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Leicester Special Collections

King Lear

King Lear - First Folio

The first page of The Tragedy of King Lear in the First Folio. Image courtesy: British Library.

Samuel Johnson is still considered one of the greatest Shakespearean critics of the 19th century. Talking about King Lear, he confessed that the play had such a shocking effect on him that for many years he wondered whether he would ever be able to read the last scenes again, until he was forced to do so as an editor. The play is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and arguably his darkest and most harrowing.

To create King Lear, Shakespeare amplified, compressed, complicated, and brought together a wide range of materials, from historical and literary sources to the contemporary topical story of Brian Annesley (Greenblatt, 2008, p. 2326). Among his historical sources are Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelve-century Historia Regum Britanniae, John Higgins’s A Mirror for Magistrates (1574), and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. The storm scenes come mostly from Samuel Harsnett’s  A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), as do some of Edgar’s lines. The story of Gloucester and his sons comes from an episode in Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia; Cordelia’s name and form of death come from Edmund Spencer’s The Faeire Queene. Shakespeare was also certainly familiar with the old play King Leir. Interestingly, more than a hundred words used by Shakespeare in King Lear can also be found in Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays.

The first account of Lear's story comes from Monmouth, who identifies Leir as the founder of the city of Leicester, which in Old Welsh was called Cair Lerion or Kearleir (City of Leir). According to Monmouth, the king was then buried in an underground chamber beneath the river near Leicester. It is this association between the mythical king and the River Soar that makes some now doubt the accuracy and historical existence of Lear.  William Sommer (1598-1669), an English antiquarian and the author of the first Anglo-Saxon dictionary, suggested that the word Lear comes from the Old Brittonic names of the River Soar, Leir, Ligera or Ligora.