King Lear



  • noun cannabis. The term is rhyming slang for gear, and was in use among London students in 1996 and 1997.


  • Shakespeare's great tragedy of old age, often regarded as the summit of his achievement. It was first performed in about 1604 - 06 in London. Lear's tragic journey - from imperious rage, through madness and humiliation, to painful self-knowledge - makes the role perhaps the most demanding in the whole theatrical canon. Great Lears have included Irving, Wolfit, Olivier, Paul Scofield, and Ian Holm. Nahum Tate's notorious rewritten version (1681) of King Lear had a happy ending: Cordelia and Edgar become lovers, while Lear survives and is restored to the throne.

    The plot traces the fate of Lear, king of Britain, after hehas decided to divide his realm between his three daughters accordingto the extent of their professed love for him; because she refusesto flatter his vanity he disinherits his favourite, Cordelia.When his other daughters Goneril and Regan harassand mistreat him, Lear flees out on to the heath, accompanied onlyby his fool and the disguised Duke of Kent. In the ensuing storm heloses his mind. Although Cordelia returns from France with an armyand the two are reunited, they are subsequently captured and imprisoned.In the last scene (which Dr Johnson confessed himself unwilling toreread) Cordelia is hanged, and Lear dies with her body in his arms.A parallel subplot deals with the fortunes of the Duke of Gloucesterand his two sons.

    In one 18th-century production at the Edinburgh Theatre theunfortunate actor playing Lear was obliged to leap over nine-poundcannon balls rolling across the stage. The balls were part of a contraptionto create a thunder sound-effect, which had fallen over in the wings.A different problem faced William Macready when he playedthe role in Nottingham; when the moment came for Lear to divide hiskingdom a slightly deaf props man handed the bemused actor not a mapbut a mop.

    Shakespeare's immediate source for the story of Lear was thehistorian Raphael Holinshed, who derived it from Geoffrey of Monmouth'sHistoria Britonum. William Camden tells a similar story ofIna, King of the West Saxons. The earliest known version of the kingis Lir, an ocean god of early Irish and British legend, who can probablybe identified with the Llyr in the Mabinogion.