King Lear From Leir to Lear
by William Shakespeare

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From Leir to Lear

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9,324 words.)