There is no question that Shakespeare new about the mad king and his daughters well before he wrote King Lear, but the Lear Shakespeare knew was a very different man who had a very different story.
Lewis Theobald, an editor and author during the late 1600s, wrote that Shakespeare crafted a tragic ending to his King Lear “to vary from another, most execrable, Dramatic Performance upon this Story; which I certainly believe to have preceded our Author’s Piece.” That story, the one that Shakespeare altered to have a tragic ending, was the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters Gonerill, Ragan and Cordelia, written about 1605. Theobald goes on to say that True Chronicle was a powerful influence on Shakespeare as it was such a pervasive story and popular performance. It is interesting to note that, among the many authors who might have written True Chronicle are some of the very greatest playwrights of the period, including Thomas Kyd, Robert Green, George Peele, Thomas Lodge and (almost certainly not the case) Shakespeare himself. I also discovered that it is likely that, during his career as an actor, William Shakespeare performed in a production of The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters Gonerill, Ragan and Cordelia, first staged in 1590 by The Queen’s Men and Lord Sussex’s Men at the Rose Theatre in 1594….10 years before Shakespeare was to write his own unique invention of the Lear story. In fact, the anonymous play was published and sold to the public on May 8, 1605 very likely to “cash in” on the popularity of Shakespeare’s sweeping political version of the tale that had just opened to great success.
True Chronicle differs significantly from Shakespeare’s tale, not least in that it ends happily; the Leir of this story is alive and restored to his kingship at the end of the play. Also, True Chronicle does not have any references to the Shakespearean subplots of Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund; those elements Shakespeare added himself.
But True Chronicle is not the only inspiration for Shakespeare’s Lear. In fact, it is only one of a number of source materials Shakespeare used to craft his great tragedy. One other text is Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, a text that Shakespeare turned to time and time again for sources for his plays; in fact, almost ALL of Shakespeare’s history plays use Holinshed, as well as Macbeth, Cymbeline and (of course) King Lear.
The anonymous writer of True Chronicle ALSO used Holinshed as the source of that play, so, in some ways, one could argue that Shakespeare’s King Lear was inspired directly by Holished and also inspired by a play that was inspired by Holished. Complicated stuff, and fascinating to think of Shakespeare seated in his library with interconnected tomes and books open from which he drew his inspiration.
Throughout my career, I often return to that image of Shakespeare alone in his room, pen in hand, pouring over ancient scripts, translations, histories and poetry, cobbling together, piece by piece, his work. Creating new, adapting old, improving poetry and (in some cases) making mincemeat of prose. I love that image and, although that skill is sooooo far beyond me that it is almost laughable, the process of discovery I imagine Shakespeare using is a process I try to replicate in my own small way each time I do an adaptation of his work. This production of Lear is no different.
I read the original source materials and then I read the later plays inspired by Lear, translations of more modern plays written based on Lear from Spain and Italy, listened to music inspired by the play, read criticisms of ancient texts and reviews of 17th and 18th century productions. I had the most amazing experience of walking through literary history with Lear and his daughters…sometimes he was cruel and heartless, sometimes more gentle and loving. Sometimes he died, sometimes he lived happily ever after. Sometimes Cordelia lived, sometimes she died, sometimes she lived for a long time only to die later, sometimes Lear kept half the kingdom, sometimes none of the kingdom. Sometimes he had a fool, a friend, a brother, a son, a foster son, a wife, a lover…There was almost no end to the many lives that Lear and his children lived.
The story of mad King Lear and his three difficult daughters has a long and diverse heritage far beyond Shakespeare’s familiarity with the story from his time treading the boards. The story was also the focus of a huge number of classical re-tellings, including Monmouth’s History of Britain, Spenser’s The Fairie Queen, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and the anonymous Ballad of King Leir and His Daughters.
You see, the adaptive nature of Lear didn’t stop with Shakespeare; in fact, Lear’s life, it may be said, became even more creative and fruitful after Shakespeare had his way with it, inspiring dozens of adaptations in the hundred or so years after its publication and also inspiring praise from literary luminaries of history… Nahum Tate’s The History of King Lear being the most successful and famous of the adaptations. Others who adapted the play or were moved by it include Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamp, Coleridge, August Wilhelm Schlegel, William Hazlitt, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Edward Dowden, Gordon Bottomley and many, many more.
I’ve read most of these and (to be honest) almost none of them have aged well, but they provided an incredible range of materials to draw upon and perspectives on the play to consider.
So…I picked the ones that allowed me to tell the version of the story that impacted me the most and found, to my utter surprise, that the story that moved me most was the one that inspired Shakespeare the most…the one without Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester…the one that was really just about the mad old king and his daughters.
So, I decided to do that story.
Next Up: The First LEAR in Glasgow