King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Finally, he dies of a broken heart, but a heart broken by joy , by his belief that Cordelia lives: ‘Look her lips,/Look there, look there!’ And just at the moment that he dies, the onlooker may presume, Lear wakes in heaven in Cordelia’s presence, and might say to her just as he woke from the torment of his madness: ‘Thou art a soul in bliss…’ (IV.vii.45).


As with his other masterpiece, Hamlet , Shakespeare was reviving and rewriting an older play when he wrote King Lear . The original King Leir , as it is spelled, had been popular about twenty years earlier. Unlike the ur- Hamlet , King Leir survives, and so it is possible to appreciate the different approach Shakespeare took to the traditional story.

In the old play, Leir requires his three daughters to marry suitors of his choosing to inherit his divided kingdom (though the question is also posed as to which of them loves him the most). Cordelia (called ‘Cordella’) refuses her proposed husband, as well as declining to offer flattery to her father.

Shakespeare also turns the story into a tragedy. In the original (as in the revised versions of Shakespeare’s play that were performed in the eighteenth century), Leir and Cordella survive and live happily ever after. The subplot of Gloucester and his sons was also added by Shakespeare. He took the story from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia , the most popular prose romance of the early Elizabethan period.



This scene is a typical Shakespearian exposition, in which a short ‘lead in’ involving secondary characters is followed by a major court scene. The ‘lead in’ also serves to introduce two key characters of the subplot, Gloucester and Edmund. The motif of Lear asking his daughters which of them loves him the most seems to be from the world of fairy-tale (indeed, a similar story is actually used in the tale of Caporushes ). Placed within the court setting, and the realistic presentation of the rest of the scene, this creates the strong impression of a man completely divorced from any understanding of reality, particularly of the nature of love. His misunderstanding of both Cordelia and Kent’s motives in denying him the slavish obedience he craves also suggests that his judgement is deeply flawed. That there will be tragic consequences is further implied by the conspiratorial conversation of Goneril and Regan that ends the scene.

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William Shakespeare
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