Sources found that shape the plots and characters of Shakespeare's King Lear.
|“Whatsoever makes his tragedies sublime and heavenly -high above all
other human compositions--of we can never find a trace.”--anon.
It might be a noble thought to surmise that William Shakespeare was so gifted, he needed only to sit and contemplate a worthy idea or two and suddenly the makings of a play strike him like a thunder-clap. However, Shakespeare’s talent for constructing intertwining plots and sub-plots smoothly and efficiently could not have possibly been complete in his “gems” (his dramatic writings) without first turning to previous sources which enhance and add meaning to each of his plays.
The tragedy of King Lear, the subject of this particular analysis, is an excellent example to cite for Shakespeare’s usage of a wide wealth of sources--or, at least, the speculation of different sources used behind the construction of the play. He created King Lear from the most heterogeneous materials. As well his custom, he amp-lified and complicated his original fable, using incidents, ideas, phrases, and words from a variety of books. Combining a chron-icle play, a prose chronicle, two poems, and a pastoral romance without any sense of incongruity was, indeed, not a simple task for him. Lear, too, is interfused with ideas and phrases from his earlier work, from Montaigne and Samuel Harsnett.
There are two separate, tragic stories utilized in the play. That of Gloucester, making up the sub-plot, was undoubtedly
taken from Sidney’s Arcadia which contains the story of the Phalogonian unkind king. The source of the main plot is not as
easily derived. Note here that the particular critics of the King Lear sources is perhaps the most interesting, thought-provoking point in case.
To simply list the number of suggested sources of the main story, gives one a strong idea of how many differing opinions
could have been formulated. The following are those sources: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Britonum, Layamon by Brut,
a writing by Robert of Gloucester, Fabyan’s Chronicle,Holinshed’s Chronicle, Camden’s Remaines, Holinshed’s
Mirour For Magistrates, Leghs Acceden’s of Armoury, Albion’s England by Warner, one writing entitled Gesta
Romanorum, Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures, Montaigne’s writings, Spenser’s Fairie Queene,
a true story by Sir Brian Annesley, and lastly, a favoured major source--the old chronicle play, King Leir.
On the whole, as mentioned, it seems likely that the idea of re-dramatizing the Lear story came from Shakespeare’s ac-
quaintance with the old play, though he probably recognized from the first that the plot would have to be modified. Shake-
speare relied mainly on the play for the most important scene of the division of the kingdom, but condensed its first eight scenes into the second part of his own first scene. Kenneth Muir summarized the part of the old chronicle play which Shakespeare utilized in this way:
Leir plans a sudden strategem to trick Cordella
into marriage; the plot is betrayed to Gonorill
and Ragan, who promise to marry anyone
their father chooses; Leir decides to divide the
kingdom between the wicked daughters, but
not to banish Cordella; the Gallian king visits
Brittayne in disguise and woos Cordella; and
in the meanwhile Cornwall and Cambria draw
lots for their shares of the Kingdom and Perillus
makes an unsuccessful attempt to prevent
Cordella from losing her share, but he is not
banished, and he decides not to desert Leir . . .
Shakespeare borrowed comparatively little
then from the remainder of King Leir.
Another, less recent critic by the name of Campbell in his Remarks On Lear says of King Lear: “The older tragedy of
King Leir is simple and touching. There is one satire scene on it, the meeting of Cordella with her father in a lonely
forest, which, with Shakespeare’s Lear in my memory and heart, I could scarcely read with dry eyes . . . “ This, then might constitute the real difference between the two versions, for Campbell goes on to write, “The two Lears have nothing in common but their age weakness, their royal rank, their misfortunes . . . “
It would seem that the old chronicle play was more of a pleasing tragedy than Shakespeare’s Lear. Leir and Cordella forgive
each other and there is a scene of reconciliation in which they kneel to each other, in the former play. The author ends
the play with the restoration of Leir to the throne and omits the tragic sequel. Years later, after the death of the king,
Cordella is deposed by her nephews and cast in prison where the takes her own life. The difficulty which Shakespeare
had to come to grips with, in his version, was this: Cordella’s death takes place so long after the main events of the story,
that to dramatize it meant a sacrifice of dramatic unity and the introduction of new characters. He had to avoid the seven
years that elapsed in the Chronicle between the restoration of Lear and the death of Cordella, making the death of Cordella
a logical result of Lear’s original error and of her refusal to flatter. He, also, had to have Lear pay for his sin by death,
which was hastened by the killing of the daughter of the wronged. Cordella could not commit suicide, as in the Chronicle’s
version, so Shakespeare had to bring about her murder. He solved the problems by bringing forward the death of Cordella so
that she dies before her father and the man who orders her death does so because he hopes for the throne. Thus, Cordella must be defeated in battle, not seven years later, not by her nephews but immediately, by the armies of Goneril and Regan. Shakespeare even makes use of the sources “official” story, spread by Ed- mund as a cover to the murder. The ante-Shakespeare Leir, the patient, simple old man who bears his sorrows very meekly is eventually even restored to the throne of Britain by Cordella and her husband, the King of France.
It is apparent that Shakespeare took the ducal titles of Cornwall and Albany and a hint of Goneril’s first speech (“she louved him more than toong could expresse.”), from Holinshed’s Chronicles; and from his Mirour For Magistrates,about then minor details, including the forms Albany and King of France and the usage of similar lines describing Cordelia’s life in prison.
The evidence that Shakespeare consulted Camden’s Remaines, Legh’s Accedens of Armoury, Laymon’s Brut, and the Historia Britonus by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is inconclusive. If he used any of them at all, they would be minor sources.
Most interesting, are the passages and suggestion of Shakespeare’s tragedies in Spenser’s Fairie Queene, which also contains charact- eristics of certain main persons in the play. There is less doubt that Shakespeare derived the form of Cordelia’s name, and the manner of her death by Spenser, than the more questionable assumptions that one source-study makes about the similarity of Spenser’s Book Of Holinessand the play; and, secondarily, the entire characteriz-
ations of Edmund the bastard, Goneril, the Fool, Cordelia, and Lear, himself. One source, Potts, contends that the most interesting similarity between the Book of Holiness in Fairie Queene and King Lear, is the following: “The Redcrosse Knight departs from the fist House of pride; escapes from the second, Cave of Despair, and climbs the utmost reachs of the third, House of Holiness, in the same way, there is a supposed allegorical design between the ordeal of Lear and Gloucester.”
Lear, himself, is a supposed illustration of Spensarian Wrath. (Note the lines, “Revenging wrath/upon a lion.” and “the swelling splene and Frenzy raging rife. The shaking Palsey and Saint Frances fire; such one was wrath.”) On the heath under the “wrathful skies”, Lear is described as if Shakespeare has remembered the vivid picture of the “ruffian raiment . . . all to rage went.” of Spenser’s wrath is his furious fit. “Trough unadvized rashness woven wood.”) Lear, indeed, is an example of Wrath in old age.
Sansloi, son of old Aveugle, was supposedly the character from which Shakespeare derived Edmund, the bastard; Goneril, from Duessa; Cordelia, from Una; while Redcrosse Knight’s Dwarf prefigured fool. At the point when Duessa deserts the Redcrosse Knight and Sansloi; and, at the end of the Book Of Holiness, sends a desperate letter by Archimago to thwart the alliance of the Redcrosse Knight and Una, is a possible end for Lear. The final encounter between the power of good, championed by Albany and Edgar, and the power of evil, championed by Goneril and Edmund, has certain echoes of the battle between the Redcrosse Knight and the Sansloi is the lists of Luicifera at the House of Pride. In the later
episode, the throwing of guantlets and the “shrilling trompett” may have helped to furnish the last scene of King Lear, with the “pledge” and “exchange” and “triply sounding trumpet”. In the image of her prototype, Una, Lear’s Cordelia shakes “theholy water from her heavenly eyes” and serves the misweening mad old king as Una and Mercie serve the Redcrosse Knight. Potts, too, suggests that Shakespeare turned hypothetically to Spenser’s Cave of Despaire for the woefully story of the disaster in the Life of Gloucester. With Spenserian allegory in mind, then, the text of the tragedy--its structural metaphors, profound ethical system, ironic presentation of human destiny--has a possible origin for tragic action, in Spenser alone.
Montaigne is another valuable source for Shakespeare, in consider-ation of King Lear. The utterly wicked Edmund is made to echo Montaigne’s “skeptical” passage on the subject of stellar influences, spoken with a moral purpose. The whole drift of the play shows that Shakespeare shares the disbelief in stellar control, though he puts the expression of the disbelief in the mouth of the villain. Ironically, he makes the honest Kent, on the other hand, declare that “It is in the stars. . . that govern our condition.” The passage in Lear(Act III, scene vi} about the wailing new-born infant, traced to Lucretius, belongs to the order of universal reflection; but if it is to be ascribed here to Lucretius, one must again cite Montaigne
who quotes the original at length, besides a similar thought from Mexican folk-lore.
It would be an illusion to suppose that Shakespeare employs the loose episodic structure of the old play, if one agrees that it is probably his main source. The plot and sub-plot are not merely parallel, they are linked. The use of the main-plot to lend veri- similitude to the blinding is the punishment for his alleged treachery; and the sub-plot assists in the working out of the main plot by the disposing of one of the villains, and thus intensifying the jealousy between Regan and Goneril.This viable sub-plot, the story of Gloucester and his sons, is borrowed from an episode of Sidney’s Arcadia. The close linking of the two plots throughout the play enhances the meaningfulness of Shakespeare’s complex field of vision.
The invention of the storm, the invention of Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom, and the creation of a part for Robert Armin, the subtle fool, enabled Shakespeare to have the madness of the elements as a kind of projection of the mad King, the mad Fool, and the beggar counterfeit- ing madness. It might be argued that a workable source for such ingredients of madness, was Dr. Samauel Harsnett, Chaplain to the Bishop of London, in his Declaration Of Edgregious Popishe Impostures. The greatest part of Edgar’s dissembled lunacy, the names of his devils, and the descriptive circumstances he alludes to, are taken from this in his book in which he continually returned to his com-parison of the tricks of the exorcists to a stage performance. He, apparently, had a detailed and unclerical knowledge of the theatre, which Shakespeare found to be impressive.
The last source described here, to establish the point in case of varying and conflicting sources actually used, may well be the most curious. One study suggests that King Lear may have been prompted by the true story of Sir Brian Annesley, who in October 1603, a year before Shakespeare began his play, was reported to be unfit to govern himself or his estate. Two of his daughters tried to get him certified as insane, so that they could obtain his estate; but the youngest daughter, Cordell, appealed to Cecil and when Annesley died, the Court of Chancery upheld his will. Although Cordell afterwards
married Sir William Harvey, the step-father of the Earl of South- Hampton, and although the Fool’s remark “Winter not gone
yet, if the wild Geese fly that way” may be an allusion to Annesley’s eldest daughter, Lady Wildgoose, it is unsafe to assume that this topical story was the genesis of the play.
Whatever comparison one makes of Shakespeare’s play King Lear with the sources, one can’t help but be struck by the Bard’s genius for picking out the most suitable incidents and characters and inventing others where no suitable ones were at hand.
Written after second-attempt for Bachelor's in Literature. I had watched KING LEAR also on PBS as then afterwards
did all library sourcing, recording, paraphrasing, and seasoned it with ideas to be an original.