Ball interprets this statement to mean that the court already knows how the King is going to divide his kingdom; that the outcome of the ceremony is already decided and publicly known. If the court knows that the outcome of the contest is not going to change, then they must also be aware that it is only a formality, or in Ball's words "a public relations stunt."11

There are only two clues from the text on how balanced the king's division of the kingdom that the audience needs to take into account for understanding the nature of this ceremony. The first is the above quoted section where Gloucester describes the shares as equal. The second is in Lear's description that while Regan's portion of the kingdom is "No less in space, validity, and pleasure/Than that conferred on Goneril" (Act I/Scene 1) but for Cordelia's "more opulent than her sisters" (Act I/Scene 1). There is a contradiction in how the court views the coming action and how the king presents it.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the King's "contest" has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia.12 On receiving her proclamations of devout love and loyalty, he plans to force her into a marriage which she could not possibly object to after claiming such stolid obedience. Of course, the trap fails disastrously for all parties. It is not clear whether or not Shakespeare intended his audience to be aware of this subtext, or whether he assumed the details of the situation were not relevant.

The modern viewer of King Lear could benefit from the demystification of some subtleties in the text, as Shakespeare often brushes over details that are made clearer in his sources, and were perhaps more familiar to Elizabethan theatergoers than to modern ones.

Tragic ending

King Lear mourns Cordelia's death, James Barry, 1786-1788

The adaptations that Shakespeare made to the legend of King Lear to produce his tragic version are quite telling of the effect they would have had on his contemporary audience. The story of King Lear (or Leir) was familiar to the average Elizabethan theater goer (as were many of Shakespeare's sources) and any discrepancies between versions would have been immediately apparent.

Shakespeare's tragic conclusion gains its sting from such a discrepancy. The traditional legend and all adaptations preceding Shakespeare's have it that after Lear is restored to the throne, he remains there until "made ripe for death" (Edmund Spenser). Cordelia, her sisters also deceased, takes the throne as rightful heir, but after a few years is overthrown and imprisoned by nephews, leading to her suicide.

Shakespeare shocks his audience by bringing the worn and haggard Lear onto the stage, carrying his dead youngest daughter. He taunts them with the possibility that she may live yet with Lear saying, "This feather stirs; she lives!" But Cordelia's death is soon confirmed.

This was indeed too bleak for some to take, even many years later. King Lear was at first unsuccessful on the Restoration stage, and it was only with Nahum Tate's happy-ending version of 1681 that it became part of the repertoire. Tate's Lear, where the king survives and triumphs, and Edgar and Cordelia get married, held the stage until 1838. Samuel Johnson endorsed the use of Tate's version in his edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765): "Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor."

Cordelia and the Fool

The character of Lear's Fool, important in the first act, disappears without explanation in the third. He appears in Act I, scene four, and disappears in Act III, scene six. His final line is "And I'll go to bed at noon," a line that many think might mean that he is to die at the highest point of his life, when he lies in prison separated from his friends.

A popular explanation for the fool's disappearance is that the actor playing the Fool also played Cordelia. The two characters are never on stage simultaneously, and dual-roles were common in Shakespeare's time. However, the Fool would have been performed by Robert Armin, the regular clown actor of Shakespeare's company, who is unlikely to have been cast as a tragic heroine. Even so, the play does ask the audience to at least compare the two; Lear chides Cordelia for foolishness in Act I; chides himself as equal in folly in Act V; and as he holds the dead Cordelia in the final scene, says "And my poor fool is hanged" ("fool" could be taken as either a direct reference to the Fool, or an affectionate reference to Cordelia herself).

In Elizabethan English, "fool" was a term used to mean "child" (cf. foal). For example, in Hamlet Polonius warns Ophelia that if she doesn't keep her distance from Hamlet, she'll "tender me a fool," that is, present him with a child. As Lear holds the dead body of Cordelia, he remembers holding her in his arms as a baby. (Modern English still uses "foolish" and "childish" as near synonyms.)

Edmund (bastard son to Gloucester)

Gloucester's younger illegitimate son is an opportunist, whose ambitions lead him to form a union with Goneril and Regan. The injustice of Edmund's situation fails to justify his subsequent actions, although at the opening of the play when Gloucester explains Edmund's illegitimacy (in his hearing) to Kent, with coarse jokes, the audience can initially feel sympathetic towards him, until his true character is revealed. Edmund rejects the laws of state and society in favor of the laws he sees as eminently more practical and useful-the laws of superior cunning and strength. Edmund's desire to use any means possible to secure his own needs makes him appear initially as a villain without a conscience. But Edmund has some solid economic impetus for his actions, and he acts from a complexity of reasons, many of which are similar to those of Goneril and Regan. To rid himself of his father, Edmund feigns regret and laments that his nature, which is to honor his father, must be subordinate to the loyalty he feels for his country. Thus, Edmund excuses the betrayal of his own father, having willingly and easily left his father vulnerable to Cornwall's anger. Later, Edmund shows no hesitation, nor any concern about killing the king or Cordelia. Yet in the end, Edmund repents and tries to rescind his order to execute Cordelia and Lear, and in this small measure, he could be said to have proved himself worthy of Gloucester's blood. However, this last act can also be viewed as a selfish act in the attempt to gain favor from the gods before his death.

Because of primogeniture, Edmund will inherit nothing from his father. That, combined with Gloucester's poor treatment of Edmund in the opening lines of the play, gives Edmund motivation to betray his brother Edgar and manipulate his way into relationships with both Goneril and Regan. If Lear, Cordelia, and Kent represent the old ways of Monarchy, order, and a distinct Hierarchy, then Edmund is the most representative of a new order which adheres to Machiavellian thoughts which justify his betrayals. His determination to undo his brother and claim his father's title causes him to cut his own arm early in the play to make an imaginary fight between Edgar (his brother) and him more convincing.

Adaptations and cultural references


A number of significant and diverse readings have emerged from eras and societies since the play was first written; evidence of the ability of Shakespeare to encompass many human experiences. The play was poorly received in the seventeenth century because the theme of fallen royalty was too close to the events of the period; the exile of the court to France. In 1681, Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear to suit the seventeenth century audience; a complete and didactic love story with the brutal scenes omitted. The plot is rewritten; Edgar has unrequited love for Cordelia, the King of France omitted.

As society and time changed to take more notice of pain and suffering, especially in the nineteenth century, more of Shakespeare's unhappy ending was reinstalled.

The twentieth century saw a number of diverse and rich readings of the play emerge as a result of the turbulent social changes of the century. A.C Bradley saw this play as an individual coming to terms with his personality; that Lear was a great man and therefore the play is almost unfathomable. The feminism movement that emerged last century interpreted that the message of the play was that chaos occurred when power was given to women and that order was restored only when men returned to power. This overshadowing message, coupled with a number of Lear's misogynist remarks has fueled this debate.

One of the most important reading of the twentieth century is the existential point of view. The threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental destruction have contributed to this reading which has gained pace throughout the century compounded by WWI, WWII, the cold war, a civil or regional war occurring in almost every year, mass genocides and the propaganda power of the mass media. These events have led to a sense that life is meaningless, has no reward and there is no justice in the universe. This is represented in the play by Edmund's rejection of the Gods, Gloucester's declaration that the Gods are cruel and unjust, and the ruthless animal imagery throughout the play-also an important feature of textual integrity. The storm scene is viewed as the center of ruthless devastation and the lack of hope and futile loss of life at the end of the play looks towards a bleak future. Interestingly, this reading can be seen as a direct contrast to the Aristotlean interpretation which suggests that the audience rejoice in the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia and although the play ends tragically, humanity has learned a lesson and looks toward a brighter future.

The Family Drama reading has also become prevalent in the twentieth century; critics suggesting that the chaos was a result of the inevitable dynamics that can emerge in any family situation. Key issues include the relationship between Lear and Goneril/Regan, between Lear and Cordelia and the relationship between Gloucester and his sons.

The play has been interpreted by many societies. Communist Russia emphasized the suffering of the common people and the oppressive nature of the monarch in Korol Lear (1970), while the Jewish community emphasized other aspects of the play.


Since the 1950s, there have been various "reworkings" of King Lear. These include:

  • The novel A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
  • The play Lear by Edward Bond
  • The play Lear's Daughters by WTG and Elaine Feinstein
  • The play Seven Lears by Howard Barker
  • The play Lear Reloaded by Scott LaHaie
  • The Movie King of Texas

Film adaptations

  • 1909-A silent, black and white film directed by J. Stuart Blackton and William V. Ranous, with William V. Ranous as Lear.
  • 1916-Directed by Ernest C. Warde, with Frederick Warde as Lear.
  • 1934-"Der Yidisher Kenig Lear," or The Yiddish King Lear, is an adapted of Jacob Gordin's play set in Jewish Vilna, Lithuania. The film is directed by Harry Thomashefsky.
  • 1948-Directed by Royston Morley with William Devlin as Lear.
  • 1953-Directed by Andrew McCullough with Orson Welles as Lear. This one does not feature the subplot of Gloucester and his sons, and has Poor Tom as a character in his own right.
  • 1969-Directed by Grigori Kozintsev with Jüri Järvet as Lear, music by Dmitri Shostakovich. What makes this movie unique is the original interpretation of the King Lear's character and plot's clarity. It is considered one of the best adaptations of the tragedy by some critics.
  • 1971-Directed by Peter Brook with Paul Scofield as Lear, Alan Webb as Duke of Gloucester, Irene Worth as Goneril, Susan Engel as Regan, Anne-Lise Gabold as Cordelia, Jack MacGowran as Fool. The text has been severely cut and the remainder has been reassembled. All is bleak in this black and white, existential experience.
  • 1974-A live recorded performance from the New York Shakespeare Festival, directed by Edwin Sherin, with James Earl Jones as Lear.
  • 1974-A Thames Television production, directed by Tony Davenall with Patrick Magee as Lear.
  • 1975-Directed by Jonathan Miller for BBC TV with Michael Hordern as Lear.
  • 1982-Directed by Jonathan Miller for BBC TV with Michael Hordern as Lear. Part of the Shakespeare Plays series, this version follows the text closely.
  • 1984-Directed by Michael Elliott with Laurence Olivier as Lear. The film begins and ends at Stonehenge, and features Dorothy Tutin as Goneril, Diana Rigg as Regan, Anna Calder-Marshall as Cordelia, John Hurt as the Fool, Colin Blakely as Kent, Leo McKern as Gloucester, and Robert Lindsay as Edmund. Olivier won the Emmy Award for his performance.
  • 1985-Akira Kurosawa adapted King Lear for the basis of his film Ran.
  • 1987-Jean-Luc Godard's version is set in a post-apocalyptic world with Burgess Meredith as gangster Don Learo and Molly Ringwald as Cordelia.
  • 1997-A modern retelling, set on a farm in Iowa, was Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. This novel attempted to explain the elder sisters' hatred of their father, was later adapted as a 1997 film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and starring Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Colin Firth.
  • 1997-Sir Ian Holm starred in a television adaptation, directed by Richard Eyre. Minimalist sets put the focus on the acting.
  • 1999-Directed by and starring Brian Blessed as Lear.
  • 2001-My Kingdom stars Richard Harris, Lynn Redgrave. A modern gangland version of King Lear.
  • 2002-Patrick Stewart played John Lear in a television adaptation called King of Texas, set in frontier Texas and directed by Uli Edel.
  • 2007-Baby Cakes Sees a Play, Brad Neely's retelling of King Lear through the eyes of Baby Cakes.


  1. ↑ Soula Mitakidou and Anthony L. Manna, with Melpomeni Kanatsouli, Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights (ISBN 1-56308-908-4).
  2. ↑ Frank Kermode, "King Lear," The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1249.
  3. ↑ R.A. Foakes (ed.), King Lear (London: Arden, 1997), 89-90.
  4. ↑ Kermode, Riverside, 1250.
  5. ↑ Alfred S. Cairncross, The Problem of Hamlet, A Solution 1936.
  6. ↑ Chambers & Alexander, The Mystery of William Shakespeare (1984), p. 337.
  7. ↑ Sidney Lee, The Chronicle History of King Leir (London: Chatto and Windus, 1908) p. ix.
  8. ↑ Eva Turner Clark, Hidden Allusions in Shakespeares Plays (1930), p. 866-888.
  9. ↑ F.E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964), p. 265-66.
  10. ↑ David Ball, Backwards & Forwards (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-8093-1110-0).
  11. ↑ Ball (1983).
  12. ↑ John McLaughlin, "The Dynamics of Power in King Lear: An Adlerian Interpretation," Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978): 39.