What Happens in King Lear?

Elderly King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. He promises the largest portion of the kingdom to the daughter who best expresses her affection for him. Goneril and Regan both deliver wildly embellished speeches. Cordelia, Lear's favorite,  speaks the simple truth and is banished for it.

  • Impressed by Cordelia's actions, the King of France offers to marry her and wage war against her sisters. Goneril turns against Lear, cutting the number of his followers in half. Lear seeks comfort from Regan, who admonishes him and suggests he apologize to Goneril. Distraught, Lear ventures out onto a storm-swept heath with his Fool and the disguised Earl of Kent, whom Lear had earlier banished.
  • Lear and his companions take refuge with Tom O'Bedlam—really the Earl of Gloucester's legitimate son, Edgar—who has been accused of plotting against his father. Gloucester himself arrives and takes Lear to Dover, where Cordelia awaits him with the French army. After Gloucester is blinded, Edgar acts as his guide.
  • Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, commands Britain's forces and defeats the French. He captures Cordelia and Lear, sentencing her to death by hanging. Lear dies of grief over her death. Goneril poisons Regan and then stabs herself after vying for Edmund's affections. Kent and Edgar are left to restore order.

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Summary

King Lear takes place in an ancient English kingdom. The story begins with the Earl of Kent and the Earl of Gloucester discussing what is about to happen: Lear wants to relieve himself of the political burdens of kingship without ridding himself of the privileges, so he seeks to divide his kingdom between his three children and allow them to take responsibility.

As they discuss this, Gloucester comments on his illegitimate son, Edmund, mocking the young man's mother and bragging about the "sport" in Edmund's conception. This is the seed of a major subplot in the narrative regarding the relationship between Gloucester's two sons, the illegitimate and embittered Edmund and the faithful and legitimate Edgar.

King Lear enters with his three daughters—Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia—then announces his plans. Lear plans on giving each daughter a share of the kingdom, but to stroke his own ego, he has each daughter profess her love for him as a prerequisite, claiming the one who loves him best will receive the largest share. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear excessively despite the fact that neither truly loves him. Both are ambitious, cold-hearted women more interested in power than anything else. Cordelia, however, who truly loves her father, refuses to fawn over him as the others do, stating the simple truth of her love for him without embellishment.

Lear takes offense at her heartfelt honesty and not only disinherits Cordelia but banishes her from his presence forever. The Earl of Kent, Lear's most faithful servant, tries to intercede for Cordelia but is banished for his trouble. Though now without a dowry, Cordelia catches the eye of the King of France, who decides to marry her even though he will not inherit any land from the union.

Meanwhile, Edmund starts planting suspicions in Gloucester's head about Edgar's integrity, claiming Edgar plans on murdering Gloucester. He has a forged letter, allegedly from Edgar, which claims as such. Gloucester finds the planted letter then grows angry. Edmund further manipulates matters by "warning" Edgar and offering to act as a go-between for him and Gloucester.

Soon after giving up his lands to his two daughters, Lear pays a visit to Goneril. She is offended by the obnoxiousness of Lear's men, however, and decides to cut back the number of knights he is allotted when staying with her. Lear is furious and tries to stay with Regan instead. He is accompanied by the disguised Earl of Kent—who remains faithful to his king despite having been wronged by him—and the Fool. Unfortunately for Lear, Goneril sends her sister a...

(The entire section is 1,718 words.)