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justice urged in its defence. "King Lear is an admirable tragedy”, he says, “as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poetical justice, in my humble opinion it has lost half its beauty." Johnson was of the opposite opinion, and represents the prevailing taste of the time when he states with evident satisfaction that "Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity". The new school of Shakespearian critics at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and particularly Lamb and Hazlitt, induced Kean to abandon the inartistic conclusion which had been in vogue for over a hundred and forty years. In 1820 he had followed Tate's version, but he had declared that "the London audience have no notion what I can do until they see me over the dead body of Cordelia", and in 1823, in obedience to his dramatic instincts and "the suggestion of men of literary eminence from the time of Addison", he gave the last act as originally written by Shakespeare. But even Kean did not restore the true version in the rest of the play, for Tate's love scenes were retained and the Fool was still excluded. Not till Macready's performance of the play in 1838 was the Fool again permitted to appear. But even in making this restoration Macready had considerable misgivings. "My opinion of the introduction of the Fool", he wrote in his diary, "is that, like many such terrible contrasts in poetry and painting, in acting-representation it will fail in effect; it will either weary, or annoy, or distract the spectator. I have no hope of it, and think that at the last we shall be obliged to dispense with it.” Though he doubted the propriety of this part, he has the credit of restoring to the stage the true King Lear.


The date of King Lear is not known definitely; but it is certain that the play was written between 1603 and 1606. 1 Spectator, No. 40.

The later limit is fixed by external evidence. The first Quarto was entered in the Stationers' Registers under the date 26th November, 1607, as "A Booke called Master William Shakespeare his 'historye of Kinge Lear' as yt was played before the kinges maiestie at Whitehall vppon Sainct Stephens night at Christmas Last". The performance at Court must therefore have taken place on St. Stephen's night (26th December), 1606. This is the only piece of external evidence that bears on the date of the play. But there is internal evidence to show that King Lear was not written before 1603. As the notes point out, there are several passages which prove Shakespeare's knowledge of Harsnet's Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures. The names of the devils mentioned by Edgar when feigning madness are undoubtedly borrowed from this book,1 while certain other remarks made by him in his rôle of Tom of Bedlam point to a like indebtedness." Harsnet's book was entered in the Stationers' Registers on 16th March, 1603, and appeared later in the same year. Unfortunately this is the only evidence that is at all definite. It is highly probable that the play was written in 1606, though the arguments urged in support of a date nearer the end than the beginning of the period from 1603 to Christmas, 1606, are not conclusive. Malone notes that in iii. 4. 172 Edgar says "I smell the blood of a British man", and he argues therefrom that this must have been written after James's proclamation as King of Great Britain on 24th October, 1604. But it has been pointed out that as early as 1603, before even James's arrival in London, the poet Daniel addressed to him a Panegyrike Congratulatory, which has the lines:

External evidence:
Later limit, 1606.

Internal evidence:
Earlier limit, 1603.

Conjectures from internal evidence.

"Shake hands with union, O thou mightie state,
Now thou art all Great Britain, and no more,
No Scot, no English now, nor no debate".

1 See iii. 4. 106; iii. 6. 6, 29; and iv. 1. 60. 2 See ii. 4. 53, 54; iii. 4. 51; and iv. 1. 61.

His argument has therefore little value. More weight attaches to the plea put forward by Mr. Aldis Wright, for, though it does not force acceptance, it strengthens the supposition of a late date. In the second scene of the first act there are references to "these late eclipses in the sun and moon". In October, 1605, there was a great eclipse of the sun following on an eclipse of the moon in the previous month, and Mr. Wright argues that "it can scarcely be doubted that Shakespeare had in his mind the great eclipse, and that Lear was written while the recollection of it was still fresh, and while the ephemeral literature of the day abounded with pamphlets foreboding the consequences that were to follow". Similarly he hazards the further plausible suggestion that the reference in the same scene to "machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders may have been prompted by the Gunpowder Plot of 5th November, 1605. All this, however, is mere supposition. There were eclipses of the sun and moon in 1598 and again in 1601,2 and it is not impossible that Shakespeare's words were suggested by a recollection of them. None the less, the trend of the arguments, though inconclusive

Probably 1606. in themselves, is to support the date 1606; and as King Lear was acted before James at Christmas, 1606, and as the plays represented at Court were usually new plays, that date may be accepted.3

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The story of King Lear was familiar in various forms to the Elizabethans. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century it had been told again and again in chronicles and

1 Preface to the Clarendon Press edition, p. xvi.

2 See King Lear, ed. W. J. Craig (1901), p. xxiii.

For a statement of the

8 The metrical evidence affords little or no assistance. metrical characteristics, see Fleay's Shakespeare Manual, p. 136, and Prof. Ingram's paper on 'Light and Weak Endings' in the Transactions of the New Shakspere Society, 1874, pt. ii.

romances, both French and English. It is first found in the Historia Britonum of Geoffrey of Monmouth, written about 1135; but it is probably of Celtic origin, for this book professes to be founded on a Welsh chronicle. It appears in French in Wace's Brut (c. 1155), which was derived from Geoffrey's Latin history, and which in turn was the source of Layamon's Brut (1205), where the story is first given in English. Thereafter it is told in the metrical chronicles of Robert of Gloucester (c. 1300), Robert Manning (c. 1338), and John Harding (c. 1450), and in the more detailed prose chronicles of Robert Fabyan (1516), John Rastell (The Pastime of the People, 1530), Richard Grafton (1568), and Raphael Holinshed (1577), while a similar story is given in Camden's Remains (1605). Two versions of it occur in translations of the Gesta Romanorum, the great mediæval storehouse of legendary tales. And it found a poetical setting in Elizabethan literature in John Higgins's contribution to the Mirror for Magistrates (1574), in Warner's Albion's England (1586, ch. 14), and in Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590). Including the early play entitled the True Chronicle History of King Leir, which appeared in 1605,1 there are extant at least eight Elizabethan versions of earlier date than the drama by which it has been immortalized.

The early stories of King Lear.

Of the contemporary versions Shakespeare may have known those in Holinshed's Chronicle, the Mirror for Magistrates, and the Faerie Queene, as well as the early play.

1 There is entered in the Registers of the Stationers' Company, under the date 14th May, 1594, The moste famous Chronicle historye of Leire kinge of England and his Three Daughters. No copy of this is known, but it is probably the same as The Tragecall historie of kinge Leir and his Three Daughters, which was entered on 8th May, 1605, and appeared in the same year with the following title, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. As it hath bene diuers and sundry times lately acted. This is reprinted in Nichols's Six Old Plays on which Shakespeare founded, &c. (1779), and in W. C. Hazlitt's Shakespeare's Library (1875), pt. ii., vol. ii. An abstract is given in Furness's 'Variorum Shakespeare'. See the Appendix.


Holinshed's Chronicle was the great source of Shakespeare's histories. Certain passages in some of them, e.g. Henry V and Henry VIII, are little more than versified renderings of Holinshed's prose. But the fact that it provided so much material for Shakespeare's other plays has tended to overstatement of its influence on King Lear. In Holinshed's account Leir loved Cordeilla far above her two elder sisters, and intended her to succeed to his kingdom; but, being displeased with her answer at the love-test, he determined that his land should be divided after his death between Gonorilla and Regan (who so far were unmarried), and that a half thereof should be immediately assigned them, while to Cordeilla he reserved nothing. But in time the two dukes whom the two eldest daughters had married rose against Leir and deprived him of the government, assigning him a portion on which to live. The daughters, however, seemed to think that whatever the father had was too much, and gradually curtailed his retinue. Leir was constrained to flee the country and seek comfort of Cordeilla, who had married a prince of Gallia, and there he was honoured as if he had been king of the whole country himself. Cordeilla and her husband then raise a mighty army, cross over to Britain with Leir, and defeat the forces of Gonorilla and Regan. Leir is restored and rules for two years, and is succeeded by Cordeilla. It will be seen that Holinshed's story, meagre as it is, differs in many points from Shakespeare's. It was certainly not used as the basis of King Lear. Indeed there is absolutely nothing to prove that Shakespeare consulted it, though the probability is, considering his use of other parts of the Chronicle, that he had read it too.

The story in the Mirror for Magistrates has more points of similarity. According to it, Leire intended “to guerdon most where favour most he found” (cf. i. 1. 45, 46); and Cordell in her reply refers to the chance of bearing another more good-will, meaning a future husband (cf. i. 1. 96, 97). Leire does

The Mirror

for Magistrates.

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