Before the Folio edition of King Lear, we have the anonymous play King Leir -- a version with a happy ending, performed before 1594 and entered that year in the Stationers' Register (Kermode 1297). And we have a Quarto edition of the play which contains about 100 fewer lines than the Folio.
Of Shakespeare's English plays, this one concerns the oldest "historical" material, though Lear is "purely legendary," emerging into pseudo-history only in Monmouth's Historia Regnum Britanniae in 1135 (Asimov 3). The Gloucester subplot, often announced as a borrowing from Philip Sidney's Arcadia published in 1593, but Philip derived the story from An Aethiopian Historie by Heliodorus, published in English in 1569, used by Shakespeare for other plays, and dedicated to the 19-year-old de Vere (Farina 202).
E.T. Clark insists on a 1589 origin of the play, with Lear's three daughters serving as personifications of the three lines of succession from Henry VII (Clark 866ff). There is more compelling support for such an apparently abstract notion that one might at first assume. Clark also finds many allusions to Sir Francis Drake, including his Kent-like banishment by Elizabeth (Clark 875). But she gives only brief nods to the personal dimension: acknowledging that Oxford had three daughters, but that a strict 1589 date of composition rules out real influence. Lear's reaction at the loss of his retainers parallels "the bitterness of Lord Oxford when his company of actors was dissolved" (Clark 871).
Ogburn and Ogburn second Clark's assertions but supplement with Winstanley's discoveries that connect the play with Coligny and Huguenot issues in France (Ogburn and Ogburn 1148ff). They also point out that Lear an anagram for Earl (Ogburn and Ogburn 1124). And they acknowledge that in addition to Lear, Oxford inhabits Kent, Gloucester, and the Fool (1124). Hatton is a candidate for Oswald (1125, 1159). And they pay more attention to when Oxford, vs. Drake, was 48 (as Kent claims to be): in 1598 (Ogburn and Ogburn 1126).
Other connections include the fact that "De Vere's first marriage produced three daughters who inherited their alienated father's family seat while he was still alive" (Anderson xxvii): Oxford alienated Hedingham to his three daughters and Burghley in late 1591 (Ogburn and Ogburn 1131). Oxford lived across the street from Bedlam for a time, at Fisher's Folly, and so perhaps "observed psychosis" first-hand (Anderson 156). Like Gloucester, he also had one legitimate and one illegitimate son, but Oxford's youngest daughter Susan "proved true to her father's life and legacy," marrying into the Herbert clan and specifically one of the brothers to whom the First Folio is dedicated (Anderson 371). Much of this indicates a final version of the play written in de Vere's closing years (Anderson 380).
From the start, the concern with comparing and quantifying emerges: "I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall" (I.i.1-2); the Earls of Gloucester and Kent are discussing King Lear's plan to divide his kingdom among his daughters, the older two of whom, Goneril and Regan, are married to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. "In Shakespeare's time, the title 'Duke of Albany' was held by James VI of Scotland" -- later King James I; "there was no contemporary Duke of Corwall to take umbrage" (Asimov 19-20). In the late revision of the play that probably started out as King Leir, the playwright, after signing Hedingham over to Burghley, "describes the conflict de Vere must have felt between filial devotion and self preservation" (Anderson 248).
Gloucester has one legitimate son, Edgar, and one bastard, Edmund, and he may esteem them equally (I.i.19f) but he jokes with Kent about the bawdy origins of Edmund while the young man is present (I.i.12), even remarking that "there was good sport at his making" (I.i.23)! Kent is more polite: "I must love you, and sue to now you better" (I.i.30). Edmund's reply, "Sir, I shall study deserving" (I.i.31), means he'll exert efforts to be worthy of such a friendship, but the phrase also sounds calculating.
Lear enters with pomp, the Dukes, and his daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. [Cor = heart; Delia = Greek name for Cynthia, the moon-goddess (Ogburn and Ogburn 1163-1164).] "Lear is at once father, king, and a kind of mortal god: he is the image of male authority, perhaps the ultimate representation of the Dead White European Male" (Bloom 478). Gloucester must watch for the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, both of whom seek to court Cordelia. Lear has divided his kingdom and, weary of the duties, hopes
To shake all cares and business from our age,It is "as if he had regressed to the posture and position of a child" (Garber 653). Lear will distribute the kingdom in accordance with his daughters' public declarations of devotion for him. Goneril lays it on thick: "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter, / Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty" (I.i.55-56). These three things will be taken away during the course of the play. Regan lays it on thicker: "I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys" (I.i.72-73). When Lear turns to Cordelia -- "what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters'? Speak" (I.i.85-86) -- she is laconic: "Nothing, my lord." Perhaps "Lear's rhetorical power itself largely renders Cordelia mute and recalcitrant" (Bloom 494). "Nothing?" "Nothing." "Nothing will come of nothing, speak again" (I.i.87-90). Cordelia merely claims to love Lear as is filially appropriate. Lear is enraged; he rants and disinherits her. "Cornwall and Albany. / With my two daughters' dow'rs digest the third" (I.i.127-128). The Earl of Kent comes forth: "Royal Lear, / Whom I have ever honor'd as my king" (I.i.139-140); he advises Lear that it's a bad idea to abdicate and assures Lear that Cordelia does not love him less. But Kent just gets himself banished as Lear borrows some characteristic phrases from Queen Elizabeth: "On thine allegiance" (I.i.167) and "our vow" (I.i.168). Kent leaves nobly, hoping that the words of the two elder sisters translate into actions: "See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye" (I.i.158-159). "From this moment on, the story of King Lear is the story of the slow acquirement of that better vision" (Goddard, II 144).
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.
Gloucester returns with the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy.
Cordelia now faces penury -- "now her price is fallen" (I.i.197) -- and
she explains that she refused to flatter Lear. The lack of a dowry makes
Burgundy reconsider his interests, but Lear is firm and Cordelia has no
interest in someone looking only for a dowry anyway. The King of France,
however, is impressed. Cordelia is realistic about her sisters'
insincerities, but wishes well to all, receiving snippy retorts from
Goneril and Regan. When alone, the two vicious sisters comment on events:
"'Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known
himself" (I.i.293-294). They agree to work together towards insuring
their good fortune.
Edmund, whom Bloom thinks represents Christopher Marlowe (Bloom 499, 504) and seems somehow not to be "in the same play as Lear and Cordelia (Bloom 501), reveals in a raging but rationalizing soliloquy that he is a real bastard and has set his sites on his half-brother Edgar's inheritance. Oxford was known to be touchy about this issue, a kind of "bastard anxiety," stemming from a lawsuit to try to rob him of his inheritance (Anderson 24-25). "Like Iago in Othello, the evil characters in King Lear are notable for rationality" (Wells 267); "rationality in an evil character is opposed to credulity in a more sympathetic one" (Wells 268). Edmund has a fake letter towards this end. When Gloucester arrives, Edmund makes a show of hastily concealing the letter, which makes Gloucester demand to see it: "What paper were you reading?" "Nothing, my lord." "No? ... The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself" (I.ii.30-34). The letter tactfully paints a rosy economic picture of Daddy being dead, signed, Edgar. Edmund feigns disbelief that Edgar could be so treacherous, yet Edgar has often declared "it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers declin'd, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue" (I.ii.72-74). Gloucester rants and Edmund, Iago-like, promises to arrange for Gloucester to witness some evidence of Edgar's treachery. Gloucester laments the widespread moral degeneration he's been witnessing, along with the portentiousness of "These late eclipses" (I.ii.103). For some critics, the reference dates the play to 1605, but eclipses were notable in 1601 (Kermode 1298) and other years, of course, and a more famous double eclipse near London occurred in 1598 [see Richard Whalen's "A Dozen Shakespeare Plays Written After Oxford Died? Not Proven!" The Oxfordian 10 (2007): 77].
Alone, Edmund snickers at the notion of astrological influence in determining character. "Lord Henry Howard, who was long suspected of intrigues with Mary, Queen of Scots, seems to have been the model for the character of Edmund. Edmund's comments on astrological matters suggest Howard's attack on Richard Harvey's work in astrology" (Clark 872; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 1129). Edmund refers to his father's having "compounded" with his mother (I.ii.128). Then Edgar arrives and Edmund convinces him that Gloucester is homicidally angry at Edgar -- he, Edmund, has proof. Edgar should arm himself. Afterwards, Edmund snickers some more about his plotting:
A credulous father and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy. I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit:
All with me's meet that I can fashion fit.
Goneril's steward Oswald has been chiding Lear's Fool, so Lear struck him. Goneril takes the opportunity to be put out by her father and his followering of retainers. Old men are like babies, and need disciplining (I.iii.19-20), and she hopes her father will move on to Regan's household and receive the same cold treatment. Oswald and the servants are to pay less attention to Lear from now on.
Kent has disguised himself as an attendant named Caius. He adopts a fake voice and his reference to having "raz'd" his likeness (I.iv.4) often is used in productions to refer to his having shaved off his beard. He hopes to find employment with Lear, which he achieves quickwittedly at a dinnertime interview:
I can keep honest counsel, ride, run, mar a curious tale in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly. That which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in, and the best of me is diligence. (I.iv.32-35)He claims to be 48 years old (I.iv.38-39).
Lear summons his Fool and asks Oswald about Goneril. Oswald all but snubs Lear and departs, further ignoring a knight's inquiries. Lear acknowledges the cooling off of courtesies and hears that the Fool has been melancholy ever since Cordelia left for France. Lear demands to see Goneril and the Fool. Oswald returns, is snotty, and Lear strikes him. When he starts to mouth off again, Kent trips him and shoves him out, calling him a "base football player" (I.iv.86). Lear is pleased with this new servant "Caius."
The Fool brings wit and wisdom about Lear's bad decisions, making enigmatic assertions such as, "Truth's a dog must to the kennel, he must be whipt out, when the Lady Brach may stand by th' fire and stink" (I.iv.111-113). The Fool sings songs and quibbles on the concept of "nothing." Lear reasserts, "nothing can be made out of nothing" (I.iv.132-133; cp. I.i.90), and many productions of the play have Lear realize the echo with a twinge. "This is not altogether fool, my lord," notes Kent (I.iv.151). The Fool calls Lear "an O without a figure" (I.iv.192-193).
Goneril arrives and is bitchy; she wants Lear to downsize his 100-knight retinue. Lear is dismayed at this treatment: "Are you our daughter?" (I.iv.218). He will visit his other daughter, Regan. Despite Albany's ineffectual courtesy, Lear calls upon nature to make Goneril sterile: "Dry up in her the organs of increase" (I.iv.279). "Thus Lear's intemperate words to Cordelia ('Nothing will come of nothing') are now transposed into his physical curse on Goneril -- that nothing (no child) should come of her 'no thing'" (Garber 665). If that curse doesn't work, then may the gods give her a brat. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child" (I.iv.288-289). Lear finds out that Goneril has sent off fifty of his knights and rages that Goneril has the power to wrench tears from his eyes: "Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I'll pluck ye out" (I.iv.301-302). Lear predicts that Regan will flay Goneril's face with her fingernails (I.iv.307-308). Albany is somewhat sympathetic but Goneril shuts him up and has Oswald convey a letter advising Regan to keep up the shoddy treatment. She then chides Albany her husband for tending towards "milky" leniency (I.iv.341), echoing Lady Macbeth.
Lear sends Kent with a letter to Regan in the city of Gloucester. The Fool engages Lear's wit, explaining enigmatically that one's nose is in the middle of one's face "to keep one's eyes of either side 's nose, that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into" (I.v.22-23). Out of the blue, Lear says, "I did her wrong" (I.v.24). The Fool laments, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise" (I.v.44-45; cf. I.iv.240). [The line also echoes one in Lucrece: "Priam, why art thou old, and yet not wise?" (1550).] Lear prays not to go mad (I.v.46-47).