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.