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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: When was Lear written, and how can you establish the time?

Answer: King Lear was written, certainly, between 1603 and 26th Dec., 1606. The play was entered on the stationer's register 26th Nov., 1607, with the statement that it had been acted at Whitehall on St. Stephen's night in the Christmas holidays of the year before. The downward limit therefore is fixed at 26th Dec., 1606. The upward limit is accurately fixed by the publication in 1603 of Harsnet's Declaration of Popish Impostures, from which Shakespeare gets the names of the devils mentioned by Edgar, IV. i. Gloucester and Edmund each mention [I. ii.] late eclipses which probably refers to the eclipse of the sun October, 1605, preceded within a month by an eclipse of the moon. This eclipse had been foretold by John Harvey of King's Lynn, writing in 1588 against the superstitious dread of the consequences of such an event. Possibly Gloucester's mention of "machinations, treachery, etc.," was suggested by the Gunpowder Plot of November, 1605.

The change from "English" of the Folio to "British" of the Quarto owing to the union, under James I., of England and Scotland under the name of Great Britain, can be of no use in fixing the date, since "English" might have been inadvertently written after the union, and even while the memory of it was still fresh in men's minds, and while the ephemeral literature of the day abounded in references to the subject. Mr. Wright does not recognize this change as an aid in fixing the date of the composition of the play. So we decide that King Lear was written between November, 1605, and December, 1606. In the "high-grown fields" the "fumiter" and "darnel" we have an indication of summer. But in III. ii. 68 Lear says, "Art cold? I am cold myself" and the Fool, III. iv. 80, "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen."

An attempt to approximate to the date of the play by such tests denies to Shakespeare an imagination sufficiently strong to conceive of an object or event without its actual presence. That Lear was written at or about the forty-second year of the poet's life, when sorrow had de'epened the sources from which he drew his materials, that it is the play in which passion assumes its largest proportions and acts upon the widest theatre, is sufficient to place Lear among the later tragedies, along with Macbeth and Othello.


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How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mfour.html >.
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