Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: The History of King Leir
  • Author: Andrew Griffin

  • Copyright Queen's Men Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Andrew Griffin
    Peer Reviewed

    The History of King Leir

    A Note on the Text


    1Leir was, at the latest, composed in 1594, at which time it was performed at Henslowe's Rose; it was published in 1605. This dating of the play is fairly certain, but it remains possible that the early production date is erroneous. Arriving at the 1594 date requires one to make a fairly comfortable assumption that the play performed at Henslowe's Rose in 1594 – the "kinge leare" performed by "the Quenes men & my lord of Susexe to geather" (Henslowe 21) – is the same play as the one published in 1605. While such an assumption seems perhaps bold, it would be even bolder to assume that the two plays are distinct. To imagine that the two plays are distinct would mean, first, that the Queen's Men and Sussex's Men performed a no longer extant play based on the Leir story in 1594. Second, one would necessarily assume the existence of the subsequent, published Leir play – of which there is otherwise no theatrical record – which was performed "diuers and sundry times" between 1594 and 1605 by a company that was not the Queen's Men. Finally, one would be compelled to assume that Shakespeare wrote a third play treating the same historical matter, and that he did so within a decade of the first play's production. Such an assumption seems particularly troublesome because there is no record of two, let alone three early modern plays treating the same historical matter being produced within the same decade. Considering the implausibility of this scenario, we are comfortable in the assumption that the 1594 play and the 1605 play are the same play. Even McMillin and MacLean, who follow stringent criteria before attributing any published playtext to the Queen's Men, accept that the play performed by the Queen's Men and Sussex's Men in 1594 and the play published in 1605 are the same play, though they admit that Leir is (again, according to stringent criteria) their least certain attribution (88).


    The play's author is unknown. Considering the prevalence of group authorship in early modern theatrical world, it is also plausible that the play was written collectively rather than by a lone playwright. Usually ignoring the possibility of group authorship, several critics have attempted to identify the play's imagined sole author. Most of these arguments about the play's authorship come hedged with considerable caveats because methods for speculating on authorship are, at best, impressionistic. Generally, when potential authors have been identified, they have been identified by way of imprecise stylistic comparisons; occasionally, these stylistic similarities are combined with slim historical documentation that establishes a relationship between the writer and the Queen's Men. Included in the list of potential authors are George Peele, Anthony Munday, Thomas Lodge, and Robert Greene. Shakespeare's name has also been suggested, combined with the fanciful assumption that Leir was a "first draft" of Lear. Following Pollard and Redgrave's Short Title Catalogue, Early English Books Online currently lists Michael Drayton as the play's author. Lee offers a fairly elaborate argument in favor of William Rankins (xxii-xxiii) – a playwright for whom we have no extant plays – though this argument is ultimately filled with too many suppositions to be taken as anything more than a lively conjecture by a formidable theatre historian. Ultimately, it seems impossible to determine the play's writer unless new evidence comes to light.

    The Transmission of the Text:

    Four copies of the 1605 edition of Leir are known to exist: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D. C. has a copy (identified by its STC number, 15343); the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, has a copy (HEH 62201); and the British Library has two copies (C.34.I.11 and 161.a.51), the latter of which is lightly cropped while the former is missing two leaves. In the first British Library copy, the missing text is supplied in manuscript by what Michie identifies as a "fine Victorian hand" (6). The Huntington Library copy of Leir was the copytext for this edition. Because of inking problems, some passages in the Huntington copy are unreadable. Where the copytext was illegible, the missing text for this edition was provided from the intact British Library copy. Because there is only one recognized state of the 1605 edition of Leir, these textual interpolations pose little editorial concern.

    While the text of Leir is relatively clear (e.g. it features no knotty cruxes and it requires no comparative collation of early editions) the play's publication history is murkier. Its publication history is particularly complicated because, according to the Stationer's Register, Leir had two owners simultaneously at the time it was first published. On 15 May 1594, the Register indicates that Edward White licensed "a booke entituled The moste famous Chronicle historye of LEIRE kinge of England and his three daughters" (2.649). As mentioned above, previous generations of theatre historians have figured this entry as noteworthy because Leir was sold by the Queen's Men at or around the same time that the they sold many of their other plays (Selimus,The True Tragedy of Richard III, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and The Famous Victories); such evidence of play-selling has been used in the past to suggest – problematically – that the company was failing by 1594. The entry in the Stationer's Register is also noteworthy, however, because it fails to make sense when combined with two subsequent entries: on 8 May 1604, Simon Stafford entered "A booke called 'the Tragecall historie of kinge LEIR and his Three Daughters &c.' As it was Latlie Acted" before immediately transferring publication rights to John Wright, "PROVIDED that Simon Stafford shall haue the printinge of this book" (xxx). Although it would be reasonable to assume that Stafford bought Leir from White sometime between 1594 and 1604, White's will of 1624 shows that White maintained the rights to the play after 1604, suggesting that no sale took place. From the records in the Stationer's Register, then, it seems that the rights to Leirwere owned by two different people: White owned the rights and Stafford owned the rights, and in 1604 Stafford transferred these rights temporarily to Wright on the condition that all the books printed by Wright were given to Stafford for an unrecorded sum. Making the situation more intriguing and complex, Wright was formerly apprenticed to White, and had won his freedom of the company on 28 June 1602, just two years prior to the second entries in the Register.

    5From the confusion of this situation and the dearth of other historical evidence, a number of hypotheses have emerged to explain the play's publication history. While all of these hypotheses remain unprovable because the evidence refuses to offer any certain conclusions, some of these hypotheses seem more plausible than others. On the implausible end of the spectrum, some scholars have argued that Wright stole the book from his one-time master or that Stafford somehow got his hands on an illicit copy (cf. Greg, Malone, and Lee). Such an explanation of the scenario seems farfetched. If Wright stole the book, then one might reasonably ask: How does Stafford get involved? Why would Wright steal the play and then sell it or give it to Stafford, only to turn around and print iton Stafford's behalf? If either Wright or Stafford gained illicit control of the play, then one might similarly ask: Why would they publicly identify themselves with the play on its title page? Why would Stafford and Wright register the play if they were publishing a play to which they had no legal right? Further, as Richard Knowles, Greg, and Michie point out, it seems highly unlikely that a printer such as Wright – a printer with a good reputation – would begin his career with an act of underhanded dirty-dealing (Knowles 32, Greg 379-80, Michie 6).

    Among the more recent critics who find it difficult to imagine that any subterfuge took place before the 1605 printing of Leir, Knowles offers the richest explanation of the double-ownership problem. His explanation is highly speculative, but it is also historically well grounded. Knowles explains the double-ownership of the play by suggesting that the Queen's Men sold two different versions of Leir, one in 1594 and one in 1605. The 1594 version might have been, as W.W. Greg suggests, first left in hock to Henslowe when the Queen's Men "broke for the country" (xxx), or it might have been sold directly to White. This version of the play, Knowles argues, was an authorial copy. The Queen's Men – when deciding to tour in 1594 – would have wanted to disburden themselves of any extraneous property that might not fit happily on a wagon; at such a moment, the authorial text of Leir– rather than the stage-ready book – might have seemed like extraneous weight. Buoying up Knowles's account here are a number of facts about the economics of touring. Specifically, if the Queen's Men decided to avoid London after 1594 – an assumption that the historical records bear out 7 – then they might have been happy to sell a play to publishers in the city even if they continued to perform the same play on tour, using the prompt-copy as their guide. If they sold an authorial copy, that is, the Queen's Men would have had on hand a copy of the play that was fit for the stage, and they would have been able to enjoy an immediate influx of capital in 1594 after the sale of an authorial copy that they no longer needed. If one follows Knowles and assumes that the Queen's Men sold an authorial copy of the play in 1594, then Stafford likely bought the stage-ready copy of the play in or around 1603, once the Queen's Men disbanded and once the company liquidated its assets. Making a further conjecture, Knowles suggests that a stage-ready copy of the play – one pared down for a smaller touring company and filled with only practical stage directions – would have been less readily publishable or saleable because it was more hacked and "stagey" than the authorial copy held by White. Consequently, the copy that Stafford bought from the Queen's Men sometime before 1604 was a copy that would have been less attractive to the play-reading audience he hoped to attarct. At this point in Knowles' discussion of the double-ownership problem, his argument becomes especially speculative. He suggests that White would have offered Wright access to the authorial MS in order to help with the printing of Stafford's stagier, messier playtext. It is equally plausible to imagine – if one agrees with Knowles' suggestion here – that Wright's potential access to White's authorial copy of the play encouraged Stafford to transfer his rights temporarily to the relatively inexperienced Wright. Because, as Greg, Knowles and Michie point out, the printing was impressively strong and consistent, it would seem that Stafford's temporary transfer of the rights to Wright was a good business decision, no matter why he transferred those rights (Knowles 28, Greg 380).8 According to such a reading of the professional negotiations between the Queen's Men, White, Wright, and Stafford, White would maintain control and ownership of the authorial copy of his MS, Stafford would maintain control of a stage-ready version of the play that he bought after the dissolution of the Queen's Men, and Wright would earn a commission, printing a play on his own with the help of a copy owned by his one-time master.

    Knowles's reading of the double-ownership problem is compelling because it accounts for the play's strange re-appearance in the Stationer's Register, because it relies on sound assumptions about early modern theatrical practice, and because it takes seriously the social, guild, and economic worlds of publishing in early modern London. Such a reading remains, of course, uncertain. A less speculative reading of the double-ownership problem can rely on only a few bits of evidence: the play was registered twice in the Stationer's register, once by White and once by Stafford; Stafford quickly turned printing rights over to Wright; White retained ownership of the play until his death in 1620; White never took legal action against Stafford and Wright when they published a play to which White seems also to have had legal rights; Wright was a respected printer throughout his career. These are the only facts about which one can be certain when dealing with the publication of Leir in 1605. Combining these facts with our knowledge of theatre history and early modern publishing, Knowles is able to produce a thrilling and fascinating narrative about the transactions involved in the production of the 1605 Leir. Despite the sophistication of Knowles argument, Sir Sidney Lee and Grace Ioppolo provide, perhaps, more compelling explanations of the situation because their explanations stick most closely to the facts of which we can be certain, even if the explanations lack the color and detail of Knowles account. According to Lee, "Wright's issue of King Leir in 1605 was doubtless the fruit of some friendly negotiation with his old master" (xvi). Compelling for its modesty if nothing else, Lee's explanation is among the few explanations at which one can arrive if one deals with the certain and established data. Similarly modest is Ioppolo's reading of the situation: "either White granted them formal or informal permission to print Leir . . . perhaps for payment, or White took no interest in this event" (168).9 This is not to say, of course, that Knowles's reading of the play is less true or less compelling; rather, it is to say that one can arrive at very few certain conclusions about the double-ownership problem or about the sorts of transactions that led to the publication of Leirin 1605. White didn't seek recompense for the publication of a play that he owned, and from this fact we must assume some sort of kind-dealing between the two groups of publishers, two that groups were connected – as far as we can tell – only by Wright's apprenticeship to White.

    When Knowles makes his argument about the double-ownership of Leir, he assumes that the text published by Stafford and Wright was based on an authorial copy of the play. Such an assumption appears relatively well founded, primarily because the play that Stafford and Wright published seems like it was drawn from a manuscript that had not been amended for performance. This observation about the playtext's "literariness" has been repeated as fact since at least 1958 when Wilfred T. Jewkes most clearly demonstrated that there is "no clear evidence of preparation by a stage reviser or prompter" (202). Such conclusions about the published playtext's provenance are generally drawn from a close reading of the stage directions that appear in the printed text.10 If a stage direction seems anything less than pragmatic or if it provides the sorts of information that one might have difficulty staging, then various critics have assumed that the stage direction comes from the hand of an author rather than from the hand of a person who was immediately involved in the production of the play. To suggest that the play was printed from an authorial MS does not mean, of course, that the author was unfamiliar with the stage. As Sidney Lee and others have pointed out, if the 1605 edition was printed from an authorial MS, then the author of the MS seems familiar with the practices and requirements of the stage: the stage directions are very "theatrical," in this sense, even if the they often bear marks of "literariness" that would have been expunged from a prompt copy of the play (xiii).

    These observations about the literariness of the stage directions in the 1605 Leir have been demonstrated again by the recent theatrical experiment in Toronto and Hamilton mentioned above. On the one hand, as director Peter Cockett suggests in the Performance Annotations to this edition, the stage directions from the 1605 Leirseem very much like stage directions that were written with actors in mind. Specifically, the stage directions contain sophisticated cues for actors, and through these quick cues, actors are able to glean the nature of the scene in which they are acting. For instance, when the actors playing Cambria and Cornwall are told in a stage direction that they "start to see each other" [TLN n="421"]," the gesture of startled recognition immediately indicates the scene's comedic character: the gesture is, as Cockett points out, "a classic double-take," or a clear and obvious invocation of "comic dramaturgy," and so the stage direction provides clear cues for action, characterization, and comportment in Scene 5. On the other hand, however, several stage directions in the 1605 Leirfail to pass the test of producibility. The point here is not that some stage directions in Leir are best understood as "authorial" because they note a character's mental state, say, or because the define the relationship between characters, or because they seem otherwise "literary." Rather, these recent theatre experiments determined that some stage directions are impossible to perform, and that some stage directions are clearly missing. When, for instance, Scene 24 opens, the nature of the stage action is ambiguous: "Enter the King of Gallia, Cordella, and Mumford, with a basket [and table], disguised like country folk." Several questions arise when faced with this stage direction: Who is carrying what? When Gallia and Cordella are dressed as "country folks," do they also carry their own loads, or is Mumford still carrying the loads that he would have carried if Gallia and Cordella were in their regal attire? Similarly, when Gallia, Cordella, and Mumford enter, they must be carrying something like a trestle table upon which their basket is subsequently unloaded; if they arrive without a table for their planned picnic, then the table must be sitting already – spontaneously – in the middle of the country scene upon which they stumble while trekking to the beach. One might also ask: Are the named characters attended, as a king and queen might be, by unnamed characters who carry a trestle table? Such a stage direction suggests, that is, that the play was printed from an authorial MS, because it forces actors to ask a variety of questions about the material facts of stage production. The stage direction is fairly clear, and it demonstrates a certain theatrical sensitivity, but it is also filled with ambiguities that a book holder in a prompt copy of the play would necessarily answer with stagier notes. If a table needs to get on stage, then how does it get there? There is a table for the banquet later in the scene, so who brought it on stage? Barbara Palmer offers a fascinating answer to this specific question, though her answer seems to tell us very little about the nature of the MS from which Leir was printed. Recognizing that the Queen's Men often visited great houses and performed in guildhalls with fixed tables, she suggests that the already present table might serve theatrical purposes while also moving the play into the theatrical space for a great effect (30). In such a case, the absence of stage directions bespeaks the ad hoc dramaturgical life of a touring play: companies will always find some sort of table in any of the various spaces they enter, and they might simply re-shape their cues according to the tables they find ready to hand. Again, that is, the stage direction strongly points out an authorial MS as the source for the printed Leir, but the direction might also bespeak a considerable degree of practical theatrical knowledge.

    10Missing stage directions in the 1605 Leir also suggest – perhaps more compellingly – that it was printed from an authorial copy. Near the end of the Scene 3, for instance, Cordella has just been dispossessed and she is left on stage with Perillus. After her father and sisters depart, she speaks about her plight, and then Perillus delivers a soliloquy about the threat that flattery poses to a well run state. The problem with this moment in the text, however, is that Cordella is given no exit before Perillus delivers his soliloquy. If the play were printed from a prompt copy, one would expect to find the exit marked, if not here, then earlier. An actor should be prompted to leave the stage while another actor delivers a speech solus, as so many characters do in Leir. As was obvious in performance, if the actor playing Cordella remains on stage, he would have nothing to do, and he would be stuck lingering – distracting an audience and dawdling – behind the actor playing Perillus who speaks a soliloquy. Certainly, it remains possible that the stage direction is missing because of a printing error, or that a prompt-copy would assume that Cordella's exit is obvious, but this missing exit, combined with the other evidence of an authorial MS, suggests quite strongly that the 1605 Leir was printed from such an authorial text. If not from an authorial text, then the MS text from which Leirwas printed certainly seems to have been a very clean text, one that paid attention to the sorts of information that – as Michie points out – readers find useful while also including evidence of considerable theatrical knowledge.