List of Characters
Lear, King of Britain—A mythical king of pre-Christian Britain, well-known in the folklore of Shakespeare’s day. Lear is a foolish king who intends to divide his kingdom among his three daughters.
Cordelia—Lear’s youngest daughter who speaks the truth.
The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy—They are both Cordelia’s suitors, but the King of France marries her.
Regan and Goneril—Lear’s selfish daughters who flatter him in order to gain his wealth and power.
Duke of Albany—Goneril’s husband whose sympathy for Lear turns him against his wife.
Duke of Cornwall—Regan’s husband who joins his wife in her devious scheme to destroy King Lear and usurp his power.
Earl of Gloucester—In the subplot, Gloucester’s afflictions with his sons parallel those of Lear’s with his daughters.
Edgar—The legitimate son of Gloucester.
Edmund—The illegitimate son of Gloucester who stops at nothing to gain power.
Earl of Kent—Kent is banished by King Lear for trying to intervene when Lear disinherits Cordelia.
Fool—The king’s professional court jester whose witty and prophetic remarks are a wise commentary on Lear’s shortsightedness.
Oswald—Goneril’s stewart who attempts to kill Gloucester.
(The entire section is 204 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Lear (leer), the king of Britain. Obstinate, arrogant, and hot-tempered, he indiscreetly plans to divide his kingdom among his daughters, giving the best and largest portion to his youngest and best-loved, Cordelia. When she refuses to flatter him with lavish and public protestations of love, he casts her off with unreasoning fury. Disillusioned and abandoned by his older daughters, he is driven to madness by his age and exposure to internal and external tempests. During his suffering, signs of unselfishness appear, and his character changes from arrogance and bitterness to love and tenderness. He is reunited with his true and loving daughter until her untimely murder parts them again.
Goneril (GON-uh-rihl), Lear’s eldest daughter. Savage and blunt as a wild boar, she wears the mask of hypocritical affection to acquire a kingdom. She has contempt for her aged father, her honest sister, and her kindhearted husband. Her illicit passion for Edmund, the handsome illegitimate son of the earl of Gloucester, leads to Edmund’s, Regan’s, and her own death.
Regan (REE-guhn), Lear’s second daughter. Treacherous in a catlike manner, she seldom initiates the action of the evil sisters but often goes a step further in cruelty. She gloats over Gloucester when his eyes are torn out and unintentionally helps him to see...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)
Albany (Character Analysis)
The duke of Albany is Goneril's husband. He is a nobleman with lands of his own, but he inherits half of Lear's kingdom through Goneril. Because Lear's kingdom is divided, tension exists between Albany and Cornwall, Regan's husband. It is rumored that Cornwall and Albany might war against each other. Instead, they end up combining their efforts against the French contingent which has landed at Dover and is trying to redeem Lear and reinstall him as king at the direction of Cordelia. When Lear goes to live with Goneril and Albany, Albany finds out after the event that Goneril has cast her father out. He sympathizes with Lear, but since Lear is Goneril's father, he does not actively intervene. Later, after Goneril and Regan have forced Lear out into the storm, Albany criticizes Goneril's treatment of her father. He says to her, ''You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face" (IV.ii.30-31). He calls Goneril and Regan "Tigers, not daughters" (IV.ii.40) and accuses them of making Lear, "a gracious aged man" (IV.ii.41), mad. Goneril, in turn, calls Albany a "Milk-liver'd man! / That bear'st a cheek for blows" (IV.ii.50-51).
Albany bears it patiently when Goneril flirts with Edmund in front of him. He has received letters from Edgar, taken from the dead Oswald, which reveal that Goneril and Edmund are hatching a plot on his life. Although Albany does not know Edgar's true identity, he agrees to summon him after the battle that Edgar might...
(The entire section is 345 words.)
Cordelia (Character Analysis)
Cordelia is Lear's youngest daughter. When her turn comes to outdo her sisters in their protests of great love for Lear, she is strangely silent. Lear reacts with passion and withholds her inheritance, casting her fortune to fate since he will have nothing more to do with her. We might question why Cordelia does not say what Lear wants to hear when to do so would take little effort on her part. She demonstrates her deep love for her father later in the play. Why, then, does she not demonstrate this love at the beginning and save her father the torment that follows? The answer to this question may be that Lear has chosen an awkward and arguably inappropriate moment to ask his only unwed daughter to declare him the sole object of her love. Cordelia has two potential suitors, Burgundy and France, waiting in the wings. Since the transfer of a daughter's dependence from father to husband was a critical moment in her life, it would not do for Cordelia to reveal a willingness to cater to a father's every demand, when those demands might conflict with those of the future husband. Goneril and Regan do not have this particular concern since they are already married. Another explanation might be that Cordelia sees the gross flattery of her sisters as hollow and degrading, true expressions of love best delivered in a private not a public forum. Additionally, perhaps Cordelia feels that her love for her father is an obvious fact of their close relationship (which her sisters...
(The entire section is 623 words.)
Edgar (Character Analysis)
Edgar is Gloucester's legitimate son. His half-brother Edmund frames him, letting on to Gloucester that Edgar is impatient for his inheritance and means to kill his father. Edgar is forced into hiding, and he adopts the disguise of "Poor Tom," a mad Bedlam (from Bethlehem hospital, an asylum for the insane) beggar. During the raging storm into which Goneril and Regan have forced Lear, Edgar finds himself in the same hovel with the mad king and Lear's Fool. Acting mad is perhaps the best disguise for Edgar since the insane were invisible in Elizabethan society, quickly dismissed and rarely scrutinized. Edgar is forced to give up his identity as Gloucester's son and heir just as Lear struggles to come to grips with his own conflicting sense of identity: the feigned madness of Edgar parallels the real madness of Lear. Lear, in his confusion, assumes that Poor Tom's madness must result from the same cause as his own. He asks of Edgar, "Has his daughters brought him to this pass?" (III.iv.63) Lear is wrong about the cause, but his remark heightens the sense that madness is the inevitable cause of identity loss.
After Gloucester's eyes have been plucked out by Cornwall, Edgar appears as Poor Tom and leads his father to the Cliffs of Dover, where Gloucester intends to kill himself. Edgar knows that that is Gloucester's intention, so he deludes his father by telling him the flat space upon which he stands is the dizzying height of Dover. After Gloucester falls,...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
Edmund (Character Analysis)
Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester and half-brother to Edgar, commits a number of villainous acts throughout the course of the play: he forces his brother, Edgar, into hiding, telling Gloucester that Edgar means to kill him; he betrays his father and leaves him to the barbarous treatment of Cornwall and Regan; he encourages both Goneril and Regan to believe he loves the one to the exclusion of the other, causing them to quarrel and, ultimately, die as a consequence; and he orders the execution of Lear and Cordelia.
At the beginning of the play, Gloucester acknowledges to Kent that Edmund is his bastard son. Gloucester says, "Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged'' (I.i.21-24). Edmund's nativity is the subject of good sport and joking. He has probably endured a lifetime of being treated this casually and contemptibly. It is no wonder, then, that such a constantly reinforcing experience might have embittered him not only toward his father and half-brother but also toward the world. Edmund compares himself to Edgar and finds that he is his equal in all but the name and legitimacy that is conferred not on the basis of one's qualities, but only on the basis of social convention. Edmund denies that social convention and abandons the dictates of any higher authority. He says, "Thou, nature, art my goddess, to thy law / My...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
Gloucester (Character Analysis)
The earl of Gloucester is the father of Edgar and Edmund. As a character, Gloucester connects the main plot with the subplot of the play. His situation parallels the situation of Lear. He mistakenly believes Edmund when the latter pretends to read a letter that is falsely said to be written by Edgar. In that letter, Edgar supposedly tells Edmund of his impatience to inherit Gloucester's estate. Gloucester, like Lear, responds emotionally, immediately denouncing his legitimate son (Edgar) and trusting in the son who really intends to do him wrong (Edmund). And like Lear, Gloucester is to be punished for his lack of insight or moral vision. That punishment comes in the form of a brutal incident wherein his eyes are ruthlessly plucked out by Cornwall. The physical blinding of Gloucester is symbolic of both his own and Lear's blindness to the truth about their children.
When the old man, a longtime tenant of Gloucester and Gloucester's father, tries to assist Gloucester because he cannot see his way, Gloucester replies, "I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.18-19). He can see better now that his eyes are gone, and he sees that he has placed his trust in the wrong son. He has reached the depth of despair, feeling there is no way to undo what he has done. It is this despair that compels him to say, "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport" (IV.i.36-37). Edgar, in disguise, leads Gloucester...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Goneril (Character Analysis)
Goneril is Lear's eldest daughter. She seems to understand that her father sometimes acts in a petty manner, and she knows how to please him. If she can inherit a third of Lear's kingdom by simply telling him that she loves him profoundly, she will gladly do it. To do so costs her nothing. Unlike Cordelia, Goneril knows how to cover her true feelings with high-blown rhetoric. Later in the play, Goneril treats Lear severely and appears quite monstrous.
After Lear's angry responses to the behaviors of Cordelia and Kent, Goneril and Regan discuss Lear's state of mind. In an effort to explain that state of mind, Goneril says, "He always loved our sister most; and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly" (I.i.290-92). Regan replies, "'Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself" (I.i.293-94). The two have obviously been subjected to Lear's whims before, and they feel what is perhaps an understandable resentment at his previous favoring of their younger sister. At first, Goneril and Regan unite against Lear in self defense. It is only later that their behavior becomes inexcusable.
Goneril's increasingly cruel treatment of Lear is proof of the adage that "power corrupts." Her request of Lear to conduct himself civilly in her home is not an unreasonable one. At first, perhaps, she wants to force a confrontation with Lear in order that he might alter his behavior, but when she sees that she...
(The entire section is 395 words.)
Kent (Character Analysis)
The earl of Kent is a nobleman and an unselfish, devoted supporter of King Lear. When Lear so harshly denies Cordelia, Kent attempts to intervene. He says, "See better, Lear; and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye" (I.i.157-58). Lear then rashly banishes Kent. But instead of pouting, going off to lick his wounds, or fostering a hatred of Lear for his actions, Kent adopts the disguise of Caius, a rough character of lower social station than Kent really is, and devotes himself to helping Lear see better, sticking by Lear's side and protecting him until the end.
Like Cordelia and Edgar, Kent represents the love and devotion that persists even through adversity. And, like Edgar, Kent extends that love and devotion in disguise. In one sense, disguise functions in King Lear to stress the necessity of seeing beyond outer appearances in a hostile world in which those appearances can be deceiving. In another sense, disguise demonstrates that true nobility results, obviously, not from one's title or social distinction but from an inner sense of morality. Kent and Edgar demonstrate their nobility in their actions, just as the lowly servant of Cornwall performs a noble act of courage in opposing his master and dying in defense of the helpless Gloucester.
Kent's final words in the play pose a mystery. After Lear dies, Kent says to Albany, "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me, I must not say no" (V.iii.322-23)....
(The entire section is 282 words.)
King Lear (Character Analysis)
As the play opens we learn that King Lear is getting on in years and has decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Lear is already demonstrating his eccentric nature. Although he has previously determined that the realm will be equally divided, he insists that each of his three daughters try to outdo the others in her proclamation of love for him. When Cordelia fails to satisfy his desire for praise and need for love, he immediately reacts in a purely emotional way, disinheriting her and refusing to listen to the reasonable arguments of Kent, whom Lear also banishes quickly without thinking the matter through.
Lear's expectations about his life in retirement are unrealistic. Lear, who uses the royal "we" to refer to himself, announces that
'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.
Lear wants to regain the untroubled life of a second childhood, yet he does not want to relinquish the authority and respect that he has become accustomed to as king. Lear intends that "Only we shall retain / The name, and all the additions to a king" (I.i.135-36). He wants the best of both worlds, the perks of kingship without its responsibilities. When Lear resides with Goneril, it quickly becomes apparent to her that Lear cannot have both. Although he has...
(The entire section is 1478 words.)
Other Characters (Descriptions)
Burgundy (Duke of Burgundy)
The duke of Burgundy appears only briefly at the beginning of the play. He is a wealthy, powerful nobleman, but his actions do not place him in a favorable light. He has been negotiating against the king of France for Cordelia's hand in marriage, but when he learns that she is not to inherit any of her father's wealth, he quickly expresses his lack of further interest in her.
After Lear and Cordelia have been captured by the English forces and Edmund has sent them of to prison, the captain agrees to follow with Edmund's command to execute the former king and his daughter quickly. Edmund has already promoted the captain, and he promises to do so again. The captain says, "I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; / If it be man's work, I'll do 't" (V.iii.37-38), meaning that, for the promise of reward, he will do anything of which he is physically capable. Another captain appears in the scene immediately following this one. He sounds the trumpet that calls Edgar to challenge Edmund.
Cornwall (Duke of Cornwall)
The duke of Cornwall is Regan's husband. Like Albany, his own wealth has been increased by the inheritance of half Lear's former realm. When Cornwall discovers that the French are afoot in England, he feels that wealth being threatened. He ruthlessly tries to find out all that he can about the French intentions and the English who might be conspiring to aid the...
(The entire section is 2005 words.)