King Lear: Character Analysis & Sketch

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  • 0:00 The Story of King Lear
  • 3:17 King Lear: Character Analysis
  • 4:46 Critical Interpretations
  • 6:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Fleming
William Shakespeare's tragic drama 'King Lear' is among the most frequently read, performed and studied of Shakespeare's plays. Lear himself is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare's most complex, dynamic and interesting characters.

The Story of King Lear

William Shakespeare's tragic drama King Lear is among the most frequently read, performed and studied of Shakespeare's plays. The play's themes of injustice, the consequences of rash decisions, and the ways that the hunger for power can corrupt people continue to resonate with readers, critics and viewers after more than four centuries. So, does the radical character transformation that Lear undergoes during the play.

The play opens with Lear, the elderly king of Britain, deciding to effectively retire and divide his kingdom evenly between his three daughters: Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. Before dividing his kingdom, Lear asks for each of his daughters to demonstrate the extent of their love for him in words. Regan and Goneril, Lear's oldest daughters, offer bold, over-the-top assertions of their love for their father. However, Lear's youngest and more beloved daughter Cordelia, remains silent and explains that she could never put the extent of her love for her father into words. Cordelia's refusal to vocalize her love sends Lear into a fit of rage and he exiles her from the kingdom. Cordelia quickly accepts an offer of marriage from the king of France and leaves the kingdom.

Regan and Goneril soon betray their father and take away all of his remaining political power. The betrayal of his oldest daughters drives Lear to insanity. He flees from his kingdom and wanders the countryside during a violent thunderstorm, with his Fool and Kent, a disguised nobleman who remains loyal to Lear, in his company. While wandering the countryside during the storm, Lear comes to realize not only the tremendous power of nature, but also his insignificance - and the insignificance of all people regardless of their positions in life - in comparison to it. Stripped of his political power and wealth and left homeless and insane, Lear comes to truly recognize and sympathize with the plights of the poor and homeless throughout his kingdom and realizes the tremendous social and economic disparity that exists throughout his kingdom.

At the same time, Gloucester, an elderly nobleman, is tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund into believing that Edgar, his legitimate son, is conspiring to have him killed. Gloucester realizes that Lear's oldest daughters have betrayed their father and decides to come to Lear's aid, which leads to Regan and her husband blinding him and sending him off to wander the countryside. Gloucester, however, is accompanied by Edgar, who disguises himself as a beggar and leads him to Lear.

Cordelia eventually leads a French army to Britain to rescue her father and restore him to power. The British army, however, quickly subdues the French forces. Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned by the British, although the two are able to reconnect. Lear comes to realize the true extent of Cordelia's love for him. The play concludes on a number of tragic notes: Gloucester dies, Edgar kills Edmund, Goneril poisons Regan and then commits suicide, Cordelia is executed by the British, and Lear dies from grief after realizing that the daughter who truly loved him is dead.

King Lear: Character Analysis

At the start of the play, Lear is someone who places more importance upon appearances than actual truth. He prefers flattery over true love and wants to be respected as a king without taking on any of the responsibility that the role entails. Lear's desire for simple declarations of affection and for a life of respect and relative ease has disastrous consequences for his family and for his kingdom. His retirement leads to a series of conflicts and a war that leaves his entire family dead, including the beloved daughter who truly loved him, and his kingdom in ruins.

Lear is not an evil person and does, to some measure, learn from his mistakes. In fact, the transformation he undergoes suggests that he's capable of being a terrific and righteous king. Over the course of the play, Lear develops from a foolish, naive king who places value only in appearances and empty declarations of love to someone who gains an entirely new perspective on life. While wandering the countryside during the storm, he comes to renounce politics and mere appearances and realizes that what matters most in life is true love, such as the sort Cordelia has for him. He also begins to feel a strong sense of empathy for others, in particular for the homeless and downtrodden who populate his kingdom. In essence, by losing nearly everything in life that he held dear, Lear develops into a better and wiser person.

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