Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Holinshed on King Lear
  • Author: Raphael Holinshed
  • Editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Holinshed on King Lear


    0.1Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) was a volume Shakespeare returned to throughout his career. His earliest histories were indebted to it, as is the late romance, Cymbeline, and he consulted it in creating his great tragedies King Lear and Macbeth. Raphael Holinshed was not the only writer of what became over time as a kind of compendium of the history of England; there were various contributors to the narratives, and each writer in turn consulted multiple sources. As they did so, they found that accounts and dates varied, sometimes quite dramatically; as he read Holinshed, Shakespeare would have been regularly reminded of the difficulty of establishing historical accuracy, and of the varying interpretations of earlier historians as they recounted the events they record. Towards the end of the section from which the current extract is taken, the historian carefully makes clear the problems he faced in compiling his work:

    Here ye must note that there is difference amongst writers about the supputation[calculation] and account of these years, insomuch that some, making their reckoning after certain writers and finding the same to vary above three hundred years, are brought into further doubt of the truth at the whole history; but whereas other[s] have by diligent search tried out the continuance of every governor's reign and reduced the same to a likelihood of some conformity, I have thought best to follow the same [i.e. process] leaving the credit thereof with the first authors.

    In the original volume, marginalia (omitted here) record the authors Holinshed was consulting as he narrates his histories.

    The uncertainties concerning dates and facts that Holinshed admits may have made it easier for Shakespeare and his contemporaries to reconstruct history to accord with their instinct for heightening drama. No change, however, in his earlier use of Holinshed are as startling as his rewritten ending, where Cordelia loses the battle against her sisters, and both she and Lear perish.

    The current selection, from volume 2, book 2, chapters 5-8, is taken from the website of the Holinshed Project ( The text has been modernized.