Mini-Lesson Monday, Lesson #164 (Part 1): Lamb’s ‘Tales From Shakespeare’ (Part 1) – Reading Comprehension 

Perhaps you have wondered what kinds of books native English-speaking children read and study at school. While today’s book is not currently a school textbook, it was originally intended for children when it was written over 200 years ago – Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807). It includes retellings of Shakespeare’s plays in a language that was both suitable for children and still reflected some of Shakespeare’s unique style. 🖋️

I would like to share their retelling of Shakespeare’s play King Lear (1606) with you, as it is considered to be one of the greatest tragedies ever written. It is also a play that I studied at school as a teenager (all Irish students at secondary level must study at least two plays by Shakespeare for their state examinations), and I was fascinated by the character of Cordelia, the faithful and loving daughter of King Lear.

As it is Mini-Lesson Monday, we will spend the first part of the lesson on a reading comprehension exercise, and in the second part (see next post) we will review some key words for expressing reasons and results (because, as, since, for) that all English language students should know.


as retold by Charles and Mary Lamb in Tales from Shakespeare

📘 Lear, King of Britain, had three daughters; Goneril, wife to the Duke of Albany; Regan, wife to the Duke of Cornwall; and Cordelia, a young maid, for whose love the King of France and Duke of Burgundy were joint suitors, and were at this time making stay for that purpose in the court of Lear.

– ‘King Lear’ retold by Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare

* joint (adjective): involving two or more in the same activity

* suitors: men who are courting (hoping to win the love of) a woman

* court: the area or household under a king or queen’s authority

📘 The old king, worn out with age and the fatigues of government, he being more than fourscore years old, determined to take no further part in state affairs, but to leave the management to younger strengths, that he might have time to prepare for death, which must at no long period ensue. With this intent he called his three daughters to him, to know from their own lips which of them loved him best, that he might part his kingdom among them in such proportions as their affection for him should seem to deserve.

– ‘King Lear’ retold by Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare

* worn: tired out, fatigued, overworked, sometimes in a poor physical state

* fatigues of government: tiring concerns or worries relating to government

* fourscore: eighty (80)

* management: the act of ordering and ruling 

* ensue: follow

* from their own lips (figurative): from their own words

* part his kingdom: divide his kingdom (not to be confused with ‘part from his kingdom’, which means to ‘leave his kingdom’, or else ‘part of his kingdom’, where ‘part’ is a noun and the phrase would mean ‘a section or portion of his kingdom)

* proportion: a part or share relative to the whole

* affection: love

I will summarise some of the story here, with one line directly from Shakespeare, before we continue with Lamb’s retelling into the next lesson post.

King Lear calls his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and asks them each in turn to tell him how much they love him. Both Goneril and Regan are false and pretend that they love him more than they really do.

Goneril says that she ‘loved her father more than words could give out, that he was dearer to her than the light of her own eyes, dearer than life and liberty’ (Lamb), and Regan says that Goneril’s words fall short of her own love, a love which found ‘all other joys dead, in comparison with the pleasure which she took in the love of her dear king and father’ (Lamb). 

Cordelia, the youngest daughter, listens to her sisters’ falsehoods. When her turn comes, she tells her father:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty

According to my bond, no more nor less.

– Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 91-93.

By saying that she loves her father as much a daughter should, ‘no more nor less’, she offends her father. In his anger he disowns Cordelia, gives her part of the inheritance to her sisters, and takes away her dowry (in the past, this was a gift of money or goods that was given by a father to his daughter’s husband at their wedding). The Duke of Burgundy leaves, being no longer interested in marrying Cordelia since she has lost her riches and lands. The King of France, impressed by her truthfulness and bravery, marries her as she is and takes her with him to France as queen.

Time passes and King Lear, living near his two daughters Goneril and Regan, gradually discovers that his daughters neither love nor respect him. In fact, they turn against him in very selfish ways and leave him to his fate on a stormy night. He is stranded (stuck with no help) outside, vulnerable, and alone except for one faithful servant, an entertainer (called a ‘fool’ in Shakespeare’s time). Another faithful nobleman, the Earl of Kent, hurries to France on the king’s behalf to ask Cordelia for her help and support. 

In the end, Cordelia and her father meet again, under such very different circumstances from their last meeting! Cordelia is touched by her father’s plight and ready to forgive him for his past unkindness, and her father is humbled and repentant (more than sorry) in recognising that he did wrong. Their reconciliation (forgiveness and coming to a shared understanding) is momentous. 

I could say more, but perhaps I shouldn’t as it would spoil the ending for you if you would like either to read the story for yourself from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, or Shakespeare’s original play, or even watch an acted version of King Lear online. 

👉 That said, we will continue with the story of ‘King Lear’ in the next post (part 2 of this Lesson), where we will consider four different ways you can express reasons and results in English.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)