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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare | Biography


Scholars generally agree that William Shakespeare lived from April 23, 1564, to April 23, 1616. He was born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, England. On November 28, 1582, he married Anne Hathaway of Stratford. Their first child, Susanna, was born in 1583 and was 18 months old when twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Shakespeare spent much of his professional life in London, where he worked as an actor and a playwright. The author of 38 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare is considered England's national poet and the greatest dramatist that nation, and perhaps the world, ever produced.

Shakespeare wrote several types of plays—histories, tragedies, and comedies—and often used existing histories, stories, and plays as his source material. In the case of King Lear, Shakespeare drew his story from sources familiar to a 17th-century audience, including Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England (1587) and an existing play, published anonymously, titled The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonerill, Ragan and Cordella (published in 1605 but performed around 1594). While Holinshed's history includes the core event of the plot, in which Lear divides his kingdom among his daughters and finds Cordelia's answer insufficient, that story has a happy ending: Lear is restored to the throne for two more years, and Cordelia succeeds him as queen. In turn, Holinshed drew his source information from Historia Regium Britanniae, a history written in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Like several other of Shakespeare's plays, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, King Lear is a tragedy. Shakespeare's tragedies feature individuals struggling with their humanity. King Lear centers on a larger than life character who has a tragic flaw, an imperfection that leads to his eventual downfall. This tragic flaw sets off a series of events from which there is no turning back. Shakespeare's tragedies expose life's dark side, focusing on such universal themes as death, justice, loyalty, and the corrupting influence of power.

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