King Lear is widely regarded as Shakespeare's crowning artistic achievement. The scenes in which a mad Lear rages naked on a stormy heath against his deceitful daughters and nature itself are considered by many scholars to be the finest example of tragic lyricism in the English language. Shakespeare took his main plot line of an aged monarch abused by his children from a folk tale that appeared first in written form in the 12th century and was based on spoken stories that originated much further into the Middle Ages. In several written versions of "Lear," the king does not go mad, his "good" daughter does not die, and the tale has a happy ending.
This is not the case with Shakespeare's Lear, a tragedy of such consuming force that audiences and readers are left to wonder whether there is any meaning to the physical and moral carnage with which King Lear concludes. Like the noble Kent, seeing a mad, pathetic Lear with the murdered Cordelia in his arms, the profound brutality of the tale compels us to wonder, "Is this the promised end?" (V.iii.264). That very question stands at the divide between traditional critics of King Lear who find a heroic pattern in the story and modern readers who see no redeeming or purgative dimension to the play at all, the message being the bare futility of the human condition with Lear as Everyman.
Summary of the Play
From the legendary story of King Lear, Shakespeare presents a dramatic version of the relationships between parents and their children. Lear, king of ancient Britain, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril and Regan, the wives of the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, and Cordelia, his youngest and favorite. In an attempt to give the “largest bounty” to the one who loves him most, the king asks for his daughters’ expressions of affection. He receives embellished speeches of endearment from the older two, but Cordelia modestly speaks the truth, angering her father who disinherits her and banishes her forever. Trying to intercede on Cordelia’s behalf, the Earl of Kent also is banished. The King of France marries Lear’s dowerless daughter. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester is deceived by his illegitimate son, Edmund, who leads him to believe that Edgar, the earl’s legitimate son, is plotting to murder his father.
Lear’s plans to live with his two older daughters are immediately thwarted when Goneril turns on him, reducing his train of followers by half. In shock from her ingratitude, Lear decides to seek refuge with Regan. Instead of admonishing her sister for her actions as Lear expects, Regan is harsh with him, suggesting that he apologize to Goneril. Heartbroken and rejected, Lear totters out into the storm with only his Fool and Kent to keep him company. Kent, who is now in disguise, finds refuge in a hovel for the king, who has been driven mad by his suffering. There they meet Edgar, disguised as Tom o’Bedlam, hiding in fear for his life. Gloucester soon arrives and hurries Lear off to Dover, where Cordelia is waiting with a French army ready to restore her father’s kingdom. Cordelia cares for her father in the camp, and their severed relationship is restored.
In the meantime, Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, calling him a traitor. Still in disguise, Edgar leads his blind father to Dover. Edmund, in command of the English army, defeats the French, taking Cordelia and Lear as prisoners. As Gloucester is dying, Edgar reveals his true identity to his father. Edgar kills Edmund, but cannot save Cordelia whom Edmund has ordered to be hanged. Lear dies, grief-stricken over Cordelia’s death. Rivalry over their love for Edmund leads Goneril to poison Regan and then stab herself. Albany, Kent, and Edgar are left to restore some semblance of order to the kingdom.
Estimated Reading Time
Shakespeare’s poetic drama, written to be viewed by an audience, usually takes approximately three hours to perform on the stage. It would be possible to read it almost as fast the first time around to get the plot of the story. An auditory tape of King Lear, available at most university or county libraries, is an excellent device that can be used to follow along with the text, making the drama more interesting by bringing the characters alive. After the initial reading, however, it should be read more carefully, taking special note of the difficult words and phrases that are glossed at the bottom of most Shakespeare texts. This reading would probably take about six hours for the entire play, allowing a little more than an hour for each of the five acts. Since the acts of King Lear vary from three to seven scenes each, the length of reading time for each act will, of course, vary.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
King Lear, in foolish fondness for his children, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Grown senile, he scoffs at the foresight of his advisers and declares that each girl’s statement of her love for him will determine the portion of the kingdom she receives as her dowry. Goneril, his oldest daughter and the duchess of Albany, speaks first. She says that she loved her father more than eyesight, space, liberty, or life itself. Regan, the duchess of Cornwall, announces that the sentiment of her love was expressed by Goneril, but that Goneril stopped short of the statement of Regan’s love. Cordelia, who secretly confides that her love is more ponderous than her tongue, tells her father that because her love is in her heart, not in her mouth, she is willing to sacrifice eloquence for truth. Lear angrily tells her that truth alone should be her dowry and orders that her part of the kingdom be divided between Goneril and Regan. Lear’s disappointment in Cordelia’s statement grows into a rage against the earl of Kent, who tries to plead for Cordelia with the foolish king. Because of Kent’s blunt speech, he is given ten days to leave the country. Loving his sovereign, he risks death by disguising himself and remaining in Britain to care for Lear in his infirmity.
When Burgundy and France come as suitors to ask Cordelia’s hand in marriage, Burgundy, learning of her dowerless fate, rejects her. France, honoring Cordelia for her virtues, takes her as his wife, but Lear dismisses Cordelia and France without his benediction. Goneril and Regan, wary of their father’s vacillation in his weakened mental state, sets about to establish their kingdoms against change.
Lear is not long in learning what Goneril’s and Regan’s claims of love for him really mean. Their caustic comments about the old man’s mental and physical feebleness furnish Lear’s fool with many points for philosophical recriminations against the king. Realizing that his charity to his daughters makes him homeless, Lear cries in anguish against his fate. His prayers go unanswered, and his daughters’ abuse hastens his derangement.
The earl of Gloucester, like Lear, is fond of his two children. Edmund, a bastard, afraid that his illegitimacy will deprive him of his share of Gloucester’s estate, forges a letter over Edgar’s signature, stating that the sons should not have to wait for their fortunes until they are too old to enjoy them. Gloucester, refusing to believe that Edgar desires his father’s death, is told by Edmund to wait in hiding and hears Edgar make assertions that could easily be misinterpreted against him. Edmund, furthering his scheme, tells Edgar that villainy is afoot and that Edgar should not go unarmed at any time.
To complete his evil design, he later advises Edgar to flee for his own safety. After cutting his arm, he then tells his father that he was wounded while he and Edgar fought over...
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Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
King Lear: king of pre-Christian Britain; protagonist of the play
Goneril: King Lear’s oldest daughter with whom he lives first
Regan: King Lear’s middle daughter who refuses to take him in
Cordelia: King Lear’s youngest daughter who is banished and disinherited
Duke of Cornwall: husband of Regan who stops at nothing to gain power
Duke of Albany: the mild-mannered husband of Goneril
Earl of Kent: King Lear’s devoted courtier who is banished
Earl of Gloucester: protagonist of the subplot whose family situation is analogous to Lear’s
Edmund: bastard son of Gloucester
King of France: marries Cordelia without a dowry
Duke of Burgundy: Cordelia’s suitor who rejects Lear’s dowerless daughter
Setting the scene for King Lear’s rumored intention of dividing his kingdom, Gloucester and Kent discuss the King’s preference between his sons-in-law, the Duke of Albany and Cornwall. Kent is introduced to Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, whom his father loves no less than his legitimate son, Edgar.
The trumpet sounds and King Lear and his attendants enter with his two sons-in-law and his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. He immediately orders Gloucester to attend to the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy who are both suitors contending for Cordelia’s hand in marriage. Gloucester leaves and without delay Lear clarifies his intended purpose. He plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, giving the greatest share to the daughter who publicly professes to love him most.
Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughter, is called on first. She flatters her father into believing that she loves him more than “words can wield the matter.” Not to be outdone, Regan claims to love the King as much as her sister does, except that Goneril “comes too short.” Expecting a grander expression of love from Cordelia, his favorite, the King is surprised and angry when her reply is simply “Nothing, my lord.” He implores her to mend her “speech a little” or else she might “mar her fortunes.” She tries to explain to the King that she only speaks the truth, but it is to no avail. Lear banishes her without an inheritance or a dowry.
In a futile attempt to change the King’s mind, Kent argues on Cordelia’s behalf but is also banished. He bids good-bye to the King, commending Cordelia for speaking truthfully and admonishing Goneril and Regan to live up to their “large speeches” of love for their father.
Gloucester ushers in the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. They are both made aware of Cordelia’s banishment and recent loss of fortune and are given a chance to accept her without a dowry. The King of France is confused, wondering what Cordelia, who had always had been Lear’s favorite, could have done to deserve such treatment from her father. Cordelia begs her father to understand that she lacks the “glib and oily art” to speak of her love for him, but he only responds with a wish that she had never been born. Burgundy appeals to Lear to change his mind about the inheritance, but the King is unyielding. When Burgundy rejects Cordelia for lack of a dowry, she responds with a refusal to marry him if he is only interested in her “fortune.” The King of France who has gained a new admiration and respect for Cordelia, happily accepts King Lear’s “dow’rless daughter” and offers to make her the new Queen of France.
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Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
In Edmund’s opening soliloquy, we move from King Lear’s palace in the previous scene to the castle of the Earl of Gloucester. The subplot of the play is set in motion when Edmund calls upon his goddess, Nature, to whose law he is bound. As the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund challenges his supposed inferiority to his legitimate brother Edgar. He is also aware that Edgar is no dearer to his father than he is and intends to capitalize on the Earl’s trust in him. Determined to snatch his half-brother’s land and future title as Earl of Gloucester, Edmund forges his brother’s name in a letter in which Edgar presumably suggests a plan to murder his father. With the letter in his hand, Edmund...
(The entire section is 976 words.)
Act I, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Oswald: Goneril’s steward who willingly carries out the evil schemes of his mistress
This scene is set in the Duke of Albany’s palace, the home of Lear’s oldest daughter Goneril with whom he has been living since the division of the kingdom. Goneril questions her steward, Oswald, and finds that her father has struck her gentleman for chiding his Fool. She is distraught over the King’s behavior, claiming that he “upbraids us/ On every trifle.” She says too that his knights “grow riotous.” She is, in fact, so angry at her father that she does not want to speak to him and instructs Oswald to tell the King she is sick when he comes back from his hunting trip....
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Act I, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
Knight: one of Lear’s many attendants
Fool: the king’s professional court jester
The scene continues in Albany’s palace, where Kent is considering the success of his disguise. He is convinced that if he falsifies his accent, the masquerade will be complete. Ironically, he wishes to remain loyal to the King who has banished him. Just as Lear returns from his hunting trip, Kent appears disguised in servant’s garb. Lear questions his abilities and his motives for wanting to serve him. Answering each question in a jovial manner, Kent portrays a character unlike his own. Convinced of Kent’s qualifications, Lear invites him to join him as his servant and...
(The entire section is 1365 words.)
Act I, Scene 5: Summary and Analysis
Gentleman: one of Lear’s train attending to the horses
The scene is set in the courtyard in front of Albany’s palace. Preparing to leave for Regan’s, Lear orders Kent to deliver a letter to her in the city of Gloucester. He urges Kent to make sure he arrives before Lear does. In an attempt to raise his master’s spirits, the Fool engages in honest witty metaphors and nonsensical riddles. Lear plays the game for a short time but soon slips back into his preoccupations with his daughter’s ingratitude and his fears of madness. His gentleman soon arrives with the horses, and they are on their way to Regan’s.
This short scene acts...
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Act II, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Curan: a courtier at Gloucester’s castle
Curan, the courtier, informs Edmund that the Duke of Cornwall and Regan will be coming to Gloucester’s castle shortly. He also gives Edmund inside information about the likelihood of war between Cornwall and Albany. Seizing the opportunity to use the Duke of Cornwall’s visit to his own advantage, Edmund immediately sets his plan into action. Calling his brother Edgar from his hiding place, he warns him to flee in haste before his father can capture him. He tells Edgar that Cornwall’s unexpected visit might prove dangerous to him. In an attempt to stage a convincing escape, Edmund draws his sword and urges his brother to do...
(The entire section is 889 words.)
Act II, Scenes 2 and 3: Summary and Analysis
Oswald appears at Gloucester’s castle, and Kent, Lear’s courier, promptly recognizes him as Goneril’s steward whom he had “tripp’d up by the heels” and beaten for his insolent behavior to the King only a few days before. Feigning innocence, Oswald pretends he has never seen Kent. Kent rebukes him harshly and then draws his sword, challenging Oswald to do the same. Edmund enters in response to Oswald’s cries for help. Edmund’s sword is drawn and Kent turns on him, but Cornwall, who has just appeared, orders them to “keep peace.” Regan and Gloucester, following closely behind Cornwall, are appalled at the sight of weapons. Cornwall demands to hear an account of their differences. Continuing to...
(The entire section is 908 words.)
Act II, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
Lear, his Fool, and his Gentleman arrive at Gloucester’s castle. The King finds it puzzling that Cornwall and Regan have left their house on the night of his expected arrival without sending a message to explain. Kent who is still in the stocks, greets his master. Shocked to see his courier in this shameful condition, the King thinks it must be a joke. Kent tells Lear it was Regan and Cornwall who placed him there. In disbelief, Lear argues with Kent, bandying back and forth until the King finally faces the truth. He insists that they would not dare engage in such an act of disrespect toward the King through his messenger. Incensed by Cornwall and Regan’s actions, Lear calls it a “violent outrage” that...
(The entire section is 1516 words.)
Act III, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
On the heath near Gloucester’s castle, Kent, braving the storm, immediately recognizes the King’s Gentleman. He informs Kent that the King is “contending with the fretfrul elements” with only his Fool to keep him company. The Gentleman reports that Lear roams bareheaded on the stormy heath, striving to “outscorn...the wind and rain,” as his loyal Fool desperately tries to comfort him.
Kent quickly realizes the Gentleman is one whom he can trust. He discloses to him rumors of a division between Albany and Cornwall, though it is still not out in the open. The King of France, Cordelia’s husband, has sent his spies to attend the households of Cornwall and Albany as servants. Under their...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
Act III, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
The groundwork has already been laid by the Gentleman in the previous scene informing us of Lear’s struggle against the fierce storm on the heath. As the scene opens, Lear fervently calls upon the winds to blow, the lightning to “Spit, fire,” the rain to “drench the steeples,” and the thunder to crack open “nature’s moulds” and spill the seeds that make “ingrateful man.” The Fool counsels Lear to submit to his daughters’ authority over him and beg to be taken out of the storm. He reasons that it would be better to “court holy-water,” or, in other words, flatter his daughters, than to continue braving the stormy night. Ignoring the Fool’s pleas, he addresses the elements, telling them...
(The entire section is 1019 words.)
Act III, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Taking Edmund into his confidence, Gloucester informs him that Cornwall and Regan have taken over the use of his castle, castigating him for attempting to help the King. They have forbidden Gloucester to seek any aid for the King and adamantly prohibit him to talk about him.
Edmund responds as his father expects him to, expressing surprise at such actions which are most “savage and unnatural.” Gloucester tells Edmund there is division between the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany. He asks Edmund not to divulge the dangerous contents of a letter he has received containing the news of a power ready to avenge the injuries done to the King. The letter is presently in Gloucester’s closet...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
Act III, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
Seeking shelter from the raging storm on the heath, Kent repeatedly prods Lear to enter the hovel. At first he rebuffs Kent, asking him to leave him alone, but the King finally replies that the storm invading his body is scarcely felt since the tempest in his mind is a “greater malady.” Ranting on about “filial ingratitude,” he reproachfully alludes to his daughters who, he thinks, “tear this hand” that feeds them. Vowing to refrain from weeping, he firmly resolves to endure, though his daughters have shut him out on a night like this. Calling their names through the din of the storm, he reminds them that he “gave all.” He promptly checks himself, afraid he will go mad. He decides to shun that...
(The entire section is 1221 words.)
Act III, Scene 5: Summary and Analysis
Acting as an informant against his father, Edmund convinces Cornwall that Gloucester is guilty of treason. Determined to have his revenge, Cornwall now reasons that Edgar’s plot to kill his father was not entirely due to his brother’s “evil disposition” but was, in fact, provoked by Gloucester himself. Bellying his evil motive, Edmund produces Gloucester’s supposed letter as evidence that he has been supplying secret information to France. Edmund invokes the heavens to witness his regret that he should have detected his own father’s treason. Cornwall rewards Edmund with his new title as Earl of Gloucester and urges him to find his father so that he can be apprehended. In an “aside” to the...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Act III, Scene 6: Summary and Analysis
In an outbuilding near his castle, Gloucester shelters Lear from the raging storm on the heath. Kent thanks Gloucester for his kindness, afraid that the King’s “wits have given way to impatience.” Promising his quick return, Gloucester leaves Kent, Edgar, and the Fool with Lear to find the necessary supplies for their comfort. Edgar, still disguised as Tom o’ Bedlam, continues his chatter about the foul fiends that are plaguing him. Alluding to Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale,” he says that Frateretto tells him “Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.” He implores the Fool to pray and beware of the “foul fiend.” The Fool continues his lighthearted humor, asking whether a madman is a yeoman or...
(The entire section is 944 words.)
Act III, Scene 7: Summary and Analysis
Servant #1: Cornwall’s servant who stabs him and is fatally wounded by Regan
Servants #2 and #3: they follow Gloucester to Dover and soothe his bleeding eyes.
Cornwall instructs Goneril to bring Albany a letter containing the news that France’s army has landed. He then orders his servants to find the traitor Gloucester and bring him back. Regan wants him hanged immediately, and Goneril calls for his eyes to be plucked out. Assuring them he will take care of things, Cornwall advises Edmund to accompany Goneril since their revengeful act toward his father will not be fit for his eyes. Cornwall asks Goneril to encourage the Duke of Albany to send an answer...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Old Man: Gloucester’s tenant who leads him after he is blinded
Alone on the heath, Edgar reasons that things can only improve since fortune has already imposed the very worst on him. Confident in the belief that he has paid his dues and now “Owes nothing” more, he begins on a positive note until he sees Gloucester. Edgar’s mood quickly changes as he watches his blinded father led by an old man, a former tenant. Concerned about the old man’s safety, Gloucester urges him to leave since the old man can do nothing for him. Troubled about Gloucester’s inability to see his way, the old man is persistent. Gloucester tells him he has no way and, therefore, needs no...
(The entire section is 977 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Messenger: brings news of the death of Cornwall
Goneril and Edmund arrive at the Duke of Albany’s palace. As Oswald enters, Goneril inquires about Albany and is told he is altogether changed. Puzzled by the Duke’s behavior, Oswald reports that Albany smiled when he was told the French had landed, showed annoyance when he heard his wife was coming, and called him a sot when he told him of Gloucester’s treason and Edmund’s loyalty to the kingdom. Albany’s attitude is the direct opposite of Oswald’s expectations. Goneril promptly attributes his changed disposition to his cowardice. Afraid that Edmund will not be welcomed by Albany, Goneril advises him to go back...
(The entire section is 1051 words.)
Act IV, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Gentleman: brings news to Kent of Cordelia and the King of France
This scene takes place in the French encampment near Dover. Explaining the reason for the King of France’s sudden departure from the camp, a Gentleman tells Kent that the King was called back to France on urgent business that, in his absence, could prove dangerous to the state. He has left Monsieur La Far, his marshal, in charge while he is away. Kent inquires about the letters he has written to Cordelia concerning Goneril and Regan’s cruel treatment of their father. The Gentleman explains that often a tear would trickle down her cheeks as she fought to control her passion while she was reading the...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
Act IV, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
Doctor: Cordelia’s physician brought to heal the mad King
Messenger: brings news of England’s armed troops
In the French camp, Cordelia speaks of her mad father who has been seen wandering around in the fields, wearing the weeds that grow among the corn as a crown on his head. She orders the officer to scour every acre of the fields until they find him. She then asks the doctor whether medical knowledge can do anything to heal the King’s mind. The doctor assures her that rest, brought about with the aid of medicinal herbs that grow in the countryside, will be an effective treatment to cure the King’s madness. Cordelia calls upon the rare healing herbs...
(The entire section is 643 words.)
Act IV, Scene 5: Summary and Analysis
Back in Gloucester’s castle, Oswald informs Regan that Albany, after much fretting (“much ado”), has reluctantly agreed to raise an army against France. He adds that Goneril is a better soldier than her husband, Albany. Oswald has come to deliver Goneril’s letter to Edmund. Referring to him as “Lord Edmund,” Regan questions the contents of the letter, but Oswald claims he does not know. Expressing regret about letting the blinded Gloucester live, Regan is sure that sympathy for the old man will turn people against them. She thinks Edmund is on a mission to murder his father and, thereby, strengthen their cause.
Oswald is determined to find Edmund, but Regan urges him to go with the...
(The entire section is 712 words.)
Act IV, Scene 6: Summary and Analysis
Edgar, dressed as a peasant, is supposedly leading the blind Gloucester to the precipice near Dover where the Duke plans to end his life. In an effort to dissuade him, Edgar tries to mislead his father by telling him they are nearing the steep cliff. Though they are on flat ground, Edgar talks of the sounds of the roaring sea and the ascent of the rising terrain that is leading them to the hill. Gloucester insists the ground is even, but Edgar replies that losing his sight must have affected his other senses.
His father perceives a change in Edgar’s improved speech, but Edgar flatly denies it. When they arrive at “the place,” Edgar gives a lengthy description of the view below with its people...
(The entire section is 1684 words.)
Act IV, Scene 7: Summary and Analysis
Kent has divulged his true identity to Cordelia though he is still dressed as Caius. With heartfelt gratitude, Cordelia tells Kent she will not live long enough to adequately repay him for what he has done for her father, the King. Kent assures her that acknowledgment of his services is, in fact, an overpayment. She asks him to change his attire so they can put behind them, all reminders of the “worser hours” he has spent with the King on the heath. But Kent tells her he is not ready to reveal his identity yet. To do so would cut his purpose short. She promptly concedes, turning to the doctor to inquire about the King. He tells her the King is still asleep. Calling upon the “kind gods,” she asks them to...
(The entire section is 1105 words.)
Act V, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Among the regalia of drum and colors, Regan and Edmund, accompanied by their soldiers, enter the British camp near Dover. Edmund shows concern regarding Albany’s absence. He wonders whether Albany has made a firm decision to fight the French in view of their support of King Lear. Regan is sure Albany has met with some misfortune and Edmund agrees. Jealous of her sister, Regan begins to question Edmund about his relationship with her. Edmund swears that he holds only an “honor’d love” for her and that he has never enjoyed her sexual favors. He assures Regan she need not fear that he will become too “familiar” with Goneril.
Albany and Goneril enter with drum, color, and soldiers. At first...
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Act V, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
In military triumph over France, Edmund enters with Lear and Cordelia whom he has taken captive. Cordelia assures the King that they are not the first who have lost their fortunes in spite of good intentions. Her concern is for her father, but he is perfectly content to be confined with Cordelia “like birds i’ th’ cage.” Edmund then instructs his soldiers to take them away to prison where they will be kept until they can be arraigned. He slips the captain a private note, promising him an advancement if he carries out the devious scheme he has outlined for him. The captain quickly agrees to the scheme.
Albany enters with Goneril, Regan, and their soldiers. Formally commending Edmund for his...
(The entire section is 2263 words.)