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 light of truth. Her early widowhood gives her some advantage over Goneril in their rivalry for Edmund, but she is poisoned by Goneril, who then commits suicide.
Cordelia (kohr-DEEL-yuh), Lear’s youngest daughter. Endowed with her father’s stubbornness, she refuses to flatter him as her sisters have done. In his adversity, she returns to him with love and forgiveness, restoring his sanity and redeeming him from bitterness. Her untimely death brings about Lear’s death.
The earl of Kent
The earl of Kent, Lear’s frank and loyal follower. Risking Lear’s anger to avert his impetuous unreason, he accepts banishment as payment for truth. Like Cordelia, but even before her, he returns to aid Lear—necessarily in disguise—as the servant Caius. The impudence of Oswald arouses violent anger in him. For his master, no service is too menial or too perilous.
The earl of Gloucester
The earl of Gloucester, another father with good and evil children, parallel to Lear and his daughters. Having had a gay past, about which he speaks frankly and with some pride, he believes himself a man of the world and a practical politician. He is gullible and superstitious. Deceived by Edmund, he casts off his loyal, legitimate son Edgar. His loyalty to the persecuted king leads to the loss of his eyes, but his inner sight is made whole by his blinding. He dies happily reconciled to Edgar.
Edgar (in disguise, Tom o’ Bedlam), Gloucester’s legitimate son. He is forced into hiding by his credulous father and the machinations of his evil half brother. As Tom o’ Bedlam, he is with the king during the tempest, and later he cares for his eyeless father both physically and spiritually. Finally, he reveals himself to Gloucester just before engaging in mortal combat with Edmund, who dies as a result of Edgar wounding him.
Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate younger son. A Machiavellian villain governed by insatiable ambition, he attempts to destroy his half brother and his father for his own advancement. Without passion himself, he rejoices in his ability to arouse it in others, particularly Lear’s two evil daughters. He has a grim and cynical sense of humor. His heartlessness is demonstrated by his plotting the murders of Lear and Cordelia, in which he is only half successful. He shows signs of repentance at the time of his death, but hardly enough to color his villainy.
The duke of Cornwall
The duke of Cornwall, Regan’s husband. An inhuman monster, he aids in heaping hardships on the aged king and tears out Gloucester’s eyes when the earl is discovered aiding the distressed monarch. His death, brought on by his cruelty, leaves Regan free to pursue Edmund as a potential husband.
The duke of Albany
The duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband. Noble and kind, he is revolted by Goneril’s behavior toward her father, by Gloucester’s blinding, and by the murder of Cordelia. He repudiates Goneril and Regan and restores order to the kingdom.
The fool, Lear’s jester, “not altogether a fool.” A mixture of cleverness, bitterness, and touching loyalty, he remains with the old king in his terrible adversity. His suffering rouses Lear’s pity and leads to the major change from selfish arrogance to unselfish love in the old king. The fool’s end is obscure; he simply vanishes from the play. The line “My poor fool is hanged” may refer to Cordelia.
Oswald, Goneril’s doglike servant. Insolent, cowardly, and evil, he is still devoted to his mistress, whom, ironically, he destroys. His last act of devotion to her is to urge his slayer to deliver a letter from her to Edmund. Because the slayer is Edgar, the letter goes to the duke of Albany as evidence of Goneril’s and Edmund’s falsehood.
The king of France
The king of France, a suitor of Cordelia. Captivated by her character and loveliness, he marries her with only her father’s curse for dowry. He sets up an invasion of England to restore the old king but is called back to France before the decisive battle, leaving the responsibility on his young queen.
The duke of Burgundy
The duke of Burgundy, a suitor of Cordelia. Cautious and selfish, he rejects Cordelia when he finds out that she has been cast off by her father.
The first servant of Cornwall
The first servant of Cornwall, who, moved by Cornwall’s inhuman cruelty, endeavors to save Gloucester from being blinded. Although his appearance is brief, he makes a profound impression as a character, and his action in mortally wounding Cornwall alters the course of events and leads to the overthrow of the evil forces.
An old man
An old man, Gloucester’s tenant. Helping the blinded man, he delivers him to the care of the supposed mad beggar, actually Edgar.
A captain, employed by Edmund to murder Lear and Cordelia in prison. He hangs Cordelia but later is killed by the aged king, who is too late to save his beloved daughter.
A doctor, employed by Cordelia to treat her father in his illness and madness. He aids in restoring Lear to partial health.
Curan, a courtier.