10 Dramatic Facts About King Lear

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, frequently cited as his best tragedy, between 1605 and 1606. The play tells the story of the titular king, who attempts to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Scheming sisters Regan and Goneril rob him of his power and sanity after Lear is flattered into giving them his kingdom, while kind Cordelia suffers tragic consequences. The fallen monarch has captivated our literary imagination for centuries, but there's still plenty to learn about the Bard's classic play that you might have missed in high school English class.

1. KING LEAR WAS INSPIRED BY A LEGENDARY BRITISH KING.

King Lear wasn't inspired by a ruler of Shakespeare's era, but by the legend of an ancient king, Leir of Britain, who was said to have lived around the 8th century BCE, according to the 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae. Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, this tome has been described as “a brilliantly conceived pastiche of myth, song, and outright invention masquerading as straightforward history.”

Before the Bard's play hit the scene, multiple works had already explored Leir's sad tale, including an anonymous 16th-century play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three Daughters. Others included The Mirror for Magistrates—a collection of English poems from the Tudor period—and Raphael Holinshed's 1587 work The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which included the legend. He, too, picked up the tale from Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudohistory.

Meanwhile, in 1590, two different works emerged that would influence the play: Edmund Spenser's poem The Faerie Queene and Sir Philip Sidney's prose work Arcadia, in which a fallen king is blinded by his illegitimate son.

Shakespeare added original conceits to his retelling of the King Leir legend, including both his madness and the role of the Fool. The main difference between Shakespeare's final product and the works that inspired it, however, was that the others all have happy endings.

2. THE FIRST KNOWN PRODUCTION OF KING LEAR WAS STAGED FOR KING JAMES I.

King Lear was written during the reign of England's King James I, and the play's first recorded performance took place at Whitehall on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in 1606. At the time, the real-life English ruler, who was also King James VI of Scotland, was attempting to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and England as one. He’d ultimately fail—getting only approval for a Union of Crowns rather than full political union—but the production's plot may have hit home for the king, experts say, as it illustrated the potential tragedies of dividing a kingdom.

3. THERE ARE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF KING LEAR.

If you've ever seen a live performance of King Lear, it was probably quite different from what audiences saw in Stuart England. That's because there were multiple early versions of King Lear, and the one we know today was crafted from a combination of them.

The first version of King Lear was published in 1608 as a quarto, or small book, called True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters. It was revised multiple times during its initial press run, before being republished in 1619.

This second printing of King Lear contained some different words and lines from its predecessor, but in 1623 a dramatically different edition was included in the First Folio, or the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. It had around 100 new lines that weren't included in the 1608 quarto, and it was also missing about 300 lines, including all of Act IV, Scene 3. Roughly 800 words were also changed between the two versions.

Thanks to 18th-century editors, today's King Lear is often a mix of all of the above, although there are also some modern versions of the play that stick entirely with the quarto version or the First Folio edition.

4. KING LEAR WAS REWRITTEN TO HAVE A HAPPY ENDING.

Nahum Tate, who was made England's Poet Laureate in 1692, decided to update some of Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. While his versions of Coriolanus and Richard II were never successful, in 1681 he wrote a version of King Lear in which Cordelia survives, is betrothed to Edgar, and is named queen. (It's also missing the Fool.) This alternative—which still contained five acts, although the text itself was shorter—was regularly staged, but over the years some of Tate’s changes began to be removed. In 1768 the Cordelia and Edgar romance was removed, and Edmund Kean's production brought back the sad ending in 1823. Although it kept Tate's structure and heavily edited the play, an 1838 performance staring actor William Charles Macready revived the Fool and is generally credited as the end of Tate’s version, with Samuel Phelps in 1845 returning more closely to the original play.

5. KING LEAR WAS BANNED FROM THE ENGLISH STAGE DURING THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE III.

While King Lear wasn't ever intended to portray a living king, its main character hit too close to home during the reign of King George III. The monarch was plagued with periods of insanity and he was both blind and deaf when he died on January 29, 1820. Out of sensitivity, all performances of any version of King Lear were banned during King George's reign between 1810 to 1820. The fictional monarch's mental illness paralleled the real life ruler's struggles just a little too much.

6. KING LEAR CONTAINS LOTS OF REFERENCES TO NATURE.

King Lear is filled with more references to animals and nature than any other Shakespeare play. For example, sisters Goneril and Regan are often compared to deadly creatures like wolves, snakes, and vultures, whereas the Fool likens Lear's helplessness to “the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long/That it's had it head bit off by it young.” In a famous lament, Lear says that without the accoutrements of civilization, man is nothing but “a poor bare forked animal.” Scholars have even counted references to "nature," "natural," "disnatured," and "unnatural" as occurring more than 40 times in the play [PDF].

7. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW LOVED KING LEAR. LEO TOLSTOY HATED IT.

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” George Bernard Shaw reflected in the preface of his 1901 theatrical collection Three Plays for Puritans. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, however, disagreed with this sentiment. The War and Peace author didn't care for Shakespeare's writing, and he particularly disliked King Lear. He described an “exaggerated” plot and “pompous, characterless language” in “Tolstoy on Shakespeare,” a 100-page critical essay he published in 1906.

8. FREUD THOUGHT CORDELIA SYMBOLIZED DEATH IN KING LEAR.

In Sigmund Freud's critical essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which analyzes the casket story in The Merchant of Venice, he also explored [PDF] the underlying symbolism of Lear's three daughters in King Lear. Freud thought they represented the mythical Three Fates, and that Cordelia was Atropos, the Greek goddess of death, since she refuses to speak when Lear asks her to profess her love. (At the time, psychoanalysts viewed speechlessness in dreams as a signifier of death.) By rejecting Cordelia, the aging king is essentially rejecting death itself, Freud claimed.

9. A VERSION OF KING LEAR HAS BEEN PERFORMED WITH SHEEP.

In 2014, English playwright Heather Williams (who goes by the pen name Missouri Williams) added levity to King Lear by staging an adaptation called King Lear With Sheep. It told the oh-so-meta tale of a director character who decides to perform the Shakespearean tragedy using wooly ungulates as cast members. When the sheep won't cooperate, the director suffers a breakdown and begins acting out the narrative himself. The London performance featured real-life sheep—nine, to be precise—and just one actor.

10. THE TV SHOW EMPIRE IS BASED ON KING LEAR.

King Lear continues to inspire modern writers, artists, and directors. For example, the Fox series Empire features Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard), a fading hip-hop mogul and ex-drug dealer whose three sons vie to inherit his business. Lyon is loosely based on Lear, according to show co-creator Danny Strong.

"I was literally driving in my car and I thought, I wonder if you could do King Lear in a hip-hop empire,” Strong told The Atlantic. “ I literally was like: King Lear. Hip-hop Empire and then my next thought was, 'I should call [Empire co-creator] Lee Daniels'" to collaborate on a project.

“We call it hip hop Dynasty," Strong added. "It's like King Lear meets hip-hop meets Dynasty."

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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13 Things You Might Not Know About H.P. Lovecraft

Crabitha, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Crabitha, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Though it’s been more than a century since H.P. Lovecraft was born, the writer’s weird fiction and cosmic horror remain both influential and problematic. Lovecraft’s ghastly tales of alien gods, bloodguilty families, and collapsing civilizations have influenced authors like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. The new HBO horror series Lovecraft Country—which was created by Misha Green and executive produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) and J.J. Abrams (Star Wars)—explores 1950s racism via dramatic encounters with Lovecraftian monsters. Check out some facts about this twisted soul from Providence, Rhode Island. (Warning: Some of the sources linked within contain offensive and racist language.)

1. H.P. Lovecraft had a tough childhood.

Born on August 20, 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft grew up under tragic, bizarre circumstances. His father, suffering from what was likely syphilis-induced psychosis, entered Providence’s Butler Hospital in 1893 and died there in 1898. (His mother went into the same mental hospital after World War I.) Lovecraft’s grandfather told him horror stories, and Lovecraft honed his lurid imagination by devouring Edgar Allan Poe and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. After his grandfather’s death, his family fell into poverty, and he had a nervous breakdown before graduating high school.

2. H.P. Lovecraft’s iconic monsters have murky origins.

When Lovecraft, at age 5, lost his grandmother, his mother and aunts wore eerie black mourning dresses. His subsequent nightmares may have inspired his black-winged, demonic Night-Gaunts. Another of his monsters, Dagon, is a water denizen with a “hideous head” and “scaly arms,” and the name, which Lovecraft first used in a 1919 short story, matches that of the Biblical god of the Philistines. And the infamous Cthulhu, a gigantic octopus-dragon hybrid, may reflect Lovecraft’s hatred of seafood.

3. H.P. Lovecraft co-wrote a short story about Egypt with Harry Houdini.

In 1924, the editor of Weird Tales paid Lovecraft $100 to write “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” based on Houdini’s claim that he’d once been kidnapped and trapped underground near the Great Pyramid of Giza. Lovecraft figured this was bogus, but did extensive Egyptological research. The legendary magician offered Lovecraft more projects, but died in 1926 before they could collaborate further.

4. H.P. Lovecraft struggled to support himself.

Reclusive and socially inept, Lovecraft scraped by financially, sometimes by living with his family, sometimes being supported by his wife Sonia Greene. He wrote more than 60 short stories, plus some novels and novellas, but also penned an estimated 100,000 letters to friends and fans. Sometimes he skipped meals to pay for postage.

5. Metal bands are obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft.

Metallica’s “The Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” invoke Lovecraft’s greatest monster, as does Cradle of Filth’s “Cthulhu Dawn.” Black Sabbath’s “Behind The Wall of Sleep” is inspired by a 1919 Lovecraft story. Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth derived his stage name from Azathoth, one of Lovecraft’s gods. The list goes on.

6. H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness influenced the movie Alien.

Alien writer Dan O’Bannon was influenced by Lovecraft’s 1936 novella about an ill-fated Antarctica expedition. Both stories involve explorers getting attacked by mysterious creatures in an unfamiliar environment, and the Alien somewhat physically resembles Cthulhu. Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the facehuggers and chestbursters in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, released a surreal art book entitled Necronomicon, named after Lovecraft’s oft-cited spellbook.

7. Providence, Rhode Island, abounds with H.P. Lovecraft-related tourist attractions.

The city features the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences store and Lovecraft’s grave, among other highlights. Plus, Brown University houses the world’s largest collection of Lovecraft papers.

8. H.P. Lovecraft had a love-hate relationship with New York.

While residing in Brooklyn, Lovecraft enjoyed roaming around the Big Apple in search of ideas and hobnobbing with other literary types in the Kalem Club. However, 1927’s “Horror at Red Hook,” a story set in the neighborhood and involving occult sacrifices, displayed his xenophobia.

9. H.P. Lovecraft loved cats.

In a pompous essay entitled “Cats and Dogs,” he wrote: “The cat is such a perfect symbol of beauty and superiority that it seems scarcely possible for any true aesthete and civilised cynic to do other than worship it.” Horror stories like “The Cats of Ulthar” and “The Rats in the Walls” also reflect his penchant for felines. As a boy, Lovecraft owned a black cat whose name was a racial slur.

10. H.P. Lovecraft was extremely racist.

There’s no avoiding it: Lovecraft’s fiction, poetry, and correspondence include bigoted statements about Black, Jewish, and Irish people—among many other backgrounds. He admired Hitler and supported white supremacy. Recently, his troubling legacy has come under the microscope.

11. The World Fantasy Awards stopped using H.P. Lovecraft statuettes after the 2015 awards.

These awards, which have taken place annually since 1975, honor the best fantasy fiction published the year before. Winners used to receive a small bust of Lovecraft. That tradition ended due to his racist history. YA author Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper) petitioned to replace it with an Octavia Butler statuette. However, in 2017, the organizers unveiled a new design with a tree in front of a full moon.

12. A Wisconsin publishing house pumped up H.P. Lovecraft’s fame after his death.

If August Derleth and Donald Wandrei hadn’t co-founded Arkham House in Sauk City, Wisconsin, Lovecraft’s work might have languished in obscurity. After Lovecraft died of cancer at age 46 in 1937, Derleth and Wandrei wanted to put out a hardcover anthology of his fiction. When no established publisher bit, they published The Outsider and Others themselves in 1939. More omnibuses followed, and over the decades, Lovecraft became a household name.

13. H.P. Lovecraft continues to influence popular culture.

Besides Lovecraft Country, there are lots of recent reimaginings to choose from. South Park spoofed Cthulhu in 2010. Lovecraft’s influence on the 2016-launched Netflix series Stranger Things is well-documented. Between 2016 and 2018, Mark Hamill and Christopher Plummer lent their voices to the animated Howard Lovecraft film trilogy by Arcana Studio. Also, Nicolas Cage stars in the 2019 movie Color Out of Space, based on the Lovecraft story of that name.