Fun facts about one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies
1. The original story on which Shakespeare based King Lear had a happy ending. King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s must-read plays. Yet less than a hundred years after the Bard wrote the play, it was given a rather dramatic (as it were) rewrite by Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate. Yet this is not the full truth. It is often said that Shakespeare wrote the tragedy of King Lear and then Nahum Tate rewrote the ending as a happy one. This much is true, but what is little known is the fact that the story of King Lear was originally a happy one, when it first appeared in the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century. The anonymous play, King Leir, on which Shakespeare based his tragedy also ends on a somewhat more upbeat note.
2. Nahum Tate’s rewriting of the play with a happy ending was, however, hugely popular. For well over a century, Tate’s rewritten Shakespeare was the one that London playgoers would see performed. This lasted until the early nineteenth century, when Shakespeare’s status as the English poet of poets became entrenched in the national consciousness, thanks in part to the Romantics and their veneration of him as the original genius.
3. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear is old – much older than most actors who have played him. Whether Lear ever existed is strongly disputed, but what is odd is how old Shakespeare makes Lear: over ‘four score’, or eighty years, presenting a challenge to many actors (most of whom are, of course, considerably younger than this!).
4. The name of King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, may have come from Edmund Spenser. In Spenser’s epic Elizabethan poem, The Faerie Queene, a character named Cordelia appears – and Shakespeare may well have taken the name from here. (Spenser’s poem also gave us the word ‘blatant’, his name for a mythical many-tongued beast.)
5. The play contains the earliest known reference to the phrase ‘football player’. Consider this an ‘and finally’ fact here in this list of King Lear facts – it made us smile anyway. ‘Thou base football player’, says Kent to Oswald, in one of only two references to the beautiful game in the whole of Shakespeare.
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Image: Cordelia’s Portion by Ford Madox Brown, 1866, Wikimedia Commons.