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...
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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...
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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 confidently invokes the gods to “stand up for bastards” as he prepares to meet his father.
As Gloucester enters, he is preoccupied with the disturbing events of the recent past. Edmund, however, makes sure that his father sees him attempting to hide the letter. Gloucester’s curiosity is aroused by Edmund’s strange behavior, and he repeatedly questions him about the piece of paper in his hand. Edmund, pretending to spare his father’s feelings, cautiously breaks the news. He tells him the letter is from his brother, and “I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.” This only increases Gloucester’s curiosity, and, after much coaxing, Edmund finally hands it to him. Gloucester, stunned by its contents, questions the...
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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. In retaliation for her father’s behavior, she also gives Oswald a directive to cut back on his usual services to the King. She will answer for it later if he gives Oswald any trouble.
Horns sound as Lear and his entourage return from their hunting trip. Goneril hastily directs Oswald to treat the King with “weary negligence” and instruct the servants under his command to do the same. If her father does not like it, she says, he can go live with her sister Regan. Goneril is well aware that she and Regan are of like mind concerning their father. She calls him foolish for trying to cling to his power and authority after he has officially relinquished it.
Goneril continues to rail bitterly against her father,...
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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 immediately calls for his dinner and his Fool.
Oswald, Goneril’s steward, enters and Lear demands to see his daughter. Walking away, Oswald purposely ignores the King’s request. Lear calls him back, but when Oswald does not respond, he sends his knight after him. The knight comes back with the news that Oswald rudely refused to obey the King. Shocked at such defiance of the King, Lear discusses the matter with his knight who has also noticed the recent “abatement of kindness” evident in the servants, Goneril, and the Duke of Albany himself. Lear again calls for his Fool, whom he has not seen for two weeks and is told that he has been pining away for Cordelia ever since she left for France. Unwilling to discuss it...
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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 as a commentary on Lear’s emotional state as he prepares himself for his new living arrangements with his middle daughter, Regan. His Fool, though annoying at times, honestly reflects his master’s fears. Lear has, after all, failed, and one can imagine him contemplating his last chance. Judging by observations thus far and the opinion of the Fool on the matter, Goneril and Regan are of like mind. The Fool’s honesty is no reassurance when he says, “She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab.” In his preoccupation, Lear seems unmoved by the Fool’s comments as he ruminates about Cordelia. “I did her wrong” is reminiscent of the previous scene where her faults seemed small compared to Goneril’s.
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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 same, pretending to defend himself against Edmund. He is supposedly trying to capture Edgar and bring him to his father. After Edgar’s escape, Edmund, aware that Gloucester has been watching from a distance, secretly wounds himself in the arm. The sight of blood, he thinks, will impress upon his father that he has, indeed, fought a hard fight.
Gloucester approaches, demanding to know the whereabouts of Edgar. He calls for the pursuit of the villain. Edmund tells his father that Edgar tried to persuade him of “the murther of your lordship.” Ironically, Edmund has supposedly warned his brother that the revenging gods are opposed to parricide, and the child is “bound to th’ father.” Edmund continues his deceitful...
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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 rail at Oswald, Kent calls him a “cowardly rascal” whom “Nature disclaims,” and who must, therefore, have been made by a tailor. Oswald defends his cowardice, telling Cornwall he has spared Kent’s life because he was a “grey beard.” Enraged by Oswald’s outright lie and his patronizing attitude toward him, Kent rants on with irreverent expletives about this rogue “who wears no honesty.”
Cornwall takes the part of Oswald, however, and calls for Kent to be put in the stocks. Kent reminds Cornwall that he serves the King, and this move will surely create ill feelings. Troubled by the effect it will have on the King, Gloucester too pleads with Cornwall to rescind his decision. Cornwall remains stoic, however, and...
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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 is “worse than murther.” When asked for a reason by the King, Kent truthfully admits that he demonstrated “more man than wit,” when he drew his sword on Oswald.
Commenting on the action, the Fool recites fanciful rhymes about Lear’s problems with his daughters, observing that poor fathers “make their children blind” while rich fathers “see their children kind.” Asking for his daughter’s whereabouts, Lear is told she is within. Determined to rectify the situation with Kent, Lear presently enters the castle, asking the others to stay behind. Kent inquires about the King’s decreased train of followers. The Fool tells him that it is a question deserving time in the stocks. When Kent asks why, the Fool answers...
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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 surveillance, quarrels and plots between the two houses have been reported and news of their abusiveness to the King has reached France. Kent thinks “something deeper” also may be brewing. France’s secret invasion of England’s “scattered” kingdom is imminent. Kent asks the Gentleman to go to Dover to disclose to its citizens the “unnatural” treatment of the King. Assuring the Gentleman of his noble birth, Kent gives him a ring to hand to Cordelia whom he will most likely find in Dover. He explains that she will confirm Kent’s true identity. The two then part ways, searching for Lear in the storm and agreeing to give the signal when he is found.
This scene functions to inform us of Lear’s...
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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 he will show them no unkindness since he never gave them his kingdom, and, therefore, they owe him nothing. His mood quickly swings, however, as he rails against the rain, wind, thunder, and lightning, suspecting that they are, after all, only the “servile ministers” of his “pernicious daughters” fighting a battle against him.
The Fool, continuing his jesting in rhyme, again censures the King, telling him that the person who has “a house to put ‘s head in” has a good brain. In a strained attempt to control his passions, Lear swears he will be the epitome of patience.
Kent enters with expressions of terror at the night sky that is unparalleled in his memory. Lear calls on the gods to wreak their stormy...
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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 under lock and key.
Instructing Edmund to cover for him at the castle in case Cornwall asks, Gloucester resolves to find the King and help relieve his misery. He tells Edmund that he has been threatened with death for taking the King’s part and warns him to be careful.
Left alone, Edmund immediately decides to inform the Duke of Cornwall of all that his father has told him, including the contents of the letter. With his eye on his father’s title as Duke of Gloucester, Edmund intends to expose him to Cornwall and, thereby, gain advantage over his own father.
This short scene functions as an interim to the actions of Kent, Lear, and the Fool on the heath. It allows the trio enough time...
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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 kind of talk. Kent responds positively and again urges him to enter the hovel. Lear finally agrees to go in, but asks Kent and his Fool to enter first. He promises to follow them after he has said a prayer. Praying with heartfelt compassion for the poor homeless and unfed wretches, he is remorseful for having taken “too little care of this.”
As Lear ends his prayer, a strange voice is heard. Rushing out of the hovel, the Fool cautions Lear not to enter since there is a spirit inhabiting the shelter. Responding to Kent’s command, Edgar, disguised as Tom o’ Bedlam, appears from the hovel, muttering incoherent phrases about the “foul fiend” who is following him. Lear immediately perceives him as one who has been swindled...
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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 audience, Edmund voices his wish that he might find Gloucester “comforting the King,” which would augment Cornwall’s suspicions. He then turns to Cornwall, assuring him of his loyalty to the kingdom in spite of the conflict it will cause between him and his father. Confident that he can trust Edmund, Cornwall assures him that he will love him as his own son. (Better than Edmund’s own father).
We again see the development of the subplot in this scene in which Edmund uses Gloucester’s letter as evidence of his guilt. Unlike Edgar’s, Edmund’s disguise is spiritual, rather than physical, as he hides behind an innocent facade, hoping to gain undeserved power and wealth at others’ expense. Cloaking his...
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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 a gentleman, to which Lear quickly replies, “A king, a king.”
Breaking into the middle of the Fool’s continued jesting, the King suddenly decides to conduct a mock trial. Edgar will be his “learned justicer” and his wise Fool will assist him. He appoints Kent as one of the judges. His daughters, Goneril and Regan, are the “she-foxes” who are brought to trial, taking the form of joint stools.
Kent urges Lear to lie down and rest, but Lear ignores his pleas and decides that Goneril will be the first to be arraigned. Lear testifies that she “kick’d the poor king her father.” Turning his thoughts to Regan, he rails at her for the corruption she has brought and censures the “false justicer” for...
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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 back as quickly as possible. He bids Goneril and Edmund good-bye, addressing him as “my Lord of Gloucester.” Oswald enters with reports that Lear is being conveyed to Dover by the Lord of Gloucester accompanied by about 36 of the King’s knights. He has also heard they will all be under the protection of well-armed friends in Dover. Oswald then prepares the horses for his mistress Goneril, and she and Edmund begin their journey.
Cornwall’s servants quickly bring Gloucester back to his castle where he is immediately bound to a chair and cross-examined. Addressing them as guests, Gloucester begs them not to involve him in any foul play. Plucking his beard, Regan calls him an “ingrateful fox” and a “filthy traitor.”...
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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 eyes since he “stumbled” when he saw. Lamenting the loss of his “dear son Edgar,” Gloucester wishes for a chance to touch him once more. Edgar is soon recognized by the old man as “poor mad Tom.” Seeing his blind father has caused Edgar to feel his life is worse than ever. Gloucester recalls meeting a madman and a beggar in last night’s storm. He remembers that seeing him brought his son Edgar to mind though they were not yet friends.
Edgar then greets his master and is immediately recognized by Gloucester as the “naked fellow.” The blind Duke orders the man to bring some clothes for Edgar and meet them a mile or two down the road to Dover. Gloucester says he will allow Edgar to lead him to Dover. The man...
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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 to Cornwall and aid him in assembling an army against France. She tells Edmund she will take charge at home, switching roles with her “mild husband” and handing her duties over to him. She assures him that Oswald, her trusty steward, will keep them both abreast of the latest news. She then kisses Edmund, promising that he may find a mistress dispatching his commands. Edmund leaves in high spirits.
Reflecting on his manliness, Goneril refers to Edmund as “Gloucester” and compares him to the fool who “usurps my (bed).” Albany enters, immediately chastising her for what she has done to her father, the King. He tells her she is not “worth the dust which the rude wind/ Blows” in her face. He calls Goneril and Regan...
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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 letters. He describes her queenly dignity and patience, and the way she covered her tears with smiles. Musing about the contrast between Cordelia and her sisters, Kent wonders how one parent could produce such different offspring. He concludes it is “The stars above us, that govern our conditions.”
Kent informs the Gentleman that Lear is in town, but, when in his right mind, has refused to speak to Cordelia out of guilt and shame for what he has done to her. Kent tells of the things that sting the King’s mind. He has stripped Cordelia of his blessing, given her rights to her “dog-hearted” sisters, and turned her out to foreigners. His shame detains him from seeing her.
Kent then tells the Gentleman that Albany...
(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 of the earth to grow as they are watered by her tears. Afraid the King may die, she feels an urgency in her request.
A messenger enters, telling Cordelia that the British powers will soon invade the French army. Cordelia has officially taken command of the French troops in the absence of her husband. She wants it understood, however, that it is not her own ambition for power that moves her army to fight. She declares that her motive is solely to defend her father’s rights so unjustly taken over by Goneril and Regan.
After Lear falls asleep in the shelter during the storm, we do not hear from him again for almost 500 lines. His next appearance will be in the countryside near Dover where he...
(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 troops the next day since the way is dangerous. Oswald apprises her of his duty to his mistress, Goneril. Suspicious of her sister, Regan questions her secrecy, wondering why she is not sending her message by word-of-mouth instead of by a letter. Promising to make it worth his while, she asks Oswald’s permission to unseal the letter. Oswald protests, but Regan tells him that she has observed her sister approach Edmund with amorous looks, and she knows Oswald is in Goneril’s confidence. Oswald feigns innocence, but Regan confidently reaffirms her belief that he knows the truth. She tells him that she and Edmund have already agreed that she would be a more convenient wife for him than Goneril since she is now a widow. She promises a reward if...
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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 who appear dwarfed from such dizzying heights. Gloucester hands Edgar a purse with a valuable jewel and bids him farewell. In an aside, Edgar explains that his motive for his actions is to cure his father’s despair. Before he jumps, Gloucester prays to the “mighty gods” and renounces the world whose afflictions he can no longer bear. He blesses Edgar if he is still alive and then falls to the ground. Edgar then calls out to Gloucester, but he tells him to leave him alone and let him die. Pretending to be a passing bystander who has observed him from the bottom of the precipice, Edgar tells Gloucester his life is a miracle since he has survived a dangerous fall from the high, chalky cliff. Edgar lifts the disappointed Duke to his feet,...
(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 cure the “great breach” in his nature and tune up the discord in his life brought about by his children.
The doctor then asks permission to awaken the King, and Cordelia leaves it up to his better judgment. She is assured by the Gentleman that they have dressed her father in fresh garments. Certain that the King will maintain his self-control, the doctor asks Cordelia to stay nearby when her father awakes. Lear is brought in on a chair carried by servants as soft music plays in the background. Cordelia kisses her father with the hope of repairing the harm done to the King by her sisters. With compassion, she gazes at his face, reflecting on the suffering forced upon him in the storm. She agonizes over his necessity of...
(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 sight of Regan and Edmund, Goneril, in an aside, declares that she would go as far as to lose the battle rather than relinquish Edmund to her sister. Albany greets Regan and Edmund formally and politely. He informs them that in view of the fact that the King has many followers who have defected to France because of the cruelties suffered under the new rule, the honorable thing to do would be to fight only the imposing army of France. His quarrel is not with the King and his followers. Edmund commends his statement as nobly spoken, and Goneril agrees that domestic strife is “not the question here.”
Albany then invites Edmund to join him and his most experienced soldiers in his tent to determine the proceedings of the battle....
(The entire section is 1337 words.)
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 valiant efforts in battle, Albany promptly demands to see the captives that have been taken in the day’s combat. Hesitantly, Edmund delays the Duke by telling him he has seen fit to send the King and Cordelia into confinement. He reasons that the King’s title and influence could tempt Albany’s soldiers to waver in their loyalties and cause them to turn against him. He advises Albany to wait until a more appropriate time and place when the sweat and blood of the battle will no longer be fresh in their minds. They can then settle the question of what will be done with the captives. Albany promptly questions Edmund’s audacity in making such major decisions, thereby considering himself an equal to the Duke. Regan immediately speaks up in...
(The entire section is 2263 words.)