King Lear: New Critical Essays

King Lear: New Critical Essays

King Lear: New Critical Essays

King Lear: New Critical Essays


Is King Lear an autonomous text, or a rewrite of the earlier and anonymous play King Leir? Should we refer to Shakespeare's original quarto when discussing the play, the revised folio text, or the popular composite version, stitched together by Alexander Pope in 1725? What of its stage variations? When turning from page to stage, the critical view on King Lear is skewed by the fact that for almost half of the four hundred years the play has been performed, audiences preferred Naham Tate's optimistic adaptation, in which Lear and Cordelia live happily ever after. When discussing King Lear, the question of what comprises 'the play' is both complex and fragmentary.

These issues of identity and authenticity across time and across mediums are outlined, debated, and considered critically by the contributors to this volume. Using a variety of approaches, from postcolonialism and New Historicism to psychoanalysis and gender studies, the leading international contributors to King Lear: New Critical Essays offer major new interpretations on the conception and writing, editing, and cultural productions of King Lear. This book is an up-to-date and comprehensive anthology of textual scholarship, performance research, and critical writing on one of Shakespeare's most important and perplexing tragedies.

Contributors Include: R.A. Foakes, Richard Knowles, Tom Clayton, Cynthia Clegg, Edward L. Rocklin, Christy Desmet, Paul Cantor, Robert V. Young, Stanley Stewart and Jean R. Brink


Like virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear is now thought of as a masterpiece. As of this writing, it is safe to say that in the public’s mind the story of Lear’s physical and spiritual suffering, and, above all, his heartbreaking end, aptly sum up the human condition:

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

(Scene 20.171–72)

However, King Lear has not always been considered a profound, if bleak, meditation on the human experience. The Poet Laureate Naham Tate thought that the play was so deeply flawed that it could only be staged after radical revision. In his new and improved version, King Lear did not die but reigned victorious over his vanquished foes, an oddly happy conclusion for a tragedy! Whereas we would today think that any attempt to modify Shakespeare so fundamentally should have been met with contempt, audiences embraced Tate’s version, which held the stage from 1681–1838.

Even with the return of Shakespeare’s play, many very respectable artists and critics have continued to voice some unease. As Jan Kott (1964) wrote: “The attitude of modern criticism to King Lear is ambiguous and somehow embarrassed…. King Lear gives one the impression of a high mountain that everyone admires, yet no one particularly wishes to climb” (87). Over the last four hundred years, many writers and artists have tried to scale its heights, and each essay has left its mark. In this Introduction, we will retrace these scholarly and theatrical paths, some of which are still fresh, others welltrodden, and still others now all but forgotten. Let’s start with what we know about Shakespeare’s source materials and what he did with them, and then turn to what various poets, novelists, academics, directors and actors have made of King Lear.

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