William Shakespeare's King Lear: An Introduction to the Play
The tragedy King Lear is one of William Shakespeare's most acclaimed plays. Many have gone as far as to affirm that it is simply not possible to write a tragedy that surpasses the depth and transcendence that characterise King Lear. It is believed that the play was written at the beginning of the 17th century, most likely between 1603 and 1606. Shakespeare also wrote a theatrical adaptation of this play around 1623.
It is likely that Shakespeare drew some inspiration from mythical figures like the Leir of Britain, whose legend was popular as far back as the 8th century. The first known performance of this play took place at the royal residence of Whitehall in honour of King James I in December 1606. Since then, this tragedy has been played out on stages throughout the world, and there have been successful adaptations of the original play, including shortened versions and performances that combine the original play with the local theatrical traditions of countries like India or China.
Introducing the Main Characters
King Lear of Britain is the title character in this tragedy. His daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril ar also important in the development of the plot. Other characters include:
- The Earl of Gloucester
- Edgar, the Earl's son
- Edmund, the Earl's illegitimate son
- The Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, who are married to King Lear's daughters Regan and Goneril
- The King of France, who eventually becomes Cordelia's husband
- Fool, a jester in the court of King Lear
- The Duke of Burgundy, one of Cordelia's suitors
- The Earl of Kent
A Description of King Lear's Plot
King Lear consists of five acts and twenty-five scenes. The first scene depicts King Lear as he decides to step down from his position and to split his kingdom into three parts, which he intends to give to his three daughters. Although initially King Lear plans to divide his kingdom evenly, he decides to test his daughters' character by telling them that he will give the largest portion of territory to the one who shows the most love for him. The two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, are lured by their father's offer, and they flatter Lear with the answers he wants to hear. However, young Cordelia honestly admits that she cannot find any words to describe her feelings towards her father. Lear is upset by her reaction and subsequently disowns her. Cordelia's straightforward character attracts the attention of the King of France, to whom she gets married.
King Lear soon discovers his older daughters' deceiving behaviour, as she overhears them speaking about him in deceptive terms and discovers their actions of betrayal. As a result, he begins to lose his mind and eventually leaves Regan's home (where he had been living) in the middle of a storm. When he reaches a heath, he meets the Earl of Gloucester, who is also going through family problems. As they learn about each other's misfortunes, Gloucester decides to help Lear, but his intentions are discovered by Regan and her husband Cornwall, who set out to find him and gouge his eyes out after accusing him of treason.
Cordelia, who has been living in France with her husband, hears about the events and travels to Dover with an army, hoping to help her father Lear. At the same time, one of the Earl of Gloucester's sons (Edmund) allies himself with Goneril, while the other son (Edgar) stops his father from committing suicide. The army led by Goneril and Edmund defeats Cordelia's troops. The last scenes of this play are truly tragic, as one by one, Edmund, the Earl of Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and King Lear are murdered or kill themselves. The only characters remaining are the Duke of Kent, the Duke of Albany, and Edgar, who together take over the difficult task of ruling Lear's old kingdom.
King Lear's plot is mainly concerned with themes like family betrayal, madness, and death, all of which are common in Shakespeare's tragedies. In addition, this play also deals with topics like humility and forgiveness (especially evident in the relationship between Lear and Cordelia), as well as cruelty and injustice.
Memorable Quotes and Common Expressions Extracted from King Lear
"Times shall unfold what plaited cunning hides"
"When the mind is free, the body is delicate"
"Have more than thou showest; speak less than thou knowest; and lend less than thou owest"
"Necessity's sharp pinch"
"Although the last, not least"
"Every inch a king"
"The wheel has come full circle"
"The worst is not, so long as we can say 'this is the worst'"
"The art of our necessities is strange, that can make vile things precious"