King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The play's action centers around an aging king who decides to divvy up his kingdom between his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) in order to avoid any conflict after his death. Early retirement and the division of the kingdom turn out to be a big no-no. Lear's actions end up destroying his family, tearing apart the kingdom, and causing a big old war, leaving just about everyone dead by the play's end.
King Lear was written between 1604 and 1606, after King James I of England (also known as King James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne (1603). (FYI – King James just so happened to attend a performance of the play at Whitehall on December 26, 1606.) The play seems to have been pretty popular on stage (since it was subsequently published in 1608 for reading audiences).
For the past several decades, King Lear has been regarded as one of Shakespeare's greatest works, perhaps even better than Hamlet. Surprisingly, this wasn't always the case. After the English Civil War (1642-1651), the play came to be regarded as a theatrical failure. The excessive portrayal of cruelty and suffering in Shakespeare's play (especially the violent blinding of Gloucester, Lear's descent into madness, and the tragic death of Cordelia) was just too painful for audiences to bear.
It seems that after a long and grueling English Civil War, audiences were looking for something a little more upbeat and less cynical. Enter playwright Nahum Tate, who rewrote Shakespeare's play in 1681 so it would have a happy ending. (We're not kidding – he made some big changes.) In Tate's version, Lear and Cordelia live and Cordelia falls in love with and marries Edgar. We don't want to spoil the ending for you but, that's so not what happens in Shakespeare's original. It turns out that, through the end of the seventeenth century and for much of the eighteenth century, theater audiences preferred to watch performances of Tate's rewrite over Shakespeare's original.
By the 1960s, everything changed. After the Holocaust and two World Wars, the vision of human life presented in King Lear didn't seem overly cynical – it seemed pretty realistic. The play's graphic violence suddenly seemed appropriate. So did Lear's suggestion that gods either don't exist or, if they do, they like to torture humans. Critic Jan Kott, who once lived in Poland under the Soviet regime, famously compared Lear to Samuel Beckett's twentieth century Existentialist plays Endgame and Waiting for Godot. Productions of Lear (notably, Peter Brook's 1962 stage production) multiplied, and it's been riding a high tide of popularity ever since.
Shakespeare's main source for King Lear is Volume 1, Book 2 of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (first published in 1577), which includes the story of "King Leir," an ancient British monarch who divides his kingdom between three daughters, Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla. Holinshed likely based his account on Book 2, Chapter 11 of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1135), which Shakespeare may or may not have read (it existed only in Latin manuscript).
Sure, we could sum up King Lear as a play about a senile old man who makes a series of bad political decisions until just about everyone winds up dead, but that would be a huge mistake. The truth is that King Lear is about a whole lot more than Lear's political crisis. When it comes down to it, family relationships (not just politics) are at the heart of the play.
Famous literary critic Stephen Greenblatt writes that "the focus of Shakespeare's tragedy" is "Lear's folly," which amounts to his decision to "rashly disinherit the only child who truly loves him" (Introduction to King Lear, Norton Edition). In other words, when Big Papa Lear disowns his loving daughter, Cordelia, he pretty much sets in motion the tragic events that follow – Goneril and Regan betray their father (they throw him out into the cold before proceeding to fight one another over a guy), Lear becomes homeless and wanders around the kingdom, war erupts, Goneril poisons her sister, Regan, and then kills herself, Cordelia is unjustly put to death by order of her sister's lover, Lear dies of a broken heart, and so on. In other words, Lear's whole family ends up dead.
So, is Shakespeare telling us to be nice to our families? You bet. He's also telling us that family drama is universal and timeless. So, after you read Lear, you'll definitely want to give your annoying little sister a hug instead of trying to steal her evil boyfriend – you'll also want to rethink your plan to poison your sibling and throw your aging father out onto the streets after he gives you your own kingdom.