Historical Background

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.

Places Discussed


Heath. Large tract of uncultivated land covered with small plants and shrubs (the type of landscape also known as a “moor” in Britain), on which the play’s memorable scenes are set. Barren and desolate, far removed from civilized society, the heath represents elemental Nature, a place for fools and madmen—and tragic kings. In the pelting rain and stripped of the garments of majesty, Lear vents his grief and anger by railing against his daughters’ ingratitude, the injustice rampant in society, and the forces of Nature surrounding him.

Lear’s palace

Lear’s palace. Royal residence of King Lear in whose stateroom the play opens. The palace provides a visual contrast with the scenes on the heath, and the setting for the first scene displays Lear at his most powerful. Supported by this environment and invested with the external objects of majesty, Lear can function arbitrarily in the division of his kingdom.

Gloucester’s castle

Gloucester’s castle (GLAHS-ter). Residence of the duke of Gloucester, which is the site of two of the most painful scenes in the play—the moments when Lear is rejected by Goneril and Regan, and when Gloucester is blinded. Significantly, the setting is located halfway between the palace of absolute power and the heath of total nothingness.

Fields near Dover

Fields near Dover. Region in southeastern England, on the edge of the British kingdom, where Gloucester attempts suicide and Lear deteriorates into madness. It is the landing place for Cordelia and the forces that will restore order and justice. These fields are a place of the natural world, where men must deal with themselves as merely “poor, bare, forked animals.”

Modern Connections

Modern audiences of King Lear often observe the recurrence of images and references not only the eyes but things associated with the...

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Booth, Stephen. “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. In part 1, “On the Greatness of King Lear,” much of the discussion focuses on the repeated false endings of the play. Booth also has an important appendix on the doubling of roles in Shakespeare’s plays, especially in King Lear.

Halio, Jay L. Critical Essays on “King Lear.” New York: Twayne, 1995. Contains a selection of the best essays on King Lear, including several on the “two-text hypothesis,” the play in performance, and interpretation. The introduction surveys recent trends in criticism.

Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. Harvester New Critical Introductions. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1988. Includes a brief discussion of the stage history and critical reception, as well as a thorough discussion of the play’s dramatic idiom and characters.

Mack, Maynard. “King Lear” in Our Time. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. Surveys the play’s historical background, sources, and aspects of its staging. Also provides many perceptive critical comments on the action and its significance.

Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of King Lear. 1972. Reprint. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Rosenberg examines the significance of each scene and the “polyphony” of the characters, with extensive reference to the history of King Lear on the stage as of the earliest recorded performances. Also discusses the so-called Lear myth.

Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Adelman, Janet. ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978.

Booth, Stephen. King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy, New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1992.

Bradley, Andrew Cecil. Shakespearean Tragedy.. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1903/1964.

Danby, John F. Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1951.

Ericson, Peter. Patriarchal Structure in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1985.

Fraser, Russell A. Shakespeare's Poetics in Relation to King Lear. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Gupta, S.C. Sen Aspects of Shakespearian Tragedy. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Collins’ Clear-type Press, 1956.

James, Max H. "Our House Is Hell": Shakespeare's Troubled Families. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Kermode, Frank. "King Lear," The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974, pp.1249-1254.

Kermode, Frank, ed. Shakespeare: King Lear. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1992. An invaluable source for seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century commentary and criticism on King Lear, and for twentieth-century studies.

Kernan, Alvin B., ed. Modern Shakespearean Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1970.

Knights, L. C. Some Shakespearean Themes. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Martin, William F. The Indissoluble Knot: King Lear as Ironic Drama. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

McAlindon, T. Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Muir, Kenneth and Wells, Stanley. Aspects of King Lear. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Ribner, Irving. Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Methuen, 1960.

Schwartz, Elias. The Mortal Worm: Shakespeare's Master Theme. Port Washington NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

Sundelson, David. Shakespeare's Restoration of the Father. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Whitaker, Virgil. The Mirror Up to Nature: The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies. San Marino CA: Huntington Library, 1965.