Introduction

Introduction

King Lear was written by William Shakespeare, probably between 1605 and 1606. It tells the story of an elderly monarch who makes a grave error of judgment, through which he loses his kingdom, his daughters and his sanity. Through losing what he cares most about, Lear eventually comes to realise the true nature of love and virtue, which he initially took for granted. He suffers much mental anguish during his journey of self-discovery and awareness. There are in fact two plots within the play, although they interweave and have many themes in common; they both explore sibling rivalry, the foolishness of old men (!), and the complexities of the parent/child relationship.

King Lear is one of the most frequently staged Shakespearean plays, and its grim attraction took a particular hold in the popular consciousness during the Second World War. It is most famous for its extremes of cruelty and violence, but there is also evidence of goodness and loyalty - can you find examples of this benevolence? Fundamentally, this is a tale of the struggle between good and evil, but many people find the ending highly pessimistic about the hopelessness of human plight - in your opinion, does 'evil' triumph throughout this play?

Shakespeare's main source for the plot was the original play, King Leir. The playwright might also have drawn on the experiences of the Mayor of London, Sir William Allen, who divided his wealth and property between his three daughters but in return was dreadfully mistreated by all of them! Many versions of the story have been produced, most notably in Edmund Spenser's poem The Faerie Queene and in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. All the other versions end in happiness, with Lear and Cordelia joyfully restored to their rightful places. Many critics feel that Cordelia's death (in Shakespeare's edition) is grossly unjust - what do you think?

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