Study Guide

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

King Lear Essay - From Leir to Lear

From Leir to Lear

Martin Mueller, Northwestern University

There are echoes of The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir in Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Hamlet, and there is a curious give and take between these plays, the Leir play, and King Lear.1 Consider the following features that are not found in the old Leir play and may be said to be bequeathed to King Lear by the plays that show traces of The True Chronicle Historie: a villain named Gloucester who conspires against his brother, the education of a ruler reduced by exile to a state of nature, and a plot that interweaves the fortunes of the family of the king's chief counselor with those of the royal house.

If we follow the Leir play and the flow of its consequences, we observe a highly path-dependent sequence of compositional decisions that generate useful insights into the metabolism of the creative process, but above all teach respect for the shaping power of the source.2 Without The True Chronicle Historie we would not have King Lear or As You Like It, while Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet would be quite different plays. From such a perspective The True Chronicle Historie emerges as a play with a remarkably consequential career.

The old Leir play belongs to a very small set of stories to which Shakespeare returned again and again throughout his career. He used Bandello's story of Fenicia in Much Ado, Othello, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and, less directly, in King Lear. The story of Brutus and Portia, in addition to its significance for Julius Caesar, shapes important aspects of The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Hamlet, and Macbeth.3 Shakespeare remembered the old Leir play in Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Hamlet before writing his own play about the subject.

Shakespeare's pet stories make up a private canon of remarkably consequential sources whose shaping power is quite disproportionate to their status in more public canons. We have no way of knowing what chance experience or whim led to their adoption, but it is important to recognize that the pet story exercises its power in its concrete and idiosyncratic shape rather than as an instance of a type. It is frequently observed that fathers and daughters haunt Shakespeare's plays far beyond the common anxieties of a patriarchal culture. His obsessive interest in this theme appears deeply rooted in personal experience and temperament. One might then argue that this deep trait of his personality found a convenient vehicle in the story of King Lear and his daughters as the most prominent but certainly not the only father/daughter conflict in his plays. There is obvious truth to such a view, which explains the many fathers and daughters on the "surface" of the Shakespearean corpus by invoking the "deep" trait of an obsession, although one must also acknowledge the circularity of the argument: there is no evidence for the deep trait except for the surface manifestations that are explained by it.

But there are limits to the view of a prior self with immutable traits attracting appropriate and interchangeable stories once they cross the orbit of its power. The self that is interested in the story is also changed by it. If it is true at one level that Shakespeare became interested in the Lear story because of his obsession with fathers and daughters, it is also true that the story in its particular incarnation of the old Leir play came to define that obsession, filled the space in and through which the playwright thought and wrote about fathers and daughters. The old Leir play is more than the crystallization of a motif in a synchronic psychic, cultural, or mythic space. Its peculiar turns—its "impurities" when considered as instance of a type—give rise to history. The story of the Leir play in Shakespeare's career is certainly an example of his abiding interest in the father-daughter conflict. But it is also a story about the frail and unpredictable ways in which path dependency, chance, and choice create unique sequences.

Shakespeare's successive encounters with the old Leir play raise questions about his reading and about the relationship of reading and writing in his career.4 We know a good deal about what Shakespeare read because his reading left traces in his plays. Our knowledge in all cases rests on probability judgments. When we see a resemblance between something in his plays and a certain text we say with varying degrees of confidence: the probability that this resemblance is based on acquaintance with the text is higher than the probability that it arises by accident. Such probability arguments are often subject to dispute, and source or allusion hunters are frequently criticized for deriving strong claims from weak resemblances, but skeptics are apt to underestimate the consequences of the fact that probabilities for random occurrence drop precipitously as soon as even a few independently very common features recur in combination.5

There is reasonably firm agreement on the absolute and relative chronology of Shakespeare's plays. If we imagine the playwright moving on a time line consisting of his plays in chronological order, we can stop at any point, say 17, and say that, while there might be some dispute about the relative order of 15-17, Shakespeare XVII was certainly an author who had written plays 1-14 in a roughly known order. The chronology of his reading cannot be established with anything like the same precision. It is highly probable that Shakespeare reread the main sources of his plays when he wrote them, but this professional reading must in most cases have rested on an earlier reading. This crucial first encounter with the future source, by which the playwright's interest was stimulated and the parameters for the later professional reading were established, cannot be dated with any precision.

There is much evidence in the plays for the intrinsically plausible hypothesis that Shakespeare read many of his sources years before he returned to them.6 Conversely, there is no instance of a play for which the chief source became available only shortly before its composition. Shakespeare was evidently not given to dramatizing recent first-reads.7 Virtually all texts that he made extensive use of were available to him in his teens and twenties. The easiest way to account for this phenomenon is to argue that, whether or not he continued to read many new books after thirty, Shakespeare was shaped by his earlier reading and his plays are ruminations of a repertoire acquired by then. It should therefore be a fundamental axiom of source criticism to observe the consequences of the fact that Shakespeare's readings jostled each other in his memory and settled in a complex web of memory pathways long before they became sources for plays he intended to write.

Nobody is likely to take issue with this axiom but it is not sufficiently observed in practice, and the organization of knowledge militates against its observance. In a work like Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare the major and minor, certain, probable, and possible sources together with "analogues" are listed and discussed separately for each play. It is hardly possible to arrange the materials in a different fashion, but it is nonetheless worth pointing out that the "librarian" of Shakespeare's memory certainly did not classify texts in this manner. Imagine books shelved by accession, with the possibilities for browsing in such a jumble of discrepant contiguities, and you may have a more appropriate model for the way in which Shakespeare's sources existed in his memory.

Scholars of Roman comedy use the term "contamination" to describe the process by which writers combine sources. Shakespeare followed this practice in "contaminating" the Menaechmi with the Amphitryo in The Comedy of Errors. Writerly contamination, for the most part a deliberate process, rests on processes of readerly contamination that tend to be involuntary rather than deliberate but have a powerful impact on the writer's subsequent choices. As You Like It, Hamlet, and King Lear are the best example. A large set of formal and thematic ties link these plays, but there is fairly suggestive evidence that the links predate any of the plays and rest on the peculiarly complex and consequential manner in which the reader Shakespeare around 1590 associated The True Chronicle Historie with Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde and with the Ur-Hamlet.


Lear on the heath is a bad weather version of Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden. This critical observation has a historical foundation in Shakespeare's readerly contamination of the source of As You Like It with the source of King Lear. In Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde (1590) the hero Rosader and his servant Adam Spencer find themselves close to starvation in the Forest of Arden. When Rosader laments the indignity of his imminent death from hunger Adam proposes that

the death of the one preserve the life of the other. I am olde, and overworne with age, you are young, and are the hope of many honours: let me then die; I will presently cut my veynes, &, master, with the warme bloud relieve your fainting spirits: sucke on that till I ende, and you be comforted.8

Spurred on by this generosity, Rosader with desperate courage makes one last effort to find food and stumbles on the picnic of the exiled King Gerismond that he interrupts in the manner familiar from As You Like It. In The True Chronicle Historie Leir and Perillus make it to France in their search of Cordella. Faint with hunger they remain fierce competitors in generosity:

Per. Ah, my dear Lord, how doth my heart
To see you brought to this extremity!
O, if you love me, as you do professe,
Or ever thought well of me in my life, He strips
  up his arme.

Feed on this flesh, whose veynes are not so dry,
But there is vertue left to comfort you.
O, feed on this, if this will do you good,
Ile smile for joy, to see you suck my bloud.
  Leir. I am no Canniball, that I should delight
To slake my hungry jawes with humane flesh:
I am no devili, or ten times worse then so,
To suck the bloud of such a peerelesse friend.
O, do not think that I respect my life
So dearely, as I do thy loyall love.

It so happens that Cordella and the King in pastoral disguise are having a picnic nearby. Perillus approaches them and is led to the table but insists on bringing Leir before taking any food himself. Leir thanks God "and these kind courteous folke, / By whose humanity we are preserved" (24.2186-87).

The cumulative verbal and scenic resemblances clearly establish the interdependence of these texts. It seems plausible that Lodge is the source for the momentary excursion into the pastoral world by the playwright and his characters in The True Chronicle Historie, but the case is hardly certain. Perhaps the author of The True Chronicle Historie borrowed from the author of Rosalynde; perhaps it was the other way round, or perhaps, as has been thought, they were the same man. More interesting than the question of priority is the question of Shakespeare's awareness of their interdependence. Despite the precarious nature of negative arguments, it is tempting to speculate about several prominent Lear-like features of Rosalynde that Shakespeare did not use in As You Like It. When King Torismond proposes to banish Rosalynde, his daughter Alinda vigorously protests and resolves to follow Rosalynde or kill herself:

When Torismond heard his daughter so resolute, his heart was so hardned against her, that he set downe a definitive and peremptorie sentence that they should both be banished … although his Lords perswaded him to retaine his owne daughter, yet his resolution might not be reverst, but both of them must away from the court without either more companie or delay.10

Towards the end of the narrative, Rosalynde, still disguised as Ganymede, sees her father for the first time:

scarce could she abstaine from teares to see her Father in so lowe fortunes: he that was wont to sit in his royall Pallaice, attended on by twelve noble peeres, now to be contented with a simple Cottage, and a troupe of revelling Woodmen for his traine.11

Third, there is the cannibalism motif already cited. In a work that, like As You Like It, appears to be modeled exclusively on one source, it is legitimate to ask why a significant feature of the source is not used. It is the case that As You Like It is a cooler play than its source and that it keeps its distance from the violence and emotions that lurk in its margins and are given freer play in Lodge's narrative. The omission of the three Lear parallels fits into the strategy of mitigation that appears also in the less violent representation of the wrestling match, the omission of the brutal kidnapping attempt on Alinda, and the conversion, rather than defeat and death, of her usurper father. But it can also be read as part of a decision to avoid obvious parallels with the old Leir play.

It would hardly be worthwhile to make this argument were it not for the indisputable shaping power that As You Like It has on the formal and thematic design of King Lear. The Leir of the old play does indeed experience his moment of recognition near "the thicket, / That is about some two myles from the Court" (17.1333-34). But the setting is not thematized, and Leir's discovery, which is restricted to his being in error about his daughters, does not stand in an interesting relationship to his automatic transition from overbearing monarch to penitent martyr. The philosophical pastoral of Duke Senior and his entourage is the most obvious antecedent for Lear's reflective struggles, except that on the heath the complacent and sentimental reflections on court and country acquire the existential power of a true boundary situation. What the attendant lord sings about at the request of the Duke

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude.

Lear articulates in the first person:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the
  cocks! …
Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man!
                                          (3.2.1-3, 8-9)

In seeking evidence for the hypothesis that As You Like It shaped King Lear because it was itself shaped by the memory of the old Leir play we may point out the odd balance between the ending of Rosalynde and the beginning of The True Chronicle Historie. The father's efforts to manipulate the daughter's marriage cost him his throne. The daughter's clever manipulation of events produces an outcome in which the daughter's choice corresponds to the father's wishes and restores him to his throne. I think Shakespeare saw this contrast and designed As You Like It from the beginning as a comic counterpoint to a Lear drama. With its nostalgic celebration of the past—"you memory of old Sir Rowland," "the constant service of the antique world"—the play is quite literally a restoration fantasy, and its finale with its conspicuous deference to the Duke as father is an "anti-Lear" in which the triumphs of the playmaker daughter balance the disasters of the playmaker father.

Readerly contamination of The True Chronicle Historie and Rosalynde may also be responsible for the prominence of hostile brothers and the dynastic interlace plot in King Lear. Neither of these is part of The True Chronicle Historie but both are present in Rosalynde. By "dynastic interlace" I mean a plot in which there are sexual relationships between the children of a ruler and of his trusted friend or counselor. Thus in Rosalynde Sir Rowland de Bois was the trusted friend of King Gerismond (Shakespeare's Duke Senior) and his son marries the king's daughter. Common as the motif may be, it occurs in only three Shakespearean plays, As You Like It, Hamlet, and Lear, where its possible permutations are varied with almost pedantic precision: the dead but powerfully remembered father appears in the king's role in Hamlet and in the counselor/friend's role in As You Like It; the king's son ruins the counselor's daughter; the counselor's son meddles disastrously with the king's daughters. The most economic explanation for this network of echoes is that the dynastic interlace plot spread from As You Like It to Hamlet and that the quite systematic mirroring of its Hamlet version in King Lear is rooted in the very early association of Rosalynde with The True Chronicle Historie.13


In the pivotal scene of The True Chronicle Historie the king and his faithful servant Perillus survive an assassination attempt plotted by Ragan. Leir and Perillus have been asked to meet with her near "the thicket, / That is about some two myles from the Court" (17.1333-34). A hired assassin is to kill them there, but not without letting him know on whose orders he is acting. The two old men arrive on the scene, express their weariness, pray, and fall asleep. The assassin arrives, notes that they have "with pure zeal … prayed themselves asleep" and reflects:

Now could I stab them bravely, while they
And in a maner put them to no payne;
And doing so, I shewed them mighty friendship:
For feare of death is worse than death it selfe.
But that my sweet Queene will'd me for to shew
This letter to them, ere I did the deed.

Leir wakes up and says that he had "a short nap, but so full of dread, / As much amazeth me to think thereof (19.1479-80). He then proceeds to describe his dream in which his daughters Gonorill and Ragan "Each brandishing a Faulchion in their hand" stabbed him "in a hundred places" and left him for dead until Cordella found and restored him to "perfect health":

And with the feare of this I did awake,
And yet for feare my feeble joynts do quake.

When the assassin interrupts the two men they think of him at first as a highway robber. They offer him what money they have, and Leir promises that he can help him in any business with the Queen. The assassin replies that he has been ordered by the Queen to kill them and asks them to commit suicide. Leir takes the reference as referring to Cordella and acknowledges the justice of her revenge, but the assassin disabuses him of his error and tells him that "Thy owne two daughters, Gonorill and Ragan, / Appoynted me to massacre thee here" (19.1607-8). Leir seeks confirmation of this dreadful truth:

 Leir. Oh, but assure me by some certayne
That my two daughters hyred thee to this deed.
If I were once resolv'd of that, then I
Would wish no longer life, but crave to dye.
 Mes. That to be true, in sight of heaven I
 Leir. Sweare not by heaven, for feare of
The heavens are guiltlesse of such haynous acts.
  Mes. I sweare by earth, the mother of us all.
  Leir. Sweare not by earth; for she abhors to
Such bastards, as are murtherers of her sonnes.
  Mes. Why then, by hell, and all the devils I
  Leir. Swear not by hell; for that stands gaping
To swallow thee, and if thou do this deed.

At this moment thunder and lightning terrify the assassin, and as he shows the letter to Leir, he begins to waver in his resolution. There follows a competition in which Leir and Perillus plead with the assassin to kill one but spare the other, at the end of which the assassin leaves without doing his deed:

Beshrew you for it, you have put it in me:
The parlosest old men, that ere I heard.
Well, to be flat, ile not meddle with you:
Here I found you, and here ile leave you:
If any aske you why the case so stands?
Say that your toungs were better than your

Shakespeare's omission of this scene is a striking feature of his Lear drama and no doubt part of his larger strategy to deflect the threat of direct physical violence from Lear in order to concentrate on his mental anguish. He may also have been motivated by a sense that he had used up its potential by his use of it in Richard III and Hamlet.

The attempt on Leir and the assassination of Clarence in Richard III share a combination of three features that do not derive from the fairly common scenic type in which a victim pleads with a villain who struggles with his conscience: (1) The victim falls asleep and is in a state of anxiety about a prophetic dream. (2) The victim entertains false beliefs about the close relative on whose behalf the villain acts. (3) The villain is not satisfied with carrying out his assignment but disabuses the victim.14 These scenic resemblances are not supported by a particularly close web of verbal echoes, but Bullough rightly sees Leir's triple "swear not" as the source for a similar exchange in the second wooing scene between Richard and Elizabeth (R3 4.4.368-96).

Since most scholars date Richard III before the first reference to the old Leir play, the claim that Clarence's murder is based on the pivotal scene of that play is far from obvious, although I hope that the analysis will confirm it as the more plausible alternative. Bullough has pointed to a feature of Richard III that might well have surprised a contemporary audience: the central atrocity of the murder of the princes is displaced into a short lyrical narrative, while the murder of Clarence is given much greater dramatic and symbolic weight than it had in any of the sources, particularly The True Tragedy of Richard III, in which the murder of the princes is executed on the open stage and Clarence comes on stage as a Senecan ghost calling for revenge.15 Shakespeare's Clarence plays a more elaborate and very different role. Repentance, recognition, and nobility in the face of death mark his tragedy, and as a "man more sinned against than sinning" he enacts a drama of repentance for which the pivotal scene of the Leir drama provides the general template and some of the salient details.

The relationship of Richard III to The True Chronicle Historie creates an odd feedback loop. Parts of Leir's story shape the drama of the hostile brothers in Richard III. I had argued that Shakespeare's introduction of hostile brothers into the Lear drama depends on his readerly contamination of The True Chronicle Historie and Rosalynde. The details, however, owe a good deal to Richard III. It is not quite enough to say that Edmund stands in a line of Shakespearean villains of which Richard is the archetype. The connections are closer and more specific: Gloucester returns as Gloucester. Edmund's ridicule of his father's superstitious nature derives from the ambiguous prophecy about the letter G as the origin of disaster, already a prominent narrative feature of Clarence's story in the Mirror for Magistrates.16

To see Edmund as the return of Gloucester is also to get a perspective on his peculiar sexual charm. Richard introduces himself as a cripple who is hateful to women and therefore resolves to trade sex for power. Nonetheless he takes a peculiar pleasure in his aggressive courtship of Anne and Elizabeth, and he revels in his odd power to attract by revulsion. Edmund, by contrast, seems to be a man that women—or, at any rate, Goneril and Regan—cannot keep their hands off. There is a hint of Edmund in the messenger/assassin of the Leir play, who in his various dealings with Goneril and Ragan certainly "makes love to his employment" and by implication to his employers. Ragan, trying him out on the question of murder asks: "Hast thou the heart to act a stratagem, / And give a stabbe or two, if need require?" (15.1210-11). The messenger gives his enthusiastic assent and when left alone adds a comment very much in keeping with the occasional and crude sexual humor of the play:

Why, heres a wench that longs to have a stabbe.
Well, I could give it her, and ne're hurt her

It is easy to see how Shakespeare's Edmund could be developed from this excessively obliging servant of two mistresses, even though they never call upon his sexual favors. But the motif makes even stronger sense if it also seen as a contrapuntal development of the repulsive Gloucester.17


Perhaps the most striking verbal echo of The True Chronicle Historie in any Shakespearean play occurs in Hamlet, and it is surprising that it does not appear to have been noticed. Here are the opening lines of the play followed by Claudius' opening speech:

Leir. Thus to our griefe the obsequies
Of our (too late) deceast and dearest Queen,
Whose soule I hope, possest of heavenly joyes,
Doth ride in triumph 'mongst the Cherubins;
Let us request your grave advice, my Lords,
For the disposing of our princely daughters,
For whom our care is specially imployd,
As nature bindeth to advance their states,
In royall marriage with some princely mates:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th' imperial jointress of this warlike state,
Have we as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With one auspicious and one dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.

In both speeches the king consults with his council as his thoughts move from wake to wedding. The similar cadences and scenic resemblances are supported by the verbal echo in the response of Scalliger, the chief counselor, who praises Leir for "the zeal you bare unto our quondam Queen" (33), a phrase whose alliteration survives its translation in "our sometime sister, now our queen."18 Translated into a different setting and framed by the scene on the battlements, the standard rhetoric of the old Leir play serves as a brilliant characterizing device: it is a bit of ominous fakery that raises suspicions about the man who talks in this way. But the echo enters into the scenic structure as well as verbal texture: Hamlet stands apart from the pomp and glitter of the court, breaks his silence with an aside, exactly like Cordella, and once provoked beyond the laconic responses to his parents' questions, bursts into a highly wrought disquisition on "seems" that defines his character, like that of Cordelia, as centrally constituted by a distrust of language.

Shakespeare associated Hamlet and Claudius with Leir on one other occasion. On his way to his mother, Hamlet comes on Claudius unawares:

Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying,
And now I'll do 't—

but he refrains from killing him when he reflects that to kill Claudius at prayer would be "hire and salary, not revenge" (3.3.79). Greg noted that this is a variant on the messenger's encounter with Leir:19

Now could I stab them bravely, while they
And in a maner put them to no payne;
And doing so, I shewed them mighty friendship:

Muir argued that both scenes might echo the Ur Hamlet, but there are good reasons to believe that no such scene existed in the Ur-Hamlet.20 Drawing on the association of Amleth with the older Brutus in Belleforest, Shakespeare strongly associated his Hamlet with the younger Brutus. Shakespeare got most of his knowledge of Brutus from Plutarch, who describes him as a man given to characteristically thoughtful mistakes, and it is through his encounter with the Plutarchan Brutus that Shakespeare developed a working concept of hamartia as a form of characteristic error. Hamlet's rash slaying of Polonius and his failure to seize the opportunity of revenge are such characteristic and systematically related errors, just as the various errors of Brutus are related. Nothing like that concept appears in the saga of Amleth as told by Saxogrammaticus or Belleforest, where the killing of the Polonius figure is a thoroughly purposeful event, and there is no reason to credit the author of the Ur-Hamlet with the turn of the plot that grows logically out of the conception of Hamlet as a kind of Brutus.

If Hamlet as a man given to thoughtful error derives from Plutarch's Brutus, the scenic form of that error derives from The True Chronicle Historie. The messenger/assassin and Hamlet provide conspicuous examples of a type of action censured by Aristotle in which the agent intends to do something but does not do it. It might be objected that the parallels are too broad to provide evidence of a source relationship. But from a perspective of "scenic thinking" the parallels are sustained, precise, and full of a dramaturgical counterpoint that is very characteristic of Shakespeare's procedure. In the conversation with his mother Hamlet refers to himself as the "scourge and minister" of heaven (3.4.159). In that role he is not unlike the messenger/assassin of the old Leir play. Both have a commission, both come upon their victim at prayer, both fail to act. And Hamlet's failure may be seen as a peculiarly horrifying variation on the messengerassassin's attack of conscience.

The Leir echoes of Hamlet suggest that the process of readerly contamination which linked Rosalynde and The True Chronicle Historie included the Ur-Hamlet as well. The three works may have been Shakespeare's pet bundle for thinking about generational struggles. Such a hypothesis explains the powerful resemblances of style and procedure that link these plays beyond their narrative resemblances: the Forest of Arden, the graveyard, and the heath are outdoor setting for a mode of philosophical prose that forms the rhetorical center of gravity of As You Like It, Hamlet, and King Lear but does not recur as the defining discursive mode in any other play. And a long-standing association of the old Hamlet and Leir plays would account for Shakespeare's decision to develop large sections of King Lear as systematic variations on the plot of Hamlet.21


The relationship between The Merchant of Venice and King Lear is the subject of one of Freud's most celebrated literary essays.22 Freud posited an archetypal relationship between the choices of Lear and Bassanio as mirror images of attitudes to mortality. The archetype, however, is backed up by very specific source relations. Scholars have drawn attention to a verbal echo of the True Chronicle in the Merchant. The Gallian king on his first appearance has this to say to his followers:

Disswade me not, my Lords, I am resolv'd,
This next fayre wynd to sayle for Brittany,
In some disguise, to see if flying fame
Be not too prodigali in the wonderous prayse
Of these three Nymphes, the daughters of King
If present view do answere absent prayse,
And eyes allow of what our eares have heard,
And Venus stand auspicious to my vowes,
And Fortune favour what I take in hand;
I will return seyz'd of as rich a prize
As Jason, when he won the golden fleece.

His resolution to wive it wealthily in Brittany provides both a motive and a rhetoric for Bassanio, whose counterpart in the novella has no marriage plans. Bassanio elaborately compares Portia to Medea and her suitors to Jason in his first mention of her (1.1.165-72). "Colchis' strond" (171) figures as a complex pun that combines the golden locks and disastrous shore of Medea/Loreley and makes a submerged reappearance in Bassanio's rejection of the golden casket (3.2.92-98).

Gratiano may be said to quote the Gallian king when he exults: "We are the Jasons; we have won the fleece" (3.2.241). It has not to my knowledge been observed that the basic donnée of the Portia story and its scenic structure in all probability have their roots in the opening scenes of the Leir play, in which the King seeks to control the marriage choice of his youngest daughter by imposing on his three daughters a contest in which they choose by pleading. None of this occurs in the sources usually listed for The Merchant of Venice. In the chief narrative source, a novella from the fifteenth-century Italian collection Il Pecorone by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Giannetto, a young man, equipped with the wealth of his fatherly friend Ansaldo, goes on a voyage and calls at the port of the lady of Belmont, a "beautiful and capricious" widow, who invites her guests to sleep with her and robs them of everything they have if they fail to stay awake.23 Shakespeare replaces this merry widow with a daughter on whom he bestows a name of the most exalted Roman virtue and who is exemplary in her practice of obedience. Despite some grumbling about the "will" of a living daughter being curbed by the "will" of a dead father (MV 1.2.24-25), this daughter appears to obey voluntarily and in the absence of any visible authority that could compel her compliance. We are very far from Ser Giovanni's creature of sexual autonomy and financial rapacity.

In Ser Giovanni's story, Giannetto fails twice before succeeding on the third attempt. Shakespeare replaced the triple attempt by the same suitor with the three suitors who undergo the casket test. The casket motif is common and takes very different forms in quite different narrative contexts. The Shakespearean nonce word "insculpted" proves that Shakespeare took it from Richard Robinson's Record of Auncient Histories, which was published in 1577 and 1595. A look at this selection of 44 tales from Gesta Romanorum shows that its relationship with The Merchant of Venice extends beyond the simple verbal borrowing.

Tests of one kind or another are unusually common in Robinson's anthology, which opens with the story of Atalanta. The sixteenth story is another version of the same tale. Instead of throwing golden apples in the woman's way, the suitor chooses a garland, a girdle, and third "a pursse of silke imbrodered with precious stones, and within the pursse was a ball of three coulours, and uppon this pursse was wrought this posey. Who playeth with mee, shall never be wery of my playe."24 The sixteenth story shows an emperor who wants to leave his empire to the laziest of his sons and rewards the youngest son who professes that he would be too lazy to move his head if he lay in bed and water dropped in his eyes. In the twenty-seventh story the emperor Domician has a contest for his beautiful daughter, whom he marries off without a dowry, and he comforts his ugly daughter by giving her his empire as a dowry. The motif of the caskets appears in the long thirty-second story, which is of a type Shakespeare was very found of: the daughter of the king of Egypt travels to Rome to marry the son of the Emperor, but she is shipwrecked and swallowed by a whale. The whale is beached, a man hears her screams, frees her, and delivers her to the emperor, who then tests her by making her choose between a golden, silver, and leaden casket. She chooses the leaden casket with the inscription: "who so chooseth me, shall finde that God hath disposed."25

It is of considerable interest that the next story (no. 33) is about the mighty Emperor Calopo, whose son talks him into giving up the empire: "Deere father, ye are an olde man & may not governe your Empyre, therefore if it please you to give it mee, it shall be to your profit." The young emperor quickly "waxed so proud, that he feared neither God nor man, and dyd very much harme. But ever his father suffered it paciently, for he would not be corrected by no man."26 The story comes to a climax when the son has different excuses to deny five consecutive requests for wine from his father, who turns in disgust to the king of Jerusalem, with whose help he regains his kingdom.

The cluster of contests in Robinson's anthology and the contiguity of its casket story with a quasi-Lear story provide the context for Shakespeare's transformation of the merry widow into a daughter who is conspicuous in her (show of) obedience.27 The grammar and rhythm of the opening scenes of The True Chronicle Historie shape the distinctive features of the Portia plot: the dead father replaces the old king, and the competitive speeches of the suitors replace those of the daughters. "Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence," Bassanio comments in looking at the leaden casket (3.2.106). Freud correctly used that line as his point of departure for his essay, but he should have added that the plain speech of Cordelia was already in the playwright's mind when he wrote those lines. A belated proof of the connection occurs in the fact that Shakespeare's Cordelia speaks the language of The Merchant of Venice:

I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.

Shakespeare's Cordelia inherits another feature of Portia. Unlike the heroine of the old Leir play, she has two suitors, one of whom, Burgundy, will not have her without money, whereas the other, France, may be said to give and hazard all.

It is commonly observed that the relationship of Jessica and Shylock mirrors and partly reverses the relationship of Barabas and Abigail. The father-daughter theme, however, plays a much larger and more complex role in The Merchant of Venice than in The Jew of Malta. Although the reasons for this must ultimately be sought in Shakespeare's personal temper and experience, it seems right to cite the shadowy presence of the old Leir play as one of the causes for the fact that The Merchant of Venice, unlike any of its Italianate sources, is in certain important ways a play about "good" and "bad" daughters. But one must add at once that moral judgments are more complex than in the old Leir play. Jessica is no Goneril, and Portia is a very complex case, as is apparent from the purposeful collision of Roman virtue and barbarous crime in her introduction. The anonymous and licentious Lady of Belmont is reformed and put under the protection of the most eminent guardians of Republican virtue: "Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia." But Bassanio's ensuing words turn her into Medea, the notorious barbarian who conspired against and abandoned her father (1.1.169-72). The clash of myth and history, barbarism and civilization in this initial sketch of Portia/Medea sets up an ambivalence that is always with the Venetian Portia. Elusive, manipulative, and profoundly disingenuous, she never strays from the path of virtue or advantage. She outstrips Goneril and Regan in theatrical professions of obedience and loyalty. Consider the scene in which she surrenders herself to Bassanio when he has, perhaps with a little help from her, made the right choice. This is the situational equivalent of the daughters' speeches in the Leir play, and Portia says very beautifully what Bassanio wants to hear, but when she declares her desire to be "directed" by Bassanio "as from her lord, her governor, her king" (3.2.165), she lies, as every subsequent event in the play makes abundantly clear. Qui nescit dissimulare nescit regnare runs an Elizabethan maxim of statecraft, and we are never left in doubt that Portia intends and knows how to rule. She is no Cordelia, but like Cordelia (and Desdemona) she belongs to a set of Shakespearean daughters who are paradoxical variations on a theme bounded by obedience, rule, rebellion, and truth.

On my argument, The Merchant of Venice emerges as a play shaped as deeply as As You Like It and rather more deeply than Richard III or Hamlet by the old Leir play. It may therefore seem surprising that The Merchant of Venice appears to have virtually nothing to give to King Lear. It is possible to argue, however, that memories of the earlier play shape the curiously abbreviated opening of King Lear. In the old Leir play, Gonorill and Ragan protest their love in seventeen-line speeches, and Cordelia is disowned some 300 lines into the play or 12% of its total length.28 In King Lear, the event unfolds much more rapidly. Lear refers to Cordelia as his "sometime daughter" at line 127, not quite 4% of the Folio text. Goneril's and Regan's protestations are disposed of in somewhat perfunctory exercises of seven and eight lines each as if the expected his audience to take these speeches as read. And Shakespeare either abandons Leir's elaborate and explicit plan to manipulate Cordelia's marriage choice or sums it up in the obscure one-liner of his king: "Meantime we shall express our darker purpose" (1.1.36).

Frank Kermode has quoted and endorsed the position of various scholars who have argued that "the anonymous author manages the opening scene better than his successor."29 But since the story and the old play were well known, there was a limited need for exposition. The playwright therefore had a choice between virtuoso elaboration or getting on with it. That choice was quite possibly affected by the sense that he had done the whole business of manipulative fathers, marriage choices, and rhetorical displays in The Merchant of Venice, where the golden and silver rhetoricians of Morocco and Aragon get considerably more playing time than Gonorill and Ragan. The suitors of Portia had, as it were, out-daughtered the daughters of Leir. And it is not implausible that Shakespeare felt in other ways that he was done with The Merchant of Venice since large parts of Othello, a close compositional neighbor to King Lear, unfold as a set of contrapuntal variations on the earlier Venetian play.


The skeptical reader need not accept all details of my claims about the ways in which Shakespeare repeated, varied, or avoided the old Leir play to accept the broad conclusions of this inquiry: (1) The True Chronicle Historie was a remarkably pervasive presence in Shakespeare's career for well over a decade and exercised considerable power in shaping the formal and thematic structure of several quite different plays. (2) The story of The True Chronicle Historie from Richard III to King Lear has its roots in the strong links that the reader Shakespeare established between Lodge's Rosalynde, the Ur-Hamlet, and the old Leir play.

These conclusions give rise to some frankly speculative thoughts about the shape and direction of Shakespeare's career. In the traditional English Myth of the Two Poets Shakespeare never says "I" and Milton never says anything but "I." The young Milton suffered from a severe case of poetic careerism, and his fairly well documented first thirty years constitute a litany of anxieties about becoming a great poet. By contrast, the intentions of Shakespeare appear to be buried in total silence, and it is not uncommon to think of him as a practical playwright too busy with his next play to worry about his career and leaving it to his friends to gather posthumously the "True Originall Copies" in which he showed no apparent interest during his life-time and to construct the author of "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies."

That can hardly be the whole truth. The dense webs spun around his pet stories give us a glimpse of very stable compositional habits and choices. Can we go further and see in the pervasive presence of the Leir play in Shakespeare's memory evidence of a long-standing intention to write a play about Lear? Verdi forever deferred his dream of writing a Lear opera but wrote about Lear in different guises throughout his career. We cannot attribute quite such an anxiety to the playwright who did after all write King Lear. When did Shakespeare begin to think about writing a Lear play? Did the pathetic case of the old courtier Bryan Annesley and his two daughters Grace and Cordell "cause" Shakespeare to write Lear or did it merely trigger a long-standing interest in writing such a play?30 Given the state of the evidence, it may seem irresponisible even to raise the question. On the other hand, the examination of source materials allows us to catch glimpses of formal and thematic agendas that extend over many years with remarkable direction and purpose. Whatever opportunities and pressures led the playwright to pick his next play, the range of choices was governed by the reader's habits and by a repertoire of stories acquired early and settled in a deeply woven web of memories and associations. The writer's voyage took place in a reader's boat with a remarkably deep keel. There is no way of telling whether what appears in retrospect as a wake sufficiently steady to steer by was ever a prospectively articulated plan. But if we imagine an equivalent to Milton's Trinity document, a sheet of paper on which the young Shakespeare at some point in 1592 jotted down ideas for future plays, we might be surprised to discover how many of the plays he intended to write were plays he did write.


1 Most of the echoes discussed below have long been pointed out and are noted passim in Bullough, Geoffrey, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (Columbia U. Press, 1957-75). There is a good discussion in Kenneth Muir's edition of King Lear in the Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1964). The most recent discussion is by Peter Pauls, "The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Shakespeare's King Lear: A Reconsideration," The Upstart Crow 5 (1984): 93-107.

2The True Chronicle Historie was printed in 1605. How do we rule out the counter-claim that the old Leir play over the years incorporated various Shakespearean echoes that show up in its first printed version? I raise the question to draw attention to the hypothetical character of my premise that for the purposes of this inquiry the 1605 text of The True Chronicle Historie may be considered identical with the old Leir play that Shakespeare encountered in the early 1590s. As I trace Shakespeare's complex memories and uses of the play, the original hypothesis will, I hope, turn into an inescapable conclusion, but however unlikely it may appear that The True Chronicle Historie echoes Shakespeare, it is only prudent to acknowledge the absence of external evidence that positively establishes the priority of the text of the old Leir play in its 1605 version.

3 I have discussed Shakespeare's recurring use of Plutarch and Bandello in "Plutarch's 'Life of Brutus'" and the Play of its Repetitions in Shakespearean Drama," Renaissance Drama 22 (1991): 47-94, and in "Shakespeare's Sleeping Beauties: The Sources of Much Ado about Nothing and the Play of their Repetitions," MP 91 (1994): 288-311.

4 I understand "reading" in a very broad term and include in it the actor's familiarity with his roles. It is plausible that Shakespeare first encountered the old Leir play as an actor, and it is quite possible that he heard much of it before he read any of it.

5 Dr. Johnson ridiculed the scholar who argued that the phrase "Go on, I'll follow thee" is indebted to the Latin "I prae, sequar." Because the occasion for saying this sort of thing arises easily in separate circumstances, it is pedantry to link two such common phrases. Johnson's general point is well taken, but he may be wrong on the particular example "I prae, sequar," is a phrase that is often used in Roman comedy, and it serves as a signal that a set of characters will leave the stage. Thus when Hamlet says to the ghost "Go on, I'll follow thee" and repeats the command a few lines later (1.4.56, 63), we may indeed say that "i prae sequar" lies behind this passage as a bit of conventional stage business that is here elaborated for special purposes. The example shows that the evaluation of probabilities can be a tricky business and that deceptively simple or general phrases can hold highly context specific information that greatly increases the odds against random generation.

6 To give only one example, which to my knowledge has not been pointed out: In Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra (1578) we read about the preparations for a pageant in honor of the arrival of the emperor. The pageant will feature a presentation of the nine worthies by the merchant tailors. Hercules will be represented as fighting with various wild animals. Phallax comments that God should keep "Maister Pediculus" [the louse] out of their way (Bullough, 2.483). This seems to me to be a clear source for the pageant of the nine worthies at the end of Love's Labor's Lost, in which "Moth" will present Hercules in his infancy, and it shows that the story of Measure for Measure was on Shakespeare's mind a decade before he wrote his play about it.

7The Tempest may be considered an exception if one thinks of the accounts of the voyage of Sir Thomas Gates to Virginia and his shipwreck in the Bermudas as a critical narrative and conceptual source.

8 Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 2:195-96.

9 I quote The True Chronicle Historie from Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 7:337-402. The numbers in parentheses refer to scene and line numbers in Bullough's text.

10 Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 2:178.

11 Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 2:248.

12 Shakespeare is quoted from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

13 It is a nice epitome of this web of relationships that the good brother in As You Like It acknowledges the precedence of the first born son as part of the "courtesy of nations" (1.1.46) while the bad brother in King Lear ridicules it as "the curiosity of nations" (1.2.4).

14 None of these features—sleep, prayer, pleading, ignorance about the true villain, assassin's guilt and failure—is rare, but their combination is. There are failed assassination scenes in Shakespeare that clearly have nothing to do with the old Leir play, e.g., the attempts by Thaliard and Leonine in Pericles. It seems possible that the sleeping Leir and Perillus stand behind the sleeping Alonso and Gonzalo of The Tempest, but the case differs from Richard III or Hamlet, because there is no compelling combination of details.

15Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 3:239. Bullough attributes this choice to the playwright's desire for variety. It is more likely that Shakespeare recognized the inherently undramatic quality of the event in the historical tradition: if the victim is smothered in his sleep and has no opportunity to resist (Richard II) or plead with (Arthur in King John) the executioner, his pathetic fate is more effectively captured in the narrative perspective of an observer: the lyrical pathos of Tyrrel and Gertrude in their accounts of the unconscious deaths of the princes and Ophelia is oddly and similarly out of or beyond character (R3 4.3.1-22; Ham. 4.7.166-83).

16 Gloucester is an ominous name, in English history, a point made by Richard, who would prefer to be Duke of Clarence, "For Gloucester's dukedom is too ominous" (3H6 2.6.107). The opposition of an old victimized and young villainous Gloucester in Lear probably recalls Humphrey, the Good Duke of Gloucester, as well as Richard.

17 Given these links of Edmund and Richard, it is worth asking whether the Richard of The True Tragedy also haunts the figure of Edmund. In what looks like the conventional self-presentation of the villain, Edmund in his first speech invokes nature, rails against the language of legitimacy, and decides to plot against his brother. The schema of this speech resembles Richard's first speech in The True Tragedy, which begins as follows:

Ah yoong Prince, and why not I?
Or who shall inherit Plantagines but his sonne?
And who the King deceased, but the brother?
Shall law bridle nature, or authority hinder
                                 (Bullough 3.318)

It continues in a similarly querulous and plotting manner.

18 This adjectival use of "sometime" is quite rare in Shakespeare. Its connection with the old Leir play appears tellingly in Lear's reference to Cordelia as his "sometime daughter." Although the phrase "quondam x" appears half a dozen times in the Shakespearean corpus with "queen," "king," "day," "companion," "Quickly," and "wife" as the noun, the close contextual resemblances justify deriving "sometime sister" from "quondam queen," and it is likely enough that the phrase entered Shakespeare's vocabulary through the passage from The True Chronicle Historie.

19King Lear, The Arden edition, xxxiii.

20King Lear, The Arden edition, xxxii.

21 Sir Walter Greg, cited in the Arden King Lear, xxxii, notes an odd resemblance between the grave diggers' discussion of Ophelia's drowning and a scene in the old Leir play:

2 Wat. 'Tis no matter, ile prove by good reason that we watche the Beacon: asse for example.

1 Wat. I hope you do not call me asse by craft, neighbour.

2 Wat. No, no, but for example: Say here stands the pot of ale. That's the Beacon.

1 Wat. I, I, tis a very good Beacon.

2 Wat. Well, say here stands your nose, thats the fire.

1 Wat. Indeed I must confesse, tis somewhat red.

2 Wat. I see come marching in a dish, halfe a score pieces of salt Bacon.

1 Wat. I understand your meaning, thats as much to say, half a score ships. (27.2450-58)

First Clown. Give me leave. Here lies the water; good. Here stands the man; good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes, mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself; argal he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life. (5.1.15-20)

I argued in "Plutarch's 'Life of Brutus'" that Ophelia is an anti-Portia, whose death by water mirrors and reverses Portia's death by fire (p. 80). The fire/water translation that is part of the beacon echo adds support to this reading and demonstrates once more the systematic quirkiness of Shakespeare's memory.

22 "The Theme of the Three Caskets," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 12:290-301.

23 Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 1:465.

24 Robinson, Richard. A record of auncient histories, intituled in Latin: Gesta Romanorum … Newly perused by Richard Robinson (1595). A facsimile reproduction with an introduction by John Weld (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1973), 46.

25 Robinson, A record of auncient histories, 100.

26 Robinson, A record of auncient histories, 105.

27 Some scholars have argued that the basic plot of The Merchant of Venice was prefigured in The Jew, a lost play that according to Stephen Gosson in his School of Abuse (1578) represented "the greedinesse of worldly chusers and bloody mindes of Usurers" (Bullough 1.445-46). But since none of the casket stories configures marriage, different suitors, and a father-daughter theme, since the father-daughter theme is absent from Il Pecorone, and since Gosson's words about "the greedinesse of worldly chusers and bloody mindes of Usurers" are not a compelling reference to anything like the plot of The Merchant of Venice (although they do not exclude it), there is no reason to credit the unknown author of an unknown play with the very specific configuration we encounter in Shakespeare's play.

28 Gonorill in her speech offers:

Should you injoyne me for to tye a milstone
About my neck, and leape into the Sea,
At your commaund I willingly would doe it:
Yea, for to doe you good, I would ascend
The highest Turret in all Brittany,
And from the top leape headlong to the ground.

Shakespeare's Goneril does not make such an offer, but did the playwright's memory of it provide a hint for Gloucester's jump, the details of which come from Ariosto's story of Ariodante (Orlando Furioso 5.58ff)?

29The Riverside Shakespeare, 1250.

30 Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 7:309-11.

Source: "From Leir to Lear," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 195-217.