Shakespeare's sources

Xie Li as Regan and David Yip as Gloucester in the Yellow Earth production of King Lear which played as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival in 2006. Photo by Yin Xuefeng

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the sources which inspired Shakespeare's King Lear.


Shakespeare's seventeenth-century audience would have been familiar with the story of King Lear through a combination of myth, legend and history. Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (second edition 1587) tells of the King of Ancient Britain's unwise division of his kingdom between his three daughters.

Holinshed himself drew on Historia Regium Britanniae, written by the twelfth-century historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth. This gives an account of Leir's questioning of his daughters, Gonorilla, Regan and Cordeilla, as to how much they love him. Leir disinherits Cordeilla as a punishment for her refusal to flatter him, only to find that his other daughters' professions of love are short-lived and false. Cordeilla and her new husband, the King of the Franks, return to do battle on Leir's behalf and are victorious in restoring him to his throne. After Leir's death, some years later, Cordeilla is deposed in her turn and imprisoned by her sisters' sons, at which point she commits suicide.

A version of the story was also available in the popular Mirror for Magistrates, a verse account of the fall of great men, printed in 1574. Edmund Spenser includes the story in his long poem, The Faerie Queene, printed in 1590, in which the youngest daughter, now called Cordelia, is hanged. Among the most significant of Shakespeare's additions and alterations are Lear's madness and the role of the Fool.

Shakespeare was also familiar with a dramatic version of the story in the anonymous play, The True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Leir and his three Daughters, published in 1605 but performed in 1594. The Britain in this play differs from that of Shakespeare's in its strongly Christian culture.

Shakespeare's King Lear is unusual among his tragedies in having a subplot mirroring the main action. The story of a father and his two widely differing sons can be found in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, printed in 1590. One of the stories Sidney relates in his wide-ranging and influential romance is that of a king deposed and blinded by his illegitimate son. This son has maligned his legitimate brother in order to gain his inheritance. The father is nursed in his suffering by his wronged son. They battle their way through a storm, after which the good son rescues the father from suicidal thoughts.

Other influences on Shakespeare's creative imagination can be found in books such as Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, an attack on Jesuit missionaries and their exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged members of society, printed in 1603. In his disguise as Poor Tom, Edgar is just such a distressed, disregarded creature and the five fiends about whom he raves are to be found in Harsnett's book: Obidicut, Hobbididence, Mahu, Modo and Flibbertigibbet.

Many influences and inspirations combine to inform a work as rich and complex as King Lear. Montaigne's Essays, characterized by a wise scepticism and breadth of thought, are one such influence. These were translated into English by John Florio in 1603. Likewise, echoes of the Biblical stories of the Prodigal Son and the longsuffering Job add to the archetypal quality of the play. The contemporary relevance of the story is also apparent in the case of Sir Brian Annesley, a rich father of three daughters. He became senile in 1603, three years after making his will, in which he left most of his wealth to his youngest child. His eldest daughter took advantage of his loss of wits to contest the will but his youngest daughter, fortuitously called Cordell, protected him, his wishes and her own inheritance.

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Yin Xuefeng shows Xie Li as Regan and David Yip as Gloucester in the Yellow Earth production of King Lear which played as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival in 2006.

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