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."

House Boasting a ‘Harry Potter Room’ Under the Stairs Hits the Market in San Diego

Cupboard under the stairs featured on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.
Cupboard under the stairs featured on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.
Matt Robinson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Harry Potter fans dream of living like the boy wizard, they may picture Harry's cozy quarters in the Gryffindor dormitory at Hogwarts. One home owner in San Diego, California is trying to spin one of Harry's much less idyllic living situations as a magical feature. As The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, a listing of a three-bedroom house for sale in the city's Logan Heights neighborhood boasts a "Harry Potter room"—a.k.a storage room under the stairs.

In the Harry Potter books, the cupboard under the stairs of the Dursley residence served as Harry's bedroom before he enrolled in Hogwarts. Harry was eager to escape the cramped, dusty space, but thanks to the series' massive success, a similar feature in a real-world home may be a selling point for Harry Potter fans.

Kristin Rye, the seller of the San Diego house, told The Union-Tribune she would read Harry Potter books to her son, though she wouldn't describe herself as a super fan. As for why she characterized her closet as a “large ‘Harry Potter’ storage room underneath stairs" in her real estate listing, she said it was the most accurate description she could think of. “It’s just this closet under the stairs that goes back and is pretty much like a Harry Potter room. I don’t know how else to describe it," she told the newspaper.

Beyond the cupboard under the stairs, Rye's listing doesn't bear much resemblance to the cookie-cutter, suburban home of 4 Privet Drive. Nearly a century old, the San Diego house has the same cobwebs and a musty smells you might expect from the Hogwarts dungeons, the newspaper reports. But there are some perks, including a parking spot and backyard space for a garden or pull-up bar. The 1322-square-foot home is listed at $425,000—cheaper than the median price of $620,000 for a resale single-family home in the area.

If you want to live like a wizard, you don't necessarily need to start by moving under a staircase. In North Yorkshire, England, a cottage modeled after Hagrid's Hut is available to rent on a nightly basis.

[h/t The San Diego Union-Tribune]

10 Surprising Facts About E.B. White

Born on July 11, 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, E.B. White wrote books, essays, and poems for both children and adults. Although you’ve probably read (and re-read) his books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, there’s so much more to learn about White. In honor of his birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about the author of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

1. E.B. White went by "Andy."

Although children around the world know him as E.B. White, his friends and family called him Andy for most of his life. Born Elwyn Brooks White on July 11, 1899, he got the nickname Andy while he was a student at Cornell University. He shared a last name with Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder and first president of Cornell, and Cornell tradition dictated that all students with the last name White were given the nickname Andy. This suited Elwyn just fine; he once said, "I never liked Elwyn. My mother just hung it on me because she'd run out of names. I was her sixth child." It stuck, and he went by Andy for the rest of his life.

2. White wrote an obituary his dog for The New Yorker.

White’s love of animals is evident in his writing, and his dog Daisy was no exception. In 1932, he wrote an obituary for Daisy after a New York City cab hit her in front of a florist’s shop on University Place. Published in The New Yorker, the obituary describes Daisy’s life, from her birth to her untimely death at 3 years old: “Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment … Once she slipped her leash and chased a horse for three blocks through heavy traffic, in the carking belief that she was an effective agent against horses … She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”

3. White married his editor.

White began writing for The New Yorker in the mid 1920s. In 1926, he met Katharine Sergeant Angell, the magazine's fiction editor. Reminiscing about his first meeting with Katharine in the lobby of the magazine, he told The New York Times that she "had a lot of black hair and was very beautiful." Six years older than White, Katharine was a divorced mother with two kids, but the couple married in 1929 and eventually moved to a farmhouse in Maine.

"I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of a wife," White later said. "I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, 'Put in some tooth twine.' I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me." Katharine continued to work remotely for The New Yorker, and the two were married until her death in 1977.

4. White's style guide for writers became a huge success.

The Elements of Style, a book that teaches people how to write effectively, clearly, and succinctly, is arguably the most famous writer’s bible in America. White’s English professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., originally wrote the book’s rules of grammar and composition in 1918. In 1959, White revised the book, and it has since sold millions of copies. In an interview with The Paris Review, White said: "My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar."

5. White was a hypochondriac.

Throughout his life, White was a hypochondriac who worried that, for example, his sunburn was a brain tumor or an ant bite was fatal. In a piece for The New Yorker, his stepson, Roger Angell, posited that White’s anxieties were due to his childhood. White was the youngest of six kids (his parents were in their 40s when he was born), so minor ailments—such as a cough or stomachache—would likely elicit more parental attention and nurturing as the cherished baby of the family.

6. White struggled with anxiety.

In addition to his hypochondria, White suffered from a general anxiety that began in childhood. He described himself as "frightened but not unhappy … I lacked for nothing except confidence." As an adult, he was anxious about subways crashing, meeting new people, and speaking in public. At restaurants, he was overly cautious about accidentally eating clams (he claimed one had poisoned him once). He skipped weddings, parties, his Presidential Medal of Freedom awards ceremony, and even his wife’s (private) burial service, describing his anxiety as a "peculiar kind of disability."

7. White was an avid sailor.

Despite his massive success as a writer, White disliked reading indoors, much preferring outdoor activities. "I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book," he remarked. That is, unless that book was about one of his favorite topics: sailing. “But when I latch onto a book like They Live by the Wind, by Wendell P. Bradley, I am glued tight to the chair. It is because Bradley wrote about something that has always fascinated (and uplifted) me—sailing." White injected his love of sailing into his book Stuart Little, which contains a sailboat race, and his son Joel became a world-renowned boat designer. Once, Joel made a boat named in honor of his daughter Martha, and White carved four dolphins on each side of the bow and sailed it afterward.

8. White fought to keep Hollywood's adaptation of Charlotte's Web true to the book.

In 1973, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera released an animated musical film version of Charlotte’s Web. The studio wanted to change the book’s ending by not having Charlotte die, but White pushed back against a happier ending. Although the studio obliged, White and his wife reportedly hated the animated Charlotte’s Web, regretting that it was made and calling it a travesty.

9. White was a major procrastinator.

White was open about his struggles with writing and procrastination. In an interview, he revealed that he would walk around his house, straightening picture frames and rugs, before sitting down to write. "Delay is natural to a writer," White admitted. But he cautioned that writers have to somehow conquer procrastination: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."

10. White fought Alzheimer's disease with grace and humor.

Before White died in October 1985, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. His son read his father’s books and essays aloud, and White usually enjoyed hearing his writing. Because he didn’t remember that he was the author of the words, he would pooh-pooh some passages, saying that the writing wasn’t good enough. But when he liked other passages, he would ask his son, Joel, who wrote the words. "You did, Dad," Joel said. White replied, "Well, not bad."

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