Key Plot Points

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Lear Divides His Kingdom (Act 1): The play begins with the elderly King Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. When the youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to flatter him in order to earn her share of the kingdom, Lear disinherits her, and she marries the King of France. Lear and his entourage go to stay with his eldest daughter, Goneril, but she turns him away when he and his knights prove to be difficult guests. Meanwhile, two other siblings are divided: Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, plots against his legitimate older brother, Edgar, to attain power and respect. 

Lear Is Banished (Act 2): Lear’s second daughter, Regan, and her husband, Cornwall, are eager to stay out of the conflict between Goneril and Lear. When they hear that Lear is on his way to stay with them, they abscond to the home of the Duke of Gloucester. When Lear confronts them, they refuse to give shelter to Lear and his knights. Lear flees into the heath during a storm at night, and Regan orders Gloucester to lock the gates so he cannot reenter. Meanwhile, Edgar has also fled into the heath because Edmond has incriminated him in a plot against their father. 

Lear Goes Mad (Act 3): King Lear dramatizes the extent of his mental decline as he wanders and rants through the heath with his fool during a storm. Kent, a disguised nobleman, herds Lear into a hovel for shelter, where they find Edgar, disguised as a lunatic named “Poor Tom.” Gloucester finds them and convinces Lear to seek safety with Cordelia, who is with the French army in Dover. Regan and Cornwall learn of Gloucester’s actions, gouge out his eyes as punishment, and cast him out into the heath. 

Lear and Cordelia Reunite (Act 4): Lear and Gloucester meet near Dover, where Cordelia resides with the French army. Lear oscillates between wisdom and madness as they reflect on their experiences. Kent presents Lear to Cordelia, who forgives Lear for banishing her. Meanwhile, Edgar intercepts a letter from Goneril to Edmund that implicates Edmund in a plot to murder her husband, Albany. 

Lear Dies (Act 5): As the British army defeats the French, Edmund orders Cordelia’s execution. Goneril poisons Regan and then kills herself. Edgar exposes Edmund’s treachery and fatally wounds him. Gloucester dies of a mixture of shock and joy when he learns that his son Edgar lives. Though Edmund attempts to stay Cordelia’s execution in his final moments, he is too late: Cordelia is executed, and Lear succumbs to his grief. 

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