Friday, 6 April 2018

6 April, 1594 - King Leir

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men and the the Queen's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at kinge leare the 6 of aprell 1593  ... xxxviijs 

In modern English: Received at King Leir, 6th April, 1594 ... 38 shillings
Title page of the 1605 published
text of King Leir

Today, the actors at the Rose presented a play with a very familiar name: King Lear. But as always with Henslowe's Diary, things are more complex than they seem, for this was not the famous tragedy by William Shakespeare, which would not be written for another decade. Instead, it was almost certainly an anonymous play that would later be published as The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters. Nowadays, scholars differentiate this play from Shakespeare's by following the printed text's spelling of its title, "Leir"; I will therefore do the same, even though Henslowe in fact spells it "Lear".

The anonymous Leir has none of the poetic majesty of Shakespeare's play, but it is still an interesting read because it tells us how most theatregoers would have imagined the character of King Lear, and how startled they might have been by Shakespeare's reinvention of him.

The legend of King Leir

Illustration of King Lear and his daughters
from the Northumberland Bestiary (c.1250)
King Leir was a legendary king of the Britons, apparently invented by the medieval pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the British Kings (c.1135).

Geoffrey's story contains the central ideas that attracted poets and playwrights to the tale. Leir plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, but he first requires them to declare their daughterly love for him. Gonorilla and Regan do so at length, but Cordeilla refuses to utter empty platitudes. Her father angrily banishes Cordeilla, but rhe King of France is impressed by her simple virtue, and marries her.

Leir's decision to divide his kingdom among the other two daughters upon his death proves catastrophic, as his sons-in-law become impatient and usurp him. When Leir travels to visit two eldest daughters, they insist on shrinking his retinue until the old king is left with only a single knight to protect him. He flees to France, where he meets Cordeilla and the French king, who to take poity on him; they raise an army to restore him to the throne. When Leir dies, Cordeilla buries him at Leicester and becomes Queen of Britain.

Geoffrey's tale was retold by many later writers, and the author of King Leir seems in particular to have read three versions of it (click the links if you'd like to read them for yourself): John Higgins's lament of Queen Cordila in The Mirror for Magistrates (1574), a passage from William Warner's Albion's England (1586), and book 2, canto 10 of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590).

It's easy to see the attraction of the story to moralists. It contrasts true virtue with showy rhetoric and the trappings of royalty, and it comments on the ingratitude of the young toward the old in its tale of a a daughter who refuses to embellish her simple love, of a French king who recognizes plain virtue, and of an old king who is forced into penury.

However, this moral only works if you stop reading when Leir dies. Geoffrey's tale in fact goes on to show how everything spirals downhill afterward. Queen Cordeilla's reign is not a happy one as her nephews rebel against her and lock her in prison, where she commits suicide. The nephews then fight one another, and Britain is laid waste until one of them triumphs and peace finally holds. This bleak outcome rather undercuts the tidy ending, so any writer adapting the tale needs to decide where to end it and why.

The story

King Leir, illustration in Raphael
Holinshed's Chronicles (1577)
The author of King Leir chose moralism over absurdism. He followed the pattern of Geoffrey's tale, combining together elements from his three sources, but he opted to omit the depressing aftermath of Lear's death, and gave his play a happy ending.

King Leir handles a number of scenes quite differently from what Shakespeare would later do. It takes a lot more time over the love story of Cordella and the King of Gallia (i.e. France); she is a penniless princess who meets the Gallian king when he is disguised as a pilgrim and their wooing is thus initially based in pure love: they lack knowledge of their royal status until they reveal it to each other.

There's also a lengthy sequence of moral conversion at the heart of the play. The old king and his one remaining lord, Perillus (an equivalent of Shakespeare's Kent), meet a servant of Ragan's who reveals that he must kill them on her orders. Leir at first feels suicidal despair at the ingratitude of his children, but eventually he and Perillus persuade the murderer that going to Hell will not be worth his wages; thunder then rolls and the murderer "quakes and lets fall the dagger next to Perillus". Perillus then convinces Leir that he was wrong to banish Cordella.

An extremely intimidating Queen Cordeilla
in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577)
There is more moralism when Leir and Perillus travel to France to find Cordella. They have no money and must sell their rich clothes to buy passage; and so Leir becomes a semi-naked, starving wretch. But then they meet the disguised King of Gallia and Cordella, who just happen to be heading incognito to Britain. Everyone behaves virtuously; Cordella gives the old men food; Perillus tries to pay for it with his last garment; Cordella refuses to accept it. Eventually, Cordella reveals her identity and father and daughter are reunited.

It's hard to tell how serious the reunion is meant to be on stage. Cordella reveals her identity and kneels. But Leir then kneels to her, asking forgiveness, and tells her to rise. She does, and asks him to rise too, to save her from dying for sorrow. He does, but then kneels again until she will pardon him; she does so, and the Gallian King tells Leir to rise. He does, but Cordella then kneels again, begging her father to forgive every fault she has ever committed. He does, and she rises. Their knees are probably aching by now, but the French King now kneels, vowing to restore Leir to his throne. His comic assistant Mumford kneels too, vowing that if he accompanies them, he'll come back with a wench. In his notes on this scene, director Peter Cockett found that the audience tended to laugh no matter how hard the actors attempted seriousness; however, if the actors embraced the laughter it did not destroy the scene but rather "became part of a general joy shared by characters and audience".

Finally, the King of Gallia leads an army to Britain and and restores Leir to the throne, forcing the bad daughters and their husbands to flee. Leir then abdicates again, but this time gives the throne to Cordella and Gallia. In the play's last lines, Leir tells them,
Come son and daughter, who did me advance,
Repose with me awhile, and then for France.

What we learn from this

The suicide of Cordeilla, illustrated in
Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577). 

Reading King Leir helps us understand how audience might have experienced Shakespeare's King Lear in its own time. Unlike the Leir-author, Shakespeare seems to have been attracted to Geoffrey's bleak epilogue in which Cordelia commits suicide and civil war destroys the land. He echoed the spirit if not the letter of those events to create his bleakest tragedy, an unbearably cruel tale of a powerful king stripped of familial love and power until he is reduced to a naked figure on a heath, shaking his first at the uncaring storm. Shakespeare's play ends with Lear finding the dead Cordelia (executed in prison), before dying himself as his country faces an uncertain future.

Shakespeare's is the version that has stood the test of time, but we can now see that his play would have been shocking to audience members who knew only the older play, and would have been expecting the old king to receive a happy ending. The moral may be similar (Edgar's closing comment that we should "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" captures the ideals of both), but Shakespeare conveys it by tearing your heart out instead of warming its cockles.

Reading and watching King Leir

If you would like to read King Leir, a great way to do so is via the modern-spelling text at The Queen's Men editions, which also features an introduction and other useful resources. If you prefer to read in print, modern-spelling texts of King Leir have been published by Garland Press in 1991 and by Globe Quartos in 2002.

You can also watch a video of King Leir in performance. In 2006, a team of scholars, actors, and directors created an experimental production that attempted to reproduce Elizabethan performance practices as closely as possible. The video can be found at the Performing the Queen's Men website; here is a direct link to King Leir, but the videos are password-protected, so you must first obtain the password by contacting the webmasters.

What's next?

There will be no blog entry tomorrow because 7th April was a Sunday in 1594 and the players did not perform. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on 8th April for a couple more performances before the Rose closes its doors again. See you then!


King Leir information

  • Donald M. Michie, ed. The Chronicle History of King Leir (Garland, 1991)
  • Jay L. Halio, ed. The Tragedy of King Lear (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 2-4
  • R.A. Foakes, ed. King Lear (Thomas Nelson, 1997), 94-100
  • Stanley Wells, ed. The History of King Lear (Oxford University Press, 2000), 16-26
  • Andrew Griffin, "Introduction: The Chronicle History of King Lear", Queen's Men Editions (2006)
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2012), entry 838.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!


  1. So interesting! Thank you for this project! (I've taught Shakespeare's Lear how many times, but never read the earlier play. I should!)

  2. Thanks very much, this is so interesting!

  3. Hi, the link to the webmasters you provided to view the production takes you to the request page, but then after submitting the request I recieved 404 error message. Any other possible links?

    1. Ack! I'm really sorry, but that's all I got. I worked OK for me a short while ago...