Shakespeare borrowed plots and ideas from other material for the bulk of his writing. His two long poems tell old tales, and only four of the commonly recognized 38 plays have no known single-organizing precedent (Love’s Labor Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale, Tempest). Such a practice was commonplace in the English Renaissance, whose “rebirth” was often realized by imitating classical work or borrowing from more contemporaneous work. But Shakespeare left nothing untouched. His imitations often turned into things entirely new, the unquestionable outcome of his plundering of previous Lear stories.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear against a background of a known story, indeed, a kind of history of England story, about an ancient king (Leir was the common spelling) who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, but administering a love test before doing so. His youngest daughter refuses, and disaster ensues. The four most commonly attested Leir stories come from Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing around 1136, two very close recapitulations of that story from Raphael Holinshed and Edmund Spenser in the late sixteenth century, an expanded version by Higgins in the compilation The Mirror for Magistrates, and a wild, often comedic variation of the story written as a play sometime in the early 1590’s. All these stories end with Leir, Cordelia, and her husband, the King of Gallia, defeating Leir’s other two daughters and their husbands, regaining the kingdom. How it unfolds thereafter varies a bit, but the Leir story itself ends happily for Leir. None of these stories presents Leir as mad, or going mad, although the play shows Leir in serious decline, starving, and in borrowed clothes before reuniting with Cordelia. None of course involve a second plot or a character like the Fool. Most importantly, none are written like the Shakespeare version.
The second plot borrows from a short story contained in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a disconnected selection of stories of various kinds bound together by segments of pastoral poetry. It was published in 1590 after Sidney’s death.
This section provides short synopses of the Lear story from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir. It gives the few stanzas from Spenser directly. It also provides links to the original texts of Geoffrey, Holinshed, Sidney, and the play, as well as a scene-by-scene synopsis of the play. The play seems to be the most proximate source Shakespeare actually used. It is interesting in itself, and worth the read. It implicitly raises some of the same issues Shakespeare raises (royal succession, class, disguise, connection between domestic and civic turmoil, aging, loyalty, the vagaries of the written word). And its religious, burlesque, and bawdy overtones, all unnecessary to tell the story, suggest ways in which playwrights of the period engaged audiences. Shakespeare’s gestures in the same direction are more sophisticated (instead of drunk watchmen he creates lunatics out of Kent and Edgar, for example), but they are none the less written for entertainment. It is also interesting to see how Shakespeare actually develops characters during the play, rather than give them some set roles at the beginning and watch them unfold. We see real changes in Lear, Gloucester, Edgar, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan as Shakespeare writes them. The degree to which Shakespeare shines, earns his keep as the greatest writer in the English language, can be seen in part by comparison with other efforts at the same story, both before and after his own Lear was produced for the first time.
More background on King Lear: