King Lear Characters
The main characters of King Lear include King Lear, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan, and the Earl of Gloucester.
- King Lear is a ruler of ancient Britain who decides to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom between his daughters.
- Cordelia is Lear’s youngest daughter. She refuses to flatter Lear and is banished. She is later taken prisoner during the war and executed.
- Goneril and Regan are Lear’s elder daughters, who turn against him.
- The Earl of Gloucester allows himself to be manipulated by one son into believing that the other is plotting against him. His troubles with his children parallel those of Lear.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379
The title character is both an enigma and an anomaly as a person, and yet, paradoxically, he is a man who typifies kingship and is a universal representative of humanity.
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In Shakespeare's treatment of the legend of King Leir (as it was normally spelled) of Britain, Lear is the protagonist, but he is not a hero similar to Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, or other leading characters in the tragedies. The most prominent feature of Lear is the fact that he is elderly, apparently at least eighty (“four score”) years old. Throughout the play, he wavers between lucidity and “madness.” He thus can be said to suffer from some form of dementia, possibly Alzheimer's disease.
Lear's ability to judge people and situations is therefore compromised. The general impression the reader or audience receives from the start is that Lear has been considered a good ruler: wise, fair, and respected. Yet in the very opening scene, he makes a crucial series of mistakes and shows himself an angry, volatile, and vindictive man. He somehow misjudges his own daughters, evidently having no idea that the protestations of love by Goneril and Regan are exaggerated, false, and hypocritical. He overreacts to Cordelia's honesty, cursing her violently, refusing her a dowry, and in effect banishing her from his kingdom. But in the end, when he is brought to Cordelia and reconciled with her, both his outward manner and his inner character appear in a positive light not evident before. His tragic flaw, if it is that, has been his intolerance and violent anger, but again, if this is attributable to his dementia, it's impossible to know exactly what sort of man Lear was before the disease afflicted him. As with many Shakespeare characters, the contradictions within Lear are the essence of his character.
Lear's one faithful daughter is presumably pure of heart, kind, and strong in character. The last quality is less often noted, perhaps because it goes against the grain of traditional, patriarchal ideals concerning women. Cordelia leads an army in the attempt to defeat her father's enemies when her husband has returned to France to deal with domestic problems. She is also completely forgiving, not holding any grudge against Lear for having disowned and disinherited her. No explanation is given for her lukewarm statement of her love for her father. But of all the characters who are defeated in the story, Cordelia is the only one who has done nothing to deserve her fate, unless one is to regard her one “mistake” as her momentary inability to be effusive to her father as her sisters have done.
Goneril and Regan
The two “wicked” sisters both have a kind of strength and independence of mind which are positive qualities, especially when the suppressed condition of women of their time is taken into account. Goneril defies her husband, Albany, and pursues an independent course, becoming, with Regan, a military leader in effect. After Cornwall is killed, Regan as well, rather than shrinking into the background, takes matters into her own hands. But whatever Lear and his knights have done, both sisters convey their coldness, inability to forgive, and lack of empathy for an elderly, impaired father. Goneril is even repelled by her own husband when Albany attempts to act with fairness toward Lear.
Both women are motivated sexually, are competing for Edmund, and are consumed by ambition and jealousy, with Goneril the one who plans to have her own husband killed, poisons her sister, and then commits suicide.
As with Goneril and Regan, Edmund represents the dark side of human nature. He hates his father, Gloucester, and the favored brother, Edgar; he plots against them and at least temporarily achieves his purpose in discrediting Edgar. Yet when finally defeated, Edmund shows a kind of generosity in belatedly rescinding his order to have Lear and Cordelia killed.
Edmund is basically a caricature of evil, as are Goneril and Regan. But in the opening scene, his father is shown openly speaking in the coarsest and most abusive language about him. It would be surprising if any son, being treated this way, would not resent his father and seek some type of revenge. This doesn't excuse Edmund's behavior but rather explains it. Though he’s doing it in a criminal way, Edmund sees himself standing up for all people of “illegitimate” birth and the unfairness of their treatment.
Like other characters and like the play as a whole, Edgar is a puzzle. Commentators have noted his bewildered lack of any defense to his father in the face of Edmund's accusations. He flees, thinking the only recourse is to sham insanity and go about in the open, naked, pretending to be “Poor Tom” and repeating phrases having their source in a political book of Shakespeare’s time by the writer Samuel Harsnett. His speech and behavior are a kind of imitation of the Fool: he talks in riddles and either pretends to be in a state of hysteria or perhaps has gone temporarily insane. But his eventual behavior in helping his blinded father is selfless and forgiving. When he finally avenges himself against Edmund, Edgar is now the heroic opposite of the crazed person he has made himself appear.
Kent remains loyal to Lear under the most adverse conditions. To disguise himself and undergo extreme danger in order to help the king, who has been cruel and unfair to him, is unexpected and astonishing. There is also a deliberately comical aspect to Kent's behavior during his confrontation with Oswald, in which Kent begins hurling a stream of exaggerated accusations at him. He ironically exploits the situation for a momentary kind of revelry, as it were. But Kent is practical and intelligent in communicating with Cordelia and others about Lear's plight. There is nevertheless a passivity in his nature, as he, like Edgar, takes refuge in his disguise instead of more openly confronting his, and Lear's, enemies.
The Earl of Gloucester
Gloucester, though one of the characters who should have the most claim on the audience's sympathy, is morally blind, and the actual blinding he is subjected to is an obvious symbol of his cluelessness as a father and a person. His early description to Kent of Edmund and Edmund's mother is meant to be comical but comes across as mean-spirited and contemptuous. He is also not very bright, given the ease with which he's duped by Edmund. Yet he's basically a sympathetic character, though one who has behaved inappropriately and unfairly and who in some sense deserves the misfortune imposed on him.
Little is revealed to the audience about the Fool as a person. He sticks by Lear with unflinching loyalty, but more than the other characters, the Fool appears as a mere symbol, an abstracted version of that part of human nature having the ability to unmask folly. The Fool speaks in riddles and jokes that are deliberately intended to confuse the other characters and the audience. The irony is that a “fool” is the one who comprehends the overall situation better than the others do. In spite of this understanding and perception, however, the Fool appears mad like Lear. He stands apart from the other characters, commenting on their foolishness and lies.
The Duke of Albany
Goneril's husband, like Kent and Edgar, emerges as a well-intentioned man, but he is caught up in a situation he can't control. And as with Kent and Edgar, there is an element of passivity in Albany's character. He sympathizes with Lear but is unable or unwilling to overrule Goneril when she first turns against Lear. Still, his ceding of power to Kent and Edgar is perhaps the wisest and even the most heroic act of any of the characters.
The Duke of Cornwall
Regan's husband, Cornwall, is unspeakably cruel and has no redeeming features whatsoever. His blinding of Gloucester is the most sadistic act of all in a play filled with injustice and cruelty. Yet the impression is one of a character basically inconsequential and tangential to the main storyline, or storylines, given the parallel plots. He is wounded by a servant, and then his death is later announced almost as an afterthought. Given her interest in Edmund, Regan welcomes Cornwall’s death.