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King Lear

A scene from King Lear

Introduction to the play

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.

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Cover of the Folger Shakespeare edition of King Lear

The Folger Shakespeare

Our bestselling editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems

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

King Lear in our collection

A selection of Folger collection items related to King Lear. Find more in our digital image collection

Benjamin West. King Lear and Cordelia. Oil on canvas, 1793
R.B. Mantell as King Lear
Julia Marlowe as Cordelia
Act 3, scene 2: Another part of the heath, enter Lear and the fool. By Johann Heinrich Ramberg.

Essays and resources from The Folger Shakespeare

King Lear

Learn more about the play, its language, and its history from the experts behind our edition.

About Shakespeare’s King Lear
An introduction to the plot, themes, and characters in the play

Reading Shakespeare’s Language
A guide for understanding Shakespeare’s words, sentences, and wordplay

An Introduction to This Text
A description of the publishing history of the play and our editors’ approach to this edition

Shakespeare and his world

Learn more about Shakespeare, his theater, and his plays from the experts behind our editions.

Shakespeare’s Life
An essay about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived

Shakespeare’s Theater
An essay about what theaters were like during Shakespeare’s career

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays
An essay about how Shakespeare’s plays were published

Related blog posts and podcasts

Teaching King Lear

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.