The first recorded performance of William Shakespeare's King Lear was on 26 December 1606.
There had been other versions of the story, in books and performed on stage, as far back as perhaps 1594. Shakespeare may have written this play, or it could have been someone else like Thomas Kyd.
It is also possible that Shakespeare himself performed the role of King Lear in 1594.
There is so much we don't know about this subject.
However, there are two things that are rather certain -- that Shakespeare and his fellow King's Men performed a version of the story of King Lear and his three daughters, and this version (on 26 December 1606) was unlike all previous versions.
|Romola Garai and Ian McKellen in a 2008 RSC production|
All other versions tell the story how a King Lear divided his land between his daughters, his favorite daughter Cordelia upset her father and fell from his favor and by the end of the story she and her father triumph over the evil sisters Goneril and Regan, and reclaim their royal power.
These older stories were not just considered stories -- they were considered true historical fact.
Shakespeare was not satisfied with history, and he wrote a new twist. In this new version, which we know today, Lear and Cordelia both die. Goneril and Regan also die.
Shakespeare abandoned the uplifting ending of the previous versions. He wrote one of the bleakest conclusions in his career, comparable to the end of Hamlet.
In re-writing the story of King Lear Shakespeare was re-writing history. For anyone alive during the reign of King James, they would have been shocked and surprised that Shakespeare would have taken such a well-known story and turned a happy ending into a tragic one.
What on earth possessed him to write such a dark and nihilistic tragedy?
And why on earth did he perform it for King James during the winter holiday?
|King James, by John de Critz, 1606|
There may be no complete answers for these questions, but as you read this blog, I will do my best to explain the life and times of Shakespeare and his relationship with King James, in order to come to a better understanding why Shakespeare, at the peak of his power and influence, decided to write such a dark and unhappy story.
While we can read or watch King Lear today and examine it rationally and calmly, I hope to show you that when Shakespeare wrote it, he was far from calm and rational -- he wrote this play at a time of great historical consequence, and during a period in which he had every right to fear for the future of England.
David B. Schajer
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