Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Folger Community and Audience Engagement Programs Manager emma poltrack shares items she presented on September 8, 2022 as an introduction to Learwife by J.R. Thorp. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.
J. R. Thorp’s Learwife offers a new perspective on Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, beginning immediately after the events of the play. The narrator is Lear’s queen, banished to an abbey years ago for an unknown crime. As she comes to terms with the deaths of her husband and daughters, she reflects on her own history while also overseeing the political maneuverings within the abbey.
Just as Thorp was inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear to write her novel, Shakespeare drew on pre-existing sources to write his play. The True Chronicle History of King Leir (left) was an anonymous play published in quarto in 1605. Thought by many to be a key source for Shakespeare, this play sticks closely to the history of Leir (sic) found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae and repeated in Raphael Holinshed’s 16th-century Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. All three tell what happens when Leir uses a contest of love to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, turning against Cordelia when she refuses to participate only to then be saved by her forces when Goneril and Regan betray him. The key difference is that, in these sources, Cordelia and Leir survive the ordeal, going on to rule after their victory. Shakespeare granted them no such grace—in his version, Cordelia is killed in prison and Lear dies of a broken heart.
Shakespeare also introduced a B-plot, thought be taken from Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. One of the nested stories contained in this 16th-century prose romance is that of a king and his two sons and closely corresponds with what unfolds between Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar.
Goneril and Regan are major players in Shakespeare’s plot and key figures in the remembrances of Learwife’s queen. Here, they are shown within a series of 19th-century costume sketches by John Seymour Lucas. The clothes and poses mirror a painting by Ford Madox Brown from the same century called Cordelia’s Portion.
Shakespeare may have deviated from his source material when he killed off Lear ad Cordelia, but they did enjoy a brief reprieve beginning in the Restoration. In 1681, playwright Nahum Tate took it upon himself to re-write Shakespeare for 17th-century sensibilities and his version—in which Lear and Cordelia survive and Cordelia is romantically paired with Edgar—dominated the stage until 1838, when William Macready successfully restored the tragic ending. Cordelia then went on to become a tragic Victorian icon and one of Shakespeare’s most well-known heroines, despite only having 117 lines in the play!
Not having a presence in Shakespeare’s play, the queen in Learwife was partially inspired by history. 12th-century ruler Eleanor of Aquitaine was a formidable figure, married to two kings, and eventually imprisoned by the second for assisting in an uprising against him. She was the mother of King Richard the Lionheart as well as King John. The latter inspired his own eponymous Shakespeare play in which Eleanor appears as a character.
Throughout the novel, Thorp skillfully incorporates moments from Shakespeare’s play without overtly repeating them. The contest devised by the queen for the abbess candidates subtly echoes that created by Lear for his daughters. One of the tests the queen puts forth is a mock trial, and this again echoes a moment from the play…or at least, in one version of it. King Lear has a complicated printing history, appearing twice in quarto (1608 and 1619) before its inclusion in the 1623 Folio collection of Shakespeare’s works. The 1608 and Folio versions contain significant variances, with the former including a mock trial that Lear imagines conducting with Goneril and Regan for their abuses.
Ruth’s loss of eyesight is another echo of Shakespeare’s play, recalling the brutal blinding of Gloucester. This page from Jane Dawson’s late 17th-century cookbook may have offered some relief to the poor woman—it shows not only a recipe for eye salve but also a plaster for burns. The former is said to have “cured one that was 2 years blind” and contains ginger and butter as ingredients, while the latter requires “5 oz Canded oil, 5 oz white Lead 2 oz Lathrage Gold and 2 of silver, 2 oz Bee wax 1 oz Venus Turpentine.”
To immerse yourself further in real-world materials related to this month’s pick, visit our curated Learwife image collection.
Words, Words, Words returns on Thursday, October 6 with a discussion of Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay. Registration opens on Tuesday, September 13. We hope to see you then!
We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: