The Origins of King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear is an age old tale. Like Cinderella it has been reinterpreted throughout time and in many different cultures. Here are a few interesting highlights in the old legend and how it got to Shakespeare in the 1600s.

The Princess Who Loved Her Father More Than Salt

This is an old folktale from my favorite podcast, Journey With Story, which starts with the Cordelia/ Lear plot of a foolish king who banishes his honest daughter. Then through extraordinary circumstances it becomes a Cinderella story. I think at some point these two stories were one and the same until they diverged and one became a story about an absent father and a wicked stepmother, while the other became about a wicked father and a dead mother.

The ancient ballad of King Leir

The ancient ballad of King Leir, which helped inspire Shakespeare. It serves as a cautionary tale against flattery, and it places equal blame on Lear and his daughters:

And calling to remembrance then
His youngest daughters words,
That said the duty of a child
Was all that love affords:
But doubting to repair to her,
Whom he had banish'd so,
Grew frantick mad; for in his mind
He bore the wounds of woe:

Which made him rend his milk-white locks,
And tresses from his head,
And all with blood bestain his cheeks,
With age and honour spread.
To hills and woods and watry founts
He made his hourly moan,
Till hills and woods and sensless things,
Did seem to sigh and groan.

Even thus possest with discontents,
He passed o're to France,
In hopes from fair Cordelia there,
To find some gentler chance;
Most virtuous dame! which when she heard,
Of this her father's grief,
As duty bound, she quickly sent
Him comfort and relief

The characters of Gloucester and his children, Kent, and the Fool are absent in this ballad, but unlike the fairy tale above, both Lear and Cordelia die in each other’s arms.

The Annonymous History of King Leir, (first published c. 1594)

The anonymous history of King Lear, written shortly before Shakespeare

This play was written for Shakespeare’s rival acting company The Queen’s Men around 1590). Since the Queen was patronizing the company, most of their plays were government-funded propeganda. For instance, it was the Queen’s men who first did a tragedy of the wicked King Richard III.

Michael Wood. In Search Of Shakespeare, 2002.

If you watch the first 20 minutes of the documentary above, you will see that Wood and many other scholars believe Shakespeare must have worked for the Queen’s men, or at least performed their scripts, since they did their own versions of King Lear, Richard III, King John, and Henry V.

Screenshot from Internet Shakespeare Editions’ reprint of King Lear

However Shakespeare got a hold of The Queen’s Men’s scripts, he didn’t adhere to them rigidly. Their King Lear follows the fairy-tale / history format of having Cordelia be banished, disguise herself as a peasant (like Cap ‘O Rushes in the earlier version), and eventually she is restored to her rightful place. Shakespeare’s version must have been a MASSIVE shock to anyone who read these old tales and ballads. In Shakespeare’s version, everyone dies and there is no guarantee that the kingdom will survive. Every other tragedy ends with a new king or emperor to take over the kingdom but Lear leaves the audience with a sense of apocolypse; that Lear’s madness and Edmund’s machinations have doomed England and all these characters’ lives will be erased by Time.

As pessimistic as Shakespeare’s Lear is, it does seem more true to life than the previous versions. Perhaps this is because of a legal case from 1603 that might have inspired Shakespear to adapt the story: In 1603, two daughters tried to have their father declared insane. By an astonishing coincidence, the third daughter, who protested, happened to be named Cordelia! Perhaps Shakespeare, (who had three children and was preparing to retire), might have been inspired by this case and worried he might suffer the same fate.

The Ides of March

A historical Account

However, the Romans gave way before the good fortune of the man and accepted the bit, and regarding the monarchy as a respite from the evils of the civil wars, they appointed him dictator for life. This was confessedly a tyranny, since the monarchy, besides the element of irresponsibility, now took on that of permanence

Patrick Stewart (Cassius), convinces Brutus (Ian Richardson), to betray Caesar, RSC, 1970

Under these circumstances the multitude turned their thoughts towards Marcus Brutus, who was thought to be a descendant of the elder Brutus on his father’s side, on his mother’s side belonged to the Servilii, another illustrious house, and was a son-in‑law and nephew of Cato. 2 The desires which Brutus felt to attempt of his own accord the abolition of the monarchy were blunted by the favours and honours that he had received from Caesar. 3 For not only had his life been spared at Pharsalus after Pompey’s flight, and the lives of many of his friends at his entreaty, but also he had great credit with Caesar. 4 He had received the most honourable of the praetorships for the current year, and was to be consul three years later, having been preferred to Cassius, who was a rival candidate. 5 For Caesar, as we are told, said that Cassius urged the juster claims to the office, but that for his own part he could not pass Brutus by.105 6 Once, too, when certain persons were actually accusing Brutus to him, the conspiracy being already on foot, Caesar would not heed them, but laying his hand upon his body said to the accusers: “Brutus will wait for this shrivelled skin,”106 implying that Brutus was worthy to rule because of his virtue, but that for the sake of ruling he would not become a thankless villain. 7 Those, however, who  p589 were eager for the change, and fixed their eyes on Brutus alone, or on him first, did not venture to talk with him directly, but by night they covered his praetorial tribune and chair with writings, most of which were of this sort: “Thou art asleep, Brutus,” or, “Thou art not Brutus.”107 8 When Cassius perceived that the ambition of Brutus was somewhat stirred by these things, he was more urgent with him than before, and pricked him on, having himself also some private grounds for hating Caesar; 

So far, perhaps, these things may have happened of their own accord; the place, however, which was the scene of that struggle and murder, and in which the senate was then assembled, since it contained a statue of Pompey and had been dedicated by Pompey as an additional ornament to his  p597 theatre, made it wholly clear that it was the work of some heavenly power which was calling and guiding the action thither.

Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus,110 who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; 5 but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tulliusº Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair. 6 But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. 7 It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. p599 8 At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”

9 So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. 10 But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; 11 for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. 12 And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. 13

And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. 14 For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.

-Plutarch’s Life Of Caesar


Video 📹


James Shapiro in his book 1599, addresses the common complaint that in the play that bears his name, Julius Caesar dies halfway through the play and has little time onstage to make a connection with the audience. The play is about tyrananicide, what causes it, what it looks like, and especially its aftermath. In a time when Jesuits and Catholic radicals threatened to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare wrote a powerful story about how fragile government systems can be; how striking the head off Rome leads to anarchy and sometimes tyranny.

Activities for Students and Teachers: Macbeth Escape Room

I made a digital escape room for Macbeth, as part of my class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Educational Experience,” which you can register for at a discount this week only. I’m presenting this digital escape room as an activity for teachers to teach their student’s knowledge of the plot of the play and use their observation and research skills to escape from a “cursed castle.”

What Is a digital escape room?

In a normal escape room, you are locked in a room and have to follow clues and solve puzzles in order to find a series of keys, codes, and combinations to unlock the door and get out of the room. In a digital escape room, you solve online puzzles and use passwords and key codes to unlock some kind of digital content.

My escape room is designed to test your knowledge of the play, give you a chance to learn about the history behind it. Most escape rooms use the a variety of locks such as:

  • Standard combination locks
  • Direction locks (where the lock has arrows taht you have to push in the correct direction, in the right order).
  • Color locks (where we put different colors in a sequence.

A digital escape room uses these concepts and adapts them to work within the context of a website or other digital experience. For example, I made a direction lock based on the direction a dagger points and made a short animation of a dagger with the text of Macbeth’s famous dagger speech.

The student has to surf through five webpages to find the answers to the puzzles, then imputs the answer in a Google form. Once he or she unlocks all six puzzles, they are permitted to leave the witches’ castle. Here’s a preview of the puzzles:

Part I: The Gate

There’s a website called Flippity which allows you to make little online puzzles so I embedded it on one page of my website. In this case, it has six locks that you have to unlock by typing answers to trivia questions related to “Macbeth,” such as “What object appeared to Macbeth before he killed the king?” The final lock requires you to read a short article on the curse of Macbeth, so you can enter it on the website.

Part II: The Magic Mirror

There’s a website called a magic mirror, which if you click on the mirror, it hyperlinks to an image that spells out the next answer for the Google form.

Part III: Birnam Wood

I wanted to teach the students about verse scantion and what an iambic pentamer iine is. I wanted to get the class to learn the pattern of unaccented beats (which Shakespeare scholars mark with a U), and accented beats marked with a /, as in the couplet below:

To get the students to practice making an iambic pentameter line, I embedded a Google Slides presentation in the website which has pictures of unarmed and armed soldiers. A key indicates that you are to count the soldiers and input the U/U/ pattern into the Google Form:

Screenshot from my Birnam Wood Activity.

So, there’s a preview of the Digital Escape Room I hope this inspires you to try this type of activity in your class. If you want to use this activity, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a teacher’s guide. Please also consider signing up for my class!

New Outschool Course: Macbeth

Just in time for October, I’m offering an online class for kids ages 13-18 about Shakespeare’s most spooky and cursed play:

If you follow this blog you know I’ve written a lot about this play before. Though this class will be more like a game where I teach the class using multimedia, games, and a digital escape room!

Me in my Shakespeare gatb

I’ll start by speaking to the students in character as Shakespeare, and tell them the story of Macbeth using a multimedia presentation.

I will then test the students’ knowledge with a fun quiz that was inspired by the popular mobile game Among Us. As you know, the game is similar to a scene from the play, so I thought it would be an appropriate way to test the kids’ knowledge.

Screenshot from the Gimkit game “Trust No One.” Like Among Us, players need to figure out who the Imposter is, but they greatly increase the chances of surviving if they answer the quiz questions correctly.

The final part of the class is a digital escape room I’ve created. I don’t want to give too much away, and you can’t play it unless you sign up for the class, but let’s just say it’s fun, spooky, educational, and challenging!

Screenshot from my Macbeth Escape Room.

If you want to sign up now, the course is available every weekend in October, and then by request after that. Register now at if you take the course, please leave me a good review.

Hope to see you soon!

New Acting Course for Young Actors Starting September 12th, 2021.

Trailer for my 2021 Acting course via

I’ve been working on a remote learning class for where I take some of the audition advice I wrote in Creating A Character: Macbeth, and some of the other acting posts I’ve published over the years. This will be a weekly virtual acting course for kids ages 13-18, starting September 12th at 10AM EST.

This class will outline the tools and techniques of Shakespearean acting such as projection, articulation, and imagination. Each We’ll also go over Shakespeare’s own advice on acting in his play “Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.” The course will culminate with the students choosing their own Shakespearean monologues and scenes, which they can use going forward in auditions, school plays, and classes.

The best thing about the course is that each week builds on the previous week’s experience, but you don’t need to go to all of them. I’ll be flexible and work with the student’s schedule so everyone gets as much out of the class as possible.

If you’re interested in signing up, go to If you have any questions, email me by clicking here:

Hope to see you online soon!