King Lear
Background on King Lear: Sources for King Lear: Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of MonmouthGeoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100—c. 1155), an English bishop and scholar, wrote what he called a translation of an ancient history of English kings which told largely legendary stories of English kings from the original Brutus, held to be a descendant of the Greek founder of Rome, Aeneas, through the seventh century AD Cadwallader.  It includes the earliest extensive treatment of King Arthur.  He wrote an independent treatise on Merlin.  His early kings included Leir and Gorbuduc, both of whom divided their kingdoms among their children with disastrous consequences.

Summary . . . Holinshed . . . Spenser . . . Sidney . . . King Leir the play

Synopsis

After leading his country for 60 years, Leir, without male issue, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, that they might attract thereby the most suitable husbands to rule the segments.  He proposes a love test to judge their worthiness.  After Goneril and Regan flatter him outrageously, Cordelia promises no more than her natural love for her father.   Angry, he dispossesses her, marries Goneril to Maglaunus, Duke of Scotland and Regan to Henvin, Duke of Cornwall, grants them some portion of the country, but keeps half for himself, promising it to them when he dies.  Meanwhile, Aganippus of France, hearing of Cordelia’s beauty, decides to take her regardless of her dower-less status.

As Leir grows more sluggish, his two sons-in-law usurp his half, but, to smooth the pain, agree to maintain him with forty knights.  But after two years living with Maglaunus and Goneril, Leir is reduced to twenty knights because they complain too much.  Affronted, Lier moves to Regan’s, who after a year reduces him to ten.  Goneril then reduces him to one when he returns to her.  Aggrieved, he swallows his pride and moves to France, suffering the further indignity of third place behind his sons-in-law who circumstantially make the same journey.  Learning of his arrival, Cordelia forgives Leir, restores his forty knights and regalia, and hides him in another city until he has regained his regal bearing.  Royally fit, he meets Aganippus, tells him that he was driven out of England, and comes in hopes of aid in recovering his lost lands.  Aganippus raises the necessary army, and with Leir and Cordelia leads it to victory over Leir’s renegade children.  However, three years later Leir and Aganippus both die, leaving the realm to Cordelia.  Five years later, the sons of her sisters, now Dukes themselves after the deaths of their fathers, find it not fit to be ruled by a woman, and rise up and usurp her crown.  In prison, overwhelmed with grief, Cordelia takes her own life.

Full Text Version

When Bladud was thus given over to the destinies, his son Lear was next raised to the kingdom, and ruled the country after manly fashion for three-score years. He it was that builded the city on the river Soar, that in the British is called Kaerleir, but in the Saxon, Leicester. Male issue was denied unto him, his only children being three daughters named Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, whom all he did love with marvelous affection, her most of all the youngest born, to wit, Cordelia. And when that he began to be upon the verge of eld, He thought to divide his kingdom amongst them, and to marry them unto such husbands as were worthy to have them along with their share of the kingdom. But that he might know which of them was most worthy of the largest share, he went unto them to make inquiry of each as to which of them did most love himself.

When, accordingly, he asked of Goneril how much she loved him, she first called all the gods of heaven to witness that her father was dearer to her heart than the very soul that dwelt within her body. Unto whom saith her father: “For this, that thou hast set mine old age before thine own life, thee, my dearest daughter, will I marry unto whatsoever youth shall be thy choice, together with the third part of Britain.” Next, Regan, that was second, fain to take ensample of her sister and to wheedle her father into doing her an equal kindness, made answer with a solemn oath that she could no otherwise express her thought than by saying that she loved him better than all the world beside. The credulous father thereupon promised to marry her with the same dignity as her elder sister, with another third part of the kingdom for her share.

But the last, Cordelia, when she saw how her father had been cajoled by the flatteries of her sisters who had already spoken and desiring to make trial of him otherwise, went on to make answer unto him thus: “Father mine, is there a daughter anywhere that presumeth to love her father more than a father? None such, I trow, there is that durst confess as much, save she were trying to hide the truth in words of jest. For myself, I have ever loved thee as a father, nor never from that love will I be turned aside. Albeit that thou are bent on wringing more from me, yet hearken to the true measure of my love. Ask of me no more, but let this be mine answer: So much as thou hast, so much art thou worth, and so much do I love thee.”

Thereupon forthwith, her father, thinking that she had thus spoken out of the abundance of her heart, waxed mightily indignant, nor did he tarry to make known what his answer would be. “For that thou hast so despised thy father’s old age that thou hast disdained to love me, even as well as these, thy sisters love me, I also will disdain thee, nor never in my realm shalt thou have share with thy sisters. Howbeit, sith that thou art my daughter, I say not but that I will marry thee upon terms of some kind, unto some stranger that is of other land than mine, if so be that fortune shall offer such an one; only be sure of this, that never will I trouble me to marry thee with such honour as thy sisters, inasmuch as, whereas up to this time I have loved thee better than the others, it now seemeth that thou lovest me less than they.”

Straightway thereupon, by counsel of the nobles of the realm, he giveth the twain sisters unto two Dukes, of Cornwall, to wit, and Scotland, together with one moiety only of the island so long as he should live, but after his death he willed that they should have the whole of the kingdom of Britain. Now it fell out about this time that Aganippus, King of the Franks, hearing report of Cordelia’s beauty, forthwith dispatched his envoys to the King, beseeching him that Cordelia might be entrusted to their charge as his bride whom he would marry with due rite of the wedding torch. But her father, still persisting in his wrath, made answer that right willingly would he give her, but that needs must it be without land or fee, seeing that he had shared is kingdom along with all his gold and silver betwixt Cordelia’s sisters Goneril and Regan. When this word was brought unto Aganippus, for that he was on fire with love of the damsel, he sent again unto King Lear saying that enow had he of gold and silver and other possessions, for that one-third part of Gaul was his, and that he was fain to marry the damsel only that he might have sons by her to inherit his land. So at last the bargain was struck, and Cordelia was sent to Gaul to be married unto Aganippus.

Some long time after, when Lear began to wax more sluggish by reason of age, the foresaid Dukes, with whom and his two daughters he had divided Britain, rebelled against him and took away from him the realm and the kingly power which up to that time he had held right manfully and gloriously. Howbeit, concord was restored, and one of his sons-in-law, Maglaunus, Duke of Scotland, agreed to maintain him with forty knights, so that he should not be without some semblance of state. But after that he had sojourned with his son-in-law two years, his daughter Goneril began to wax indignant at the number of his knights, who flung gibes at her servants for that their rations were not more plentiful. Whereupon, after speaking to her husband, she ordered her father to be content with a service of twenty knights and to dismiss the others that he had.

The King, taking dudgeon, left Maglaunus, and betook him to Henvin, Duke of Cornwall, unto whom he had married his other daughter, Regan. Here, at first, he was received with honour, but a year had not passed before discord again arose betwixt those of the King’s household and those of the Duke’s, inasmuch as that Regan, waxing indignant, ordered her father to dismiss all his company save five knights only to do him service. Her father, beyond measure aggrieved thereat, returned once more to his eldest daughter, thinking to move her to pity and to persuade her to maintain himself and his retinue.

Howbeit, she had never renounced her first indignation, but swore by all the gods of Heaven that never should he take up his abode with her save he contented himself with the service of a single knight and were quit of all the rest. Moreover, she upbraided the old man for that, having nothing of his own to give away, he should be minded to go about with such a retinue; so that finding she would not give way to his wishes one single tittle, he at last obeyed and remained content with one knight only, leaving the rest to go their way.

But when the remembrance of his former dignity came back unto him, bearing witness to the misery of the state to which he was now reduced, he began to bethink him of going to his youngest daughter overseas. Howbeit, he sore misdoubted that she would do nought for him, seeing that he had held her, as I have said, in such scanty honour in the matter of her marriage. Nonetheless, disdaining any longer to endure so mean a life, he betook him across the Channel into Gaul. But when he found that two other princes were making the passage at the same time, and that he himself had been assigned but the third pace, he brake forth into tears and sobbing, and cried aloud:

“Ye destinies that do pursue your wonted way marked out by irrevocable decree, wherefore was it your will ever to uplift me to happiness so fleeting? For a keener grief it is to call to mind that lost happiness than to suffer the presence of the unhappiness that cometh after. For the memory of the days when in the midst of hundreds of thousands of warriors I went to batter down the walls of cities and to lay waste the provinces of mine enemies is more grievous unto me than the calamity that hath overtaken me in the meanness of mine estate, which hath incited them that but now were groveling under my feet to desert my feebleness. O angry fortune! will the day ever come wherein I may requite the evil turn that hath thus driven forth the length of my days and my poverty? O Cordelia, my daughter, how true were the words wherein thou didst make answer unto me, when I did ask of thee how much thou didst love me! For thou saidst, ‘So much as thou hast, so much art thou worth, and so much do I love thee.’ So long, therefore, as I had that which was mine own to give, so long seemed I of worth unto them that were the lovers, not of myself but of my gifts. They loved me at times, but better loved they the presents I made unto them. Now that the presents are no longer forthcoming, they too have gone their ways. But with what face, O thou dearest of my children, shall I dare appear before thee, I who, wroth with thee for these thy words, was minded to marry thee less honorably than thy sisters, who, after all the kindnesses I have conferred upon them, have allowed me to become an outcast and a beggar?”

Landing at last, his mind filled with these reflections and others of a like kind, he came to Karitia, where his daughter lived, and waiting without the city, sent a messenger to tell her into what indigence he had fallen, and to beseech his daughter’s compassion inasmuch as he had neither food nor clothing. On hearing the tidings, Cordelia was much moved and wept bitterly. When she made inquiry how many armed men he had with him, the messengers told her that he had none save a single knight, who was waiting with him without the city. She commanded also that he should have a retinue of forty knights well appointed and armed, and that then he should duly announce his arrival to Aganippus and herself. The messenger accordingly forthwith attended King Lear into another city, and hid him there in secret until that he had fully accomplished all that Cordelia had borne him on hand to do.

As soon therefore, as he was meetly arrayed in kingly apparel and invested with the ensigns of royalty, and a train of retainers, he sent word unto Aganippus and his daughter that he had been driven out of the realm of Britain by his sons-in-law, and had come unto them in order that by their assistance he might be able to recover his kingdom. They accordingly, with the great counselors and nobles, came forth to receive him with all honour, and placed in his hands the power over the whole of Gaul until such time as they had restored him unto his former dignity.

In the meanwhile, Aganippus sent envoys throughout the whole of Gaul to summon every knight baring arms therein to spare no pains in coming to help him to recover the kingdom of Britain for his father-in-law, King Lear. When they had all made them ready, Lear led the assembled host together with Aganippus and his daughter into Britain, fought a battle with his sons-in-law, and won the victory, again bringing them all under his own dominion. In the third year thereafter he died, and Aganippus died also, and Cordelia, now mistress of the helm of state in Britain, buried her father in a certain underground chamber which she had bidden be made under the river Soar at Leicester. This underground chamber was founded in honour of the two-faced Janus, and there, when the yearly celebration of the day came round, did all the workmen of the city set hand unto such work as they were about to be busied upon throughout the year.

Now, when Cordelia had governed the kingdom in peace for five years, two sons of her sisters began to harass her, Margan, to wit, and Cunedag, that had been born unto the Dukes Maglaunus and Henvin, both of them youths of notable likelihood and prowess, Margan being son of Maglaunus and Cunedag of Henvin. These, after the deaths of their fathers, had succeeded them in their dukedoms, and now took it in high dudgeon that Britain should be subject to the rule of a woman. They therefore assembled their hosts and rebelled against the Queen, nor were they minded to put an end to their outrages until after laying waste a number of provinces, they had defeated her in several battles, and had at last taken her and put her in prison, wherein, overwhelmed with grief for the loss of her kingdom, she slew herself.

Forthwith the youths divided the island between them, whereof that part which stretcheth from the Humber towards Caithness fell to Margan’s share, and the other, on the other side of the river, that vergeth toward the West, was allotted to Cunedag. After the space of two years, certain of them that rejoiced in making disturbance in the realm, joined them with Margan and began to tempt him to walk in crooked paths, saying that foul shame it was he, the eldest born, should not have dominion over the whole island; so that, what with this and other grievances, they at last egged him on to march with an army into Cunedag’s territories, and thus began to heap fuel on the fire they had kindled. On the war breaking out, Cunedag with all his host marched out to meet him, and in the battle that was fought inflicted no small slaughter, driving Margan in flight before him, and afterwards following his flight from province to province, until at last he overtook and slew him in a village of Wales, which after that Margan was slain there hath been called by his name, Margan to wit, ever since by the country folk even unto this day. Cunedag, accordingly, having won the victory, possessed himself of the monarchy of the whole island and governed the same gloriously for three and thirty years.

(At that time Isaiah and Hosea prophesied, and Rome was founded the eleventh of the *Kalends of May by the twin-brethren, Romulus and Remus.)

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