On St. Stephen’s Night, 26 December 1606, Shakespeare’s company performed King Lear before James I and his court at Whitehall. It is unlikely that this was the play’s first performance; in fact, there is reason to believe that it was staged publicly in late 1604 or early 1605. Part of this belief comes from the supposition that Shakespeare may have been referring to eclipses that occurred in September and October of 1605 when he alluded in the play to “these late eclipses of the sun and moon.
The core of the Lear story is an old tale which has its analogues throughout the folk literature of Western Europe. Lear was a mythical British king who reigned in the dim and undated past. Whether he actually existed nobody knows, but he was sufficiently real in folklore to arouse the interest of British writers over a long period of time. The Lear story first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings about 1135; later a version appeared in a 1574 publication; next the plot appeared in Holinshed’s Chronicles (from which version Shakespeare’s story is taken); and finally Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene may have furnished Shakespeare with some elements of his plot.
Two versions of Shakespeare’s text were circulated during the 1600s, and George Lyman Kittredge of Harvard University says regarding which text is correct: “Probably we shall never know the entire truth. . . . An editor must exercise a high degree of independent judgement.”
To compound the problem, during the seventeenth century, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was made by Nahum Tate, a popular Restoration dramatist, and the Tate adaptation contained elements that persisted for the following 150 years. Tate gave King Lear a happy ending in which virtue was rewarded and all was made right. Tate also contrived a love affair between Edgar and Cordelia, and his “improvements” met with favor for many years. Finally in 1838 William Charles Macready restored Shakespeare’s original text to the acting stage.
King Lear is a story of poison, insanity, and murder, of the sins that are committed through lust of possession, and of the cruelties that the young are willing to inflict upon the old. Some of its scenes are so cruel, so pitiful, that we would like to call out to Shakespeare for mercy. The Bard recognized this when he called the play “the must piteous tale that ever ear received.” Because many prefer to escape such terrors, and choose not to witness life being scraped so near the living bone, King Lear is not Shakespeare’s most popular play, merely one of his greatest.
King Lear is not a story of despair, for there is no weakness in it. Nor is it merely the tale of a king in ancient Britain, but instead it is a story that deals with the eternal theme of the relations of parents and children. The play’s subplot relates the sufferings of old Gloucester at the hands of his vengeful and grasping bastard son Edmund. Shakespeare wove the elements of the subplot into the main action in such a way as to heighten the emphasis rather than distract from his central theme.
To some, Lear’s sufferings mirror only the meaningless torture of mankind in a world in which human goodness is incapable of expressing itself in action, and in which man is never more than the suffering pawn of brute forces beyond his comprehension. Still other critics have regarded the suffering of Lear and Gloucester not as meaningless and futile, but as a purgative process through which each acquires a knowledge of himself and of his world which he never had before, and thus experiences a regeneration of spirit at the price of pain.
Good and evil are pitted against one another clearly and surely. The good suffer and die, but evil, although it destroys the good. works itself out, leaving Albany and Edgar alive to begin new life on the ruins of the old.