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King Lear was first acted on December 26, , St. Stephen's Night, by Shakespeare's acting company, The King's Men, before King James I and the court at Whitehall; this is known because, on November 26, , the play was entered along with that identifying information on the Stationers' Register, a journal kept by the Stationers' Company of London in which the printing rights to dramatic works were chronicled.
Austins Gate. Sheets were read as the quartos were printed, resulting in the separate volumes having different corrected and uncorrected sheets bound together. A edition of the First Quarto was printed, although falsely dated , by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier, reprinting one of the original editions.
The Folio text varies significantly from the First Quarto texts. The Folio text has an additional lines that the first Quarto texts do not have and the Folio text is missing lines found in the Quarto editions. The Folio is thought to have been printed from one of the Quartos that had been corrected and emended, probably by consultation with a manuscript quite close to an original by Shakespeare, perhaps his company's prompt book of the play.
Authoritative contemporary editions of King Lear are consolidations and emendations of the two texts, using the Folio, adding the lines from the Quarto that it lacks, and comparing readings in the two texts when there is confusion about which is better. In , Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor printed both Quarto and Folio texts individually in The Oxford Shakespeare , arguing that they were two substantially different plays, each by Shakespeare, with the Folio text being a revised version of the Quarto text.
There are a number of sources for the story of King Lear. The primary source is an earlier play, probably dating from around , with which Shakespeare was undoubtedly acquainted, called The True Chronicle History of King Leir.