Shakespeare’s sources – King Lear

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Holinshed's Cordelia

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I am continuing with King Lear. King Lear has at least 4 sources Holinshed Chronicles – The true history of King Lear and his three daughters… which seems to suggest the main structure of the story but also Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia and the King James Bible JOB Ch24 v4-8  and JOB Ch34 v15. But in Shakespeare’s revisioning of the play he makes some significant changes to the ending.

This is Holinshed’s version (I have left the old spellings to give it character).  “Now when he had informed his son in law and his daughter in what sort he had beene vsed by his other daughters, Aganippus caused a mightie armie to be put in readinesse, and likewise a greate nauie of ships to be rigged, to passe ouer into Britaine with Leir his father in law, to see him againe restored to his kingdome. It was accorded, that Cordeilla should also go with him to take possession of the  land, the which he promised to leaue vnto hir, as the rightfull inheritour after his decesse, notwithstanding any former grant made to hir sisters or to their husbands in anie maner of wise. Hereupon, when this armie and nauie of ships were readie, Leir and his daughter Cordeilla with hir husband tooke the sea, and arriuing in Britaine, fought with their enimies, and discomfited them in battell, in the which Maglanus and Henninus were slaine: and then was Leir restored to his kingdome, which he ruled after this by the space of two yeeres, and then died, fortie yeeres after he first began to reigne.” From Holinshed Chronicles – “The True Chronicle History of King Lear and his three daughters; Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Raphael Holinshed (1587 ed)

In Shakespeare’s version the ending is significantly more tragic. Even though Lear’s army eventually wins, Cordelia is captured imprisoned and killed. Her dead body is brought on stage to the too late victorious King Lear and his grief over her death kills him. The provides Shakespeare with a beautiful and tragic stage tableaux and some very moving line – a powerful evocation of grief and an intriguing last line.


And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!


Interestingly though I think you will see the dramatic benefits of telling the story as Shakespeare does with it’s tragic ending, others have not always agreed. In fact in the generations after Shakespeare many subsequent playwrights adapted Shakespeare’s version of the story to restore Holinshed’s happier ending.

(with thanks to Ian Dickinson who is helping with the research for these blogs as a volunteer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Find out more about volunteering here)

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Amyloveliterature

    Finally, Marlowe;

    Marlowe is the most recent candidate to be linked to the authorship of
    Shakespeare – Calvin Hoffman suggested him as the author in 1955.

    Since he was already a well-known playwright his need for a pseudonym
    was different to those associated with his noble counterparts.



    Just as numerous parallels were drawn between the works of Bacon and
    Shakespeare, Hoffman saw similarities between the acknowledged works of Marlowe
    and those of Shakespeare, which caused him to deduce that Marlowe was



    Before his ‘death’, Marlowe had been called before the Privy Council and
    charged with publishing atheist and inflammatory texts – this may refer to the
    publication of the posting of the ‘Dutch Church Libel’, an anonymous doggerel
    handbill, which called for the violent expulsion of the ‘strangers’ from
    England and was signed ‘per Tamberlaine’ in reference to Marlowe’s famously
    bloodthirsty character. Marlowe’s roommate Thomas Kyd seems to have been
    brought in and tortured over the Libel. Weeks later, Marlowe had apparently
    been killed.



    Hoffman argued that Marlowe had a homosexual relationship with his
    powerful patron Sir Thomas Walsingham. Believing his lover’s life was in
    danger, Walsingham paid three ‘ruffians’ to go to London and murder a foreign
    sailor. They were then to allow themselves to be arrested, state that their
    victim was Marlowe and claim that they had acted in self-defence. Walsingham
    would bribe the coroner to accept their plea and the fact that the body was



    Marlowe, still alive, was then apparently smuggled out of the country
    and settled somewhere on the continent – Northern Italy. From there Marlowe
    continued to write – this is how the plays of Shakespeare gained their Italian
    influence / knowledge – the manuscripts were sent to Walsingham. The steady,
    unimaginative Shakespeare was seen, by Walsingham, as a suitable cover to be
    employed, so that his lover’s plays could find their rightful home on the
    English stage.

  • Amyloveliterature

    William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby was named as a
    playwright for the public theatre in an intercepted letter of Jesuit spy in the
    1590s. Derby was also recorded as travelling from France to Spain around 1583.
    Although it is not explicitly stated that he went to Navrac, Lefranc thought it
    likely that he was the true author.



    Titherly, the Shakespeare name was used to protect Derby’s dignity and
    nobility. Before he inherited his earldom, Derby, according to Titherly, had
    been publishing his poems under his own initials W. S. (William Stanley) and
    was considering publishing plays for the public theatre.

  • Amyloveliterature

    Shakespeares sources could be….other people writing his work.  There are at least three other men as the probably authors:
    1920 – J. T. Looney, a
    Gateshead schoolmaster proposes Oxford as the author behind Shakespeare in his
    book Shakespeare Identified. His
    followers have modified the theory to put Oxford at the head of a group of
    brilliant courtiers who produced the plays as a committee.




    Oxford’s biography also fitted the bill, according to
    Looney. As a courtier he had the necessary intimate knowledge of the monarchy
    and nobility. His extensive travels had caused him to be mocked as an
    ‘Italianate Englishman’. In 1598, Francis Meres named Oxford as ‘The best for
    Comedy among us’, which Looney asserted was evidence for Oxford having written
    plays – none of which exist under his name, perhaps because they were known
    under Shakespeare’s name?




    role in the syndicate was as the honest broker that negotiated with theatres
    and printers for production and publication of the plays. His name became the
    pseudonym that would protect the true authors form any politically dangerous
    material that they produced. Shakespeare’s acting knowledge may have aided the
    authors in rendering their literary productions into texts that were suitable
    for stage performance.

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