74 pages 2 hours read

William Shakespeare

King Lear

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1606

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

King Lear is a play written around 1606 by the English playwright William Shakespeare. Widely considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear tells the story of a king who goes mad after bequeathing his fortune and power to his daughters. It is loosely based on the myth of Leir of Britain, a legendary monarch said to have ruled Ancient Britons in the eighth century B.C.

This guide refers to the 1999 Pelican Shakespeare edition. Please note that citations in the Summary section refer to line number rather than page number, so this guide can be used with different editions of the play.

Plot Summary

Lear, the aging king of an ancient pre-Christian England, decides to retire. He will divide his kingdom between his three daughters, leaving them and their husbands to rule jointly. But before he tells them which portion of land they will receive, Lear demands that they answer one little question: which of them loves him the most?

Lear’s elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, praise their father obsequiously, and he rewards each of them—along with their husbands, Albany and Cornwall—with a third of the kingdom. He saves the best land for his favorite daughter, Cordelia. Cordelia, however, refuses to make a dishonest, toadying display of her love for her father as her sisters have. Outraged at her resistance, Lear curses and disowns her, ignoring the protests of his loyal advisor Kent, whom he exiles for his resistance. The King of France nevertheless marries Cordelia on the strength of her own merits, and Cordelia reluctantly departs, leaving her father in the care of her sisters.

Meanwhile, Lear’s old friend, the Earl of Gloucester, has his own family troubles. Unbeknownst to him, his illegitimate son Edmund plots to betray his legitimate son Edgar and inherit his father’s title himself. Edmund plays on his father’s short temper and his brother’s trusting nature to trick Gloucester into believing that Edgar plans to kill Gloucester. Pursued by his father’s men, Edgar flees into the wilderness disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom.

Kent also disguises himself as the rough-and-ready Caius and finds his way back into Lear’s service. He worries that Lear will have more trouble with his daughters than he bargained for, a suspicion shared by Lear’s beloved Fool.

Having relinquished his power, Lear finds that his temper tantrums no longer hold much sway over his children. When Goneril objects to his rowdy partying, he violently curses her and moves to Regan’s house. But Regan also refuses to house his drunken knights. The final straw comes when Regan puts the disguised Kent in the stocks, an insult to Lear’s authority. Maddened with rage, Lear runs out onto the wild heath amid a terrible storm. Kent and the Fool follow.

Out in the storm, Lear loses his mind. As Kent and the Fool try to shelter him, they run into the disguised Edgar in a hovel. Edgar’s “madness” is so affecting that Lear strips naked in imitation of him, gaining a new understanding of the suffering of all the poor people in his kingdom. At last, Lear’s friends manage to get him into the hovel where he falls asleep. Gloucester arrives and warns them they need to leave. As a war for the kingdom brews between Goneril and Regan, the king must be protected quickly. Kent hurries Lear away, and the Fool mysteriously disappears from the play.

Meanwhile, Edmund betrays Gloucester to the sisters, telling them that Gloucester knows of an invading French army led by Cordelia that intends to restore Lear to the throne. Regan and her husband Cornwall capture Gloucester and vengefully gouge out his eyes. A horrified servant who tries to stop them mortally wounds Cornwall in a struggle, leaving Regan open to accept Edmund’s seductions. Goneril’s husband, Albany, is disgusted and disturbed by his sadistic in-laws.

The blinded Gloucester is thrown out to wander on the heath, where a horrified Edgar finds him. Gloucester, not recognizing his son’s voice, asks “Poor Tom” to lead him to a cliff’s edge so he can kill himself. Edgar pulls a trick on his father, taking him to a patch of flat ground. When he tries to jump, Gloucester only falls on his face. Edgar, still pretending to be a stranger, tells him that he miraculously survived his fall.

Meanwhile, Kent leads Lear to safety with the French army and Cordelia. Half-mad and wandering around with flowers in his hair, Lear meets the broken Gloucester and consoles him. He also apologizes to Cordelia, having learned to understand his own terrible mistakes.

On Edmund’s orders, Goneril’s servant Oswald tries to kill Gloucester. Edgar protects his father, by killing Oswald. On Oswald’s body, Edgar finds a letter from Goneril to Edmund in which she encourages Edmund to murder Albany and marry her.

As Regan and Goneril are fight over him, Edmund strategizes about how to kill Lear, Cordelia, and Edgar so he can marry one of the sisters and become king himself. In a great success for Edmund, the English forces defeat the French and capture the reconciled Cordelia and Lear.

After the victory, Regan and Goneril fight openly over Edmund, but before anyone wins, Regan dies; Goneril poisoned her. Albany, who learned from the disguised Edgar about Goneril and Edmund’s plot against him, confronts his murderous wife who commits suicide. Albany joins Cordelia’s army.

Edgar reveals his identity to Gloucester who dies of the shock. The grieving Edgar then presents himself in disguise as a challenger to Edmund. The fate of the kingdom will rest on which brother wins in combat. After a tense swordfight, Edgar defeats Edmund and dramatically reveals his identity. Dying, Edmund tells his brother that he gave orders for Lear and Cordelia to be hanged. Edgar and Albany rush to stop the execution, but they are too late: Cordelia is dead. Lear appears, carrying her dead body and howling with grief. His heart broken, Lear dies.

Kent, Albany, and Edgar are the only men left standing. Kent excuses himself, intending to follow his master Lear wherever he goes, even into death. Edgar and Albany are left alone to rebuild the shattered kingdom. Edgar closes the play with a shellshocked speech, declaring that the survivors must face this horrific time with honesty.

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