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Shakespeare's King Lear, written between 1603 and 1606, appears in the First and Second Quarto Editions, as well as in the First Folio of 1623. It was entered in The Stationers' Register, November 26, 1607, and in 1608 appeared in the First Quarto Edition. The Second Quarto Edition, issued the same year or somewhat later, contains no marked variations; but the Folio of 1623, which from its general character is regarded the most authoritative, differs widely from the Quartos, both in omissions and additions as well as in minor points of expression.
According to Furness, the omissions amount to about two hundred and twenty lines and the additions to fifty lines. It may be supposed that the Quartos, being of earlier date and from copy gained surreptitously from the theatre, present the play in general more nearly as it was first acted; but that the Folio gives more accurately the form to which it was reduced through revision by Shakespeare or by others connected with the theatre.
The text in this Edition follows the Folio for the most part, presenting in the Appendix those lines which appear in the Quartos only.
Two stories blend in Shakespeare's King Lear, the secondary one, concerning Gloucester, having been suggested by the Paphlagonian unkind king in Sidney's Arcadia. The main plot is as old as English literature, and may be found in many ancient writers. Holinshed, to whom Shakespeare was indebted for many of his stories, gives it; but it is more probable that a comedy of King Lear, produced in 1593 or 1594, provided the source from which Shakespeare directly drew. 'But,' asks Furness, 'how much did he draw? 'Granting that he drew from Holinshed, or from the old comedy, or 'whence you please, where did he find Lear's madness, or the pudder 'of the elements, or the inspired babblings of the Fool? Of what'soever makes his tragedies sublime and heaven-high above all other 'human composition,-of that we find never a trace. And this minds 'me to say that of all departments of Shakesperean study none seems 'to me more profitless than this search for the sources whence
'Shakespeare gathered his dramas; the distance is always immeas'urable between the hint and the fulfilment; what to our purblind 'eyes is a bare, naked rock becomes, when gilded by Shakespeare's 'heavenly alchemy, encrusted thick all over with jewels. When, 'after reading one of his tragedies, we turn to what we are pleased 'to call the "original of his plot," I am reminded of those glittering 'gems, of which Heine speaks, that we see at night in lovely gardens, 'and think must have been left there by kings' children at play, but 'when we look for these jewels by day we see only wretched little 'worms which crawl painfully away, and which the foot forbears to 'crush only out of strange pity.'
King Lear is rightly called a tragedy; and, by some, the greatest of them all; but the nature of the play is not without its question. As it stands, it is such a terrible revelation of human suffering that it cannot, and according to Charles Lamb should not, be acted. It is, however, coloured by a strain of the most delightful comedy; and Prof. Barrett Wendell, of Harvard, holds that the original Lear of Shakespeare's day was well received only as its characters, including Lear himself, were taken to be grotesque. In this connection it is of interest to recall that in 1681 Nahum Tate, Poet Laureate from 1692 to 1715, rewrote the play as a comedy to suit the popular taste of the time. His version held the stage until 1823, when Edmund Kean restored the tragic ending. It is only since the time of Macready, 1838, that Shakespeare's King Lear has been presented practically as he left it.
It is a play of great compactness, of swift movement, of profound thought, of universal emotional appeal, presenting the essential tragedy of anarchy through loss of self-control and its inevitable doom, lightened only by filial devotion which sets into greater vividness the filial impiety which is the occasion but not the cause of downfall both in Gloucester and in Lear. It is a play peculiarly lacking in definiteness of time and place. Lear was an ancient pre-Christian king, and his realm was ancient Britain; but many elements of a later time enter into the story; and this very vagueness of time and place fitly deepens the impression that we are beholding in very truth a play of universal human passion and of universal human interest.
SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY
Lear, King of Ancient Britain, a man of emotional disposition, untrained to self-control, determines in his old age to divide his kingdom among his three daughters with whom he plans to live in turn, with all the personal state of a king. Angered by the untactful honesty of his youngest daughter, he disowns her and divides her portion between her elder sisters, while she is taken to wife by the king of France.
In his foolish relinquishment of power and in his great injustice, Lear is opposed by a loyal nobleman whom he therefore banishes, but who continues to serve him to the end in the guise of a servant.
Soon the king's imperious temper comes into conflict with the selfish self-will of his daughters so that he is driven from their homes and becomes insane in the violence of a storm so terrible that his faithful Fool, who will not leave him in his misfortune, dies from exposure and grief when, because of the king's madness, he can no longer serve him.
In the meantime Gloucester, a man lacking in finer feelings but loyal to the king, has been deceived by an illegitimate younger son as to the character of his elder son who in consequence has to flee for his life and adopt the disguise of a crazy beggar.
The insane king and the crazy beggar meet in the storm from which the king is at last rescued by Gloucester and sent toward Dover under an escort of friends to his youngest daughter who has returned from France with an army in her father's cause. Because of his kindness to the king and his knowledge of the landing of the French troops, Gloucester is cruelly blinded by Cornwall, Lear's son-in-law, who plots for the undivided throne but is slain by a servant trying to defend Gloucester.
Driven from his home, Gloucester is led by his elder son, in the guise of a beggar, and saved from self-destruction to die at last of joy and grief when he learns the full extent of his own error and of his son's nobility.
The well-meant effort of the youngest daughter to aid her
father by the introduction of a foreign army, forces the king's remaining son-in-law, though in sympathy with her purpose, to oppose her for reasons of national patriotism. The British troops are victorious; and the king and his daughter, who are with the French army, are taken prisoners.
By the treachery of Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, who is the villain of the play, this daughter is murdered while in prison; and the king, whose sanity has been in part restored through love and care, dies of a broken heart. The intrigue of the elder daughters, not only against their father and husbands but also against each other in their rivalry for Edmund, leads to the death of one by poison, of the other by suicide. Edmund falls in avenging conflict; and the rule of the kingdom devolves upon the king's loyal son-in-law and Gloucester's faithful son.