King Lear, weary of rule, divides his kingdom among his three daughters, but he disowns his youngest and favorite, Cordelia, when she refuses to speak her love. The King of France, her suitor, loyally weds her.
Lear’s two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, prove niggardly in their care of him; finally, accompanied only by his faithful Fool, he flees into a wild heath during a terrific storm. On the heath, he raves in a fit of inspired madness. Meanwhile, the two daughters plot against each other, and France invades England to rescue Lear. In the battle, Lear and Cordelia are captured and imprisoned, and Lear is unable to save her from hanging by her captors. His hopes blasted, he dies grief-stricken.
In a parallel subplot, Lear’s faithful nobleman the Earl of Gloucester disowns his true son Edgar when he is deceived by his bastard son Edmund. When Gloucester aids Lear, Edmund informs on him, and in punishment Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out and he is turned out to wander. Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom the madman, cares for him until Gloucester dies of a broken heart.
The intensity of elemental passions, the physical and mental cruelty, the enormous scope of the metaphoric cosmic language, and the depth of anguish in this play make it, in the judgment of many, Shakespeare’s deepest tragedy. The play provides no clear answer to the question Lear raises: “Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?”
Booth, Stephen. “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. In part 1, “On the Greatness of King Lear,” much of the discussion focuses on the repeated false endings of the play. Booth also has an important appendix on the doubling of roles in Shakespeare’s plays, especially in King Lear.
Halio, Jay L. Critical Essays on “King Lear.” New York: Twayne, 1995. Contains a selection of the best essays on King Lear, including several on the “two-text hypothesis,” the play in performance, and interpretation. The introduction surveys recent trends in criticism.
Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. Harvester New Critical Introductions. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1988. Includes a brief discussion of the stage history and critical reception, as well as a thorough discussion of the play’s dramatic idiom and characters.
Mack, Maynard. “King Lear” in Our Time. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. Surveys the play’s historical background, sources, and aspects of its staging. Also provides many perceptive critical comments on the action and its significance.
Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of King Lear. 1972. Reprint. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Rosenberg examines the significance of each scene and the “polyphony” of the characters, with extensive reference to the history of King Lear on the stage as of the earliest recorded performances. Also discusses the so-called Lear myth.