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 Amazing Hotels for Book Lovers

Planning a vacation? Escape reality—both literally and figuratively—by visiting one of these literary-inspired getaways. You'll have your nose buried in a book the entire time, but sightseeing is overrated anyway, right?

1. GLADSTONE'S LIBRARY // HAWARDEN, WALES

In the tiny village of Hawarden, in Flintshire, Wales, travelers can spend the night in an historic residential library, surrounded by tomes collected by one of the UK’s most famous prime ministers. William Gladstone, who served a record four terms as head of Her Majesty’s government, lived in nearby Hawarden Castle after retiring from government service. The bibliophile amassed more than 30,000 books, and housed them in a building he envisioned as becoming a place where people could someday sleep, eat, and study.

After Gladstone's death in 1898, the town’s residents raised money to build a permanent home for the collection. In 1902, Gladstone’s Library opened as a national memorial to its namesake; today, visitors can sleep in one of its 26 guest rooms, dine in an onsite cafe, and—most importantly—browse the library’s 250,000 titles until 10 p.m. (The library closes to the public at 5 p.m.)

2. HEATHMAN HOTEL // PORTLAND, OREGON


Heathman Hotel

Thanks to a partnership with bookseller Powell Books and nonprofit Literary Arts, Portland’s historic Heathman Hotel is home to a cataloged lending library of more than 2700 signed titles. It’s billed as the country’s largest independent hotel library, and it's also one of the world’s largest autographed libraries; titles include signatures from Nobel Prize and Pulitzer winners, U.S. Poet Laureates, former U.S. presidents, and more. Four days a week, an in-house librarian hosts a wine social in the Heathman's mezzanine library, home to more than 2000 of the collection's books. Guests sip local vintages, browse through titles, and select works to check out and read in their rooms.

3. THE JEFFERSON // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Jefferson, Washington D.C.
The Jefferson, Washington D.C.

The Jefferson in Washington, D.C. draws inspiration from the life of Thomas Jefferson, and adds a luxurious twist. Its toile draperies pay homage to the president’s Virginia plantation, Monticello; a Michelin-starred restaurant, Plume, serves food inspired by Monticello’s gardens; and Quill, a lounge and cocktail bar, is adorned with 18th-century maps that trace Jefferson’s trips through Europe's wine country. The hotel’s crowning glory is its Book Room, modeled after Jefferson’s personal library. Guests can peruse titles reflective of Jefferson’s era or his favorite pastimes, or select works signed by famous authors, like Dave Barry and Ron Chernow, who’ve stayed as guests.

4. WONDERLAND HOUSE // BRIGHTON, ENGLAND

Wonderland House
Wonderland House

Vacationers can pretend they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole at Wonderland House, a six-bedroom hotel in Brighton, England that celebrates Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Carroll himself used to spend his summers in the seaside resort town, and is said to have drawn inspiration from his surroundings.) Each guest room contains whimsical furnishings and decorations that reference Alice—there are kettles, clocks, mirrors, and teacups galore—and the Mad Hatter-themed kitchen comes complete with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and all the fixings for a raucous tea party.

5. THE COMMONS HOTEL // MINNEAPOLIS

Guests at The Commons Hotel in Minneapolis can snuggle up with a good book, delivered right to their rooms by a resident book butler. Choose from a selection of titles, or ask the butler for a recommendation. If you feel like mingling with other bibliophiles, The Commons is located just steps away from the University of Minnesota, and is close to one of the nation's largest independent arts organizations, the Loft Literary Center.

6. THE STUDY AT YALE // NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

The Study at Yale
The Study at Yale

Located on Yale University’s Art Campus, The Study at Yale is a boutique hotel that captures the Ivy League’s collegiate spirit. Photos of Yale’s campus by Michael Marsland, Yale’s photographer, line the walls; the living room/lobby has a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with titles curated by New York City’s Strand Book Store; rooms are furnished with cozy leather reading chairs; and eight “Study” suites contain designated study areas, complete with stocked bookcases.

7. THE LIBRARY HOTEL // NEW YORK CITY


The Library Hotel

New York City’s Library Hotel celebrates its proximity to the New York Public Library’s majestic flagship location, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, by loosely modeling itself after the renowned center of knowledge. The hotel houses more than 6000 books, distributed throughout private rooms and public areas, and each of its 10 guest floors is inspired by one of the Dewey Decimal System’s 10 major categories—philosophy, religion, math and science, technology, etc.

Individual hotel rooms are decorated to reflect genres or topics within these groups, meaning that guests can sleep in zoology, mythology, astronomy, and even erotic literature-themed suites. When they're not reading, guests can relax at the rooftop watering hole, the Writer’s Den & Poetry Garden, which by night turns into Bookmarks Lounge and serves literary-themed drinks.

8. THE LIBRARY // KOH SAMUI, THAILAND


Courtesy of The Library

Come to The Library—a boutique hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand's second-largest island—for its minimalist aesthetic, beachfront views, and blood-red swimming pool; stay for its amazing library, which includes a huge selection of books, DVDs, and CDs, and an iMac computer corner.

9. BOOK AND BED // TOKYO

Sleep with books instead of stuffed animals at Book and Bed, a Tokyo hotel with 30 tiny beds hidden inside a giant bookshelf. The hotel lacks basic creature comforts, like private bathrooms, and the bookshelf's 1700 Japanese and English titles aren't technically for sale, but the entire setup has novelty to spare. “The perfect setting for a good night's sleep is something you will not find here," Book and Bed's website acknowledges. "There are no comfortable mattresses, fluffy pillows nor lightweight and warm down duvets. What we do offer is an experience while reading a book (or comic book)."

10. THE BETSY // MIAMI BEACH

The Betsy, South Beach
The Betsy, South Beach

At The Betsy, a glamorous Georgian- and Art Deco-style hotel located on South Beach's Ocean Drive, visitors can hit the beach and the books. Owner Jonathan Plutzik's late father was Hyam Plutzik, a three-time Pulitzer finalist for poetry, and The Betsy reflects his literary legacy. Guest rooms have small libraries, and the hotel places bookmarks on guests’ pillows, inscribed with Plutzik's poetry. The Betsy also hosts regular arts and cultural events, and has a special Writer's Room reserved for artist residencies.

11. SYLVIA BEACH HOTEL // NEWPORT, OREGON

Oregon's Sylvia Beach Hotel is named after Sylvia Beach, the renowned American publisher/expat who, in 1919, founded Paris's Shakespeare and Company bookstore, publisher of James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and hangout for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The hotel is perched high on a bluff overlooking central Oregon's Nye Beach, and each of its 21 rooms is named after a famous author—Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. To encourage guests to unplug—and take advantage of the third-floor oceanfront library—there are no TVs, phones, or Wi-Fi.

10 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

iStock
iStock

From the Bible to Harry Potter, some of the world's most popular books have been challenged for reasons ranging from violence to occult overtones. In honor of National Book Lovers Day, here's a look at 10 classic books that have stirred up controversy.

1. THE CALL OF THE WILD

Jack London's 1903 Klondike Gold Rush-set adventure was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy for being "too radical" and was burned by the Nazis because of the author's well-known socialist leanings.

2. THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Though John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, about a family of tenant farmers who are forced to leave their Oklahoma home for California because of economic hardships, earned the author both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, it also drew ire across America because some believed it promoted Communist values. Kern County, California—where much of the book took place—was particular incensed by Steinbeck's portrayal of the area and its working conditions, which they considered slanderous.

3. THE LORAX

The cover of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Google Play

Whereas some readers look at Dr. Seuss's Lorax and see a fuzzy little character who "speaks for the trees," others saw the 1971 children's book as a dangerous piece of political commentary, with even the author reportedly referring to it as "propaganda."

4. ULYSSES

James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses may be one of the most important and influential works of the early 20th century, but it was also deemed obscene for both its language and sexual content—and not just in a few provincial places. In 1921, a group known as The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice successfully managed to keep the book out of the United States, and the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of it. But in 1933, the book's publisher, Random House, took the case—United States v. One Book Called Ulysses—to court, and ended up getting the ban overturned.

5. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German World War I veteran—wrote the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which gives an accounting of the extreme mental and physical stress the German soldiers faced during their time in the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book's realism didn't sit well with Nazi leaders, who feared the book would deter their propaganda efforts.

6. ANIMAL FARM

The cover of George Orwell's Animal Farm
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The original publication of George Orwell's 1945 allegorical novella was delayed in the UK because of its anti-Stalin themes. It was confiscated in Germany by Allied troops, banned in Yugoslavia in 1946, banned in Kenya in 1991, and banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

7. AS I LAY DYING

Though many people consider William Faulkner's 1930 novel As I Lay Dying a classic piece of American literature, the Graves County School District in Mayfield, Kentucky disagreed. In 1986, the school district banned the book because it questioned the existence of God.

8. LOLITA

Sure, it's well known that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is about a middle-aged literature professor who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl who eventually becomes his stepdaughter. It's the kind of storyline that would raise eyebrows today, so imagine what the response was when the book was released in 1955. A number of countries—including France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa—banned the book for being obscene. Canada did the same in 1958, though it later lifted the ban on what is now considered a classic piece of literature—unreliable narrator and all.

9. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has practically become a rite of passage for teenagers, but back when it was published in 1951, it wasn't always easy for a kid to get his or her hands on it. According to TIME, "Within two weeks of its 1951 release, J.D. Salinger’s novel rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Ever since, the book—which explores three days in the life of a troubled 16-year-old boy—has been a 'favorite of censors since its publication,' according to the American Library Association."

10. THE GIVER

The newest book on this list, Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giverabout a dystopia masquerading as a utopiawas banned in several U.S. states, including California and Kentucky, for addressing issues such as euthanasia.

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