By Kathryn Walton
Most people today know the story of King Lear from Shakespeare’s tragic play. But the original story actually comes from the medieval period, and it actually has a very happy ending.
Shakespeare wrote his famous tale of the tragic King Lear sometime around 1605. Its complex characterizations, story, and poetics reflect all the brilliance of the early modern playwright. But Shakespeare was far from the first to recount the story of this tragic king. The story actually has roots in medieval folk culture and was first written down by the medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. It also presents a rather different image of Lear and his youngest daughter.
Shakespeare’s King Lear
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and one often used to celebrate that playwright’s unique genius. The play is commonly taught in high schools (I read it in grade twelve). It is also frequently staged; I saw a brilliant production starring Colm Feore a few years ago at the Stratford Festival of Canada (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image of their version of the blinding of Gloucester out of my head).
Shakespeare’s King Lear tells the story of a proud King who divides his kingdom amongst his daughters based on who best expresses her love for him. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to engage in the deceptive tactics of her sisters, so Lear disinherits her and marries her off to the King of France. After her departure, Lear falls victim to the increasingly poor treatment of his two eldest daughters before eventually wandering exiled and mad around the English countryside. Hearing of his poor treatment, Cordelia returns to England with an army to save her father, but (spoiler alert) that army is defeated, and Cordelia is captured.
The play ends with the pile of bodies typical to a Shakespearean tragedy. The final scene sees Lear enter with the body of his youngest and most beloved daughter in his arms. He dies old and defeated, trying to find a sign of life in her face.
It’s a heartbreaking ending to a remarkable play filled with deception, seduction, madness, and tragedy. But it was not invented by Shakespeare.
As he tended to do, Shakespeare drew on other sources circulating in the early modern period to create this play. His primary source is thought to be a play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters which tells a version of the story of Lear. It was probably written around 1590, and Shakespeare knew it well – he may have even acted in it. Shakespeare was also familiar with the historical narrative of King Lear as told by Raphael Holinshed in The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1577).
But none of these early modern sources contains the earliest story of the famous king. The story actually comes from medieval folklore, history, and literature.
King Lear in the Middle Ages
Some version of the King Lear story likely circulated in English oral culture long before it was written down. If you boil the story down to its essential components, it looks a whole lot like a folktale. Folktales are traditional stories with traditional plots and motifs that circulate orally. Fairy tales, like the medieval version of Cinderella, are a kind of folktale.
This folktale probably told of a powerful king who divided his kingdom amongst his three daughters based on a contest, ultimately found the youngest to be the most deserving, and gave the kingdom just to her. Many traditional motifs and conventions of folktales can be found in the structure: the division of a kingdom by a contest; the three daughters; the youngest as most faithful.
Certainly, the person who first wrote down Lear’s story took a lot of his information from folktales and legends. That person was the early medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth.
The story of King Lear (or Leir in this case) first appears in the early 12th century in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. This extremely popular work recounts the history of the kings of Britain from the founding of the nation by Brutus to the death of Cadwallader in the late 7th century. It was intended both as a historical account of the formation of Britain as well as a kind of propaganda for the newly established Norman aristocracy. It is most famous today as the earliest extended account of the legend of King Arthur, but it also contains the legends of other historical kings of Britain – including Lear.
After its appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the story of King Lear became popular among English and French readers. It appears in the influential French romance Perceforest. It also became its own romance by the late 13th century. That romance no longer survives, but the title appears in a list of Anglo-Norman romances in Shrewsbury School MS 7. For a succinct account of where the story emerges, check out Helen Cooper’s The English Romance in Time. Her book offers great insight into how various legends and narratives transmitted from the medieval to early modern periods.
So, far from originating with Shakespeare, the story of the ancient king of Britain called Lear may have appeared in some form in traditional oral culture, it featured in medieval chronicles, and it appeared in popular romance narratives. The original story also has a rather different ending.
The Original Story of King Lear
In the earliest surviving version, Lear is the son of King Bladud of England. After his father’s death, Lear rules Britain for sixty years. During his reign he establishes Kaerleir which is later called Leicester. He has three daughters named Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia but no sons. When he starts to feel old, he decides to divide the kingdom between his three daughters and marry them to husbands whom he thinks suitable and who can help them rule the kingdom.
As in Shakespeare, he asks each to tell him who loves him most. Goneril and Regan immediately give profuse and false accounts telling him they love him more than their own souls and any other living person. Cordelia critiques her sisters’ responses and tells her father that “I have always loved you as a father and at this moment feel no lessening of my affection for you.” Lear gets very angry, disinherits her, and sends her to marry Aganippus, King of the Franks, who loves her despite her lack of dowry.
Lear remains in England with his elder daughters, but then, when Lear grows old, they rebel against him and strip him of his power. They also take away his attendants, leaving him impoverished and without support. Up to this point, the story is pretty much the same as Shakespeare’s version. The difference comes in what happens next.
After receiving this poor treatment, Lear does not wander in despair and madness in the wilderness; instead, he makes his way over to Gaul to find his youngest daughter and a way to reclaim his kingdom.
He arrives in France, impoverished and with only one attendant and sends a message to Cordelia that he has come to seek her help because he has nothing to eat and nothing to wear. Cordelia is sympathetic and sends help so that he can be dressed, fed, and brought back to his former state of glory.
He then comes in state to the court of King Aganippus to announce that he has been expelled from Britain and has come to ask his assistance in recovering his realm. Aganippus agrees to help recover the kingdom and calls all able men to arms.
Lear and Cordelia then lead an army back to England. They enter the country in full force, marching at the head of a large company of soldiers. They easily defeat the rebellious daughters and dukes and bring the realm back into the hands of Lear. Lear is reinstated as king, and when Lear dies of old age three years later, Cordelia becomes Queen of Britain as well as of France.
It is a triumphant ending, and a far cry from Shakespeare’s tale of despair and defeat. Lear enacts personal vengeance on those who wronged him and takes the kingdom out of the hands of the rebels. The faithful daughter is also rewarded with the crowns of both England and France. Tragedy does come into Geoffrey’s version of the story later when Cordelia dies by suicide in prison, but Lear’s story remains overwhelmingly positive. And for a good reason.
Lear in Medieval History
The happy ending of the story actually served a political purpose. Part of Geoffrey’s intent in recounting the story of Lear and other ancient kings of Britain was to provide a noble and heroic tale of ancestry for the new Norman kings of England. And so, it makes sense that the story would end more positively. The Norman kings would want to connect themselves with triumphant rather than failed rulers.
The story also provided a historical (or pseudo-historical) connection between the rulers of England and of France. As a one-time ruler of both nations, Cordelia provided a common ancestor between the rulers of both nations that further justified Norman rule in England. The precedent of joint rulership also provided one form of justification for the many and various attempts of English rulers to conquer France (in their minds anyway).
The story in its original version thus gives some insight into the image that medieval kings wanted to present to the world. King Lear is much more akin to a hero of romance or epic. Far from the tragic figure created by Shakespeare, the medieval King Lear is a heroic if fallible figure of conquest and might.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.