SOURCES FOR KING LEAR: INFLUENCES AND MATERIAL THAT HELPED CREATE SHAKESPEARE'S PLAY
The main sources of Shakespeare's King Lear are Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England and an old play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters Gonerill, Ragan and Cordella.
Holinshed's Chronicles were often used by Shakespeare as sources for his plays. Attempting to create a 'universal cosmography' of the whole world and its history, the printer Reginald Wolfe hired Raphael Holinshed, William Harrison and Richard Stanyhurst to relate the history of the world from the biblical Great Flood to the then present day. The first part of the Chronicles, covering Great Britain was published in 1577 titled Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Harrison wrote the descriptions of England, utilising his skills with maps and compasses. Stanyhurst supplied the description and later history of Ireland. Holinshed wrote the history of England in two parts - before the Norman Conquest of 1066 and from 1066 to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Holinshed died in 1580 without finishing the task. Shakespeare was thought to have used the second edition printed in 1587. Published in three folio volumes, the new editors brought the history up to the current time, restructured the chapters, but retained the Holinshed contribution of pre-Norman invasion England virtually as it was.
The Chronicles tell the story of Leir, son of Baldud and his daughters Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, dividing his kingdom by asking them to answer how much they love him. The two eldest daughters reply satisfactorally, but when Cordeilla answers truthfully that she loves him as is proper, her father is not content with her. He divides half the land between the two eldest daughters, and marries Gonorilla to the Duke of Albania and Regan to the Duke of Cornewal and retains the remaining half for himself. Cordeilla is given nothing. The Prince of Gallia asks to marry her, having heard of her beauty, but without a share of the kingdom. In time the two Dukes rise up in rebellion against Leir, take the remaining half of the kingdom and refuse him any retinue. It pains Leir greatly to see that his daughters are so unkind to him, and he flees Britain for Gallia to visit Cordeilla. Treated honourably by his youngest daughter and her husband when he arrives, they gather an army and return to Britain to win back the kingdom. Leir is restored to the throne, where he rules for a further 2 years, whereupon Cordeilla is made Queen. To read the relevant passage of the Chronicles click here.
The True Chronicle History of King Leir, written anonymously was first staged in 1590, and recorded in Philip Henslowe's diary as having been co-produced by The Queen's Men and Lord Sussex's Men at the Rose Theatre in 1594. There is a possibility that Shakespeare had acted in King Leir, suggesting he might have had knowledge of it for over 10 years prior to writing his own version of the story. The True Chronicle History of King Leir was published on 8 May 1605, possibly to cash in on Shakespeare's own play. The main invention of the anonymous playwright was the creation of the character Perillus, who is a fore-runner for Kent. King Leir also invents a character like Oswald named Skalliger, and an exchange of letters from Gonoril to Leir and from Ragan to Gonoril.
In both the King Leir play and The Chronicles of Holinshed there is a happy ending: Lear and Cordelia's French army are victorious and Lear is reinstated as King. Holinshed adds a coda however, that after the death of Lear, the two older sisters' sons renewed the civil war, defeating Cordelia Queen of Britain. She is taken prisoner and 'despairing to recover liberty' hangs herself. Also in Holinshed at the division of the kingdom, Lear retains half of his royal estate and his throne, until the final succession will distribute the remainder to all. In Shakespeare he gives it all away, including the crown.
Holinshed's Chronicles are in turn based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Britain from about 1136. Book II Chapters 11 - 14 includes a tale of King Lear and his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. To see the relevant passage of History of Britain click here.
The story is also told in The Mirror for Magistrates folios 47-54 by John Higgins of 1574, and by Edmund Spenser in the second book canto 10 of the Faerie Queene of 1590. To see The Tragedy of Cordila from The Mirror for Magistrates click here. To see the relevant passage of The Faerie Queene click here. Shakespeare probably took the form of the name 'Cordelia' from Spenser.
Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia of 1580 (published in 1590) Book 2 Chapter 10 provided the sub-plot of Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund. In Sidney, the blind king of Paphlagonia is restored to his throne and the brothers are reconciled. Shakespeare not only forgoes the happy resolution, but reduces the guilt of Edmund who in Arcadia tears out his own father's eyes. To see the relevant passage of Arcadia click here.
Samuel Harsnet's 1603 A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, to with-draw the harts of her Majesties Subjects from their allegeance, and from the truth of the Christian Religion professed in England, under the pretence of casting out Devils, an anti-Catholic treatise provided Shakespeare with the names of Edgar's devils - Obidicut, Hobbididence, Mahu, Modo, and Flibbertigibbet - as well as inspiring his depiction of the physical and mental torment of madness. Harsnet's book includes first-hand accounts of exorcisms with documented interrogations and confessions of those accused of possession.
The division of the kingdom occurs in Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville's 1561 play Gorboduc, where the King gives his sons Ferrex and Porrex half shares of his land. The sons fall out, the younger kills the elder and the people of the land kill the king and queen. The nobility then kill the rebels and the country falls to civil war.
Contemporary events also may have inspired Shakespeare. In 1605, there was great public discussion of the advisability of King James' plans to unite Great Britain in one kingdom. The return to a pre-Reformation state had not been resolved by James' assumption of the crown after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and amongst the Catholics in the country, there was much talk of the kingdom dividing even further. The Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 was a Catholic attempt to assassinate King James and blow up Parliament. Guy Fawkes was arrested and his co-conspirators were hunted down. King James declared that he was divinely saved when he had a premonition of the plot in his dreams.
In the Court of Chancery the records of 1588 to 1589 show a sensational case that was publicly arousing interest in London. Sir William Allen, a leading figure in the Company of Merchant Adventurers and former Lord Mayor of London, had three daughters, all married, one to a Frenchman Francis Verzelin. Allen, having reached an age, wished to relieve himself of the burden of his possessions and divided his property between the three and arranged he should stay at each in turn. But once in possession of the houses and property, his daughters then treated him ill, begrudging all service and comfort. The daughters claimed that coal was an unnecessary expense for him, 'limited his fire' making him bitterly cold, and treated him with scorn and disdain. They abused his staff, called his servants 'fussocks'. Allen died in misery and cursed his daughters.
Gloucester's Act 1 Scene 2 line 112 'these late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us' and Edgar's Act 1 Scene 2 lines 135 'O these eclipses do portend these divisions' and 140 'I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read this other day, what should follow these eclipses' could refer to lunar and solar eclipses in September and October 1605.
The moral chaos at the centre of King Lear has been compared to the portents that would precede the Last Judgement and the reign of the Antichrist. It is possible that Shakespeare was familiar with biblical and religious articles regarding the end of the world being forewarned by unnatural familial events.
An account of the final calamity of the world occurs in The Gospel According to Mark 13 lines 12-13 '...the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son, and the children shall rise against their fathers and mothers, and shall put them to death...but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved'.
In Wulfstan II's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Sermon to the English People) of 1016 he bemoans how treachery, unlawfulness and infidelity have spread throughout England '...the father did not stand by his child, or the child by the father, nor one brother by another...'
The Homily of 1574 Against Disobedient and Wilful Rebellion warns that 'the mischief and wickedness when the subjects unnaturally do rebel against their prince...the brother to seek and often to work the death of his brother; the son of the father; the father to seek or procure the death of his sons, being at man's age, and by their faults to disinherit their innocent children...'
Michael Wood suggests in his In Search of Shakespeare that Lear's Act V Scene III speech to Cordelia, with particular reference to 'birds i'th'cage' and 'the mystery of things' may have been influenced by Robert Southwell's Epistle of Comfort. Southwell was a Jesuit priest who was pursued and arrested by Queen Elizabeth's chief interrogator Richard Topcliffe. Southwell wrote a number of poems and religious tracts in prison before he was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1595. He was subsequently named a Catholic martyr.
It has been suggested that the biblical Book of Job and his ordeals provide an influence for the trials of Shakespeare's Lear, particularly by John Holloway in his 'The Story of the Night: Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (1961) - '...they cause the naked to lodge wythout garment and wythout coveryng in the colde...' (Job Chapter 24; Lines 4-8) and '...all fleshe shall come to nought at once, and al men shal turne agazyne unto dust...' (Job Chapter 34, Line 15). But Harold Bloom in his 1999 book 'Shakespeare - The Invention of the Human' also suggests a comparison with the older King Solomon - 'And when I was borne, I received the comune aire, and fel upon the earth, which is of like nature, crying and weping at the first as all other do...' (Wisdom of Solomon Chapter 7, Line 4) to Lear's '...we came crying hither: Thou know'st the first time that we smell the air we wawl and cry...' (Act IV, Scene 6, Lines 176-178).
Regarding the states of mind of Lear and Gloucester at their deaths, both reported as expressing extremes of grief and joy, Shakespeare may have been influenced by Timothy Bright's 1586 A Treatise of Melancholie -'...contraries in passions bring forth like effects; as to weepe & laugh, both for joy & sorrow? For as it is oft seene that a man weepeth for joy, so is not straunge to see one laugh for griefe...'
And finally, a variation of the declaration by the King of France to Cordelia appears in Sonnet 116 of 1609. The King of France berates Burgundy 'My Lord of Burgundy, what say you to the lady? Love's not love, when it is mingled with regards that stand, aloof from the entire point.' Sonnet 116 begins 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love,which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.'