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King Lear

King Lear dramatizes the story of an aged king of ancient Britain, whose plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters ends tragically. When he tests each by asking how much she loves him, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him. The youngest, Cordelia, does not, and Lear disowns and banishes her. She marries the king of France. Goneril and Regan turn on Lear, leaving him to wander madly in a furious storm.

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund turns Gloucester against his legitimate son, Edgar. Gloucester, appalled at the daughters’ treatment of Lear, gets news that a French army is coming to help Lear. Edmund betrays Gloucester to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who puts out Gloucester's eyes and makes Edmund the Earl of Gloucester.

Cordelia and the French army save Lear, but the army is defeated. Edmund imprisons Cordelia and Lear. Edgar then mortally wounds Edmund in a trial by combat. Dying, Edmund confesses that he has ordered the deaths of Cordelia and Lear. Before they can be rescued, Lear brings in Cordelia’s body and then he himself dies.

Early printed texts

The textual history of King Lear is complicated, from its first printing to how it is edited today. The play first appeared in 1608 as a quarto titled True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear (Q1). That version of the play is in itself confusing: some verse lines are erroneously divided or set as prose, prose lines are sometimes set as verse, and the book went through multiple changes during its press run, correcting mistakes, but also introducing new ones. The play was reprinted in 1619 (Q2), with some additional lineation and word changes. In 1623, the play was included in the First Folio as The Tragedie of King Lear (F1). This version of the play is markedly different than Q1: there are about 100 lines that are in F1 but not Q1, and about 300 lines (including the entirety of 4.3) that are in Q1 but omitted in F1; there are also differences in about 800 words between the two versions. 

Since the 18th century, editors have conflated the two versions—combining both texts to produce a play that is different from either Q1 or F1. In the 20th century, scholars increasingly argued that each version was a distinct play, either due to one of the versions incorporating interventions from someone other than Shakespeare, or due to Shakespeare's own revision of the play. It is possible now to find modern editions that conflate Q1 and F1, that are based on solely Q1 or F1, or that present Q1 and F1 on facing pages. The Folger edition is based on Q1, but it includes additions from F1 where the omission would otherwise leave a gap. The edition marks off the F1-only text in square brackets; Q1-only text is indicated with angled brackets. In some cases, the editors have made changes that are not from F1 or Q1; those emendations are marked with half-brackets.

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titlepage of Q1 King Lear
Item Title: 
[King Lear] M. William Shak-speare: his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22292 copy 1
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1608

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title page of Q2 King Lear
Item Title: 
[King Lear] M. VVilliam Shake-speare, his true chronicle history of the life and death of King Lear, and his three daughters.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22293 copy 1
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1608 [i.e. 1619]

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beginning of the First Folio King Lear
Item Title: 
Works. 1623] Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1623

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beginning of the Second Folio King Lear
Item Title: 
Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22274 Fo.2 no.07
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1632

Picturing King Lear

As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to King Lear is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.

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Robert Mantell as King Lear (early 20th century)

Robert Mantell as King Lear (early 20th century)

Item Title: 
[R.B. Mantell as] Lear [in Shakespeare's King Lear] To William Winter Yours R.B. Mantell [graphic].
Item Call Number: 
ART File M292.8 no.15 PHOTO (size XS)
Item Date: 
[S.l. : s.n., 19th cent. or early 20th cent.]

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Edmund Kean as King Lear (1822)

Edmund Kean as King Lear (1822)

Item Title: 
Mr. Kean as King Lear [in Shakespeare's King Lear] [graphic] / W H [sculp.].
Item Call Number: 
ART File K24.4 no.31 (size XS)
Item Creator: 
W. H., printmaker.
Item Date: 
London [England] : Pubd. by Hodgson & co., Novr. 29, 1822.

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Edwin Forrest as King Lear (mid-19th century)

Edwin Forrest as King Lear (mid-19th century)

Item Title: 
[Photographs of Edwin Forrest as Hamlet, Coriolanus, Virginius, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Metamora and others] [graphic] / F. Gutekunst.
Item Call Number: 
ART File F728 no.43 PHOTO
Item Creator: 
Gutekunst, Frederick, 1831-1917, photographer.
Item Date: 
Philadelphia [Pa. : s.n., mid-19th century]

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Cordelia (1896)

Cordelia (1896)

Item Title: 
The graphic gallery of Shakespeare's heroines ...
Item Call Number: 
ART Flat a24
Item Date: 
1896

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Julia  Marlowe as Cordelia (late 19th or early 20th century)

Julia  Marlowe as Cordelia (late 19th or early 20th century)

Item Title: 
[Julia Marlowe as Cordelia in Shakespeare's King Lear] [graphic] / Eddowes Bros.
Item Call Number: 
ART File M349.5 no.14 part 2 PHOTO (size XS)
Item Creator: 
Eddowes Bros. (New York, N.Y.), photographer.
Item Date: 
New York : [s.n., late 19th or early 20th century?]

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Edgar (18th century)

Edgar (18th century)

Item Title: 
[Edgar in King Lear, drawing for the Boydell Shakespeare] [graphic] / [John Hamilton Mortimer].
Item Call Number: 
ART Box M888 no.14 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Mortimer, John Hamilton, 1740-1779, artist.
Item Date: 
[18th century]

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Johann Ramberg painting of Lear and the Fool in the storm (Act 3, scene 2; 1829)

Johann Ramberg painting of Lear and the Fool in the storm (Act 3, scene 2; 1829)

Item Title: 
King Lear, III, 2, Another part of the heath, enter Lear and the fool [graphic] / [Johann Heinrich Ramberg].
Item Call Number: 
ART Box R167 no.11 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Ramberg, Johann Heinrich, artist.
Item Date: 
1829

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Edgar and Gloucester meet Lear (Act 4, scene 6; early 19th century)

Edgar and Gloucester meet Lear (Act 4, scene 6; early 19th century)

Item Title: 
Edgar & the Duke of Gloster meeting King Lear, who in his madness is proclaiming himself "every inch a king" [IV, 6] [graphic].
Item Call Number: 
ART File S528k6 no.35 (size XS)
Item Date: 
[London : J. Duncombe, early 19th century?]

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Benjamin West painting of Lear's reunion with Cordelia (Act 4, scene 7; 1793)

Benjamin West painting of Lear's reunion with Cordelia (Act 4, scene 7; 1793)

Item Title: 
King Lear and Cordelia [graphic] / B. West, 1793.
Item Call Number: 
FPa82
Item Creator: 
West, Benjamin, 1738-1820, artist.
Item Date: 
1793

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Lear carrying the dead Cordelia (Act 5, scene 3; 19th century)

Lear carrying the dead Cordelia (Act 5, scene 3; 19th century)

Item Title: 
Lear and Cordelia... act V scene III [graphic] / V. W. Bromley, pinxt ; C. Mottram sculpt.
Item Call Number: 
ART File S528k6 no.54 copy 2 (size S)
Item Creator: 
Mottram, Charles, 1817-1876, printmaker.
Item Date: 
[S.l.] : Cassell & Company, [19th cent.]

More images of King Lear can be seen in our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)