Shakespeare’s sources - King Lear

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Shakespeare’s sources
King Lear


The story of Lear goes back into ancient legend. The motif of two wicked sisters and a virtuous youngest sister reminds us of Cinderella. Lear himself appears to come from Celtic mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welshman in close contact with Celtic legend, included a Lear or Leir as one of the pseudo-historical kings in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). This fanciful mixture of history and legend traces a supposed line of descent from Brut, great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy, through Locrine, Bladud, Leir, Gorboduc, Ferrex and Porrex, Lud, Cymbeline, Bonduca, Vortigern, Arthur, to the historical kings of England. The Tudor monarchs made much of their purported claim to such an ancient dynasty, and in Shakespeare’s day this mythology had a quasi-official status demanding a certain reverential suspension of disbelief.

King Leir, according to Geoffrey, is the father of three daughters, Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, among whom he intends to divide his kingdom. To determine who deserves most, he asks them who loves him most. The two eldest sisters protest undying devotion; but Cordeilla, perceiving how the others flatter and deceive him, renounces hyperbole and promises only to love him as a daughter should love a father. Furious, the King denies Cordeilla her third of the kingdom but permits her to marry Aganippus, King of the Franks, without dowry. Thereafter Leir bestows his two eldest daughters on the Dukes of Albania and Cornubia (Albany and Cornwall), together with half the island during his lifetime and the possession of the remainder after his death. In due course his two sons-in-law rebel against Leir and seize his power. Thereafter Maglaunus, Duke of Albania, agrees to maintain Leir with sixty retainers, but after two years of chafing at this arrangement Gonorilla insists that the number be reduced to thirty. Angrily the King goes to Henvin, Duke of Cornubia, where all goes well for a time; within a year, however, Regan demands that Leir reduce his retinue to five knights. When Gonorilla refuses to take him back with more than one retainer, Leir crosses into France and is generously received by Cordeilla and Aganippus. An invasion restores Leir to his throne. Three years later he and Aganippus die, after which Cordeilla rules successfully for five years until overthrown by the sons of Maglaunus and Henvin. In prison she commits suicide.

This story, as part of England’s mythic genealogy, was repeated in various Tudor versions such as The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates (1574), William Warner’s Albion’s England (1586), and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (second edition, 1587; see the first of the following selections). Warner refers to the King’s sons-in-law as “the Prince of Albany” and “the Cornish prince”; Holinshed refers to them as “the Duke of Albania” and “the Duke of Cornwall,” but reports that it is Cornwall who marries the eldest daughter Gonorilla. The Mirror, closer to Shakespeare in these details, speaks of “Gonerell” as married to “Albany” and of “Cordila” as married to “the King of France.” Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (2.10.27—32) reports that “Cordeill” or “Cordelia” ends her life by hanging herself. Other retellings appear in Gerard Legh’s Accidence of Armory and William Camden’s Remains. All of these accounts leave the story virtually unchanged.

Shakespeare’s immediate source for King Lear was an old play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir. It was published in 1605 but plainly is much earlier in style. The Stationers’ Register, the official record of the London Company of Stationers (booksellers and printers), for May 14, 1594, lists “A booke entituled The moste famous Chronicle historye of Leire kinge of England and his Three Daughters” and a short time earlier Philip Henslowe’s Diary records the performance of a “Kinge Leare” at the Rose Theatre on April 6 and 8, 1594. The actors were either the Queen’s or the Earl of Sussex’s men (two acting companies), though probably the Queen’s. The play may have been written as early as 1588. George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Kyd have all been suggested as possible authors. Shakespeare probably knew the play before its publication in 1605.

This play of Leir ends happily, with the restoration of Leir to his throne. Essentially the play is a legendary history with a strong element of romance. (Some similarities and differences between the anonymous play and Shakespeare’s King Lear can be seen in the second of the following selections, containing the first three scenes.) The two wicked sisters are warned of the King’s plans for dividing his kingdom by an obsequious courtier named Skalliger (cf. Oswald). It is Skalliger, in fact, who proposes the idea of apportioning the kingdom in accord with the lovingness of the daughters’ responses. Cordella receives the ineffectual support of an honest courtier, Perillus (cf. Kent), but is disinherited by her angry father. In subsequent scenes not included in this selection, Cordella, trusting herself to God’s mercy and setting forth alone to live by her own labor, is found by the Gallian King and his bluff companion Mumford, who have come to England disguised as palmers to see if the English King’s daughters are as beautiful as reported. The King hears Cordella’s sad story, falls in love with her, and woos her (still wearing his disguise) in the name of the Gallian King. When she virtuously suggests the palmer woo for himself, he throws off his disguise and marries her forthwith.

Meanwhile the other sons-in-law, Cornwall and Cambria (cf. Albany), draw lots for their shares of the kingdom. Leir announces that he will sojourn with Cornwall and Gonorill first. Cornwall treats the King with genuine solicitude, but Gonorill, abetted by Skalliger, tauntingly drives her father away. The King acknowledges to his loyal companion Perillus that he has wronged Cordella. Regan, who rules her mild husband as she pleases, receives the King with seeming tenderness but secretly hires an assassin to end his life. (Gonorill is partner in this plot.) The suborned agent, frightened into remorse by a providentially sent thunderstorm, shows his intended victim the letter ordering the assassination.

The Gallian King and Cordella, who have previously sent ambassadors to Leir urging him to come to France, now decide to journey with Mumford into Britain disguised as countryfolk. Before they can do so, however, Leir and Perillus arrive in France, in mariners’ garb, where they encounter Cordella and her party dressed as countryfolk. Cordella recognizes Leir’s voice, and father and daughter are tearfully reunited. The Gallian King invades England and restores Leir to his throne.

Shakespeare has changed much in the narrative of his source. He discards not only the happy ending but the attempted assassination and the numerous romancelike uses of disguise (although Tom o’ Bedlam, in an added plot, repeatedly uses disguise). Shakespeare eliminates the humorous Mumford and replaces Perillus with both Kent and the Fool. He turns Cornwall into a villain and Albany into a belated champion of justice. He creates the storm scene out of a mere suggestion of such an event, serving a very different purpose, in his source.

Most of all, he adds the parallel plot of Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund. Here Shakespeare derived some of his material from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). In Book 2, chapter 10, of this greatest of all Elizabethan prose romances, presented in the third of the following selections, the two heroes Pyrocles and Musidorus encounter a son leading his blind old father. The old man tells his pitiful tale. He is the deposed King of Paphlagonia, father of a bastard son named Plexirtus who, he now bitterly realizes, turned the King against his true son Leonatus—the very son who is now his guide and guardian. The true son, having managed to escape his father’s order of execution, has been forced to live poorly as a soldier, while the bastard son has proceeded to usurp his father’s throne. In his wretchedness, the King has been succored by his forgiving true son and has been prevented from casting himself off the top of a hill. At the conclusion of this narrative, the villain Plexirtus arrives and attacks Leonatus; reinforcements arrive on both sides, but eventually Plexirtus is driven off, enabling the King to return to his court and bestow the crown on Leonatus. The old King thereupon dies, his heart having been stretched beyond the limits of endurance.

Other parts of the Arcadia may have given Shakespeare further suggestions; for example, the disguises adopted by Kent and Edgar are like those of Zelmane and Pyrocles in Sidney’s prose work, and Albany’s speeches about anarchy and the monstrosity that results from assaults on the rule of law recall one of Sidney’s deepest concerns. Edmund is decidedly indebted to the allegorical Vice figure of the late medieval morality play tradition. For Tom o’ Bedlam’s mad language, Shakespeare consulted Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, 1603. (See Kenneth Muir’s Arden 2 edition of King Lear, pp. 253—256, for an extensive comparison.)


(1587 EDITION)

Compiled by Raphael Holinshed


Leir, the son of Bladud, was admitted ruler over the Britons in the year of the world 3105, at what time Joas reigned in Judah. This Leir was a prince of right noble demeanor, governing his land and subjects in great wealth. He made the town of Caerleir, now called Leicester, which standeth upon the river of Soar. It is written that he had by his wife three daughters, without other issue, whose names were Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, which daughters he greatly loved, but specially Cordeilla, the youngest, far above the two elder. When this Leir therefore was come to great years and began to wax unwieldy through age, he thought to understand the affections of his daughters towards him and prefer1 her whom he best loved to the succession over the kingdom. Whereupon he first asked Gonorilla, the eldest, how well she loved him; who, calling her gods to record, protested that she loved him more than her own life, which by right and reason should be most dear unto her. With which answer the father, being well pleased, turned to the second and demanded of her how well she loved him; who answered, confirming her sayings with great oaths, that she loved him more than tongue could express and far above all other creatures of the world.

Then called he his youngest daughter Cordeilla before him and asked of her what account she made of him, unto whom she made this answer as followeth: “Knowing the great love and fatherly zeal that you have always borne towards me, for the which I may not answer you otherwise than2 I think and as my conscience leadeth me, I protest unto you that I have loved you ever and will continually while I live love you as my natural father. And if you would more understand of the love that I bear you, ascertain3 yourself that so much as you have, so much you are worth, and so much I love you and no more.” The father, being nothing content with this answer, married his two eldest daughters, the one unto Henninus, the Duke of Cornwall, and the other unto Maglanus, the Duke of Albania, betwixt whom he willed and ordained that his land should be divided after his death, and the one half thereof immediately should be assigned to them in hand; but for the third daughter, Cordeilla, he reserved nothing.

Nevertheless it fortuned that one of the princes of Gallia (which now is called France), whose name was Aganippus, hearing of the beauty, womanhood, and good conditions of the said Cordeilla, desired to have her in marriage and sent over to her father requiring4 that he might have her to wife; to whom answer was made that he might have his daughter, but as for any dower he could have none, for all was promised and assured to her other sisters already. Aganippus, notwithstanding this answer of denial to receive anything by way of dower with Cordeilla, took her to wife, only moved thereto (I say) for respect of her person and amiable virtues. This Aganippus was one of the twelve kings that ruled Gallia in those days, as in the British history it is recorded. But to proceed.

After that5 Leir was fallen into age, the two dukes that had married his two eldest daughters, thinking it long ere the government of the land did come to their hands, arose against him in armor and reft6 from him the governance of the land upon conditions to be continued for term of life, by the which he was put to his portion, that is, to live after a rate assigned to him for the maintenance of his estate, which in process of time was diminished as well by Maglanus as by Henninus. But the greatest grief that Leir took was to see the unkindness7 of his daughters, which8 seemed to think that all was too much which their father had, the same being never so little; insomuch that, going from the one to the other, he was brought to that misery that scarcely they would allow him one servant to wait upon him.

In the end, such was the unkindness or (as I may say) the unnaturalness which he found in his two daughters, notwithstanding their fair and pleasant words uttered in time past, that, being constrained of necessity, he fled the land and sailed into Gallia, there to seek some comfort of his youngest daughter Cordeilla whom beforetime he hated. The Lady Cordeilla, hearing that he was arrived in poor estate, she first sent to him privily9 a certain sum of money to apparel himself withal10 and to retain a certain number of servants that might attend upon him in honorable wise, as appertained to the estate which he had borne. And then, so accompanied,11 she appointed him12 to come to the court, which he did, and was so joyfully, honorably, and lovingly received, both by his son-in-law Aganippus and also by his daughter Cordeilla, that his heart was greatly comforted, for he was no less honored than if he had been king of the whole country himself.

Now, when he had informed his son-in-law and his daughter in what sort he had been used by his other daughters, Aganippus caused a mighty army to be put in a readiness, and likewise a great navy of ships to be rigged, to pass over into Britain with Leir, his father-in-law, to see him again restored to his kingdom. It was accorded that Cordeilla should also go with him to take possession of the land, the which he promised to leave unto her as the rightful inheritor after his decease, notwithstanding any former grant made to her sisters or to their husbands in any manner of wise.

Hereupon, when this army and navy of ships were ready, Leir and his daughter Cordeilla with her husband took the sea and, arriving in Britain, fought with their enemies and discomfited13 them in battle, in the which Maglanus and Henninus were slain. And then was Leir restored to his kingdom, which he ruled after this by the space of two years, and then died, forty years after he first began to reign. His body was buried at Leicester, in a vault under the channel of the river of Soar, beneath the town.


Cordeilla, the youngest daughter of Leir, was admitted Queen and supreme Governess of Britain in the year of the world 3155, before the building of Rome 54,15 Uzia then reigning in Judah and Jeroboam over Israel. This Cordeilla, after her father’s decease, ruled the land of Britain right worthily during the space of five years, in which meantime her husband died; and then, about the end of those five years, her two nephews Margan and Cunedag, sons to her aforesaid sisters, disdaining to be under the government of a woman, levied war against her and destroyed a great part of the land, and finally took her prisoner and laid her fast in ward,16 wherewith she took such grief, being a woman of a manly courage, and despairing to recover liberty, there she slew herself, when she had reigned (as before is mentioned) the term of five years.

The second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles was published in 1587. This selection is based on that edition, Volume 1, The History of England, pages 12—13.


[Dramatis Personae

LEIR, King of Brittany

daughters of Leir







PERILLUS, a nobleman

MUMFORD, a knight

SKALLIGER, a courtier




Nobles, Mariners, Captains, Watchmen, Attendants, Soldiers, etc.

SCENE: Brittany and Gallia]

1 prefer advance

2 than than as

3 ascertain assure

4 requiring requesting

5 After that After

6 reft stripped, took

7 unkindness (with meaning also of “unnaturalness”)

8 which who

9 privily secretly

10 withal with

11 so accompanied he being so accompanied

12 appointed him arranged for him

13 discomfited overthrew

14 GUNARCHY government by a woman ruler

15 3155, 54 (The beginning of Cordeilla’s reign is reckoned to be 3155 years after God’s creation of the world as recorded in Genesis and 54 years before the building of Rome, or c. 822—817 B.C. Jeroboam did actually reign over Israel c. 931 B.C.)

16 ward prison

1.1 Image Enter King Leir and Nobles.


Thus to our grief the obsequies performed1

Of our too late2 deceased and dearest queen,

Whose soul, I hope, possessed of heavenly joys

Doth ride in triumph ’mongst the cherubins,

Let us request your grave advice, my lords,

For6 the disposing of our princely daughters,

For whom our care is specially employed,

As nature bindeth, to advance their states8

In royal marriage with some princely mates.

For, wanting10 now their mother’s good advice,

Under whose government they have received

A perfect pattern of a virtuous life,

Left as it were a ship without a stern13

Or silly14 sheep without a pastor’s care,

Although ourselves do dearly tender15 them,

Yet are we ignorant of their affairs.

For fathers best do know to govern sons,

But daughters’ steps the mother’s counsel turns18.

A son we want for to succeed19 our crown,

And course of time hath cancellèd the date20

Of further issue21 from our withered loins;

One foot already hangeth in the grave,

And age hath made deep furrows in my face.

The world of me, I of the world, am weary,

And I would fain25 resign these earthly cares

And think upon the welfare of my soul,

Which by no better means may be effected

Than by resigning up the crown from me

In equal dowry to my daughters three.


A worthy care, my liege, which well declares

The zeal you bare unto our quondam31 queen.

And since Your Grace hath licensed me to speak,

I censure thus: Your Majesty, knowing well33

What several34 suitors your princely daughters have,

To make them each a jointure35, more or less

As is their worth, to them that love profess.


No more nor less, but even all alike

My zeal is fixed, all fashioned in one mold.

Wherefore unpartial shall my censure39 be?

Both old and young shall have alike for me.


My gracious lord, I heartily do wish

That God had lent you an heir indubitate42

Which might have set upon your royal throne

When fates should loose the prison of your life,

By whose succession all this doubt might cease,

And, as by you, by him we might have peace.

But after-wishes ever come too late,

And nothing can revoke the course of fate.

Wherefore, my liege, my censure deems it best

To match them with some of your neighbor kings

Bordering within the bounds of Albion51,

By whose united friendship this our state

May be protected ’gainst all foreign hate.


Herein, my lords, your wishes sort54 with mine,

And mine, I hope, do sort with heavenly powers.

For at this instant two near neighboring kings,

Of Cornwall and of Cambria, motion57 love

To my two daughters, Gonorill and Ragan.

My youngest daughter, fair Cordella, vows

No liking to a monarch unless love allows.

She is solicited by divers peers,

But none of them her partial fancy62 hears.

Yet if my policy may her beguile63,

I’ll match her to some king within this isle,

And so establish such a perfect peace

As fortune’s force shall ne’er prevail to cease66.


Of us and ours, your gracious care, my lord,67

Deserves an everlasting memory,

To be enrolled in chronicles of fame

By70 never-dying perpetuity.

Yet to become so provident a prince,

Lose not the title of a loving father.

Do not force love where fancy73 cannot dwell,

Lest streams, being stopped74, above the banks do swell.


I am resolved, and even now my mind

Doth meditate a sudden stratagem

To try which of my daughters loves me best,

Which, till I know, I cannot be in rest.

This granted79, when they jointly shall contend

Each to exceed the other in their love,

Then at the vantage will I take81 Cordella:

Even as she doth protest she loves me best,

I’ll say, “Then, daughter, grant me one request.

To show thou lovest me as thy sisters do,

Accept a husband, whom myself will woo85.”

This said, she cannot well deny my suit,

Although, poor soul, her senses will be mute87.

Then will I triumph in my policy

And match her with a king of Brittany.


I’ll to them before and bewray your secrecy90.

[Exeunt all but Perillus.]


Thus fathers think their children to beguile,

And oftentimes themselves do first repent

When heavenly powers do frustrate their intent.


1.2 Image Enter Gonorill and Ragan.


I marvel, Ragan, how you can endure

To see that proud pert peat2, our youngest sister,

So slightly to account of3 us, her elders,

As if we were no better than herself!

We cannot have a quaint device so soon5,

Or new-made fashion of our choice invention6,

But, if she like it, she will have the same,

Or study newer8 to exceed us both.

Besides, she is so nice9 and so demure,

So sober, courteous, modest, and precise10,

That all the court hath work enough to do

To talk how she exceedeth me and you.


What should I do? Would it were in my power

To find a cure for this contagious ill!

Some desperate medicine must be soon applied

To dim the glory of her mounting fame;

Else, ere ’t be long, she’ll have both prick and praise17,

And we must be set by for working days18.

Do you not see what several19 choice of suitors

She daily hath, and of the best degree?

Say, amongst all, she hap to fancy21 one

And have a husband whenas22 we have none.

Why, then, by right to her we must give place,

Though it be ne’er so much to our disgrace.


By my virginity, rather than she shall have

A husband before me,

I’ll marry one or other in his shirt27!

And yet I have made half a grant already

Of my good will unto the King of Cornwall.

RAGAN Swear not so deeply, sister. Here cometh my lord


Something his hasty coming doth import32.

Enter Skalliger.


Sweet princesses, I am glad I met you here so luckily,

Having good news which doth concern you both

And craveth speedy expedition35.


For God’s sake, tell us what it is, my lord.

I am with child37 until you utter it.


Madam, to save your longing, this it is:

Your father in great secrecy today

Told me he means to marry you out of hand40

Unto the noble Prince of Cambria;

[To Gonorill] You, madam, to the King of Cornwall’s Grace.

Your younger sister he would fain bestow

Upon the rich King of Hibernia44,

But that he doubts she hardly will consent,

For hitherto she ne’er could fancy him.

If she do yield, why then, between you three

He will divide his kingdom for your dowries.

But yet there is further mystery,

Which, so50 you will conceal, I will disclose.


Whate’er thou speak’st to us, kind Skalliger,

Think that thou speak’st it only to thyself.


He earnestly desireth for to know53

Which of you three do bear most love to him,

And on your loves he so extremely dotes

As never any did, I think, before.

He presently57 doth mean to send for you

To be resolved of this tormenting doubt;

And look whose answer59 pleaseth him the best,

They shall have most unto their marriages.


Oh, that I had some pleasing mermaid’s voice

For to enchant his senseless62 senses with!


For he supposeth that Cordella will,

Striving to go beyond you in her love,

Promise to do whatever he desires.

Then will he straight66 enjoin her for his sake

The Hibernian King in marriage for to take.

This is the sum of all I have to say,

Which being done, I humbly take my leave,

Not doubting but your wisdoms will foresee

What course will best unto your good agree71.


Thanks, gentle Skalliger. Thy kindness, undeserved,

Shall not be unrequited if we live.

Exit Skalliger.


Now have we fit occasion offered us

To be revenged upon her unperceived.


Nay, our revenge we will inflict on her

Shall be accounted piety in us.

I will so flatter with78 my doting father

As he was ne’er so flattered in his life.

Nay, I will say that if it be his pleasure

To match me to a beggar, I will yield,

Forwhy I know whatever I do say82

He means to match me with the Cornwall King.


I’ll say the like, for I am well assured,

What e’er I say to please the old man’s mind,

Who dotes as if he were a child again,

I shall enjoy the noble Cambrian prince.

Only to feed his humor will suffice88

To say I am content with anyone

Whom he’ll appoint me; this will please him more

Than e’er Apollo’s music pleasèd Jove.


I smile to think in what a woeful plight

Cordella will be when we answer thus,

For she will rather die than give consent

To join in marriage with the Irish King.

So will our father think she loveth him not,

Because she will not grant to his desire,

Which we will aggravate in such bitter terms

That he will soon convert his love to hate.

For he, you know, is always in extremes.


Not all the world could lay a better plot.

I long till it be put in practice.


1.3 Image Enter Leir and Perillus.

LEIR Perillus, go seek my daughters.

Will them immediately come and speak with me.

PERILLUS I will, my gracious lord.



Oh, what a combat feels my panting heart

Twixt children’s love and care of commonweal!

How dear my daughters are unto my soul

None knows but he that knows my thoughts and secret deeds.

Ah, little do they know the dear regard

Wherein I hold their future state to come!

When they securely sleep on beds of down,

These aged eyes do watch for11 their behalf.

While they like wantons sport in youthful toys12,

This throbbing heart is pierced with dire annoys13.

As doth the sun exceed the smallest star,

So much the father’s love exceeds the child’s.

Yet my complaints are causeless, for the world

Affords not children more conformable17.

And yet methinks my mind presageth still

I know not what; and yet I fear some ill.

Enter Perillus, with the three daughters.

Well, here my daughters come. I have found out

A present means to rid me of this doubt.


Our royal lord and father, in all duty

We come to know the tenor of your will,

Why you so hastily have sent for us.


Dear Gonorill, kind Ragan, sweet Cordella,

Ye flourishing branches of a kingly stock

Sprung from a tree that once did flourish green,

Whose blossoms now are nipped with winter’s frost,

And pale grim Death doth wait upon my steps

And summons me unto his next assizes30.

Therefore, dear daughters, as ye tender the safety

Of him that was the cause of your first being,

Resolve a doubt which much molests my mind:

Which of you three to me would prove most kind,

Which loves me most, and which at my request

Will soonest yield unto their father’s hest36.


I hope, my gracious father makes no doubt

Of any of his daughters’ love to him.

Yet for my part, to show my zeal to you,

Which cannot be in windy words rehearsed40,

I prize my love to you at such a rate

I think my life inferior to my love.

Should you enjoin me for to tie a millstone

About my neck and leap into the sea,

At your command I willingly would do it.

Yea, for to do you good I would ascend

The highest turret in all Brittany

And from the top leap headlong to the ground.

Nay, more, should you appoint me49 for to marry

The meanest50 vassal in the spacious world,

Without reply I would accomplish it.

In brief, command whatever you desire,

And, if I fail, no favor I require.


Oh, how thy words revive my dying soul!

CORDELLA [aside]

Oh, how I do abhor this flattery!


But what saith Ragan to her father’s will?


Oh, that my simple utterance could suffice

To tell the true intention of my heart,

Which burns in zeal of duty to Your Grace

And never can be quenched but by desire60

To show the same in outward forwardness!

Oh, that there were some other maid that durst

But make a challenge of her love with me!

I’d make her soon confess she never loved

Her father half so well as I do you.

Ay, then my deeds should prove in plainer case

How much my zeal aboundeth to Your Grace.

But for them all, let this one mean68 suffice

To ratify my love before your eyes:

I have right noble suitors to my love,

No worse than kings, and happily I love one;

Yet, would you have me make my choice anew,

I’d bridle fancy and be ruled by you.


Did never Philomel74 sing so sweet a note.

CORDELLA [aside]

Did never flatterer tell so false a tale.


Speak now, Cordella. Make my joys at full

And drop down nectar from thy honey lips.


I cannot paint my duty forth in words.

I hope my deeds shall make report for me.

But look what80 love the child doth owe the father,

The same to you I bear, my gracious lord.


Here is an answer answerless indeed.

Were you my daughter, I should scarcely brook83 it.


Dost thou not blush, proud peacock as thou art,

To make our father such a slight reply?


Why how now, minion, are you grown so proud?

Doth our dear love make you thus peremptory?

What, is your love become so small to us

As that you scorn to tell us what it is?

Do you love us as every child doth love

Their father? True indeed, as some

Who by disobedience short92 their father’s days,

And so would you. Some are so father-sick

That they make means to rid them from the world,

And so would you. Some are indifferent

Whether their aged parents live or die,

And so are you. But didst thou know, proud girl,

What care I had to foster thee to this,

Ah, then thou wouldst say as thy sisters do.

Our life is less than love we owe to you100.


Dear Father, do not so mistake my words

Nor102 my plain meaning be misconstrued.

My tongue was never used to flattery.


You were not best say104 I flatter. If you do,

My deeds shall show I flatter not with you105.

I love my father better than thou canst.


The praise were great, spoke from another’s mouth107;

But it should seem your neighbors dwell far off108.


Nay, here is one that109 will confirm as much

As she hath said, both for myself and her.

I say thou dost not wish my father’s good.

CORDELLA Dear Father—


Peace, bastard imp, no issue of King Leir!

I will not hear thee speak one tittle more.

Call not me father, if thou love thy life,

Nor these thy sisters once presume to name116.

Look for no help henceforth from me nor mine;

Shift118 as thou wilt and trust unto thyself.

My kingdom will I equally divide

Twixt thy two sisters to120 their royal dower,

And will bestow them121 worthy their deserts.

This done, because122 thou shalt not have the hope

To have a child’s part in the time to come,

I presently124 will dispossess myself

And set up these upon my princely throne.


I ever thought that pride would have a fall.


Plain-dealing sister, your beauty is so sheen127

You need no dowry to make you be a queen.

Exeunt Leir, Gonorill, Ragan.


Now whither, poor forsaken, shall I go

When mine own sisters triumph in my woe

But unto Him which doth protect the just?

In Him will poor Cordella put her trust.

These hands shall labor for to get my spending133,

And so I’ll live until my days have ending.



Oh, how I grieve to see my lord thus fond135

To dote so much upon vain flattering words!

Ah, if he but with good advice137 had weighed

The hidden tenor of her humble speech,

Reason to rage should not have given place

Nor poor Cordella suffer such disgrace.


Text based on The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. As it hath been divers and sundry times lately acted. London: Printed by Simon Stafford for John Wright.… 1605.

In the following, the departure from the original text appears in boldface; the original reading is in roman.

1.1.93 s.d. Exit Exeunt

ARCADIA (1590)

By Sir Philip Sidney


The pitiful state and story of the Paphlagonian unkind1 King and his kind son, first related by the son, then by the blind father.

It was in the kingdom of Galatia, the season being, as in the depth of winter, very cold, and as then suddenly grown to so extreme and foul a storm that never any winter, I think, brought forth a fouler child; so that the princes2 were even compelled by the hail that the pride3 of the wind blew into their faces to seek ome shrouding place within.4 A certain hollow rock offering it5 unto them, they made it their shield against the tempest’s fury. And so, staying there till the violence thereof was past, they heard the speech of a couple6 who, not perceiving them (being hid7 within that rude canopy), held a strange and pitiful disputation, which made them step out,8 yet in such sort as they might see unseen.

There they perceived an aged man and a young scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorly arrayed, extremely weather-beaten; the old man blind, the young man leading him. And yet through all those miseries, in both these9 seemed to appear a kind of nobleness not suitable10 to that affliction. But the first words they heard were these of the old man.

“Well, Leonatus,” said he, “since I cannot persuade thee to lead me to that which should end my grief and thy trouble,11 let me now entreat thee to leave me. Fear not; my misery cannot be greater than it is, and nothing doth become me12 but misery. Fear not the danger of my blind steps. I cannot fall worse than I am. And do not, I pray thee, do not obstinately continue to infect thee13 with my wretchedness. But fly, fly from this region only worthy of me.”14

“Dear Father,” answered he, “do not take away from me the only remnant of my happiness! While I have power to do you service, I am not wholly miserable.”

“Ah, my son,” said he, and with that he groaned as if sorrow strave to break his heart, “how evil fits it me15 to have such a son, and how much doth thy kindness upbraid my wickedness!”

These doleful speeches and some others to like purpose, well showing they had not been born to the fortune they were in, moved the princes to go out unto them and ask the younger what16 they were.

“Sirs,” answered he with a good grace, and made the more agreeable by a certain noble kind of piteousness, “I see well you are strangers that know not our misery, so well here known that no man dare know but that we must be miserable.17 Indeed our state is such as though nothing is so needful unto us as pity, yet nothing is more dangerous unto us than to make ourselves so known as may stir pity. But your presence promiseth that cruelty shall not overrun hate.18 And if it did,19 in truth our state is sunk below the degree of fear.

“This old man whom I lead was lately rightful prince of this country of Paphlagonia, by the hard-hearted ungratefulness of a son of his deprived20 not only of his kingdom (whereof no foreign forces were ever able to spoil21 him) but of his sight, the riches which Nature grants to the poorest creatures. Whereby, and by other his22 unnatural dealings, he hath been driven to such grief as even now he would have had me to have led him to the top of this rock, thence to cast himself headlong to death. And so would have made me, who received my life of him, to be the worker of his destruction. But, noble gentlemen,” said he, “if either of you have a father and feel what dutiful affection is engraffed23 in a son’s heart, let me entreat you to convey this afflicted prince to some place of rest and security. Amongst your worthy acts it shall be none of the least that a king of such might and fame, and so unjustly oppressed, is in any sort by you relieved.”

But before they could make him answer, his father began to speak. “Ah, my son,” said he, “how evil an historian are you, that leave out the chief knot of all the discourse: my wickedness, my wickedness! And if thou dost it to spare my ears, the only sense now left me proper for knowledge,24 assure thyself thou dost mistake me. And I take witness of that sun which you see”—with that he cast up his blind eyes as if he would hunt for light—“and wish myself in worse case than I do wish myself, which is as evil as may be, if I speak untruly: that nothing is so welcome to my thoughts as the publishing of my shame.

“Therefore know you, gentlemen, to whom from my heart I wish that it may not prove ominous foretoken of misfortune to have met with such a miser25 as I am, that whatsoever my son (O God, that truth binds me to reproach him with the name of my son!) hath said is true. But besides those truths this also is true: that, having had26 in lawful marriage, of a mother fit to bear royal children, this son27 (such one as partly you see and better shall know by my short declaration),28 and so enjoyed the expectations in the world of him29 till he was grown to justify their expectations, so as30 I needed envy no father for the chief comfort of mortality to leave another oneself after me,31 I was carried32 by a bastard son of mine (if at least I be bound to believe33 the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, to do my best to destroy, this son I think you think undeserving34 destruction.

“What ways he used to bring me to it, if I should tell you, I should tediously trouble you with as much poisonous hypocrisy, desperate fraud, smooth malice, hidden ambition, and smiling envy as in any living person could be harbored. But I list it not.35 No remembrance—no, of naughtiness36—delights me but mine own, and methinks the accusing his trains37 might in some manner excuse my fault, which certainly I loathe to do. But the conclusion is that I gave order to some servants of mine, whom I thought as apt for such charities38 as myself, to lead him out into a forest and there to kill him.

“But those thieves, better natured to my son than myself, spared his life, letting him go to learn to live poorly; which he did, giving himself to be39 a private soldier in a country hereby.40 But as he was ready to be greatly advanced for some noble pieces of service which he did, he heard news of me—who, drunk in my affection to that unlawful and unnatural son of mine, suffered41 myself so to be governed by him that all favors and punishments passed by him, all offices and places of importance distributed to his favorites; so that, ere I was aware, I had left myself nothing but the name of a king. Which he shortly weary of too,42 with many indignities (if anything may be called an indignity43 which was laid upon me) threw me out of my seat44 and put out my eyes; and then, proud in his tyranny, let me go, neither imprisoning nor killing me, but rather delighting to make me feel my misery. Misery indeed, if ever there were any! Full of wretchedness, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltiness.

“And as he came to the crown by so unjust means, as unjustly he kept it, by force of stranger45 soldiers in citadels, the nests of tyranny and murderers of liberty, disarming all his own countrymen, that no man durst show himself a well-willer of mine—to say the truth I think few of them being so, considering my cruel folly to my good son and foolish kindness to my unkind bastard. But if there were any who fell to pity of so great a fall and had yet any sparks of unstained duty left in them towards me, yet durst they not show it, scarcely with giving me alms at their doors—which yet was the only sustenance of my distressed life, nobody daring to show so much charity as to lend me a hand to guide my dark steps.

“Till this son of mine (God knows, worthy of a more virtuous and more fortunate father), forgetting my abominable wrongs, not recking46 danger, and neglecting the present good way he was in doing himself good, came hither to do this kind office you see him perform towards me, to my unspeakable grief—not only because his kindness is a glass47 even to my blind eyes of my naughtiness,48 but that above all griefs it grieves me he should desperately adventure the loss of his soul-deserving life for mine, that yet owe more to fortune for my deserts,49 as if he would carry mud in a chest50 of crystal. For well I know, he that now reigneth, how much soever (and with good reason) he despiseth me, of all men despised,51 yet he will not let slip any advantage to make away him whose just title, ennobled by courage and goodness,52 may one day shake the seat of a never secure tyranny.

“And for this cause I craved of him to lead me to the top of this rock, indeed, I must confess, with meaning53 to free him from so serpentine54 a companion as I am. But he, finding what I purposed, only therein since55 he was born showed himself disobedient unto me. And now, gentlemen, you have the true story, which I pray you publish to the world, that my mischievous56 proceedings may be the glory of his filial piety, the only reward now left for so great a merit. And if it may be, let me obtain that of you which my son denies me.57 For never was there more pity in saving any than in ending me,58 both because therein my agonies shall end, and so shall you preserve this excellent young man who else willfully follows his own ruin.”

The matter, in itself lamentable, lamentably expressed by the old prince (which59 needed not take to himself60 the gestures of pity, since his face could not put off61 the marks thereof) greatly moved the two princes to compassion, which could not stay in such hearts as theirs without seeking remedy. But by and by the occasion was presented. For Plexirtus (so was the bastard called) came thither with forty horse, only of purpose62 to murder this brother; of whose coming he had soon advertisement,63 and thought no eyes of sufficient credit64 in such a matter but his own, and therefore came himself to be actor and spectator.

And as soon as he came, not regarding65 the weak (as he thought) guard of but two men, commanded66 some of his followers to set their hands to his67 in the killing of Leonatus. But the young Prince, though not otherwise armed but with a sword, how falsely soever he was dealt with by others, would not betray himself;68 but bravely drawing it69 out, made the death of the first that assaulted him warn70 his fellows to come more warily after him. But then Pyrocles and Musidorus were quickly become parties71 (so just a defense deserving as much as old friendship) and so did behave them among that company (more injurious72 than valiant) that many of them lost their lives for their wicked master.

Yet perhaps had the number of them at last prevailed if the King of Pontus (lately by them73 made so) had not come unlooked-for to their succor. Who, having had a dream which had fixed his imagination vehemently upon some great danger presently74 to follow those two Princes whom he most dearly loved, was come in all haste, following as well as he could their track with a hundred horses75 in that country, which he thought (considering who then reigned) a fit place enough to make the stage76 of any tragedy.

But then the match had been so ill made for Plexirtus that his ill-led life and worse-gotten honor should have tumbled together to destruction, had there not come in Tydeus and Telenor, with forty or fifty in their suit,77 to the defense of Plexirtus. These two were brothers of the noblest house of that country, brought up from their infancy with Plexirtus—men of such prowess as not to know fear in themselves and yet to teach it others that should deal with them. For they had often made their lives triumph over most terrible dangers, never dismayed and ever fortunate, and truly no more settled78 in their valor than disposed to goodness and justice, if either they had lighted on a better friend or could have learned to make friendship a child and not the father of virtue.79 But bringing up rather than choice80 having first knit their minds unto him (indeed crafty enough81 either to hide his faults or never to show them but when they might pay home),82 they willingly held out the course83 rather to satisfy him than all the world, and rather to be good friends than good men. So as84 though they did not like the evil he did, yet they liked him that did the evil, and though not councilors of the offense, yet protectors of the offender.

Now they, having heard of this sudden going out85 with so small a company, in a country full of evil-wishing minds toward him (though they knew not the cause), followed him, till they found him in such case as they were to venture their lives or else he to lose his; which they did with such force of mind and body that truly I may justly say, Pyrocles and Musidorus had never till then found any that could make them so well repeat their hardest lesson in the feats of arms. And briefly so they86 did that, if they overcame not, yet were they not overcome, but carried away that ungrateful master of theirs to a place of security howsoever the princes labored to the contrary. But this matter being thus far begun, it became not the constancy of87 the princes so to leave it; but in all haste making forces both in Pontus and Phrygia, they had in few days left him88 but only that one strong place where he was. For, fear having been the only knot that had fastened his people unto him, that once untied by a greater force, they all scattered from him like so many birds whose cage had been broken.

In which season the blind King, having in the chief city of his realm set the crown upon his son Leonatus’ head, with many tears both of joy and sorrow setting forth to the whole people his own fault and his son’s virtue, after he had kissed him and forced his son to accept honor of him as of his new-become subject, even in a moment died, as it should seem his heart, broken with unkindness and affliction, stretched so far beyond his89 limits with this excess of comfort as it was able no longer to keep safe his royal spirits. But the new king, having no less lovingly performed all duties to him dead than alive, pursued on90 the siege of his unnatural brother, as much for the revenge of his father as for the establishing of his own quiet. In which siege truly I cannot but acknowledge the prowess of those two brothers,91 than whom the princes never found in all their travel two men of greater ability to perform nor of abler skill for conduct.

But Plexirtus, finding that, if nothing else, famine92 would at last bring him to destruction, thought better by humbleness to creep where by pride he could not march. For certainly so had nature formed him, and the exercise of craft conformed him to all turnings of sleights,93 that though no man had less goodness in his soul than he, no man could better find the places94 whence arguments95 might grow of goodness to another; though no man felt less pity, no man could tell better how to stir pity; no man more impudent to deny where proofs were not manifest, no man more ready to confess with a repenting manner of aggravating his own evil where denial would but make the fault fouler. Now he took this way that, having gotten a passport96 for one that pretended he would put Plexirtus alive into his97 hands, to speak with the King his brother, he himself (though much against the minds of the valiant brothers, who rather wished to die in brave defense), with a rope about his neck, barefooted, came to offer himself to the discretion of Leonatus. Where what submission he used, how cunningly in making greater the fault he made the faultiness the less, how artificially he could set out the torments of his own conscience with the burdensome cumber he had found of his ambitious desires, how finely—seeming to desire nothing but death, as ashamed98 to live—he begged life in the refusing it,99 I am not cunning enough to be able to express. But so fell out of it that, though at first sight Leonatus saw him with no other eye than as the murderer of his father, and anger already began to paint revenge in many colors, ere long he had not only gotten pity but pardon, and, if not an excuse of the fault past, yet an opinion of future amendment; while the poor villains100 (chief ministers of his wickedness, now betrayed by the author thereof) were delivered to many cruel sorts of death, he so handling it that it rather seemed he had rather come into the defense of an unremediable mischief already committed than that they had done it at first by his consent.

Text based on The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Written by Sir Philip Sidney. London: Printed for William Ponsonbie, Anno Domini, 1590. Book 2, chapter 10.

1 unkind (with meaning also of “unnatural”)

2 the princes i.e., Pyrocles and Mucidorus, son and nephew of the King of Macedon, gallant knights and close friends, whose shipwreck and subsequent adventures in Arcadia form the main plot of Arcadia. (The present story is a digression from the main narrative.)

3 pride imperiousness

4 shrouding place within shelter out of the storm.

5 it itself

6 a couple i.e., two men

7 being hid i.e., the princes being hid

8 them step out i.e., the princes leave their shelter somewhat

9 both these both of them

10 suitable corresponding. (Their noble bearing seemed well above their wretched appearance.)

11 to that which … trouble i.e., to my suicide

12 become me suit me (in my present sad condition)

13 thee thyself

14 only worthy of me worthy only of (wretched) me.

15 how evil fits it me i.e., how little do I deserve

16 what who

17 that no man … miserable i.e., that no one dare inquire about us (as fugitives from justice) other than to know we are wretched.

18 that cruelty … hate i.e., that you will not cruelly turn against us in your hatred of what you must hear.

19 if it did i.e., even if you did

20 by … deprived i.e., who, by … was deprived

21 spoil despoil, plunder

22 other his his other, the ungrateful son’s other

23 engraffed engrafted

24 proper for knowledge suited to the acquiring of knowledge

25 miser miserable, wretched person

26 had begotten, sired

27 of a mother … son this son, the child of a mother worthy to bear royal children

28 better … declaration shall know better soon by my story

29 and so enjoyed … of him i.e., and took such pleasure in people’s high hopes for his success

30 was grown … so as had grown up justifying everyone’s expectations so fully that

31 for the chief … after me i.e., as to the chief comfort a man has in the face of death, that of leaving an image of himself behind

32 carried influenced, swayed

33 to believe i.e., to believe that this bastard was mine and not some other man’s

34 I think you think undeserving whom I believe you must consider undeserving of

35 list it not do not wish to do that.

36 no, of naughtiness no, not of any conceivable wickedness whatsoever

37 trains treachery

38 charities charitable, loving deeds. (Said with deep irony.)

39 giving himself to be enlisting as

40 hereby nearby.

41 suffered allowed

42 Which he … too i.e., and he, the bastard, soon impatient with my having even that

43 may … an indignity (The old King considers himself deserving of every punishment, so that no affliction laid on him can properly be called an indignity or undeserved blow.)

44 seat throne

45 stranger foreign (and mercenary)

46 recking heeding

47 glass mirror

48 naughtiness wickedness

49 that yet … deserts I who must repay still more to fortune for my wicked deservings (and am likely therefore to poison my virtuous son’s life with my evil fortune)

50 chest coffer to contain valuables

51 of all men despised I who am despised by one and all

52 ennobled … goodness i.e., strengthened by the virtuous qualities of my son. (The bastard mercilessly kicked his blind father out of doors, contemptuously allowing him to live in wretchedness, but now that the father is joined by his son and legitimate heir to the crown he is a threat.)

53 meaning intention

54 serpentine i.e., wicked

55 only therein since for the first time since

56 mischievous wicked, poisonous

57 obtain … me obtain by your means that which my son denies me, i.e., the chance to kill myself.

58 For … ending me i.e., Allowing me to die will be a more pitying and charitable act than the saving of someone else

59 which who

60 take to himself adopt, put on

61 put off efface, conceal

62 horse, only of purpose horsemen, solely in order

63 he had soon advertisement i.e., Leonatus soon had warning, notice

64 of sufficient credit worthy to be believed

65 not regarding not having a proper respect or fear for

66 commanded he commanded

67 set … to his give him a helping hand

68 betray himself i.e., behave in cowardly fashion

69 it i.e., his sword

70 warn i.e., give warning to

71 were … parties quickly became participants

72 injurious intent on inflicting wrongful injury

73 lately by them i.e., recently by Musidorus and Pyrocles

74 presently immediately

75 horses horsemen

76 stage place where an action occurs

77 suit entourage

78 settled steadfast

79 or could have learned … virtue i.e., if they, Tydeus and Telenor, had not allowed their friendship with Plexirtus to dominate over their otherwise virtuous impulses.

80 But … choice i.e., But the circumstances in which they were reared rather than their own deliberate choosing

81 indeed crafty enough he (Plexirtus) indeed being crafty enough

82 pay home i.e., seem thoroughly to justify themselves by the results

83 held out the course stuck to their determination

84 So as So that

85 going out excursion

86 they i.e., Tydeus and Telenor

87 it became … of it was not fitting to the knightly resolution and oaths of

88 him i.e., Plexirtus

89 his its

90 pursued on pursued, carried on

91 two brothers i.e., Tydeus and Telenor

92 famine i.e., being starved out in a siege

93 turnings of sleights fashioning of deceitful stratagems

94 places logical positions or topics

95 arguments proofs, manifestations

96 passport i.e., pass through the enemy lines, from the besieged city to the camp of Leonatus

97 his i.e., Leonatus’s. (Plexirtus obtains a passport ostensibly for one who will turn Plexirtus over to Leonatus, and then uses the passport himself to go to Leonatus and beg for mercy.)

98 as ashamed as if he were ashamed

99 in the refusing it even as he seemed to be asking for death

100 the poor villains the poor wretches, i.e., his chief officers and allies