Character Names in King Lear

king leir, king lear, daughters, names

When we think of King Lear, we think of the famous William Shakespeare play, which was written in the very early 1600s.

But the story of the legendary king of Britain predates Shakespeare by centuries. The first written account we know of comes from The History of the Kings of Britain (circa 1136 A.D.) by British cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth.

In Will’s version, the king is named Lear and the three daughters are named Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. But in Geoff’s version, the king is Leir and the daughters are Gonorilla, Regau and Cordeilla. And in the dozens of versions of the story published in between, the names are rendered all sorts of ways:

  • Lear: Leare, Leier, Leir, Leire, Leïr, Leyr, Leyre, Leyrius, Leyrus, Leÿr, Lhyr, Lier, Leirius, Llur, Llyr, Lur, Lyer, Lyr
  • Goneril: Agornille, Condril, Conorel, Corneill, Garonilla, Genoril, Genorilla, Geronilla, Gonerell, Gonerill, Gonerilla, Gonoreille, Gonorell, Gonorelle, Gonorild, Gonorilde, Gonoril, Gonorill, Gonorilla, Gonorille, Gonoryll, Gonorylla Gonorylle, Gordonilla, Gorgonilla, Gornoille, Gornoylle, Gornorilla, Gornorille, Gornylle, Goriorilla, Goronilla
  • Regan: Ragaie, Ragan, Ragana, Ragau, Ragaw, Regau, Regault, Regina, Regnault, Rigan, Rogan, Rugau, Rygan
  • Cordelia: Chordaila, Chordalia, Chordeila, Chordeylla, Cordaila, Cordeila, Cordeilla, Cordeil, Cordeile, Cordeill, Cordeilla, Cordeille, Cordela, Cordell, Cordella, Cordelle, Cordeyl, Cordeyll, Cordeylla, Cordeylle, Cordiel, Cordil, Cordila, Cordile, Cordilla, Cordille, Cordoil, Cordoilla, Cordoille, Cordoylla, Cordyla, Cordylle, Coredil, Gordaila, Gordalia, Gordeil, Gordeila, Gordeilla, Gordeille, Gordeylla, Gordille, Gordoille, Gordoylle, Gordylle

Interesting how Shakespeare’s “Goneril” and “Cordelia” are easy to differentiate, but certain earlier versions of the two names were quite similar. Modern academics associate them with the Latin words gonos, meaning “genitals,” and cordis, meaning “heart.”

Sources:

  • Charlton, H. B. Shakespearian Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.
  • Perrett, Wilfrid. The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare. Berlin: Mayer & Müller, 1904.

Image: King Lear and Daughters


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