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King Lear: Q & A

For more study questions with detailed answers, please see King Lear: Aesthetic and Textual Examination Questions and Answers.

For quick scene-by-scene questions and answers, please see Shakespeare Explained: King Lear.

When was King Lear first performed?

The first recorded performance of the play was on December 26, 1606, before James I at Whitehall Palace.

"My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom O'Bedlam." Can you explain the reference to "Tom O'Bedlam"? And what does "cue" mean here?

1) "Cue" means "part" in the above quote.
2) In 1247 a convent was founded just outside the London wall for the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. By 1330 the convent had become the General Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, ready to treat the gamut of common ailments. However, by 1403, Bethlehem had developed into a hospital for the mentally ill, the first such institution in England. In 1547 King Henry VIII granted Bethlehem Hospital, known by now as Bedlam, to the city of London as an asylum for the mentally deranged. By the time Shakespeare wrote "King Lear", Bedlam had a solid reputation as a brutal, inhuman prison. Shakespeare refers to Bedlam and the "Bedlam beggars", commonly known by the generic name "Tom O'Bedlams", several times in his plays. In Act 2 of "King Lear", Shakespeare describes the actions of some inmates:
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity... poor Tom! (2.3.13-19)

Edgar says, "The prince of darkness is a gentleman/Modo he's call'd, and Mahu" (3.4.143). I've read many editions but they do not annotate this passage. Who are Modo and Mahu?

Modo and Mahu are fiends originally found in a work called the Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, written in 1603 by Samuel Harsnett.

Do we know what happened to King Lear's wife?

The only reference to Lear's wife in the play is in Act 2, Scene 4 ("I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb") and so, although we know she is dead, we do not know the circumstances surrounding her death. A little more information is given in Shakespeare's source King Leir, but not much:
Thus to our grief the obsequies perform'd
Of our too late deceas'd and dearest queen,
Whose soul I hope, possess'd of heavenly joys,
Doth ride in triumph 'mongst the cherubins (1.1.1-4)
To learn more about King Leir, please read my article,
The Chronicle History of King Leir.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. King Lear Q & A. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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In the Spotlight

Quote in Context

No unchaste action, or dishonour'd step,
That hath deprived me of your grace and favour;
But even for want of that for which I am richer,
A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue
As I am glad I have not, though not to have it
Hath lost me in your liking.
                                                        King Lear (1.1), Cordelia

Cordelia appears only at the first and the last of the play, and occupies only about one hundred lines. She is absent from nearly all the impressive scenes, and yet when we lay down the book, we feel that she has ever been present; a peculiar, pervading influence has gone out from her and directed the good in their labor of love and restrained the evil in their power. The youngest and the least of Lear's daughters, modest and retiring, we must know her long to know her well, but we love her when we know her. Read on...