King Lear breaks a number of seemingly cardinal rules of dramaturgy. An outline of the story would suggest that no playwright could fashion a coherent text out of so many disparate elements. Yet of all the remarkable works considered in this book, King Lear may be the most remarkable.
The sources of the play are several. Lear is a character from ancient British mythology, but the first coherent story about him was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1137). The more direct source is The True Chronicle History of King Lear, a play written in 1594 or slightly earlier. This work has a happy ending, in which Cordelia's forces triumph and Lear is restored to his throne, on which he reigns for a few years, then dies peacefully. Another important difference between the two plays is that Shakespeare″s is set in pre-Christian Britain and has none of the numerous references to Christianity that pervade the older work. The Gloucester subplot is adapted from "The Tale of the Blind King of Paphlagonia" in Sir Philip Sidney″s Arcadia ( 1590).
We should also note the revision of Shakespeare″s text by the eighteenthcentury playwright Nahum Tate, whose version was performed exclusively for over a century. Tate″s most significant change was the ending, to be considered presently, but he also eliminated the Fool and France, focused more heavily on the triangle between Edmund, Regan, and Goneril, and interpolated many of his own lines.
Now to the play itself: why is it so unusual?
For one, the plot is difficult to follow. After the introductory scenes, the order of events is bewildering, even for audiences that have already experienced the play. Locale, motivation, and sequence, particularly in the military episodes, are often uncertain. The play has the quality of chaos, as if scenes were hurled together. In almost any other play such a structure would be damaging. In King Lear it is essential, for in part this play is about chaos.
Second, substantial background information is lacking. This work is about a father and three daughters. These daughters must have had a mother, but we are