William Blake. Lear and Cordelia in Prison, c. 1778-80.

Pen and watercolor, approximately 5 x 7 inches. The Tate Gallery, London.

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We never actually see Lear and Cordelia in prison in Shakespeare's King Lear, but a scene like this appears in Nahum Tate's adaptation of the play, and Blake might have seen a performance in this, the only version staged in the eighteenth century. However, Martin Butlin thinks a more likely source is John Milton's History of Britain, where Lear is the last of the descendants of Brutus and the first King of England, thus making this early work by Blake part of a series of pictures he planned to call The History of England, a small book of Engravings (31).