King Lear

September 9

October 9, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

King Lear Playgoer's Guide


Believed to have its roots in Celtic legend, the story of a king named Lear is considered a legacy of the mythology of ancient Britain. In the British imagination, however, the story’s importance does not rest with provable facts: it is significant because it helps establish a national identity extending beyond recorded history. The earliest known written record of a King Lear appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s medieval text Historia regium Britanniae (ca.1136), a narrative spanning 2,000 years of British kings. Another likely historical source was Holinshed’s two-volume work, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (published 1577-1587). Shakespeare’s most immediate theatrical influence was likely an anonymously written play, entitled The True Chronicle History of King Leir, written ca. 1594.

Folk narrative, too, contributes to Shakespeare’s blended storytelling. Motifs of fathers and ungrateful daughters, and cruel sisters covetous of younger sisters are found in the ancient folk-stories of Europe and Asia, like the story of the Goosegirl-Princess and Cinderella. The subplot of Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester is thought to have been inspired by another poetic source—Sidney’s poem, Arcadia (1590), in which an outcast son and his blinded father meet while seeking shelter from a violent storm.

The Play’s Two Texts

Shakespeare’s King Lear exists in two distinct printings—the First Quarto and the First Folio, published in 1608 and 1623, respectively. Which version best manifests “authorial final intent”? Editors and directors are tasked with choosing how each will inform their work. The differences are attributed to the suggestion that the earlier and later editions were based upon two different “copy-texts”: the First Quarto on Shakespeare’s “foul papers” (handwritten manuscripts), and the First Folio upon the King’s Men’s performance prompt-book (a working copy of the play, which included such information as the actors’ entrances and exits, script cuts, and music cues.) One theory asserts that the First Quarto was illegally printed from a stolen copy of the playwright’s foul papers; another, that one or more of Shakespeare’s actors constructed the text from memory. The First Quarto contains about 300 lines not present in the First Folio, but lacks another 100 lines. Editors--and directors—have most commonly opted to conflate the two texts, incorporating from each features that support their creative vision or academic theoretical commitments. In this production, director Barbara Gaines created a playscript based on the 1623 First Folio, with the addition of a few brief sections from the First Quarto.

King Lear in Early Performance

The play’s first recorded performance was in 1606 at the court of King James I, and starred the famous actor Richard Burbage. The scarcity of contemporary commentary on early productions has led scholars to believe that the play was not popular in Shakespeare’s time. Following the Interregnum and the closing of the theaters, only two performances were recorded before Shakespeare’s play was replaced in 1681 by Nahum Tate’s adaptation--which held the stage in lieu of Shakespeare’s version for the next 150 years. Tate’s adaptation famously excised the Fool and Gloucester’s blinding, then forged a romance between Cordelia and Edgar, who lived happily ever.

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