King Lear was first printed in 1608. This initial printing is now referred to as the First Quarto. Another Quarto version was printed in 1619, and King Lear appeared again in a 1623 Folio edition. The First Quarto contains 300 lines not found in the Folio, and the Folio contains 100 lines not found in the First Quarto. Because many differences exist between the Quarto and Folio editions, some recent anthologies of Shakespeare's works contain play text from both editions, and may also include a conflated edition derived from a combination of both the First Quarto and Folio versions.
Although the text was not printed until 1608, the play was performed in December 1606. The exact date of composition is not known, so scholars often try to base the point in time on references in the play itself. Because of this uncertainty and the textual references, the composition of King Lear may have taken place anywhere from 1604 to 1606.
The story of King Lear and his daughters was a familiar tale in Elizabethan England, where it was generally believed to be based on historical fact, having been taken from ancient British history. A legal case of the times also may be due credit for contributing to the drama. In an act that generated extensive publicity, two daughters attempted to have their father declared insane so that they might seize his estate. The younger daughter, Cordell, objected.
This similarity of name and plot might have sparked some interest in resurrecting a familiar plot. However, accounts of King Lear surface in several texts; so, Shakespeare may have turned to other sources as well in exploring this ancient story.
Lear's story appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, published about 1135. This text includes insights into the kings of the ancient, pre-Christian Britain. Years later, Lear's story is repeated in Raphael Holinshed's 1577 book, Chronicles of England, which includes an ending in which Cordelia and Lear both survive her sisters' treachery. Cordelia succeeds her father to the throne, upon his death; but she is later imprisoned and commits suicide. The John Higgens 1574 edition of Mirror for Magistrates introduces the name of Albany and includes a story of Cordelia, in which she commits suicide — something that does not occur in the older play. The Lear story is also retold in Edmund Spenser's 1590 epic poem, The Faerie Queene, where Cordelia commits suicide by hanging. The Gloucester plot may have been taken from Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 poem, Arcadia, in which an old prince is blinded by his illegitimate son, but is ultimately saved by his legitimate son. Much of the events that occur to Gloucester are derived from this source.
The True Chronicle of King Leir is first entered into the Stationers's register in 1594, although there is no record of its publication until the 1605 edition appears. This source, while containing the basic Lear story, is grounded in Christianity, something not contained in the story of the ancient Leir or in Shakespeare's Lear. Many scholars do find ample evidence of Christian ideology in King Lear, but no overt emphasis on Christianity, as there is in Shakespeare's principle source. The old play has a happy ending, where evil is punished and good is rewarded, thus reinforcing the Christian belief in divine justice. Instead of proposing such easy answers, Shakespeare leaves his audience to ponder the role of God and divine justice. As he did so often in borrowing from sources, Shakespeare wove threads of historical accounts and original writings to create the fabric of his own King Lear.
By the time Shakespeare was writing King Lear, the English had survived years of civil war and political and religious upheaval. Considerable turmoil followed the death of Henry VIII, and under his oldest daughter's rule (Mary I), the country experienced both civil and religious chaos, with the conflict between Catholicism and the Church of England resulting in much bloodshed.
After Mary's death, Elizabeth I assumed the throne, leading to a period of extended peace. In spite of their contentment with Elizabeth's rule, the populace worried significantly about England's future because Elizabeth was unmarried, and she refused to select a possible heir. No citizen wanted a repeat of the events that marked the earlier transfer of power. Thus, the lack of an heir created fears about a possible successor to her throne, which were finally resolved in 1603 when Elizabeth appointed James IV of Scotland to be her heir, and eventually, the new king of England.
The English understood that a strong country needed an effective leader to protect it from potential invasion. Elizabeth's powerful leadership had saved England when the Spanish attempted an invasion in 1588, and much of the credit for her success was attributed to her earlier efforts to unite England and to end the dissention that was destroying the country. No ruler would have deliberately chosen to divide a kingdom, not after having witnessed the conflicts that had marked England's recent history. The division of a country would have weakened it, leading to squabbles between petty lords and the absence of an effective central government, and thus, the absence of an effective defense. After this long period of uncertainty, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have been horrified at Lear's choice to divide his kingdom and so, create disunity.
Shakespeare's King Lear is a five-act tragedy. Most Elizabethan theatre adheres to the five-act structure, which corresponds to divisions in the action. The first act is the Exposition, in which the playwright sets forth the problem and introduces the main characters.
In King Lear, Act I establishes the nature of the conflict between Cordelia and Lear, among Goneril and Regan and Lear, and between Gloucester and Edgar. This first act also establishes the duplicitous, or treacherously twofold, nature of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, while demonstrating that Cordelia and Edgar are good characters. The remainder of the play's central characters also make an appearance in this act.
Act II is the Complication, in which the entanglement or conflict develops further. The erosion of Lear's power begins, the depth of the conflict between Lear and his daughters is revealed, and the conspiracy that unites Goneril, Regan, and Edmund is established.
Act III is the Climax; and as the name suggests, this is when the action takes a turning point and the crisis occurs. In this act, Lear has been cast adrift in the storm, and his words reveal that his mind is also now lost. Likewise, the extent of Regan and Cornwall's depravity is revealed as they torture Gloucester, ultimately gouging out his eyes.
Act IV is called the Falling Action, which signals the beginning of the play's resolution. In this act, Edgar reunites with his father, although Gloucester is still unaware that Edgar is his son, and Cordelia returns to Lear, who begins to emerge from his madness. In action that indicates the approaching downfall of the conspirators, Cornwall's death is revealed, and Edgar kills Oswald. The audience sees in Act IV the tragedy overtaking the hero, as well as the efforts in progress to aid the hero.
Act V is called the Catastrophe, wherein the conclusion occurs. As the name suggests, this act brings closure to the play, a resolution to the conflict, and death to the hero. As the play draws to a close, Regan and Goneril die, Edmund is killed in a duel with his brother, Lear and Cordelia die, and Edgar is chosen to restore peace to the kingdom.
Students of Shakespeare's plays quickly come to appreciate the literary devices that the playwright employs in constructing his tragedy. For example, most Shakespearean tragedy contains elements of comic relief, designed to provide a sort of catharsis, a chance for the audience to "catch its breath." But in this case, no comic relief relieves the tension as Lear plays out the drama that his decision has set in motion. Characters, who in other tragedies might contain comedic elements — such as the Fool — are far removed from comedy. The Fool's purpose is to make Lear laugh, but instead, he functions largely as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the action and pointing out to Lear subtleties of his behavior and dangers that he faces. But his compassion, tinged with sarcasm, is never funny.
Shakespeare also uses soliloquy as an important literary device in his plays. Most Shakespearean tragedies contain soliloquies, because they offer a way for the playwright to divulge a character's inner thoughts. The soliloquy requires that the character must think that he is alone on stage, as he reveals what he is thinking for the benefit of the audience. King Lear contains eleven soliloquies, with Edmund using this device most often to explain his plotting to the audience. Edgar also uses this device several times, most notably when he explains the reasons he will henceforth be known as Tom. A soliloquy is different from a monologue, in which a character speaks aloud his thoughts, but with other characters present. Shakespeare also frequently employs the aside, in which the character addresses the audience, but other characters are not supposed to hear. The aside allows the audience to learn details that most of the characters on stage do not know. For example, Goneril uses an aside to reveal that she has poisoned Regan.
The double plot is another important literary device in this play. King Lear is the only Shakespearean tragedy to employ two similar plots, each functioning in an almost exact parallel manner. With two plots, perfectly intertwined and yet offering parallel lessons, Shakespeare is able to demonstrate the tragic consequences that result when man's law is given precedence over natural law. Eventually, Gloucester and Lear learn the importance of natural law with both finally turning to nature to find answers for why their children have betrayed them. Their counterparts, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall, represent the evil that functions in violation of natural law.
The double plot serves an important function, emphasizing natural law as an essential facet of both plots. Shakespeare then uses the two plots to point to how essential an acknowledgment of natural law is in a moral society. In both plots, the absence of natural law is destructive, and ultimately even those who are good cannot act to save Cordelia or the other good characters from the ravages of evil and tyranny.
Shakespeare's use of doubling appears throughout King Lear. For example, Kent's true loyalty to the king is paralleled by Oswald's corrupt loyalty to Goneril. Lear also has two sons-in-law. Regan's husband is the cruel Cornwall, whose only interest is in furthering his own ambitions. He has no real interest in the well-being of the kingdom, and sacrificing Lear is an acceptable price to pay to gain the power he desires. Cornwall's parallel is Goneril's husband, Albany, who has no personal ambitions or thoughts of personal glory. Albany's goal is to preserve the kingdom and save Lear's life.
Still another set of doubles is France and Burgundy, whose response to Cordelia's loss of dowry differs in drastic ways. Where Burgundy has no use for a Cordelia who lacks money, land, and rank, France is willing to take Cordelia, even if she has no material possessions. Thus, France who sees Cordelia as representing the greatest riches that her father possesses, is a contrasting double for the self-serving Burgundy.
Shakespeare wrote most of this play in verse, using iambic pentameter, which sometimes intimidates the playwright's audiences. Iambic pentameter is a literary term that defines the play's meter and the stresses placed on each syllable. In iambic pentameter, each complete line contains ten syllables, with each pair of syllables containing both an accented syllable and an unaccented syllable. Many Renaissance poets used iambic pentameter because the alternating stresses create a rhythm that contributes to the beauty of the play's language. Shakespeare also includes prose passages in his plays, with prose lines being spoken by characters of lower social rank. In King Lear, Edgar speaks prose when he is disguised as Tom; when he reemerges as Edgar, he resumes speaking in verse.
A Shakespearean glossary can help in understanding the language, but the biggest assist comes with practice. Reading and listening to Shakespeare's words becomes easier with repeated exposure. Reading aloud also helps in becoming familiar with Early Modern English. Over time, the unfamiliar language and the rhetorical devices that Shakespeare employs in writing his texts will cease to be strange, and the language will assume the beauty that was always hidden within it.