Lear, King of Britain, divides his land between his two elder daughters, Regan and Goneril, but disinherits his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who refuses to flatter him. Cordelia leaves with her new husband, the King of France. Kent, one of Lear's counselors, is also banished from Britain for trying to convince Lear to act with reason toward Cordelia, At the same time, Gloucester, Lear's trusted counselor, has been deceived by his bastard son, Edmund, who has plotted to turn Gloucester against his legitimate son, Edgar. Edgar flees for his life, disguising himself as a madman named "Old Tom." Once in power, Regan and Goneril work to strip Lear of control. They treat their father with such coldhearted meanness that Lear refuses to remain with them. Having nowhere to go, Lear and his Fool are caught outdoors in a tumultuous storm where they meet the disguised Edgar and Kent, who is also disguised as a peasant servant. Spurred on by Edmund's plot to banish Gloucester, Regan and her husband, Cornwall, blind Gloucester and send him out to "smell his way to Dover." In his wanderings, Gloucester meets Lear, recognizes his voice and tells him of the wrongdoing of Regan and Goneril. Lear and Cordelia reunite and, together with Kent's forces, battle the combined armies of Edmund, Regan and Goneril.
Despite the challenge by literary critics that King Lear is too huge for the stage, the tragedy has been produced often, especially after the second World War. The most notable interpreters of the character of Lear have included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Donald Wolfit, Michael Redgrave, Charles Laughton, and Paul Scofield in England, and Orson Welles, and James Earl Jones in the United States.
Shakespeare completed writing The Tragedy of King Lear in 1605-1606, a year or two after writing The Tragedy of Othello. Shakespeare appears to have taken his story from a variety of sources. The basic Lear/Cordelia story is a well-known folk tale in which a daughter tells her father she loves him as much as salt, and dissipates his anger by demonstrating that this means he is essential to her. The story first appeared in the twelfth-century History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Thereafter, the same story was re-told by John Higgins in A Mirror for Magistrates (1574), by Warner in Albion's England (1586), by Holinshed (1577), and by Spencer in The Faerie Queen (1590). The most important source was an old chronicle play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, which had been published in 1605. No one knows for certain who wrote Leir. While there is great debate on the extent to which Shakespeare echoes the thought and expression of Leir, what remains without doubt is Shakespeare's very different ending of the play. In Leir the King is reinstated to the throne and Cordelia lives. Shakespeare's Lear is the only version of the story in which Cordelia is murdered and Lear dies. This ending was so unpopular that from 1681 to 1838 the play was performed using an adaptation that included love scenes between Cordelia and Edgar as well as the Leir happy ending. Some adaptations cut the Fool entirely. The subplot of Gloucester and his sons has no historical connection with the Lear story, and is borrowed from the story of the Paphlagonian King in Sidney's Arcadia (1590) who is betrayed by one son and saved by another.
TIMELESS THEMES In Lear the family mirrors the ordered hierarchy of a public society. The analogy between the king and his subjects and the father and his children is clear. As a king, Lear struggles with relinquishing control of his kingdom to his heirs. As a father, Lear resists giving up his role as parent who commands and dictates the lives of his children. At the beginning of Lear we see the inherently destructive control- motivated elements of Lear's choices as both the king and father. Lear hastily divides his kingdom between his daughters rather than simply allowing the laws of inheritance to prevail. The division of the kingdom depends on the daughters professing absolute love for their father. From this moment in Lear we see Lear's error in judgment. Guided by control rather than reason, the once fine king contributes to the downfall of his family and his kingdom. Lear allows himself to believe the superficial flattery of Regan and Goneril simply because they have played his game. Cordelia's honesty and true love for Lear is overlooked. Recurring themes emerge in the play: human beings as wild beasts, madness and reason, and the idea that "clothes do not make the man." The 133 separate references to sixty-four different animals in King Lear is designed partly to show man's place in the Chain of Being, and to illustrate the sub- human aspects of human nature. The Chain of Being represented an Elizabethan belief in the order of the universe. The chain consisted of six links: God, Angels, Man, Sensitive (animals), Vegitive (plants), and Inanimate (rocks). When one part of the chain was disturbed, order turned into chaos. When Lear divides his kingdom, he goes against the natural order, causing chaos which presents itself in the form of the hateful children Regan, Goneril and Edmund. Each acts with unmitigated cruelty toward their parents, becoming more and more like beasts. The double paradox of reason in madness, and madness in reason, underscores the entire play. When Lear appears sane, he cannot distinguish between Cordelia and her wicked sisters. He must acquire wisdom by going mad. It is only through being stripped of the trappings of royalty, when Lear appears to be nothing more than a "madman" in the raw elements of nature, that he learns about humanity. Shakespeare uses clothing to represent appearance in exploring the theme of appearance versus reality: how one presents him/herself to the world compared to what he/she truly is. This is illustrated in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production by the stripping away of Lear's symbols of power. At the beginning of the play we see Lear in lavish royal clothing of rich fabric adorned with fur. This clothing represents power, wealth and position. Lear's world is one of reason, order and honor. His appearance and speech display the secure confidence of royalty. He is impervious to emotion and spiritually blind. Soon Lear's secure world begins to crumble. His royal garments are stripped away and replaced by simple wrappings of earth-toned burlap. As Lear's royal clothing falls away, he becomes more vulnerable and self-aware. Through enduring nakedness in the harsh elements of nature, unprotected by his kingly garb and public status, Lear is exposed to his true, private, "animal" self. Lear is an almost naked animal in a stark world that can offer him no protection from the elements of nature, or from confronting his true self. The "madman" Lear emerges. Like the Fool, Lear's "mad" words offer an honest, clear, heartfelt insight and respect for humanity. Similarly, Gloucester is spiritually blind before he loses his eyes, unable to tell the difference between a good son and a bad son. When Gloucester can see, he is all too willing to accept Edmund's false proof of Edgar's plot to overthrow him. Once blinded, Gloucester undergoes a transformation which parallels Lear's. Forced to dig into his soul, Gloucester almost immediately "sees" his mistake in relying on Edmund. Through his "madness", he joins Lear in a clearer understanding of the nature of good and evil in his family.
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