlier as a, "melodramatic story with a 'happy ending'," into a biting and, above all else,
sad story of the relationship between parents and their children.
One of the main themes that Shakespeare chooses to focus on in King Lear is the dysfunctional
nature of not only the royal family and Gloucester, but the heartache and emotional strain that goes along
with being a parent and having to make a decision that will divide your children. This play focuses on not
only the after effects of this decision, but the way in which it affects the King, his children and his subjects
as well.
A strong case can be made for King Lear as Shakespeare's most tragic effort of his career. The
fact that nearly the entire cast of this play either is murdered or dies with little to no redemption makes the
strongest case for this. In nearly every other Shakespearian work, save perhaps Othello, at least some of
the characters enjoy a bit of redemption or salvation with the resolution of the conflict. King Lear's
characters are privy to neither of these. The bitterness, sadness, and reality of the human psyche that is
contained throughout this work demonstrate its tragic nature best, however.
The tie emotionally and physically between a father and a daughter (or son, in relation to the
Gloucester/Edmund/Edgar plot) is something entirely different than husband-wife or boyfriend-girlfriend in
many of Shakespeares other plays. In the very beginning of the play, when Lear is foolishly dividing up his
kingdom between his three daughters, and after he has asked Cordelia's two older sisters what they "think"
of him, he turns to her and asks the same question. Her reply shows the true nature of her character, as she
says, "Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love Your Majesty according to my
bond, no more, nor less." (1.1, ll. 91-93) His words could almost be considered threatening by declaring
that her unwillingness to express her love in words might, "mar her fortunes." We are privy to definitive
foreshadowing with Cordelia's reply of, "Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return
those duties back to you as are right fit, o!
bey you, love you, and most honor you. Why have my sisters husbands if they say they