A Research Paper on King Lear

Written / Saturday, February 17th, 2018

King Lear Background Sources Explored is the first research paper I wrote at JMU in my Writing about Literature 200 class, the gateway course into the English major. The piece discusses how Shakespeare’s King Lear came to be and how it derived from an array of folktales, fairy tales, myths, and biblical passages. This piece uses 21 sources and is 15 pages long.

Dana Webb
Professor Johnson
ENG 299
14 December 2016

King Lear Background Sources Explored

   King Lear derives from an array of folktales, fairy tales, myths, and biblical passages: The Holinshed Chronicles, the anonymous tale of King Leir, Geoffrey’s Historica Regum Britanniae, the stories of Love Like Salt, The Outcast Child, Philip Sydney’s Arcadia, biblical passages, and the use of mythology. He molds this material into something new, a play with a striking moral lesson. Parents want independence for their children, but that independence can come with a cost for the parent: Does my child love me? What is my role in my child’s life? Whereas Shakespeare’s sources all have happy endings, Shakespeare provides us with a wholly original tragic twist on his material. His children have rejected him, his one child can forgive and love him, and he can regain his role as father with the forgiving child.

The Second Booke of the Historie of England by Raphael Holinshed tells of “Leir the sonne of Baldud ruler ouer the Britaines” (Stone 1). In the story, Leir asks his three daughters how much they love him. His two eldest daughters Gonerilla and Regan meet his expectations through their responses and as a reward are wed off to the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albania. They correctly display their love to him while his youngest daughter Cordeilla, which he favors most, displeases him with her response. The king “being nothing content with this answer” (Stone 1) took away her share of the land and “reserued nothing” (Stone 1) to her. “The love test serves its stated purpose: to determine which of the daughters will either receive the greatest share of the kingdom or succeed their father on the throne” (Rutz 49). Much like Shakespeare’s retelling, “Holinshed has the king of France fall in love with Cordeilla for her “beautie, womanhood, and good conditions” (Rutz 42) even though she has no dowery. After all his daughters are wed, Leir continues to rule his kingdom and individually visits each of his daughters. He witnesses the unkindness of his two eldest daughters when they allow him only one servant. Being fed up with their selfishness, Leir sails across the sea to visit his youngest daughter, Cordeilla. Once he arrives, he finds that she is delighted to see him and immediately forgives him for his actions towards her. She allows him in her court and restores his servants to him. Frustrated with her sister’s horrible behavior towards their father, Cordeilla and Leir plan to retake possession of the land. Through a battle, Cordeilla and Leir defeat the Duke of Cornwall and Albania. He retakes his original possessions and Leir once again regains his rule of the kingdom for two years until he dies from old age. Cordeilla succeeds Leir after his death and reigns for five years until the sons of Gonorilla and Regan imprison her. “Having no hope of release,” Cordeilla “slew herself” (Stone 6).

   The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his Three Daughters; Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella is by an anonymous playwright and was performed during the 1590’s by the Queen’s and Sussex’s Men at the Rose Theatre (Mabillard). The anonymous playwright tells about the death of Lear’s queen and how he “abdicates from the throne because his wife died and he feels lost without her” (Jin 36). Leir accepts their answers and exerts his power by choosing husbands for his daughter’s. The two eldest daughters are married to the two Dukes of Albany and Cornwall while the youngest daughter is cast aside. Lear, displeased with her answer, takes away her dowry. Although the youngest daughter, Cordelia has nothing, Leir still allows her to wed the King of France for he sees her for who she truly is rather than by her worth. The rest of the story continues to follow the original story written in the Holinshed Chronicles and has a happy ending as well. “Both [The Holinshed Chronicles and The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his Three Daughters] ends with happy endings” (Jin 1) where Cordelia forgives her father for his actions and Leir is restored to the throne once more.

Geoffrey’s Historica Regum Britanniae consists of a series of stories that entails the reign of King Arthur and the many crusades throughout the land. He establishes himself as supreme ruler and works to expand his kingdom and army globally. With the help of loyal attendant, Lucious, Arthur uses his loyal subjects to expand his power and create an army. Arthur recruit’s figures such as Robert, Earl of Gloucester; Welran, Count of Meulan; and King Stephen I to help him increase his reign. “All three of these figures had close ties to the crusade” (Norako) and are well known historical figures. “Geoffrey clearly sought to curry favor with certain Anglo-Norman nobles who had close ties to the campaigns of the First Crusade in his writing of the Historia” (Norako) and includes the names of these classical figures in his work to tie them to historical dates. Geoffrey uses the prominence of King Arthur and his ancestry which traces back to Brute. The stories revolve around King Arthur and are “attached to the mythical British king to whom he gave the name of a Celtic sea god, Leir” (Werne 9). Through this foundational myth, Geoffrey aims to “both glorify the ancestral rulers of Britain and to warn against the disunity that so often undid them” (Norako). It is “likely [that Geoffery] had a collection of Welsh folk-tales to draw from” (Hartland) when creating the Historica Regum Britanniae.

   Water and Salt is an Italian fairytale which was told around the world and can be seen in many different forms. This tale inspired many other versions of the story such as The Goose-Girl at the Well, Like Good Salt, The King and his Daughters, and includes To Love My Father All which is found in the story of King Lear. There once was a king who had three daughters. One day, the king asked his daughters how much he loved them. The first daughter said that she loved him as much as her eyes. The second said that she loved him as much as her heart. Lastly, the third daughter said that she loved him like water and salt. Offended and outraged by the youngest daughter’s response, the king ordered her execution. The two eldest daughters disapproved of their father’s order to kill their youngest sister and created a plan to save their sister. The two sisters brought the executioner a dog as a replacement for their sister and ordered him to cut off the dog’s tongue. The sisters took the dogs tongue and their youngest sisters garments to their father as proof of her death. The youngest sister escaped away from the kingdom, into the woods, where she came across a magician who took her to his dwelling which was opposite of a king. The king’s son saw her from afar and fell madly in love with her. The magician allowed the prince to wed her however, he asks to be killed the day before the wedding to have his blood sprinkled around the room. All the kings of the land must be invited that day, including her father. In addition, the servants must give water and salt to every guest during the ceremonial dinner except her father. When the magicians blood was sprinkled around the room the day of the wedding, the drops of blood transformed into precious stones. The prince married Leir’s daughter and at the banquet Leir sat next to his daughter unknowingly. When his daughter asked him why he did not want to eat, he replied that he did not feel well. As each course came, Leir did not eat because he had no water or salt along with his meal. When the meal was over, the people gathered around and began to tell stories. Leir told the story of his daughter who he had killed long ago. At the same time, his daughter stepped out of the room and put on her original garments in which she was “killed” in. When her father laid eyes on her, he was astonished by her presence and quickly embraced her. “They remained happy and contented, and here we are with nothing” (Ashliman). Many other versions derived from this Love Like Salt tale but this version of this Italian fairytale is the most well known.

   Other fairytales such as Cinderella and Snow White are portrayed similarly to these previous stories. These tales both show the importance of the “outcast child.” In the fairytale of Cinderella, the daughter is looked down upon by everyone in the household and is cast aside. One night, Cinderella disobeys her stepmothers wishes and goes to the ball at the castle where she meets a prince. Once again the prince falls in love with this unidentifiable maiden. Cinderella wins the prince’s heart and they wed once at once. Shortly after they become married and live happily ever after (Hasse 202-203). Cinderella is the “youngest daughter who is preferred by the prince to her two elder [step-]sisters” (Osborne 8). The “Love test” can be seen in “Grimms’ early editions of their folktales and fairy tales [which] treated oral storytelling as natural poetry that ought to be collected and published.” (Hasse 323). The tale has changed overtime through the oral retelling from one person to another. In the fairytale Snow White, the mother dies, the father remarries, and step-mother sends his daughter away to the woods. She tries to kill her out of jealousy and forces her to eat a poisoned apple which causes Snow White to fall into a deep sleep. One day, a prince passing by sees her body lying encased in a glass coffin and falls madly in love. He orders his servants to carry her coffin back to his castle at once. While carrying her coffin to the castle, one of the servant’s drops the coffin and Snow White is revived when she spits up the poisonous apple. The prince immediately swifts her off her feet and marries her. At the wedding, the evil stepmother is punished when she is “forced to dance to death in red hot shoes.” (Hasse 884). These fairytales are “creative expressions from the oral tradition” (Hasse 357) which have been passed down over time through word of mouth. They all follow a three part structure of “separation, liminality, and reincorporation into [the] community” to create an entertaining tale.

Phillip Sydney’s Arcadia narrates a blind Paphlagonian king who had two sons, one illegitimate” (Werne 15). To advance himself and appeal to his father who is the king, the bastard “poisons the king’s mind against his brother” (Werne 15). His brother must flee due to his father’s rage. With the “rightful heir out of the way, the illegitimate son” takes his father’s power, seizes the wealth, and blinds him. The king being disposed of wishes to end his life due to his loss and misery. “Hearing of the father’s ill fate, the exiled son came to his aid” (Werne 16). While this occurs, the bastard was overthrown from the thrown and lost his given power. The king heard the news and was overcome with both joy and sorrow. In his state of mixed emotion, the old king died. The story closes with the brother forgiving his illegitimate brother (Werne 16).

   The classic gods and myths are referenced in Shakespeare’s work and are important to understanding the meaning behind the events that happen in King Lear. Jupiter Apollo, and Hecate are important classical gods. Juno is the “patroness of weather” (Harrdison 236), Jupiter is king of all the gods and is ruler of the sky, Apollo is referred to as the “god of light” (Sherman 28) which brings power, and Hecate is “the Greek moon goddess of the underworld” (Proaps 7). The Myth of Ixion is another story that affects Shakespeare’s work. Ixion was the first Greek to be an effective ruler and had one hundred knights who were centaurs. When this ruler was overthrown and cast down from power, his fall was “symbolized by a wheel ‘because the turn of a wheel soon casts down whatever it hold high’”(Harrdison 229). The second part of the myth tells of “Ixion’s attempted seduction of Juno” (Harrdison 229) who is married to the god Jupitar. Jupitar invites Ixion to a feast after Ixion kills his father in law with his army of centaurs. Ixion repays Jupitar by trying to seduce his wife. Jupiter and Juno, both displeased with his actions, strikes “Ixion into hell” (Hardison 235) with their thunderbolts. The Centaurs, known as the “children of Ixion, king of Thessaly” play an important role as well. Centaurs are “the guardians of the seventh circle of hell” (Hardison 231) in Dante’s Inferno and are “violent desires for rule, and their battle with the Lapithae is an allegory of the attempt to usurp power” (Hardison 230).

   References to biblical passages and an array of proverbs can be found as references. Some of these passages are from the book of Job and Genesis in The Bible, which includes stories about Christ’s crucifixion, Joseph and his brethren, and Cain and Able. These stories revolve around the idea that striving to obtain power and wealth can be morally wrong. The story of Joseph and his brethren start with the son being cast out from the family. The outcast son finds strength in the future through God. This helps him have forgiveness and compassion toward his cruel family; The story of Cain and Able tells how Able killed his brother Cain from mere jealousy; The crucifixion of Christ is the story of how Jesus, known as Christ the Savior, sacrificed himself on the cross to save the people from their sins.

   King Lear possesses the “basic elements of a fairytale” (Hasse 323) however, Shakespeare changed a lot within these fairytales and folktales to create a more entertaining story that conveys a moral lesson. He changes the plot structure in which he gets his ideas and centers it around the basis of both marriage and inheritance to create his tragedy.

   The role of Lear in Cordelia’s life is first portrayed when there is no mention of the mother. Lear is the only authoritative figure in his daughters’ lives and has no help in raising them. The anonymous tale of King Leir tells of the loss of Leir’s wife. This shows that there was once a motherly figure involved within the lives of Leir and his daughters. Although she is deceased, they must continue with their lives as if she never existed and learn to live without her. Leir has lost his “motherly” figure and tries to replace his lost love with the love that he receives from his daughters. The existence of their only being a father figure is more emphasized due to the fact Shakespeare does not tell of a motherly figure in his retelling. Lear is the only authority figure involved in his daughters’ lives. This increases his power and thus Lear decides the fate of his daughters solely himself. “In the [anonymous] King Leir play, the marriages of all three daughters are directly determined by their answers to the love test” (Rutz 54). Although the “answers to the love test are still the same like the previous fairytales, Shakespeare changes the way he mentions the mother in the text to emphasize the power that King Lear possesses.

   Shakespeare keeps the “love like salt” concept to emphasize the importance of the daughter heroine. The concept of the salt defines the “moral and thematic basis of the original stories” (Osborne 8) and sets the basis for Lear’s downfall. In Love Like Salt, the king learns a lesson when he realizes what it is like to eat without water and salt. “At the beginning of both [King Lear, The Holinshed Chronicles, and King Leir], Leir divides his kingdom by asking his daughters to answer how much they love him” (Jin 1). The “marriages of all three daughters are directly determined by their answers to the love test” (Rutz 54). Cordelia’s experience throughout King Lear is similar to the daughters described in the Love like Salt folktales and the Cinderella story. Shakespeare draws a parallel to Cordelia’s relationship with her two sisters and the “wicked older [step-]sisters” in the tale of Cinderella. “Lear favors the sycophancy of his eldest daughters over the love of Cordelia” (Osborne 11) who the most loyal daughter. Sibling rivalry is present because they are fighting for the affection from their father. They each want to be the father’s favorite daughter to gain access to the wealth he possesses. Shakespeare keeps the “basic plot consisting of an initial love test in which a king asks his three daughters to declare their love for him” (Dundes 356) to pave the way for Lear’s downfall. By removing salt from the equation and still providing the basis of the love test, Shakespeare is shifting the focus of his vision of the story to the larger implications of the events. “The various versions of the love test in the folktale analogues further illuminate the psychological dimension of the test used by Lear, especially the series of consequences for the child who loses the ‘game’”(Rutz 52).

The daughter heroine is the central figure of King Lear. “In fairy tales, the protagonists are almost always sons or daughters, not parents.” (Dundes 356). For example, “in one [fairytale] version, the father becomes insane and the heroine’s care restores him to his sense. In another [version], the father falls dead upon recognizing the heroine” (Dundes 356) and therefore the heroine is always seen as the main character. When Cordelia dies at the end of the play, Shakespeare is emphasizing her importance as the central figure of the play. By Lear initially casting Cordelia aside, he is setting up the events that will lead up to both their deaths. In the sources such as Cinderella, Snow White, Historica Regum Britanniae, The Holinshed Chronicles, and the Love like Salt tales, the “central figure is the analog to Cordelia. It follows [with] Shakespeare’s emphasis upon Lear” (Dundes 356). King Lear is based on these several possible sources that finish with a happy endings. “Conversely, Shakespeare alters the ending tragically by putting King Lear and his youngest daughter Cordelia to lamentable death” (Jin 40). Shakespeare subverts the happy ending to the unjustified death of Cordelia to showcase the importance of the daughter-heroine in this tragic event.

   Shakespeare added in the subplot to reinforce the idea of the outcast child. Just like Cordelia, Edgar also breaks his familial ties. The story of Arcadia by Philip Sydney, parallels this subplot. In King Lear, Edmund tells Edgar of their father’s rage towards him and in haste, Edgar flees. Edmund is advancing his wealth through greed and evil just like the illegitimate bastard son in Arcadia. Both Edgar as well as Cordelia must find their way without their families and learn to live on their own without the help of their father’s. They both travel on a journey of maturation away from “the parent’s heath to find his or her own place in the world” (Rutz 32). While this takes place, the parents of the children are in the “process of realizing that their children will soon no longer be dependent on or supported by them and they therefore need to know whether their children will still love them once they have become independent” (Rutz 54). Both parental figures, Cordelia’s father and Edgar’s father, are forgiven for their previous actions and they realize their children will still love them in the end no matter what happens.

Shakespeare uses a wide variety of mythological allusions within King Lear. The “providential punishment (Jove’s thunderbolt), the idea of lust (the centaurs), [and] emphasis on wealth as a source of power (Juno symbolism)” (Hardison 232) illuminates the meaning behind the text. The myths are “supernatural events [that] occur in [another world]” (Sherman 322). These events “involve gods or supernatural beings” and are used to tell a story which “shape[s] current reality” (Sherman 322). The “myths were critical components of Shakespeare’s plays, providing inspiration for his dramatic personae, as well as suggesting key political figures and events of his time” (Proaps vii) because people understood these references. Shakespeare references the gods of Apollo, Hecate, and Jupiter to emphasize the effects of Lear’s actions. “Now, by Apollo” (I.I.165) Lear calls on the god by using his name in vain. He is calling on the powers of Apollo and Hecate to disown his daughter.

        “For by the sacred radiance of the sun,

         The mysteries of Hecate and the night,

         By all the operation of the orbs

         From whom we do exist and cease to be—

         Here I disclaim all my paternal care”


    Lear is channeling the power of the gods to help enforce his actions. It is known that during this time the king is the most powerful position and is connected religiously to the gods. Little does Lear know that the gods will retaliate against him for his actions. Lear is calling upon Jupiter who is the most powerful and vindictive out of all the gods. He claims that “By Jupiter, / this shall not be revoked” (I.I.184-185). Cordelia will regret her statement of love towards Lear when she faces his wrath. There is foreshadowing to the raging storm to come when Lear says, “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” (I.I.41). Lear will become mad after he loses his familial ties and due to his wrong doings, the gods will rein terror down on Lear through a storm.

   Jupiter punishes Lear for his ingratitude and destroys his kingdom through a raging storm. The storm represents Jupiter’s rage toward Lear and his out of control life. He ventures out into the storm and faces the “sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, / Such groans of roaring wind and rain” (III.II.46-47). Through nature Shakespeare is portraying Lear’s downfall and the wrath of the god, Jupitar. The storm reflects the chaos that Lear is facing through his “separation of authority” (Hardison 236). He has lost his grasp on reality, fell from power, and has severed the bond between Goneril and Regan. Realizing his mistakes, Lear calls to “Let the great gods, / That keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads, / Find out their enemies now” (III.II.50-53). Lear doesn’t understand why he is being punished because he is “a man / more sinned against than sinning” (III.II.60-61) and other people have sinned more than he has in his life. Since Lear used Jupiter’s name in vain and continued to be selfish, he faces the consequences for his actions and must appease the gods by making amends with Cordelia to fixate his previous actions. Centaurs are referenced to show the selfish ways of Lear’s daughter’s, Regan and Goneril.

Lear says that,

“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though woman all above

But to the Girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s.

There’s hell, there’s darkness”


This reference to the myth of Ixion illustrates the familial ingratitude between Goneril and Regan. Centaurs are known as children of Ixion. “The myth of Ixion supplied Shakespeare with the philosophical issues in terms of which the action of the play is developed (Harrdison 228) by paralleling the “offspring of Lear with the offspring of Ixion” (Hardison 237). He is showing Goneril and Cordelia are like centaurs. They are both greedy and strive to take power by appeasing their father. Goneril and Regan are “like centaurs, have[ing] malicious sides, which are reflected in their attempts to usurp Lear’s kingdom from him” (Proaps 15). The wheel of fire is the punishment of Ixion and is used to portray Lear’s fate and his punishment for his actions. Lear references this myth by saying, “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own / Do scald like molten lead” (IV. Vii. 46-48). The allusion to the punishment of Ixion shows that Lear is suffering a similar punishment. The wheel is in motion until he realizes his sins and askes for forgiveness from Cordelia. Kent states to “smile once more; turn thy wheel!” (II.ii.166) and the wheel will continue to turn until he recognizes his faults. He continues to suffer further through his loss of Cordelia. “The wheel come[s] full circle” (V.iii.188) and only comes to a stop when Lear dies.

King Lear contains numerous allusions and quotations from both the Old and New Testament of The Bible. The “proverbs are illuminating in many different ways, including their ability to allow us to catch a glimpse of ancient wisdom and then to apply that wisdom to new situations and contexts” (Harp 198). This provides truth and advice to the reader. The story of Joseph and his brethren found in the book of Genesis parallels the relationship between Lear and Cordelia. Cordelia is cast aside by her father but later comes to forgive him for his actions. In the book of Genesis, Joseph does the same to his family. Joseph is exiled from his family but comes to forgive them by finding strength within himself through God. In turn, the story of Cain and Able parallels the subplot with Edmund and Edgar. Edmund is jealous of Edgar’s inheritance of wealth. He forces him away from their father out of jealousy. Just like Able who killed his brother Cain out of mere jealousy, Edmund duels Edgar to win praise from their father. In addition, the story of the crucifixion of Christ can be seen in the relationship between Cordelia and Lear. Cordelia dies for Lear and appeases him of his sins that he committed toward her at the beginning of the play. Christ dies for the sins of others just like how Cordelia died for Lear’s sins. “Cordelia is supposed to save her father and to be vindicated in his eyes” (Rutz 161). Cordelia died for Lear’s sins to “save him” from the terrible acts that he committed. Cordelia forgives Lear for his actions and helps him. Edgar also forgives his father, Gloucester, for his actions and takes him into his care. Shakespeare is emphasizing the importance of strong familial relationships by sending the message of forgiveness to his audience through these biblical passages.

“Lear utters more proverbs than anyone else in the play-forty-eight by my count-followed by the Fool with thirty-five” (Harp 211). Shakespeare intended to reference The Bible to “aid not only [by] illuminating philosophical conundrums but also in developing the character complexity of the play” (Harp 210). For example, the biblical notion that god created the world from nothing is referenced. “God created something from nothing” (Genesis 1:1). When Lear asks Cordelia to state her love towards him, he says that “Nothing will come from nothing: speak again” (I.I.89). This is the opposite of something that will come from nothing. The word “nothing” also shows up later in the play when the Fool says “now thou art an O / without a figure. I am better than thou art now. I / am a Fool, thou art nothing” (I.IV.166-168). “A few lines further on the Fool modifies this by answering Lear’s (proverbial question), ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am’ by saying, ‘Lear’s shadow’ (I.IV.230-231)” (Harp 208). Lear’s fool uses this proverb “to establish his credentials and show the old man, not easily done, his great folly in trusting Goneril and Regan” (Harp 208). In addition, the following allusions have been noted: Cordelia states, “I cannot heave / my heart into my mouth” (I.I.91). In comparison, The Bible states “The heart of fooles is in their mouth: but the mouth of the wise is in his heart (Ecclus. xxi, 26)” (Werne 32). Shakespeare changed the phrase found in the Bible to be incorporated in King Lear to teach a lesson as well as reveal truth. The concept of free choice can also be seen when Kent continues to serve Lear even when he is banished. This free will shows that Kent is a loyal subject to Lear and continues to serve him even though Lear wronged him. The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his Three Daughters; Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella expands on the legend of King Leir by incorporating meaningful new characters into the story such as Perillus, who is known as Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Like Kent, Perillus attends to king Leir and stays by his side throughout the play (Mabillard). Kent is crucial to King Leir’s well being because he helps Leir through his dilemma with his daughters. He helps Lear in his darkest time and chooses to stay by his side. Shakespeare uses these biblical references to illuminate the importance of what it means to being a good person through his plot line.

   By amalgamating these folktales, fairy tales, myths, and biblical passages, Shakespeare shows that the parents and the children both needed to do some soul searching to realize their place in the world. Shakespeare alters the ending tragically from his original sources to reveal an important moral lesson. Once the child becomes independent, what becomes of the parent? This question is answered within King Lear and the audience learns that no matter what the actions of the parent are, the child will still love and forgive them. This proves that true love conquers all and through the deaths of both Lear and Gloucester, Shakespeare ultimately teaches us the lesson of forgiveness.


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