The Tragedy of King Lear
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The first attribution to Shakespeare of this play, originally drafted in 1605 or 1606 at the latest with its first known performance on St. Stephen's Day in 1606, was a 1608 publication in a quarto of uncertain provenance, in which the play is listed as a history; it may be an early draft or simply reflect the first performance text. The Tragedy of King Lear, a more theatrical revision, was included in the 1623 First Folio. Modern editors usually conflate the two, though some insist that each version has its own individual integrity that should be preserved.
After the English Restoration, the play was often revised with a happy, non-tragic ending for audiences who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century Shakespeare's original version has been regarded as one of his supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear."
King Lear of Britain, elderly and wanting to retire from the duties of the monarchy, decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and declares he will offer the largest share to the one who loves him most. The eldest, Goneril, speaks first, declaring her love for her father in fulsome terms. Moved by her flattery Lear proceeds to grant to Goneril her share as soon as she has finished her declaration, before Regan and Cordelia have a chance to speak. He then awards to Regan her share as soon as she has spoken. When it is finally the turn of his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, at first she refuses to say anything ("Nothing, my Lord") and then declares there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she says honestly but bluntly that she loves him according to her bond, no more and no less. Infuriated, Lear disinherits Cordelia and divides her share between her elder sisters.
The Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent observe that, by dividing his realm between Goneril and Regan, Lear has awarded his realm in equal shares to the peerages of the Duke of Albany (Goneril's husband) and the Duke of Cornwall (Regan's husband). Kent objects to Lear's unfair treatment of Cordelia; enraged by Kent's protests, Lear banishes him from the country. Lear then summons the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, who have both proposed marriage to Cordelia. Learning that Cordelia has been disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her nonetheless. The King of France is shocked by Lear's decision because up until this time Lear has only praised and favoured Cordelia ("... she whom even but now was your best object, / The argument of your praise, balm of your age, ..."). Meanwhile, Gloucester has introduced his illegitimate son Edmund to Kent.
Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, revealing that their declarations of love were fake and that they view Lear as a foolish old man.
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