Shakespeare’s King Lear is a powerful and intense play that exposes us to immense pain and suffering. The characters in the play often respond to this pain by hardening their hearts, committing acts of violence, or attempting to alleviate the suffering of others. Even Lear himself, the main character, struggles to maintain his sanity in the face of such immense pain.
But despite the heavy subject matter, why do people keep coming back to King Lear? The answer lies in the story itself, which has the power to resonate with audiences even in translation.
Throughout the play, we witness families torn apart by greed and cruelty on one hand, and united by support and consolation on the other. The emotions portrayed in the play are extreme and amplified to epic proportions. As a result, King Lear is both devastating and moving, showcasing the vulnerability, pride, and wisdom of old age.
If you’re still unsure about whether to read this book, this summary will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision. So let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
King Lear brings suffering and death to himself and his family by disinheriting his virtuous daughter and dividing his kingdom between his two evil daughters.
Trumpets announce the entrance of King Lear and his court. He has arrived to perform his last official act as king: the division of his kingdom among his three daughters. Lear announces that the daughter who says she loves him most will receive the largest share.
Goneril, the eldest daughter and wife of the Duke of Albany, speaks first, declaring her love in extravagant terms. Regan, wife of the Duke of Cornwall, follows suit with an even more elaborate declaration. Lear asks Cordelia, his favorite, what she can say to draw a greater inheritance than her sisters. Appalled by her sisters’ hypocrisy, she replies, “Nothing, my lord.”
Publicly humiliated, the outraged Lear disinherits Cordelia and divides her share between her sisters. He retains for himself 100 knights and the privilege of staying with each daughter in turn.
The Earl of Kent, a noble courtier, tries to intercede on Cordelia’s behalf, and is exiled by the furious king for his trouble.
Both the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France arrive with proposals of marriage (to Cordelia). When Burgundy learns that Lear has stripped Cordelia of her inheritance, he withdraws his offer. The noble King of France, however, takes Cordelia as his wife.
At the Earl of Gloucester’s palace, Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard (illegitimate) son, reveals in soliloquy (a speech given alone on stage) that he is plotting to seize the land of his legitimate brother, Edgar. Edmund convinces Gloucester by means of a forged letter that Edgar plans to murder him (Gloucester). He then tells Edgar that Gloucester intends him some harm.
At the Duke of Albany’s palace, Kent arrives in disguise and tells Lear he wants to serve him. Goneril complains to Lear about his brawling knights, his insolent jester (the Fool), and his own unruly behavior in striking her servants.
She orders Lear to dismiss some of his knights. Furious, Lear issues a terrible curse upon Goneril, and leaves for Regan’s palace. Goneril sends a letter to Regan, urging her to treat him no better.
At Gloucester’s castle, Edmund pretends he has been wounded by Edgar, and Gloucester issues a warrant for Edgar’s arrest. Regan and the Duke of Cornwall tell Gloucester of the differences between Lear and Goneril.
Outside Gloucester’s castle, Kent meets Goneril’s steward, Oswald, who carries Goneril’s letters against Lear. When Kent beats Oswald, Cornwall orders that Kent be put in the stocks (a wooden frame that locks around the arms, legs, and head) as punishment. Gloucester protests the insult to the king, but is overruled by Cornwall and Regan. In the meantime, Edgar has fled to avoid capture, disguising himself as an insane beggar named Poor Tom.
At Gloucester’s castle, Lear is outraged to find Kent in the stocks. Regan tells Lear she is not prepared to accommodate him and his knights, and bids him return to Goneril. Goneril arrives, and together the sisters compete with each other in humiliating Lear and stripping him of his followers. Lear curses both daughters and, with Kent and the Fool, goes off into the stormy night.
Lear and the Fool arrive on the heath, with Lear sinking deeper into a mad rage. Kent, who has become separated from them in the storm, finds them and urges Lear to seek shelter at a nearby hovel (an open shed for animals).
At his castle, Gloucester complains to Edmund that Cornwall and Regan have taken over his own house, and strictly forbid him to aid Lear. As Lear and the Fool are about to enter the hovel, Edgar rushes out, disguised as Poor Tom. Gloucester arrives, but does not recognize Edgar. Gloucester begs Lear to go with him to his house despite Regan’s and Cornwall’s orders against it. Lear, now mad, does not know Gloucester. When Cornwall learns of Gloucester’s attempt to aid Lear, he vows revenge.
Gloucester finds shelter for Lear and his ragged followers (Kent, the Fool, and Poor Tom/Edgar) at a farmhouse. Lear, now totally mad, addresses the Fool and Tom as “honorable judges” and holds a mock trial of Goneril and Regan, charging them with ingratitude. Gloucester leaves, but returns shortly with word that there is a plot against Lear’s life, and hurries them away.
At Gloucester’s castle, Cornwall receives notice that the King of France’s troops have landed at Dover to rescue Lear. He orders his servants to seize the “traitor Gloucester.” Gloucester is captured and brought before Cornwall and Regan.
Cornwall punishes Gloucester for helping Lear by putting out his eyes. One of Cornwall’s servants draws his sword to stop the deed, but is stabbed by Regan as he and Cornwall fight. Regan tells Gloucester that it was Edmund who had betrayed him, and she orders the blind Gloucester thrown outside the gates. Cornwall has been badly wounded in the fight.
On the heath, Edgar meets his father, now blind and led by an old man. Gloucester promises Poor Tom money if he will lead him to a high cliff at Dover, where Gloucester plans suicide. Edgar leads him away. Before the Duke of Albany’s palace, Goneril and Edmund, who have been having an adulterous love affair, arrange for Oswald to carry letters between them. Albany berates Goneril for the evil she has done.
A servant brings news of Cornwall’s death, and Edmund now becomes the ruler. Meanwhile, the King of France has been called back to France by a political crisis. At Gloucester’s castle, Regan seizes a letter that Oswald is supposed to deliver to Edmund from Goneril. Regan has decided to marry Edmund now that her husband is dead, but the sisters’ rivalry over Edmund threatens their political unity.
Edgar, now dressed as a peasant, leads Gloucester to a field near Dover which he tells Gloucester is a high cliff. Gloucester falls over the “cliff” and is amazed to find himself still alive. As Edgar picks up his poor blind father, Lear enters ranting madly, wearing garlands of wild flowers. Gloucester recognizes Lear’s voice. There is a moving reunion between the blind Gloucester and the mad Lear, who finally recognizes his loyal friend.
Cordelia’s servants arrive to rescue Lear. Oswald enters and tries to kill Gloucester, but is killed instead by Edgar. At a tent in the French camp, Cordelia, Kent, and the Doctor gently wake Lear from a long sleep. His rage and madness have subsided and he recognizes Cordelia.
Albany and Goneril join Regan and Edmund in their fight against France. Edmund has sworn his love to both sisters. Edgar, disguised, gives Albany a letter disclosing Goneril’s intention of killing the Duke and marrying Edmund, who has captured Lear and Cordelia.
When Albany asks for the prisoners, Edmund refuses, and secretly orders them murdered. Albany accuses Edmund and Goneril of adultery and challenges Edmund. Edgar (disguised) enters as Albany’s mysterious champion; he challenges and kills Edmund, then reveals his identity and reports the death of Gloucester. Regan dies from poison administered by Goneril, and Goneril commits suicide when Edmund is fatally wounded.
Before dying, Edmund tries to revoke the death warrant he has issued on Lear and Cordelia, but he is too late. Lear enters with Cordelia’s lifeless body in his arms, then dies of a broken heart.
Albany restores to Kent and Edgar their rightful properties and titles, and proposes that Edgar and Kent jointly rule the kingdom. Kent refuses, implying that he feels called to join his master in death. The bodies of Lear and Cordelia are carried off in a procession.
King Lear: A domineering monarch of England who is both generous and demanding, but also insulated from reality and blinded by flattery. He is arrogant, self-indulgent, and bordering on senility, with uncontrolled anger, but eventually finds peace of mind and tranquility.
The Earl of Gloucester: Good-natured and pleasure-seeking, with a life of indulgence and selfishness. However, he is destroyed by pride, rash judgments, and lechery, and yet remains honorable and loyal, ultimately sacrificing himself to save the king. He mistreats his son Edgar by immediately believing Edmund’s lies about him.
Goneril: Lear’s eldest daughter, married to the Duke of Albany. She is evil, hypocritical, lecherous, and materialistic, resenting Lear’s favoritism of Cordelia and jealous of Regan.
Regan: The more ruthless and vindictive of Lear’s two evil daughters, married to the Duke of Cornwall. Like Goneril, she resents Lear’s favoritism of Cordelia and is hypocritical, lustful, sadistic, and greedy.
Cordelia: Lear’s favorite daughter, disinherited by him for refusing to make a false declaration of love for him. She is virtuous, loyal, courageous, and intolerant of hypocrisy, symbolizing truth, spiritual values, and Lear’s positive traits.
The Duke of Cornwall: Regan’s husband and Lear’s evil son-in-law, hot-tempered and power-hungry, sadistically blinding Gloucester.
The Duke of Albany: Goneril’s husband and Lear’s good son-in-law, ignorant of much of the treachery around him, weak-willed, but basically honorable. Goneril loathes him, calling him “chicken-livered” (cowardly).
Edgar: Gloucester’s virtuous son, loyal, patient, modest, and honest, with a noble character that personifies the generous part of Gloucester. He is plunged into a pit of suffering as a mad, naked beggar, disguises himself as Poor Tom to protect himself from his father, later serves as a guide and keeper to his blind father, is a mysterious challenger to Edmund’s villainy, and ultimately becomes king.
Edmund: Gloucester’s evil and illegitimate son, clever, witty, lecherous, and conniving, resenting his inferior position due to illegitimacy, and having an adulterous relationship with both Goneril and Regan. He represents the vulgar side of Gloucester.
Kent: A nobleman, a loyal follower of Lear, honest, outspoken, and thinking that Lear is foolish to divide the kingdom. He is banished by Lear for siding with Cordelia, but later returns in disguise to serve Lear.
The Fool: Witty and wise, possessing the insight Lear lacks and grieving over Cordelia’s banishment.
Themes and Ideas
1. Lear’s Downfall and Rebirth: From Powerful King to Homeless Beggar
The central drama of the play is how Lear, a once powerful king, is ousted by his evil daughters and reduced to a homeless beggar. He suffers worldly ruin and physical destruction, but eventually achieves spiritual rebirth by discovering the goodness and beauty in human beings.
To accomplish this rebirth, Lear must endure physical suffering, mental torment, and even madness. Through his suffering, he works through his arrogance, anger, grief, and vindictiveness, ultimately becoming sensitive to the suffering of others. Lear gains peace by making amends with his daughter Cordelia and obtaining her forgiveness and blessing. Though he loses the material world, he gains the spiritual one.
2. Gloucester’s Downfall and Rebirth: From Titled Nobleman to Blinded Beggar
Gloucester, like Lear, is ousted from his position by the plots of his evil son. He is cruelly blinded and cast out like a beggar. However, this experience causes him to undergo a change and realize his moral and spiritual blindness. He makes peace with his good son and achieves spiritual rebirth.
3. Lear and His Daughters: The Contest of Hypocrisy and Resentment
Lear, acting out of foolish pride, sets up a public contest among his daughters, challenging them to outdo each other in expressing their love for him.
However, this only reveals a humiliating father/child relationship, creating hypocrisy, rivalry, and resentment among his daughters. Goneril and Regan respond with well-rehearsed statements of devotion, while Cordelia is appalled by Lear’s egoistic demands and her sisters’ hypocrisy.
Cordelia asks how her sisters can have husbands if they give all their love to Lear, and expresses that when she marries, half her love will go to her husband. Lear’s abdication and demand for all their love is a selfish, childlike form of ego gratification.
Lear’s angry outburst at Cordelia and his curse on Goneril for her objections to his overbearing behavior reinforce Lear’s rashness and unreasonableness. Though he accuses Goneril and Regan of being ungrateful, Lear fails to see his part in creating this evil.
4. Cordelia’s Silence: The Symbolism of Honesty and Courage
Cordelia’s “Nothing” response at the division of Lear’s kingdom is the worst public insult Lear has ever suffered. Cordelia represents honesty and courage and is the mirror that shows up the falseness of her sisters’ speeches and Lear’s vanity. Kent’s farewell words emphasize the symbolism of Cordelia’s role: she “justly thinkest and has most rightly said!”
5. Gloucester and His Sons: The Rivalry of Illegitimacy
Gloucester is guilty of a similar offense in rearing his sons. He introduces Edmund to Kent as his bastard son, bragging that he loves him as much as his legitimate son. However, his manner is self-congratulatory and emphasizes his own generosity in acknowledging the illegitimate son, rather than reflecting an equality of affection. He makes a joke of Edmund and boasts before him, “There was good sport at his making [conception].” Gloucester, like Lear, creates a rivalry between his children.
6. Disguises: Where Evil Masquerades as Good
In King Lear, nothing is as it appears. Evil characters such as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund masquerade as good. Good characters such as Kent and Edgar are forced to disguise themselves. In the opening court scene, Lear’s evil daughters masquerade as devoted and loving, while Cordelia appears to be cold and unloving.
Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund play-acts the part of a loving son while plotting to seize his brother’s lands and father’s title. By contrast, the good son Edgar is forced to flee and disguise himself to survive. The play depicts a dark, corrupted world where values are inverted and honesty is punished, while treachery is rewarded.
7. Elizabethan World Order: The Importance of Cosmic Harmony
The Elizabethans believed in a system of laws that ensured order in the cosmos (universe). These laws included Natural, Celestial, Rational, Divine, and Human laws. When one of these laws was broken, it could cause a disturbance in all the other laws, leading to disorder on earth and potentially plunging the earth into chaos, such as destruction by flood, fire, or other natural disasters.
Gloucester refers to “these late [recent] eclipses in the sun and moon” that predict evil and division among siblings, mutinies in cities, treason in palaces, and broken bonds between fathers and children. The seeds of destruction are planted before the play even begins, with Lear and Gloucester’s actions causing disruption in the harmony of the world order. The evil unleashed within the play reaches catastrophic proportions and violates the Elizabethan World Order.
1. Fools and Folly
The fool is a symbol of wisdom; his insight and disturbing riddles reflect the truth. He functions as the subjective inner voice of Lear, telling him of his own folly. The Fool appears only in scenes in which Cordelia is absent. When Cordelia is present, she is the voice of truth; when absent, the fool plays this role.
Lear seems to confuse the fool and Cordelia in the last scene: “My poor fool [Cordelia] is hanged.” The entire play is filled with fools and acts of folly: Edgar achieves wisdom by playing a fool; the mad Lear calls him a philosopher and wise judge; Lear’s division of his kingdom is a foolish abdication of responsibility.
Madness is a symbol of chaos and the struggle within Lear’s personality. It is a sort of purgatory in which Lear gains insight and atones for his sins. Edgar’s pretended madness is a similar purgatory of suffering; through it, he gains the wisdom and compassion that prepare him to be King at the end of the play.
Blindness symbolizes one’s failure to recognize the truth. At the height of his power, Lear is blinded by arrogance, pride, and ego. It is not until he is cast down from a worldly position that he overcomes his moral and spiritual blindness. When Gloucester has his sight, he is blind to the truth around him; when he loses his eyesight, his suffering enables him to perceive the truth.
The storm in Act 3 symbolizes the tempest within Lear and his oncoming madness. Lear’s agitated raving against the storm signals the height of his inner torment.
1. Profound Exploration of Love and Justice
One of the aspects I like most about “King Lear” is Shakespeare’s profound exploration of love and justice. The play is centered around the theme of love, specifically the importance of love in character formation and the pursuit of justice, both social and divine.
Shakespeare demonstrates the power of love and its consequences through the relationships between King Lear and his daughters, as well as the subplot involving Gloucester and his sons, Edgar and Edmund. The depth and complexity of these relationships offer a unique and compelling insight into the human experience.
2. The Motif of Nothingness and Identity
Another aspect I admire in “King Lear” is the recurring motif of nothingness, which is intricately woven throughout the play. Characters like King Lear and Edgar grapple with their sense of self and identity, often feeling ontologically empty or annihilated in the face of rejection or betrayal.
Shakespeare masterfully captures the struggle for identity and the human need for love and acceptance, making this play not only a powerful exploration of love and justice but also a poignant study of the human condition.
3. Extraordinary Poetry and Characterization
The poetry in “King Lear” is undeniably magnificent, with Shakespeare’s mastery of language on full display. While perhaps not reaching the heights of “Macbeth” or “Othello,” the poetry in “King Lear” is still sonorous and extraordinarily beautiful.
Moreover, Shakespeare’s creation of deeply complex and nuanced characters such as the feuding brothers Edgar and Edmund, the monstrous Duke of Cornwall, and the tragic hero King Lear, adds to the richness and depth of the play. The combination of captivating poetry and intricate characterization makes “King Lear” a truly remarkable work of literature and a must-read for anyone who appreciates the power of language and storytelling.
1. Overplayed Angst and Character Deaths
While Shakespeare’s language and writing style are undoubtedly masterful, “King Lear” seems to overplay the angst and tragedy to the point of becoming unsatisfactory. With numerous character deaths, some of which feel irrelevant or excessive, the emotional impact of the play starts to wane.
A prime example of this is the rivalry between Regan and Goneril, two characters driven by selfishness and greed. Goneril’s sudden remorse after killing her sister feels unrealistic, considering her consistent apathy throughout the story. The excessive tragedy and seemingly forced emotions make it difficult to connect with the characters and their plights.
2. An Unsatisfactory and Illogical Trigger
The catalyst for the story, King Lear asking his daughters to express their love for him, seems unrealistic and illogical. As a mature and experienced ruler, it’s hard to believe that Lear would be so insecure or misguided as to use this tactic to gauge his daughters’ love. The trigger feels contrived, making the foundation of the story shaky and, at times, idealistic. This implausible beginning sets the stage for an overall unsatisfactory plot that struggles to maintain its credibility.
3. Lack of Discipline and Linearity
Compared to other works by Shakespeare, “King Lear” appears to lack the usual discipline and linearity that make his plays so engaging and thought-provoking. The play seems disjointed and at times nonsensical, as if it were written under the influence or by someone other than Shakespeare.
While some critics argue that this chaos is intentional, it can come across as an excuse for the play’s disarray. The confusion between reality and unreality, as well as sanity and madness, makes it challenging to fully grasp and appreciate the play’s themes and messages.
“King Lear” masterfully employs the popular medieval/Elizabethan symbol of the wheel of fortune to illustrate the turbulent and ever-changing nature of fate in the play’s political atmosphere. Shakespeare effectively captures the essence of the times, highlighting the interconnectedness of the characters’ fates through the rise and fall of their fortunes.
This intricate interplay of power dynamics, exemplified by Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Edgar, Gloucester, Cornwall, and Cordelia, showcases the brilliance of Shakespeare’s storytelling and his ability to evoke the complexities of human nature.
As the wheel of fortune continues to turn, the characters experience dramatic shifts in their lives, emphasizing the transient and unpredictable nature of power and status.
In “King Lear,” Shakespeare invites the reader to contemplate the harsh realities of fate and fortune, leaving a lasting impact on those who delve into the world he has so skillfully crafted.
Ultimately, the play serves as a poignant reminder of the cyclical nature of life and the inescapable interplay between success and defeat.
William Shakespeare (c. 1564–1616) was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He arrived in London about 1586. His career as a playwright, poet, actor and theatre shareholder in London lasted from the early 1590s until 1612.
Shakespeare wrote all types of plays—tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas—for popular theatre. His early plays reflect the optimism and exuberant spirit of an England just coming into its own as a world power.
The later plays, the great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—are pessimistic, cynical, and reflect the decadence and political corruption of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court.
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