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Shakespeare's Works
• The Plays
King Lear

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King Lear



How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.

Act 1, scene 4, lines 302–303

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
They kill us for their sport.

Act 4, scene 1, line 41–42

Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.

Act 5, scene 3, lines 328–329

Shakespeare's King Lear challenges us with the magnitude, intensity, and sheer duration of the pain that it represents. Its figures harden their hearts, engage in violence, or try to alleviate the suffering of others. Lear himself rages until his sanity cracks. What, then, keeps bringing us back to King Lear? For all the force of its language, King Lear is almost equally powerful when translated, suggesting that it is the story, in large part, that draws us to the play.

The play tells us about families struggling between greed and cruelty, on the one hand, and support and consolation, on the other. Emotions are extreme, magnified to gigantic proportions. We also see old age portrayed in all its vulnerability, pride, and, perhaps, wisdom—one reason this most devastating of Shakespeare's tragedies is also perhaps his most moving.

Scholars believe Shakespeare wrote King Lear in 1605 or 1606. It was performed at court in 1606, and a version was first published in 1608 as a quarto. Sources include an earlier play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and The Mirror for Magistrates.

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 1993 Folger Shakespeare Library

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Further reading
Stanley Cavell. Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge; NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Oliver Ford Davies. Playing Lear. Macmillan NYC 2003.

Philippa Kelly. The King and I. New York: Continuum 2011.

Janette Dillon. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Tragedies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Lesley Kordecki and Karla Koskinen. Re-Visioning Lear's Daughters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Alexander Leggatt. Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Violation and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Movies
King Lear (1983, Granada Television). Directed by Michael Elliott. Cast includes Laurence Olivier, Anna Calder-Marshall, John Hurt, Diana Rigg, and Leo McKern.

King Lear (1971, Athéna Films, Filmways Pictures, Filmways, Laterna Film, and Royal Shakespeare Company). Directed by Peter Brook. Cast included Paul Scofield.

Related movies
A Thousand Acres (1997, Touchstone Pictures, Propaganda Films, Beacon Communications, Via Rosa, Prairie Films, and Polygram Filmed Entertainment). Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin Firth, Keith Carradine, and Michelle Williams.

Ran (1985, Greenwich Film Productions, Herald Ace, and Nippon Herald Films). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Cast included Tatsuya Nakadai.
 
Benjamin West. King Lear and Cordelia (King Lear IV.vii). Oil on canvas, 1793



Explore

More about Benjamin West's Lear and Cordelia

Past Exhibitions: George Romney's Images of Lear


Inside the Collection

Folios and Quartos from the Collection: King Lear


Read the Play

Folger Digital Texts:
King Lear



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Janet Reno on a Group Reading of King Lear



Teacher Resources

Teaching King Lear



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