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."