King Lear: Summary & Characters

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Fleming
William Shakespeare's tragedy 'King Lear' is considered to be among his finest plays. In this lesson, you'll learn about the main characters and a summary of the play's plot.

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.

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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.

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