Monday, 19 October 2015

Primary sources for King Lear

Shakespeare used many different sources in order to produce his plays. It was customary for many Renaissance dramatists to pick and choose parts from various different sources and incorporate them into their own work. There was little concept of originality and it was definitely seen as something to abide to.

In this post I will be listing the sources, as well as quotes/further info etc.

Primary Sources 

Geoffrey Monmouth - Historia Regum Britanniae 

Existed as a Latin manuscript. Although WS probably consulted it he was more likely to use other source texts (probs because this one is shit). Geoffrey was first to present King Lear's story- he may have invented the love test and division of the kingdom. Later, he incorporated this into later histories as if it was fact.


  • Leir divides the kingdom so that the daughters attract husbands 
  • "Is there any daughter that can lover her Father more than Duty requires?.... whoever pretends to it, must disguise her real Sentiments under the Veil of flattery"
  • Aganippus, King of Franks insists that he loves Cordelia and takes her without her dowry
  • "his two Daughters, made an Insurrection against him, and deprived him of his Kingdom"
  • Cordeilla orders a retinue of servants to clothe and heal Lear and later C+ A receive Lear honourably 
  • Leir returns to Britain with C + forces they've raised. 5 yrs into C reign she's betrayed by her 2 nephews (Regan + Goneril's sons) and kills herself in prison 

Raphael Holinshed- The Historie of England in The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles 

WS consulted the 1st volume published in 1577. Follows Geoffrey in all its key points


  •  But the greatest grief... was to see the unkindnesse of his daughters
  • the unnaturalness...not withstanding their faire and pleasant words... he fled the land & sailed into Gallia there to seeke some comfort of his yongest daughter Cordeilla
  • 'honorablie, and lovinglie received'
  • 'his hart was greatlie comforted'
  • Aganippus created a mightie armie ... to see him againe restored to his kingdome" 
  • His bodie buried at Leicester in a vault under the channel of th river of Sore beneath the towne 

 Anon- The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella 

Written before WS + same played performed by the Queen's and Sussex's Men's acting companies on 8th April 1594. Follows histories of Geoffrey + poems of Higgins and Spenser than WS does. In particular, the happy ending of Lear's restoration to the throne and Cordelia's succession to her father as a monarch of Britain.


Quick summary 
  • Opens with Leir mourning death of his wife- wonders how to allow daughters to accept suitors he has chosen for them
  • C only marries for love therefore creates a love test
  • G + R are warned about this test before= reharse + sabotage C's response
  • C refuses to flatter him so L divides the kingdom between R + G
  • C leaves but falls in love with disguised Gallian (French King- Oh la la!)
  • L quarrels with G over his retinue + leaves for R unaware they are plotting to murder him
  • L fights with R, so L + P run away but are pursued by a messenger to kill them
  • L + P disguise themselves as sailors and go to France where the meet C + her husband disguised as country bumpkins
  • They form an army, go to England where they confront R, G and their husbands
  • L returns to throne as king of Britain + C and husband are his heirs


This is a didactic novel= trite whereas WS adds dimension + depth while this remains a simple narrative. It's also a much more pious play: "My kingle title I thee have gaynd/ Thank heavens, not me".  But in Shakespeare's play we're not sure there is a God- see AC Bradley

What does Shakespeare add?
  1. Fool
  2. Gloucester Plot
  3. Heath scene
  4. eye gouging
  5. Edmund + the bastard motif
  6. Edgar as poor Tom
  7. deaths of Lear and Cordelia 
  8. Lear's madness
  9. Key focus on psychology/inner workings of the mind= HUMAN SUFFERING 
This is motivation for my revision... don't judge me!
Key Differences between Leir and Lear

  • Mourning Queen Lear
  • Gives him an excuse for being so trusting
  • Grieving 
  • Add psychological motives
  • Goneril and Regan now about the love test and can prepare while C can't
  • Courtier =Pernillus
  • Need to give land in order to attract men 

  • No mother therefore where is the motive? - wants to pet his ego
  • C sees through the rhetoric but in Lear it's just an aside
  • Courtier= Kent's banishment in disguise
  • Adds Lears rages = reunion is much more poignant
  • Interesting use of contrasting pairs- Edmund and Edgar
  • Goneril and Regan are already married
  • Pains to present that R + G are not horribly evil at the start 

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