BWW Exclusive: The Origins And History Of KING LEAR
'Who is it that can tell me who I am?'
The tale of the titular king's gradual descent into madness and the betrayal of all but one of his daughters has riveted audiences for centuries. However, the real-life tale of Lear is nearly as dramatic, with a long history of rewrites, revisions, scholarly debates, and adaptations on this pseudo-historical epic.
The history of King Lear begins long before Shakespeare's time when a King Leir was first recorded as a king of the Britons. His tale was first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th-century tome, History of The Kings Of Britain.
According to Monmouth's timeline, Leir's reign began in 8th century BC, around the time of the founding of Rome. Leir was also identified as the founder of the city of Leicester, which he referred to as Kaerleir ("City of Leir"). Leir was also given the longest reign of Geoffrey's kings, ruling for sixty years.
Though Monmouth's history was regarded as fact up until the 16th century, it is now considered to have no historical value.
A dramatized version of Leir's life first appeared on the Elizabethan stage in a play by an anonymous author, titled King Leir, which was registered in 1594 and published in 1605 under the title The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. A precursor to Shakespeare's famous tragedy, the tale was told in this case as a comedy.
Scholars site Shakespeare's most important source as being the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, published in 1587. Holinshed himself found the story in the earlier Monmouth account of the tale. Shakespeare would take inspiration from several sources to craft what would ultimately become one of his most famous works.
Though historians have not been able to pinpoint an exact date of composition for Shakespeare's play, academics estimate its first appearance somewhere between 1603 and 1606, the latter date being the absolute latest estimation with the Stationers' Register noting a performance on December 26, 1606.
The modern universal text of Shakespeare's play is said to have been derived from three sources: two quartos, published in 1608 and 1619, respectively, and the version in the First Folio of 1623. Early editors appear to have conflated the two texts, arriving at the modern version that has remained the most universal text for centuries.
The history of the hybrid play relies on a hypothesis that Shakespeare wrote only one original lost manuscript. Other historians believe that Shakespeare himself was involved in reworking the play.
In addition to adding the subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, Shakespeare's most notable alteration to the story involves the (spoiler alert) deaths of Cordelia and Lear, an act which was much criticized during the 17th century. The change inspired an alternate ending written by Nahum Tate, which eliminated the role of The Fool and kept Lear and Cordelia alive, ending with the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar. Tate's version was the prevailing narrative for nearly 150 years.
However, in the early 18th century, objections arose to Tate's and other Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare. David Garrick was the first to reject some of Tate's adaptation in favor of he original. Though he kept many of Tate's major changes, including the happy ending, he removed much of the revised and added dialogue, reducing the Edgar-Cordelia love story, placing more focus on the relationship between Lear and his daughters.
The 19th century saw John Philip Kemble introducing more of Shakespeare's text, but preserving Tate's love story, omission of the Fool, and the happier ending. Edmund Kean restored the play's tragic ending in 1823, but reverted to Tate's more crowd-pleasing ending after only three performances. In 1838 William Macready performed Shakespeare's version at Convent Garden freed from Tate's adaptions.
Though there was hope that Shakespeare's version was restored to the stage for good, the 19th century introduced a new era which heavily cut Shakespeare's scripts and reduced many of the supporting roles to better showcase the leads. The pictorial trend of valuing visual spectacle over textual context saw a number of changes to the work. One production in 1892, for instance, cut 46% of the text, including the blinding of Gloucester.
The pictorial influence carried through into the 20th century, with cuts and revisions to the text falling out of fashion, and theatrical innovation taking over. Directorial choices came to the forefront of the latest Lear experiments, as artists began toying with the traditional staging and portrayals. For instance, Lears, who formerly began the play as frail old men, were now portrayed as regal leaders. Cordelia's portrayal also changed, as the character shifted from a sweet and innocent daughter to a heroic war leader.
New stagings through the 21st century introduced the play to various settings and scenic depictions. Lear has proved its versatility with translations to other theatrical and artistic traditions. Companies the world over have staged the piece in numerous settings often reflecting the political and social issues of the day.
The tale has also made numerous trips to the big and small screens, with the first film adaptation of Lear appearing in 1905. In 2018, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson starred in the latest screen adaptation of the piece as a series for BBC. The story has also been adapted for radio, audio plays, opera, novels, and even manga. In the 1960's, John Lennon overdubbed fragments of the play onto the song "I Am the Walrus".
In terms of its Broadway life, IBDB cites twenty separate Broadway productions for the piece, including the current revival. Its most recent visit to the West End starred Sir Ian McKellan in the title role. Other notable names to step into Lears shoes include James Earl Jones, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow, Christopher Plummer, and many more.
Though the true origins of Shakespeare's play remain largely debated by scholars, audiences and artists alike are unanimous in their esteem for the epic drama. With a thrilling and timeless tale of madness, betrayal, and revenge, King Lear is showing no signs of ending his (or her) reign any time soon. And thanks to the indomitable Glenda Jackson, a whole new generation of Broadway audiences get to experience this powerful piece, no doubt inspiring the next chapter in the epic saga of King Lear.