Of the many sources Shakespeare drew upon in writing King Lear, the most important literary source is the medieval tradition of morality plays, whose themes and structure Shakespeare adapted for King Lear. In morality plays, just as in Lear, the protagonist must make preparations for his own death. In the most famous morality play, the anonymous sixteenth century work Everyman, the protagonist—named Everyman—learns at the beginning of the play that he will die, and goes in search of a friend who will accompany him to his final judgement. Each of the friends he encounters is an allegorical figure, representing an aspect of Everyman’s life. “Fellowship,” “Kindred” and (material) “Goods” all abandon Everyman when they learn that he is dying. “Knowledge,” “Beauty” and other virtues advise him, but they weaken and vanish as Everyman approaches death. Only “Good Deeds” comes with him to his judgement. Everyman illustrates a central doctrine of medieval Christianity: only by leading a good life can you earn salvation.
King Lear wrenches the plot of Everyman from its Christian framework and plays it out in a nihilistic spiritual universe, in which the protagonist—Lear—loses everything as he approaches death, but cannot expect salvation in the Christian sense. Like Everyman, Lear is progressively stripped of everything he values: his knights, his authority, his daughters’ care, the roof over his head, and finally his sanity. Lear also learns which of his possessions he ought to have valued all along: the love of his daughter Cordelia. Although the scenes in which Lear is reconciled to Cordelia suggest a partial redemption for Lear, in the end he loses his daughter as well, and unlike the Christian Everyman, the pagan Lear goes to his death alone. Shakespeare’s version of a morality play is far bleaker than its medieval antecedents, as it suggests there is no reward, either in this world or the next, for leading a moral life. Lear repents of his sins, but to no use. Cordelia, the play’s single truly moral and kind character, is not rewarded for her goodness, and dies as well. While Everyman suggests redemption is possible through sacrifice and moral purity, Lear asserts the opposite.
The nihilistic morality play Shakespeare created in King Lear was extremely influential at the beginning of the twentieth century, inspiring a genre known as the Theatre of the Absurd. For much of the play’s history, audiences found the ending of King Lear too shocking to watch: a version of the play rewritten by Nahum Tate to end happily was more popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more closely resembled earlier renditions of the story Shakespeare borrowed from in writing his version. While it may have been too radical in the bleakness of its vision for Shakespeare’s times, the play’s pessimistic outlook appealed to writers looking to dramatize horrors of the twentieth century such as the Holocaust. When the original King Lear was rediscovered it influenced playwrights like Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting For Godot, features two characters who simply wait without meaning or purpose. Like King Lear and Everyman, Beckett’s play suggests that preparing for death is the universal human condition, but Waiting for Godot extends the nihilism of King Lear to its logical conclusion: not only is there no salvation, there is no meaning or purpose to life at all.