Question: When was Lear written, and how can you establish the time?
Answer:King Lear was written, certainly, between 1603 and
26th Dec., 1606. The play was entered on the stationer's
register 26th Nov., 1607, with the statement that it had
been acted at Whitehall on St. Stephen's night in the
Christmas holidays of the year before. The downward
limit therefore is fixed at 26th Dec., 1606. The upward limit is accurately fixed by the publication in 1603 of Harsnet's Declaration of Popish Impostures, from which Shakespeare gets the names of the devils mentioned by Edgar,
IV. i. Gloucester and Edmund each mention [I. ii.] late eclipses which probably refers to the eclipse of the sun
October, 1605, preceded within a month by an eclipse of the moon. This eclipse had been foretold by John Harvey
of King's Lynn, writing in 1588 against the superstitious dread of the consequences of such an event. Possibly
Gloucester's mention of "machinations, treachery, etc.," was
suggested by the Gunpowder Plot of November, 1605.
The change from "English" of the Folio to "British" of
the Quarto owing to the union, under James I., of England
and Scotland under the name of Great Britain, can be of no
use in fixing the date, since "English" might have been
inadvertently written after the union, and even while the
memory of it was still fresh in men's minds, and while the
ephemeral literature of the day abounded in references to
the subject. Mr. Wright does not recognize this change as
an aid in fixing the date of the composition of the play.
So we decide that King Lear was written between November, 1605, and December, 1606. In the "high-grown
fields" the "fumiter" and "darnel" we have an indication of summer. But in III. ii. 68 Lear says, "Art cold? I
am cold myself" and the Fool, III. iv. 80, "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen."
An attempt to approximate to the date of the play by such tests denies to
Shakespeare an imagination sufficiently strong to conceive
of an object or event without its actual presence. That
Lear was written at or about the forty-second year of the
poet's life, when sorrow had de'epened the sources from
which he drew his materials, that it is the play in which
passion assumes its largest proportions and acts upon the
widest theatre, is sufficient to place Lear among the later
tragedies, along with Macbeth and Othello.
How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mfour.html >.