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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Regarded as one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, King Lear is an examination of human suffering and the price of betrayal. Since its first performance in 1606, many of the world's greatest actors have competed for the titular role, as the complexities of the character require great skill to portray. The first edition was finally printed in 1608 and was followed by three more variations throughout the early 17th century.

Staged, adapted, and critiqued countless times around the world, King Lear stands beside Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet as one of Shakespeare's most read and performed masterpieces.

1. The role of the Fool was written for a particular clown.

Robert Armin was a clown who joined Shakespeare's acting company. Shakespeare wrote numerous fool-archetype roles for him, such as the grave-diggers in Hamlet, but he wrote Lear's fool to be a more complex character for Armin to master.

2. A revised version of King Lear has a different ending.

In the late 1600s, Irish playwright Nahum Tate rewrote many of Shakespeare's plays to give them happy endings. Audiences thought Shakespeare's King Lear was depressing because both the good and bad characters die at the end. In 1681 Tate's The History of King Lear was performed instead of Shakespeare's original. Tate's version deviates heavily from the original, including ending with a marriage between Cordelia and Edgar. Tate's version—instead of Shakespeare's—was performed on stages for the next 150 years.

3. King Lear was banned from the stage when a real king developed mental illness.

King George III, who ruled from 1760 to 1820, developed severe mental illness in his later life. Due to the similarities between Lear's madness and King George's, the play was not performed in London's professional theaters from 1811 to 1820.

4. One of the most important playwrights of the 19th and 20th centuries praised King Lear.

The Nobel Prize–winning playwright George Bernard Shaw, notable for critiquing Shakespearian drama heavily, called King Lear "Shakespeare's greatest tragedy." Shaw admired the theme of despair in Shakespeare's play, basing his own play Heartbreak House on King Lear—but allowing the three daughters to live and thrive.

5. The Beatles used lines from King Lear in a song.

After John Lennon heard a 1962 radio broadcast of the play directed by British director Peter Brook, he included some of the recorded lines in the song "I Am the Walrus." The voices of the actors can be heard in the background.

6. A Canadian production featured an all-First Nation cast.

Canadian director Peter Hinton produced an adapted version of King Lear, changing the setting from a pre-Roman Celtic kingdom to a 17th-century Algonquin kingdom in North America. Performed by an all–First Nations cast, the show premiered in 2012 in Ottawa.

7. A silent film version eliminated the entire Gloucester subplot.

During the silent film era, from the 1890s to the late 1920s, more than 500 adaptations of Shakespeare's plays were filmed. Generally, the action of these adaptations was abbreviated. For example, in a silent film version of King Lear that appeared in 1910, produced by Film d'Arte Italiana, the plot is compressed into 16 minutes. In order to condense the play, the subplot of Gloucester and his competing sons Edgar and Edmund was completely eliminated.

8. Shakespeare based King Lear on at least two sources.

Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) tells the story of a king in ancient Britain who unwisely divided his kingdom among three daughters. Shakespeare also knew of the anonymous play The True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Leir and his three Daughters (performed in 1594).

9. Two film versions in different countries came out at the same time.

A screen adaptation of King Lear by British director Peter Brook and a Soviet adaptation directed by Grigori Kozintsev, titled Korol Lir, both debuted in 1971. The two were heavily compared and contrasted by critics at a time when relations were tense between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. Kozintsev's version received higher praise overall.

10. An adaptation of King Lear was set in feudal Japan.

Transforming the character of Lear from a Celtic king into a Japanese warlord, Akira Kurosawa's 1985 film Ran combines Japanese folklore with the narrative of Shakespeare's tragedy. At the time it was filmed, it was the most expensive Japanese film production to date.

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