Shakespeare’s work can be understood more clearly if we follow its development as a reflection of the rapidly-changing world of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in which he lived. After the colorful reign of Henry VIII, which ushered in the Protestant Reformation, England was never the same. John Calvin and Michelangelo both died the year Shakespeare was born, placing his life and work at the peak of the Reformation and the Renaissance in Europe. When Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, the time was right to bring in “the golden age” of English history. The arts flourished during the Elizabethan era. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporary dramatists were such notables as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.
King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth to the throne after her death in 1603 uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The monarch’s new title was King James I. Fortunately for Shakespeare, the new king was a patron of the arts and agreed to sponsor the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatrical group. According to the Stationers’ Register recorded on November 26, 1607, King Lear was performed for King James I at Whitehall on St. Stephen’s night as a Christmas celebration on December 26, 1606.
The legend of King Lear, well-known in Shakespeare’s day, was about a mythical British king dating back to the obscurity of ancient times. It was first recorded in 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Britonum. In 1574 it appeared in A Mirror for Magistrates and later in Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1577. The subplot, which concerned Gloucester and his sons, was taken from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. An older version of the play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir first appeared on the stage in 1590. Comments on public response to the play in Shakespeare’s day would necessarily be based on conjecture but in 1681, an adaptation of the original play was published by Nahum Tate, a dramatist of the Restoration period. Tate’s sentimental adaptation gives the play a happy ending in which Lear and Gloucester are united with their children. Virtue is rewarded and justice reigns in Tate’s version. It was not until 1838 that Macready reinstated Shakespeare’s original version on the stage.