King Lear Plot Summary
King Lear, a tragic play written by William Shakespeare, opens with King Lear, the elderly king of Britain, deciding to retire and divide his kingdom between his three daughters: Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. Before splitting his kingdom, Lear asks his daughters to express the depth of their love for him. Regan and Goneril, Lear's oldest daughters, both offer over-the-top proclamations of love for their father, much to the egotistical Lear's delight.
Lear's youngest and more beloved daughter Cordelia, however, takes a different approach. She explains that she could never put the true depth of her love for her father into words. Lear doesn't get what she's trying to say, and in a fit of rage, he banishes Cordelia. The King of France happens to be nearby, and he's won over by Cordelia's virtue. She accepts his marriage proposal and leaves Britain, leaving her father with his two conniving daughters. Lear also banishes his friend, the Earl of Kent, for publicly standing up for Cordelia. Thus, the play begins with the two people who are most loyal to Lear being booted from the kingdom.
It doesn't take long for Regan and Goneril to turn on their father and take away his remaining political power, and it pushes Lear's mind over the edge. Lear wanders the countryside with his Fool and Kent. Kent remains loyal to the king who banished him, and he's traveling with Lear in disguise. While wandering among the common people, Lear begins to have a change of heart as he realizes, for the first time, the wide and unjust gap between the nobles and the commoners.
Meanwhile, Gloucester, one of Lear's noblemen, has his own plot line going. His situation is remarkably like Lear's. Gloucester is a powerful noble with a loyal son, Edgar, and a treacherous son, Edmund. Edmund tricks Gloucester with a forged letter and makes him think Edgar plans to usurp his estate. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, for which Gloucester disinherits Edgar and proclaims him an outlaw. The two truly noble characters in the play, Edgar and Cordelia, have both been exiled by their fathers. While Cordelia has escaped to France, Edgar disguises himself as a madman and hides out in the countryside.
Gloucester comes to understand what Lear's daughters have done to their father. He tries to help Lear, but Regan and her cruel husband Cornwall catch him. Cornwall ties up Gloucester, pulls out his eyes, and steps on them. At this point in the play, Gloucester is blinded and suicidal. His loyal son Edgar seems to have also been driven over the edge. Lear's loyal servant, Kent, has to disguise himself to care for his king, who has also gone insane, and the villainous characters have all the power.
Cordelia eventually returns to Britain with a French army in order to rescue her father and restore him to power, but even this one glimmer of hope fails to pan out. The British army, led by the wicked Edmund, quickly subdues the French forces, putting an end to the brief war. Cordelia and Lear are both imprisoned by the British force, though the two are able to reconnect with each other while in captivity together. While in prison with Cordelia, Lear comes to realize the true extent of her love for him and the depth of the mistakes he has made and resolves to be a better man.
The final scene of the play brings everything to conclusion. Edmund signs off on the death warrants for Lear and Cordelia. Albany, Goneril's husband, has intercepted a letter from Goneril to Edmund. The letter urges Edmund to kill Albany so they could rule Britain together. Albany's second challenges Edmund to a duel, fatally wounds him, and reveals himself to be Edmund's disguised brother Edgar!
Meanwhile Goneril has poisoned her sister Regan out of jealousy and then kills herself when she fears being caught for all her treachery. Blind Gloucester has also died after learning, to his great joy, that his son Edgar plans to fight to restore the family honor. Edmund, hoping to do one last one good deed before dying, attempts to call off the execution of Cordelia and Lear, but he's too late. Cordelia has been killed and Lear dies of sorrow. In the end, Albany suggests that Kent and Edgar share the rule with him. Edgar agrees, but Kent refuses, hinting that he will not be alive much longer now that his master, Lear, has perished.
The Main Characters
King Lear is the elderly King of Britain. At the start of the play, he is portrayed as being shallow, egotistical, and lazy, though he develops a strong sense of humility and humanity toward the conclusion of the play. While he is not a villain, he is hardly a heroic character.
Cordelia is Lear's youngest and most beloved daughter. She refuses to put her love for her father into words, which leads to her father throwing her out of his kingdom. She eventually leads a French army to restore her father to power but fails. She is executed at the end of the play. She is characterized by her strong sense of loyalty and her blunt honesty. She is one of the few truly heroic characters in the play.
Goneril is Lear's oldest daughter. While she shows some compassion for her father at the start of the play, she is quickly revealed to be power hungry and ruthless in her treatment of her father and management of his kingdom. Though she does not quite start off as a villain, she quickly develops into one.
Regan is Lear's middle daughter. She is as power hungry and ruthless as her sister Goneril, though she often follows the lead of Goneril. She is, to some measure, seduced into villainy by Goneril.
Gloucester is a nobleman who is loyal to Lear. His circumstances are quite similar to Lear's. He had misjudged which child to trust and pays a tremendous price for his mistake by the end of the play. While he is a flawed man, he shows some measure of heroism by remaining loyal to Lear and seeking to assist him.
Edgar is Gloucester's legitimate and oldest son. Edgar serves a number of different functions throughout the play. He starts off as a fool who falls for his brother Edmund's deceptions, then takes on the guise of an insane beggar in order to assist his father and Lear, and finally becomes a hero by avenging his brother's actions.
Edmund is Gloucester's youngest and illegitimate son. He is resentful of his lowly social position and wishes to take Gloucester's title and wealth from Edgar. Edmund is a conniving and dangerous character who succeeds in bringing turmoil to his father and brother. He is one of the play's true villains and possesses no redeeming characteristics.
Kent is a nobleman, much like Gloucester, and is loyal to Lear. Despite being wrongfully banished by Lear at the start of the play, Kent disguises himself as a peasant named Caius for much of the play so he can assist Lear in secret. He, like Cordelia, is one of the play's few purely heroic characters.
Albany is Goneril's husband. He appears to be an innately good and kind person and eventually denounces the actions of his wife and sister-in-law. While he is not a villain, he is not quite a hero either, though he does turn against his wife and sister-in-law.
Cornwall is Regan's husband. He is cruel and violent and assists his wife and sister-in-law in conspiring against Lear and Gloucester. He is a truly villainous character.
The Fool is Lear's jester and the only person who is allowed to criticize and mock him directly.
King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The title character is the king of Britain, and he's betrayed by two of his daughters. Although Lear comes to repent for his actions and eventually reunites with his loyal daughter Cordelia, nearly all the characters die by the end of the play. Gloucester, a noble in the court of Lear, is betrayed by his son Edmund, but his loyal son Edgar eventually brings Edmund to justice. In the end, the honorable characters of Kent, Albany, and Edgar are all left alive to salvage the kingdom and restore order.
Lesson at a Glance
People are not always what they seem, and the characters from Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear , demonstrate that in two different families. The title character discovers who of his three daughters really loves him, and a nobleman to the king finds out which of his two sons should truly be trusted.
After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
- Name the main characters from Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear
- Provide a summary of events that took place in the play
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