English 366B, Section S02: Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies   >   King Lear: Shakespeare's sources (2) To the previous page To the next page

Shakespeare's sources for King Lear (2)

King Lear and King Leir

Shakespeare's audience would have known the endings of many of his plays. Hamlet, for example, existed in an earlier version which has not survived. There was also an earlier version of the Lear story, The Troublesome Reign of King Leir. The play was published in 1605, roughly when Shakespeare was writing or had just written his play, and the title-page claims that it had "been divers and sundry times lately acted." Title pages are notoriously unreliable as evidence, since they were often used as advertisements and many printers were willing to stretch truth in order to sell copies; but it is certainly possible that the older play had been revived just before Shakespeare took the story and turned it upside down.

One effect of knowing the ending of a play is to heighten dramatic irony, since the audience knows more than the actors: those who had seen the earlier play would have expected a happy ending.

Shakespeare did not use many details of the earlier Troublesome Reign of King Leir in his reworking of the story. The older play is (to our eyes) melodramatic, and at times inept--the reconciliation scene between Leir and Cordella (Cordelia) has the two in a kind of battle of kneeling, each bobbing up and down several times. The passage that follows is chosen to show something of its treatment of one of the major issues in Shakespeare's version, the role of the gods in mortal affairs. In the Troublesome Reign the gods are benign, ready to intercede when humans look as if they are about to misbehave; in King Lear their role is at best ambiguous.

Leir and one of his faithful counselors, Perillus (a kind of Kent figure, without the need to be in disguise) are faint from hunger and fatigue; they fall asleep on stage, when a Messenger from Gonorilla (Gonoril) and Ragan (Regan) comes with instructions to kill them both. The Messenger has been told specifically to show the letter that condemns them to death, so he waits until they wake before coming forward. Lear begins by recounting a not-too-subtle dream he has had .  .  . 

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Leir. Methought my daughters, Gonorill and Ragan,
Stood both before me with such grim aspects,
Each brandishing a falchion in their hand,
Ready to lop a limb off where it fell,
And in their other hand a naked poniard
Wherewith they stabb'd me in a hundred places,
And to their thinking left me there for dead:
But then my youngest daughter, fair Cordella,
Came with a box of balsam in her hand,
And poured it into my bleeding wounds;
By whose good means I was recover'd well,
In perfit health, as erst I was before:
And with the fear of this I did awake,
And yet for fear my feeble joints do quake.
Mess. I'll make you quake for something presently.
Stand, stand.                      [They reel.]
Leir. We do, my friend, although with much ado.
Mess Deliver, deliver.
Per. Deliver us, good Lord, from such as he.
Mess. You should have prayed before, while it was time,
And then perhaps, you might have 'scap'd my hands:

                      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

How have you any hope to be deliver'd?
This comes, because you have no better stay,
But fall asleep, when you should watch and pray.
Leir. My friend, thou seem'st to be a proper man.
Mess. 'Sblood, how the old slave claws me by the elbow?
He thinks, belike, to 'scape by scraping thus.
Per. And it may be, are in some need of money.
Mess. That to be false, behold my evidence.
                     [Shows his purses.]
Leir. Ifthat I have will do thee any good,
I give it thee, even with a right good will.
                     [The messenger takes it.]
Per. Here, take mine too, and wish with all my heart,
To do thee pleasure, it were twice as much.
                     [The messenger takes his and weighs them both in his hands. ]
Mess. I'll none of them, they are too light for me.
                     [Puts them in his pocket.]
Leir. Why then farewell: and if thou have occasion
In any thing, to use me to the queen,
'Tis like enough that I can pleasure thee.
                     [They proffer (begin) to go.]
Mess. Do you hear, do you hear, sir?
If I had occasion to use you to the queen,
Would you do one thing for me I should ask?
Leir. Ay, anything that lies within my power.
Here is my hand upon it, so farewell.                      [Proffers to go.]
Mess. Hear you, sir, hear you? pray, a word with you.
Methinks, a comely honest ancient man
Should not dissemble with one for a vantage.
I know, when I shall come to try this gear
You will recant from all that you have said.
Per. Mistrust not him, but try him when thou wilt:
He is her father, therefore may do much.
Mess. I know he is, and therefore mean to try him:
You are his friend too, I must try you both.
Ambo [Both]. Prithee do, prithee do.                       [Proffer to go out.]
Mess. Stay gray-beards then, and prove men of your words:
The queen hath tied me by a solemn oath,
Here in this place to see you both dispatch'd [put to death]:
Now for the safeguard of my conscience,
Do me the pleasure for to kill yourselves:
So shall you save me labor for to do it,
And prove yourselves true old men of your words. . . 
Leir. Oh, but assure me by some certain token,
That my two daughters hired thee to this deed:
If I were once resolv'd of that, then I
Would wish no longer life, but crave to die.
Mess. That to be true, in sight of heaven I swear
Leir. Swear not by heaven, for fear of punishment:
The heavens are guiltless of such heinous acts.
Mess. I swear by earth, the mother of us all.
Leir. Swear not by earth: for she abhors to bear
Such bastards, as are murderers of her sons.
Mess. Why then, by hell, and all the devils I swear.
Leir. Swear not by hell; for that stands gaping wide,
To swallow thee, and if thou do this deed.
                     [Thunder and Lightning.]
Mess. I would that word were in his belly again,
It hath frighted me even to the very heart;
This old man is some strong magician:
His words have turn'd my mind from this exploit.
Then neither heaven, earth, nor hell, be witness;
But let this paper witness for them all.
                     [Shows Gonorill's letter.]
Shall I relent, or shall I prosecute?
Shall I resolve, or were I best recant?
I will not crack my credit with two queens,
To whom I have already pass'd my word.
Oh, but my conscience for this act doth tell,
I get heaven's hate, earth's scorn, and pains of hell.
                     [They bless themselves.]
Per. O just Jehovah, whose almighty power
Doth govern all things in this spacious world,
How canst thou suffer such outrageous acts
To be committed without just revenge?
O viperous generation and accurst,
To seek his blood, whose blood did make them first!
Leir. Ah, my true friend in all extremity,
Let us submit us to the will of God:
Things past all sense, let us not seek to know;
It is God's will, and therefore must be so.
My friend, I am prepared for the stroke:
Strike when thou wilt, and I forgive thee here,
Even from the very bottom of my heart.
Mess. But I am not prepared for to strike.
Leir. Farewell, Perillus, even the truest friend,
That ever lived in adversity:
The latest kindness I'll request of thee,
Is that thou go unto my daughter Cordella,
And carry her her father's latest blessing:
Withal desire her, that she will forgive me;
For I have wrong'd her without any cause.
Now, Lord, receive me, for I come to thee,
And die, I hope, in perfit charity.
Dispatch, I pray thee, I have liv'd too long.
Mess. I, but you are unwise, to send an errand
By him that never meaneth to deliver it:
Why, he must go along with you to heaven:
It were not good you should go all alone.
Leir. No doubt, he shall, when by the course of nature,
He must surrender up his due to death:
But that time shall not come till God permit.
Mess. Nay, presently, to bear you company.
I have a passport for him in my pocket,
Already seal'd, and he must needs ride post.
                     [Shows a bag of money.]
                      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Leir. . . . Oh, had I now to give thee
The monarchy of all the spacious world
To save his life, I would bestow it on thee:
But I have nothing but these tears and prayers,
And the submission of a bended knee.
                     [Kneels.]
Oh, if all this to mercy move thy mind,
Spare him, in heaven thou shalt like mercy find.
Mess. I amas hard to be mov'd as another,
and yet methinks the strength
of their persuasions stirs me a little.
Per. My friend, if fear of the almighty power
Have power to move thee, we have said enough;
But if thy mind be moveable with gold,
We have not presently to give it thee:
Yet to thyself thou may'st do greater good,
To keep thy hands still undefil'd from blood:
For do but well consider with thyself,
When thou hast finish'd this outrageous act,
What horror still will haunt thee for the deed:
Think this again, that they which would incense
Thee for to be the butcher of their father,
When it is done, for fear it should be known,
Would make a means to rid thee from the world:
Oh, then art thou for ever tied in chains
Of everlasting torments to endure,
Even in the hottest hole of grisly hell,
Such pains, as never mortal tongue can tell.
                     [It thunders. He quakes, and lets fall the dagger next to Perillus.]
Leir. O. heavens be thanked, he will spare my friend.
Now, when thou wilt, come make an end of me.
                     [He lets fall the other dagger.]
Per. Oh, happy fight! he means to save my lord.
The king of heaven continue this good mind.
Leir.Why stay'st thou to do execution?
Mess. I am as wilful as you for your life:
I will not do it, now you do entreat me.
Per.Ah, now I see thou hast some spark of grace.
Mess. Beshrew you for it, you have put it in me:
The parlousest old men, that e'er I heard.
Well, to be flat, I'll not meddle with you:
Here I found you, and here I'll leave you:
If any ask you why the case so stands?
Say that your tongues were better than your hands.
                     [Exit Messenger.]
Per. Farewell. If ever we together meet,
It shall go hard, but I will thee regreet.
Courage, my lord, the worst is overpast:
Let us give thanks to God, and hie us hence.

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This page last updated on 28 December 2006. © Michael Best, 2006.