10 Dramatic Facts About King Lear

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, frequently cited as his best tragedy, between 1605 and 1606. The play tells the story of the titular king, who attempts to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Scheming sisters Regan and Goneril rob him of his power and sanity after Lear is flattered into giving them his kingdom, while kind Cordelia suffers tragic consequences. The fallen monarch has captivated our literary imagination for centuries, but there's still plenty to learn about the Bard's classic play that you might have missed in high school English class.

1. KING LEAR WAS INSPIRED BY A LEGENDARY BRITISH KING.

King Lear wasn't inspired by a ruler of Shakespeare's era, but by the legend of an ancient king, Leir of Britain, who was said to have lived around the 8th century BCE, according to the 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae. Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, this tome has been described as “a brilliantly conceived pastiche of myth, song, and outright invention masquerading as straightforward history.”

Before the Bard's play hit the scene, multiple works had already explored Leir's sad tale, including an anonymous 16th-century play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three Daughters. Others included The Mirror for Magistrates—a collection of English poems from the Tudor period—and Raphael Holinshed's 1587 work The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which included the legend. He, too, picked up the tale from Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudohistory.

Meanwhile, in 1590, two different works emerged that would influence the play: Edmund Spenser's poem The Faerie Queene and Sir Philip Sidney's prose work Arcadia, in which a fallen king is blinded by his illegitimate son.

Shakespeare added original conceits to his retelling of the King Leir legend, including both his madness and the role of the Fool. The main difference between Shakespeare's final product and the works that inspired it, however, was that the others all have happy endings.

2. THE FIRST KNOWN PRODUCTION OF KING LEAR WAS STAGED FOR KING JAMES I.

King Lear was written during the reign of England's King James I, and the play's first recorded performance took place at Whitehall on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in 1606. At the time, the real-life English ruler, who was also King James VI of Scotland, was attempting to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and England as one. He’d ultimately fail—getting only approval for a Union of Crowns rather than full political union—but the production's plot may have hit home for the king, experts say, as it illustrated the potential tragedies of dividing a kingdom.

3. THERE ARE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF KING LEAR.

If you've ever seen a live performance of King Lear, it was probably quite different from what audiences saw in Stuart England. That's because there were multiple early versions of King Lear, and the one we know today was crafted from a combination of them.

The first version of King Lear was published in 1608 as a quarto, or small book, called True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters. It was revised multiple times during its initial press run, before being republished in 1619.

This second printing of King Lear contained some different words and lines from its predecessor, but in 1623 a dramatically different edition was included in the First Folio, or the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. It had around 100 new lines that weren't included in the 1608 quarto, and it was also missing about 300 lines, including all of Act IV, Scene 3. Roughly 800 words were also changed between the two versions.

Thanks to 18th-century editors, today's King Lear is often a mix of all of the above, although there are also some modern versions of the play that stick entirely with the quarto version or the First Folio edition.

4. KING LEAR WAS REWRITTEN TO HAVE A HAPPY ENDING.

Nahum Tate, who was made England's Poet Laureate in 1692, decided to update some of Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. While his versions of Coriolanus and Richard II were never successful, in 1681 he wrote a version of King Lear in which Cordelia survives, is betrothed to Edgar, and is named queen. (It's also missing the Fool.) This alternative—which still contained five acts, although the text itself was shorter—was regularly staged, but over the years some of Tate’s changes began to be removed. In 1768 the Cordelia and Edgar romance was removed, and Edmund Kean's production brought back the sad ending in 1823. Although it kept Tate's structure and heavily edited the play, an 1838 performance staring actor William Charles Macready revived the Fool and is generally credited as the end of Tate’s version, with Samuel Phelps in 1845 returning more closely to the original play.

5. KING LEAR WAS BANNED FROM THE ENGLISH STAGE DURING THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE III.

While King Lear wasn't ever intended to portray a living king, its main character hit too close to home during the reign of King George III. The monarch was plagued with periods of insanity and he was both blind and deaf when he died on January 29, 1820. Out of sensitivity, all performances of any version of King Lear were banned during King George's reign between 1810 to 1820. The fictional monarch's mental illness paralleled the real life ruler's struggles just a little too much.

6. KING LEAR CONTAINS LOTS OF REFERENCES TO NATURE.

King Lear is filled with more references to animals and nature than any other Shakespeare play. For example, sisters Goneril and Regan are often compared to deadly creatures like wolves, snakes, and vultures, whereas the Fool likens Lear's helplessness to “the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long/That it's had it head bit off by it young.” In a famous lament, Lear says that without the accoutrements of civilization, man is nothing but “a poor bare forked animal.” Scholars have even counted references to "nature," "natural," "disnatured," and "unnatural" as occurring more than 40 times in the play [PDF].

7. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW LOVED KING LEAR. LEO TOLSTOY HATED IT.

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” George Bernard Shaw reflected in the preface of his 1901 theatrical collection Three Plays for Puritans. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, however, disagreed with this sentiment. The War and Peace author didn't care for Shakespeare's writing, and he particularly disliked King Lear. He described an “exaggerated” plot and “pompous, characterless language” in “Tolstoy on Shakespeare,” a 100-page critical essay he published in 1906.

8. FREUD THOUGHT CORDELIA SYMBOLIZED DEATH IN KING LEAR.

In Sigmund Freud's critical essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which analyzes the casket story in The Merchant of Venice, he also explored [PDF] the underlying symbolism of Lear's three daughters in King Lear. Freud thought they represented the mythical Three Fates, and that Cordelia was Atropos, the Greek goddess of death, since she refuses to speak when Lear asks her to profess her love. (At the time, psychoanalysts viewed speechlessness in dreams as a signifier of death.) By rejecting Cordelia, the aging king is essentially rejecting death itself, Freud claimed.

9. A VERSION OF KING LEAR HAS BEEN PERFORMED WITH SHEEP.

In 2014, English playwright Heather Williams (who goes by the pen name Missouri Williams) added levity to King Lear by staging an adaptation called King Lear With Sheep. It told the oh-so-meta tale of a director character who decides to perform the Shakespearean tragedy using wooly ungulates as cast members. When the sheep won't cooperate, the director suffers a breakdown and begins acting out the narrative himself. The London performance featured real-life sheep—nine, to be precise—and just one actor.

10. THE TV SHOW EMPIRE IS BASED ON KING LEAR.

King Lear continues to inspire modern writers, artists, and directors. For example, the Fox series Empire features Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard), a fading hip-hop mogul and ex-drug dealer whose three sons vie to inherit his business. Lyon is loosely based on Lear, according to show co-creator Danny Strong.

"I was literally driving in my car and I thought, I wonder if you could do King Lear in a hip-hop empire,” Strong told The Atlantic. “ I literally was like: King Lear. Hip-hop Empire and then my next thought was, 'I should call [Empire co-creator] Lee Daniels'" to collaborate on a project.

“We call it hip hop Dynasty," Strong added. "It's like King Lear meets hip-hop meets Dynasty."

11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

Can a house be born bad? That’s the question Shirley Jackson asks in her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Released in 1959, the gothic novel follows four strangers who converge on a purportedly haunted house to “scientifically” seek out evidence of the paranormal. Things rapidly devolve and the characters—in particular, the novel’s lonely protagonist, Eleanor—realize, too late, that they’re in over their heads.

Upon its release, the novel sold briskly, earning Jackson a National Book Award nomination and high praise from critics. In its review, The New York Times called the story “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic” and described Jackson as “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.” It also caught the attention of Hollywood, and within four years MGM released a film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise. Since then, the novel has been made into a play and into a widely panned 1999 movie. On October 12, the first ever television series based on the novel will be released by Netflix.

Whether you’re getting ready to dig into the horrors of Hill House on Netflix or a fan of the original novel, here are 11 facts about The Haunting of Hill House you should know.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS

A photo of a ghost in the 1890s
The National Archives UK // Public Domain

Jackson was inspired to write the novel after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers” who rented a house they believed to be haunted in order to study paranormal phenomena. The researchers studiously recorded their experiences in the house, and presented them in the form of a treatise to the Society for Psychic Research. In her essay “Experience and Fiction,” Jackson explained that she was most intrigued by the way the researchers revealed their own personalities and backgrounds throughout the study. “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she explained. “And yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”

2. JACKSON HAD A TERRIFYING SLEEPWALKING EXPERIENCE WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL ...

Early on in the writing process, Jackson awoke one morning to find something terrifying atop her writing desk: A note, with the words “DEAD DEAD” scrawled upon it, written in her own handwriting. Jackson, who loved ghost stories but did not believe in ghosts, brushed the strange discovery off as sleepwalking. In “Experience and Fiction,” she wrote that she used the strange note to motivate her, explaining, “I decided that I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.”

3. ... AND MADE AN UNSETTLING DISCOVERY WHILE RESEARCHING HAUNTED HOUSES.

A haunted house on a hill
iStock.com/DNY59

Before she began writing The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson scoured magazines and newspapers for photos of houses that seemed haunted. During her research, she stumbled upon a photo of a house in California that had a particular air of “disease and decay.” She was so struck by it, she asked her mother, who lived in California, if she could find any additional information about the house. Her mother’s response shocked Jackson: Not only was she familiar with the house, but Jackson's own great-grandfather had built it. After standing empty for many years, the house had been set on fire—possibly by a group of townspeople.

4. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY MORE THAN ONE VERSION OF ELEANOR.

In A Rather Haunted Life, Shirley Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes that Jackson initially struggled to decide what kind of character her protagonist, Eleanor, would be. Jackson wrote three different iterations of Eleanor before settling on her final version. One, according to Franklin, was “a spinster with a swagger”—a far cry from the introverted Eleanor of the finished novel.

5. IT'S A GHOST STORY WITHOUT GHOSTS.

Jackson often referred to the novel as a “good ghost story” despite the fact that it doesn't have any overt ghosts. Instead, it’s the house itself that seems to do the haunting. In her notes for the novel, Jackson explained, “The House is the haunting.” While much of the novel is left ambiguous, Jackson was clear about the connections between Hill House and her protagonist, Eleanor. “Jackson clearly intended the external signs of haunting to be interpreted as manifestations of Eleanor’s troubled psyche,” Franklin explains in A Rather Haunted Life. At the same time, Franklin notes, “The novel makes it clear that something in the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

6. JACKSON'S HUSBAND WAS TOO AFRAID TO READ IT.

Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a well-known literary critic and professor who enthusiastically read all of his wife’s books—but not The Haunting of Hill House. According to Franklin, “For the first time he refused to read her manuscript: He found the concept of ghosts too frightening.”

7. THE NOVEL HAS EARNED COMPARISONS TO THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Since its release, critics and fans have drawn comparisons between The Haunting of Hill House and the writings of everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Hilary Mantel. But the comparison that comes up the most is to Henry James’s classic novel The Turn of the Screw. In her introduction to The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller explains that the two novels share common themes, including “a lonely, imaginative young woman” and “a big isolated house.” In his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes, “It seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”

8. IT WAS JACKSON'S FIRST PROFITABLE NOVEL.

The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t just Jackson’s most popular novel: It was her first profitable novel. “Hill House was a financial and critical triumph," Franklin writes. “For the first time, a novel of [Jackson’s] had finally earned back its advance and was even making a profit.”

9. SHE SOLD THE FILM RIGHTS FOR $67,500—AND USED THE MONEY TO BUY A WASHING MACHINE.

When Jackson sold the movie rights to Hill House for $67,500 (“an astronomical fee for the time,” notes Miller), it propelled her family into true financial stability for the first time. They used the money from the film to pay off their mortgage and all other debts, and to buy living room drapes, a player piano, and a washing machine and dryer.

10. ROALD DAHL SENT JACKSON A LETTER AFTER READING IT.

Roald Dahl
Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Legendary children’s author Roald Dahl was so struck by The Haunting of Hill House, he wrote to Jackson suggesting she write for television. According to Jackson biographer Lenemaja Friedman, Dahl asked her to “consider writing a script for a television show that Ellyn Williams was doing in Britain.” It’s unclear whether Dahl himself was working on the show (his TV series Way Out premiered in 1961, two years after the publication of Hill House), but Jackson ultimately refused his request.

11. THE NOVEL HAS A LOT OF FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Carmen Maria Machado are all huge fans. Del Toro included Hill House in a series of six classic horror novels he curated for Penguin, Maria Machado called it “the scariest novel I’ve ever read,” and Neil Gaiman has written that, while plenty of novels have scared him, Hill House “beats them all.” Stephen King, meanwhile, has written that Hill House has one of the best openings he’s ever read, calling it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for.”

JK Rowling's Newest Obsession? A Teenager's 350-Year-Old Math Notebook

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

Inspiration can be found in surprising places—including the math notebook of an 18th-century farm boy. As the BBC reports, a collection of 350-year-old doodles posted on Twitter recently went viral, and now they've caught the attention of author JK Rowling.

The Museum of English Rural Life shared pages pulled from its archives in a Twitter thread on Saturday, October 6. The book, dating from 1784, belonged to a 13-year-old boy named Richard Beale from Biddenden in the English county of Kent. It was primarily a math notebook, but the owner also apparently used it to explore his artistic side.

Beale scribbled some elaborate drawings around his equations. In one doodle, a pair of triangles spans the width of a city street. In another, an angle overlaps with a mountain with a burning fortress at its peak.

One figure, a black-and-white dog, appears throughout the book, leading the museum to believe it may have been the teen's family pet. Beale also sketched a picture of a chicken wearing trousers.

J.K. Rowling retweeted the thread on Sunday, to which the museum responded with a request for her to make the pants-clad chicken the protagonist of her next book series.

She responded: "Way ahead of you. He's best friends with a duck in a balaclava."

The notebook is part of a collection of farm diaries that was donated to the Museum of Rural English Life a few years ago. Researchers looking to appreciate Beale's detailed doodles in person can access them through the museum's reading room.

[h/t BBC]

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