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Theater in Shakespeare's day
Drama was the prime means of public entertainment during Shakespeare's time. Travelling actors went around the countryside and could be hired by those who wanted their services. London was growing as a trade center and merchants arrived from many lands. Also, the Tudor monarchy preferred to stay in the capital. These twin factors helped the companies of actors to prosper. They acted regularly before audiences at places that became established as centers for actors. Theater-houses like the Globe, the Curtain and the Fortune were built. Shakespeare's company owned the Globe, which was patronized by the Lord Chamberlain and hence, was successful.
The Globe was an open-air theater. Plays were staged in the afternoons (there was no artificial lighting). The stage jutted out into the audience, the majority of which stood on the ground around the stage. They were called the groundlings. Other spectators paid higher prices to sit in the galleries.
There were three openings at the back of the stage-- one in the center and one on each side--hidden by a thick curtain. The stage- floor often had one or more trap-doors useful for the speedy disappearance or re-appearance of characters, especially ghosts. Above the stage was a balcony, usually used for love scenes. There was no stage scenery though props were widely used. Black stage hangings were used for tragic plays and colorful curtains were used for comedies or light plays. Actors on the Shakespearean stage were often youths. Boys with high-pitched voices were trained from early years to take women's parts, women not being allowed on the stage.
Sources of the Play
It is known that "King Lear" was presented before British Royalty at Whitehall Castle on December 26th, St. Stephen's Night, during the Christmas holidays. The year of the presentation is not certain. It is believed that the play was originally written and first produced between the years 1603 and 1605. That would mean King Lear was written between Othello and Macbeth and came during a period when Shakespeare was writing his greatest plays.
The play's main plot is based on a popular old tale that was widely disseminated during the Middle Ages. Although many versions of the story exist, the main plot always involves a king who exiles his faithful daughter and bestows gifts upon his unworthy sons and/or daughters. In the end, the exiled, faithful daughter always selflessly comes to the aid of her cruel father, the king.
"Historia Regum Britanniae," written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is the first known publication of this story. Afterwards, other versions appeared in "The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates," published by John Higgins in 1574, and in "Chronicles," published by Holinshed in 1587. A play entitled "The True Chronicle History of King Lear" was written in 1594 and published in 1605; although based on the same story, it is marked by strong Christian piety and ends quite differently, for Cordelia is spared and King Lear is reinstated to the throne.
The subplot of the play that involves the Earl of Gloucester was probably drawn from "Arcadia," published in 1590 by Sir Philip Sydney. In Book II, Chapter 10, the old Prince of Paphlagonia is victimized and blinded by his illegitimate son. The illegitimate son is defeated by the legitimate son, who gains the throne and reigns honorably.