Dating the play

Rebecca Brown explains how we know when Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

On 26 November 1607 an entry was made in the Stationers' Register for a play called King Lear, naming its author as William Shakespeare. At this time, only members of the Stationers' Company were permitted to publish material for sale: any member wishing to print a book had to enter its title in advance in the Register. This entry in the Register also tells us that this play had been performed before the King on St Stephen's night 'at Christmas last' (1606).

The play must have been written after 1603, since that's the date of publication of one of Shakespeare's sources: Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. In 1605 an anonymous play was published with the name, The True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Leir and his three Daughters. This play had been performed as long ago as 1594, but some scholars believe that Shakespeare's close knowledge of it must have derived from the study of it on the printed page. Whether that is the case or not, it is generally agreed that Shakespeare wrote his version of the story sometime in 1605 to 1606. This places the play just after the writing of Timon of Athens and before that of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. King Lear was first printed in 1608.

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC

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Teaching Shakespeare