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.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

King Lear

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download King Lear Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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...

(The entire section contains 1370 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this King Lear study guide. You'll get access to all of the King Lear content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Act and Scene Summaries
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Critical Essays
  • Quotes
  • Teaching Guide
  • Short-Answer Quizzes
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial