The most widely cited sources for Shakespeare’s King Lear are Holinshed’s Chronicles and an anonymous play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters Gonerill, Ragan and Cordella.
Last month, we took a quick look at Holinshed. Now let’s examine King Leir…
There are records of an anonymously written play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters Gonerill, Ragan and Cordella, being staged around 1590 and noted in Henslowe’s diaries as being presented at the Rose Theater in 1594, produced by the Queen’s Men and Lord Sussex’s Men. Given Shakespeare’s connection to both groups, it’s completely conceivable that he was aware of the play and its story.
The play was later published in 1605. While some believe this publication was to take advantage of the popularity of Shakespeare’s new play–that would be our King Lear–I’m in agreement with James Shapiro who claims in his great book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, that Shakespeare might have picked up a copy of the play, which would inspire him (rather than his play inspiring the publisher’s cash grab).
Plot-wise, the anonymous play follows the Holinshed take on the division of the kingdom (remember, Leir gave away only half of his kingdom), as well as its reasonably happy ending (Cordelia returns to put Leir back on the throne).
Whoever wrote this version of Leir (no one is certain, and suspects range from Thomas Kyd to Robert Greene to Shakespeare himself), he seems to have been using Holinshed’s Chronicles as his source as well. Story points for both Leir and Lear can also be found in earlier works of literature like the collection of poems about historical figures, The Mirror for Magistrates, and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen.
It also appears that Shakespeare may have been influenced in the creation of the Gloucester subplot (something not found in Leir) by Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia and its tale of a king who is betrayed and blinded by his bastard son, but saved by his true son (even with a suicide-trick). Sydney’s tale, too, has a happier ending with the brothers brought back together again.
So in both the main plot and subplot of King Lear, Shakespeare does away with any sense of a happy ending found in his sources.