King Lear Tickets
King Lear is generally regarded as one of William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.
It is based on the legend of King Leir, a king of pre-Roman Britain. After the Restoration, King Lear was often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its
nihilistic flavour, but, since World War II, it has come to be regarded as one of Shakespeare's
supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the
nature of human suffering and kinship on a cosmic scale. The title role has been played by many
great actors, but despite the fact that the king is an old man, it is usually not taken on by actors at
an advanced age, because it is so strenuous both physically and emotionally.
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King Lear is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Leir, a King of the Britons, whose tale was first written down by the twelfth century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. One of Shakespeare's sources was an earlier play, King Leir. In this play Cordeilla and the King of France serve Leir disguised as rustics. However, the ancient folk tale of Lear had existed in many versions prior to that, and it's possible that Shakespeare was familiar with them.
The play begins with King Lear taking the decision to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The eldest two are married while Cordelia is much sought after as a bride, partly because she is her father's favourite. In a fit of senile vanity, he suggests a contest - each daughter shall be accorded lands according to how much they demonstrate their love for him in speech. But the plan misfires. Cordelia refuses to outdo the flattery of her elder sisters, as she feels it would only cheapen her true feelings to flatter him purely for reward. Lear, in a fit of pique, divides her share of the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia is banished. The King of France however marries her, even after she has been disinherited inasmuch as he sees value in her honesty or as a casus belli to subsequently invade England.
Soon after Lear abdicates the throne, he finds that Goneril and Regan's feelings for him have turned cold, and arguments ensue. The Earl of Kent, who has spoken up for Cordelia and been banished for his pains, returns disguised as the servant Caius, who will "eat no fish" (that is to say, he is a Protestant), in order to protect the king, to whom he remains loyal. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan fall out with one another over their attraction to Edmund, the bastard son of Earl of Gloucester - and are forced to deal with an army from France, led by Cordelia, sent to restore Lear to his throne. A cataclysmic war is fought. Eventually Goneril poisons Regan over their differences, and stabs herself when Edmund is wounded.
The subplot involves the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, the good Edgar and the evil Edmund. Edmund concocts false stories about his legitimate half-brother, and Edgar is forced into exile, affecting lunacy. Edmund engages in liaisons with Goneril and Regan, and Gloucester is blinded by Regan's husband, but is saved from death by several of Cornwall's servants, who object to the Duke's treatment of Lear; the Duke promptly kills the servant (with the help of Regan) and throws Gloucester into the storm in order for him to, "smell his way to Dover". Edgar, still under the guise of a homeless lunatic, finds Gloucester out in the storm and the Earl asks him whether he knows the way to Dover, to which Edgar replies that he will lead him. Edgar, whose voice Gloucester fails to recognise, is shaken by encountering his own, blinded father and his guise is put to the test. Lear appears in Dover, where he wanders about raving and talking to mice. Gloucester attempts to throw himself from a cliff, but is deceived by Edgar in order to save him and comes off safely, encountering the King shortly after. Lear and Cordelia are briefly reunited and reconciled before the battle between Britain and France. After the French lose, Lear is content at the thought of living in prison with Cordelia, but Edmund gives orders for them to be executed.
Edgar, in disguise, then fights with Edmund, fatally wounding him. On seeing this, Goneril, who has already poisoned Regan out of jealousy, kills herself. Edgar reveals himself to Edmund and tells him that Gloucester has just died. On hearing this, and of Goneril and Regan's deaths, Edmund tells Edgar of his order to have Lear and Cordelia murdered and gives orders for them to be reprieved; perhaps his one act of goodness in the entire play. Unfortunately, the reprieve comes too late. Lear appears on stage with Cordelia's dead body in his arms, having killed the servant who hanged her, then dies himself. Besides the subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, the principal innovation Shakespeare made to this story was the death of Cordelia and Lear at the end. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this tragic ending was much criticised, and alternative versions were written and performed, in which the leading characters survived and Edgar and Cordelia were married.