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Sources for King Lear

In addition to Holinshed's Chronicles, which he used as a source for the majority of his plays, Shakespeare was familiar with several other versions of the old and popular story of King Lear. Lear is discussed in The Mirror for Magistrates, a collection of didactic tales about the history of twenty princes, published first in 1559. The portion of the text devoted to Lear was written by Higgins in 1574, and influenced Shakespeare greatly, particularly his work in Act V, Scene III (254). Another version of the story of Lear that Shakespeare surely read and admired was from six stanzas of Canto 10 of Book II of The Faerie Queen, written by the greatest Elizabethan poet before Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser. The stanzas that concern us are the following:


Next him king Leyr in happie peace long raind,
But had no issue male him to succeed,
But three faire daughters, which were well vptraind,
In all that seemed fit for kingly seed:
Mongst whom his realme he equally decreed
To have diuided. Tho when feeble age
Nigh to his vtmost date he saw proceed,
He cald his daughters; and with speeches sage
Inquyrd, which of them most did loue her parentage.

The eldest Gonorill gan to protest,
That she much more then her owne life him lou'd:
And Regan greater loue to him profest,
Then all the world, when euer it were proou'd;
But Cordeill said she lou'd him, as behoou'd:
Whose simple answere, wanting colours faire
To paint it forth, him to displeasance moou'd,
That in his crowne he counted her no haire,
But twixt the other twaine his kingdome whole did shaire.

So wedded th'one to Maglan king of Scots,
And th'other to the king of Cambria,
And twixt them shayrd his realme by equall lots:
But without dowre the wise Cordelia
Was sent to Aganip of Celtica.
Their aged Syre, thus eased of his crowne,
A priuate life led in Albania,
With Gonorill, long had in great renowne,
That nought him grieu'd to bene from rule deposed downe.

But true it is, that when the oyle is spent,
The light goes out, and weeke is throwne away;
So when he had resigned his regiment,
His daughter gan despise his drouping day,
And wearie waxe of his continuall stay.
Tho to his daughter Rigan he repayrd,
Who him at first well vsed euery way;
But when of his departure she despayrd,
Her bountie she abated, and his cheare empayrd.

The wretched man gan then auise too late,
That loue is not, where most it is profest,
Too truely tryde in his extreamest state;
At last resolu'd likewise to proue the rest,
He to Cordelia him selfe addrest,
Who with entire affection him receau'd,
As for her Syre and king her seemed best;
And after all an army strong she leau'd,
To war on those, which him had of his realme bereau'd.

So to his crowne she him restor'd againe,
In which he dyde, made ripe for death by eld,
And after wild, it should to her remaine:
Who peaceably the same long time did weld:
And all mens harts in dew obedience held:
Till that her sisters children, woxen strong
Through proud ambition, against her rebeld,
And ouercommen kept in prison long,
Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong.
The primary source, however, for Shakespeare's King Lear was The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, published in 1605, but acted much before that, in 1594. For more detailed information on King Leir please see my article, The True Chronicle History of King Leir.

For the sub-plot of King Lear, Shakespeare relied upon a story from Arcadia, the epic romance by Sidney, published in 1590. We can see by examining Shakespeare's wonderful attention to the characters of Edgar and Gloucester, how much Sidney's tale of the king of Paphlagonia and his two sons sparked the Bard's own imagination. For those who are studying the specific alterations that Shakespeare made to his sources, I have included the excerpt from Arcadia, keeping the original spelling intact:

ARCADIA by Sir Philip Sidney, Book II, Chapter 10 (1590)

It was in the kingdome of Galacia, the season being (as in the depth of winter) very cold, and as then sodainely growne to so extreame and foule a storme, that never any winter (I thinke) brought foorth a fowler child: so that the Princes were even compelled by the haile, that the pride of the winde blew into their faces, to seeke some shrowding place within a certaine holow rocke offering it unto them, they made it their shield against the tempests furie. And so staying there, till the violence therof was passed, they heard the speach of a couple, who not perceiving them (being hidde within that rude canapy) helde a straunge and pitifull disputation which made them steppe out; yet in such sort, as they might see unseene. There they perceaued an aged man, and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorely arayed, extreamely weather-beaten; the olde man blind, the young man leading him: and yet through all those miseries, in both these seemed to appeare a kind of noblenesse, not sutable to that affliction. But the first words they heard, were these of the olde man. Well Leonatus (said he) since I cannot perswade thee to lead me to that which should end my griefe, & thy trouble, let me now entreat thee to leaue me: feare not, my miserie cannot be greater then it is, & nothing doth become me but miserie; feare not the danger of my blind steps, I cannot fall worse than I am. And doo not I pray thee, doo not obstinately continue to infect thee with my wretchedness. But flie, flie from this region, onely worthy of me. Deare father (answered he) doo not take away from me the onely remnant of my happinesse: while I have power to doo you service, I am not wholly miserable. Ah my sonne (said he, and with that he groned, as if sorrow strave to breake his hearte) how evill fits it me to have such a sonne, and how much doth thy kindnesse upbraide my wickednesse? These dolefull speeches, and some others to like purpose (well shewing they had not bene borne to the fortune they were in) moved the Princes to goe out unto them, and aske the younger what they were ? Sirs (answered he, with a good grace, and made the more agreable by a certaine noble kinde of pitiousness) I see well you are straungers, that know not our miserie so well here knowne, that no man dare know, but that we must be miserable. In deede our state is such, as though nothing is so needfull unto us a pittie, yet nothing is more daungerous unto us, then to make ourselves so knowne as may stirre pittie. But your presence promiseth, that cruelty shall not over-runne hate. And if it did, in truth our state is soncke below the degree of feare.

This old man (whom I leade) was lately rightfull Prince of this countrie of Paphlagonia, by the hard-hearted ungratefulness of a sonne of his, deprived, not onely of his kingdome (wherof no forraine forces were ever able to spoyle him) but of his sight, the riches which Nature graunts to the poorest creatures. Whereby, & by other his unnaturall dealings, he hath bin driven to such griefe, as even now he would have had me to have led him to the toppe of this rocke, thence to cast himselfe headlonge to death: and so would have made me (who received my life of him) to be the worker of his destruction. But noble Gentlemen (said he) if either of you have a father, and feele what duetifull affection is engraffed in a sonnes hart, let me intreate you to convey this afflicted Prince to some place of rest & securitie. Amongst your worthie actes it shall be none of the least, that a King, of such might and fame, and so uniustly oppressed, is in any sort by you relieved.

But before they could make him answere, his father began to speake. Ah my sonne (said he) how evill an Historian are you, that leave out the chiefe knotte of all the discourse? My wickedness, my wickedness. And if thou doest it to spare my eares, (the onely sense nowe left me proper for knowledge) assure thy self thou dost mistake me. And I take witnesse of that Sunne which you see (with that he cast up his blinde eyes, as if he would hunt for light) and wish my selfe in worse case then I do wish my self, which is as evill as may be, if I speake untruly; that nothing is so welcome to my thoughts, as the publishing of my shame. Therefore know you Gentlemen (to whom from my harte I wish that it may not prove ominous foretoken of misfortune to have mette with such a miser as I am) that whatsoever my sonne (O God, that trueth binds me to reproch him with the name of my sonne) hath said, is true. But besides those thruthes, this also is true, that having had in laeful mariage, of a mother fitte to beare royall children, this sonne (such one as partly you see, and better shall knowe by my shorte declaration) and so enjoyed the expectations in the world of him, till he was growen to iustifie their expectations (so as I needed envie no father for the chief comfort of mortalitie, to leave an other ones-selfe after me) I was caried by a bastarde sonne of mine (if at least I be bounde to believe the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, to doo my best to destroy, this sonne (I thinke you thinke) undeserving destruction. What waies he used to bring me to it, if I shouls tell you, I should tediously trouble you with as much poysonous hypocrisie, desperate fraude, smoothe malice, hidden ambition, & smiling envie, as in anie living person could be harbored. But I list it not, no remembrance, (no, of naughtines) delights me, but mine own; & me thinks, the accusing his traines might in some manner excuse my fault, which certainly I loth to doo. But the conclusion is, that I gave order to some servants of mine, whom I thought as apte for such charities as my selfe, to leade him out into a forrest, & there to kill him.

But those theeves (better natured to my sonne then my selfe) spared his life, letting him goe, to learne to live poorely: which he did, giving himslefe to be a private souldier, in a countrie here by. But as he was redy to be greatly advanced for some noble peeces of service which he did, he hearde newes of me: who (dronke in my affection to that unlawfull and unnaturall sonne fo mine) suffered my self so to be governed by him, that all favours and punishments passed him by, all offices, and places of importance, distributed to his favourites; so that ere I was aware, I had left my self nothing but the name of a King: which he shortly wearie of too, with many indignities (if any thing may be called an indignity, which was laid upon me) threw me out of my seat, and put out my eyes; and then (proud in his tyrannie) let me goe, neither imprisoning, nor killing me: but rather delighting to make me feele my miserie; miserie indeed, if ever there were any; full of wretchedness, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltines. And as he came to crown by so uniust meanes, as uniustlie he kept it, by force of stranger souldiers in Cittadels, the nestes of tyranny, & murderers of libertie; disarming all his own countrimen, that no man durst shew himself a wel-willer of mine: to say the trueth (I think) few of them being so (considering my cruell follie to my good sonne, and foolish kindnes to my unkind bastard): but if there were any who felle to pitie of so a great a fall, and had yet any sparkes of unstained duety lefte in them towardes me, yet durst they not shewe it, scarcely with giving me almes at their doores: which yet was the onelie sustenance of my distressed life, no bodiedaring to shew so much charitie, as to lende me a hande to guide my darke steppes: Till this sonne of mine (God knowes, woorthie of a more vertuous, and more fortunate father) fargetting my abhominable wrongs, not recking daunger, & neglecting the present good way he was in doing hin selfe good, came hether to doo this kind office you see him performe towards me, to my unspeakable griefe; not onely because his kindness is a glasse even to my blind eyes, of my naughtines, but that above all griefes, it greeves me he should desperately adventure the losse of his soul-deserving life for mine, that yet owe more to fortune for my deserts, as if he would cary mudde in a chest of christall. For well I know, he that now raigneth, how much soever (and with good reason) he despiseth me, of all men despised; yet he will not let slippe any advantage to make away him, whose iust title (enobled by courage and goodnes) may one day shake the seate of a never secure tyrannie. And for this cause I craved of him to leade me to the toppe of this rocke, indeede I must confesse, with meaning to free him from so serpentine a companion as I am. But he finding what I purposed, onely therein since he was borne, shewed himselfe disobedient unto me. And now Gentlemen, you have the tru storie, which I pray you publish to the world , that my mischievous proceedings may ne the glorie of his filiall pietie, the onely reward now left for so great a merite. And if it may be, let me obtaine that of you, which my sonne denies me: for never was there more pity in saving any, then in ending me; both because therein my agonies shall ende, and so shall you preserve this excellent young man, who els wilfully folowes his owne ruine.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Sources for King Lear. Shakespeare Online. (day/month/year you accessed the information) < >.


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