King Lear Summary

Shakespeare’s King Lear is a tragedy that tells the story of King Lear’s division of his kingdom between his three daughters. 

  • Lear promises the largest portion of his kingdom to the daughter who best expresses her affection for him. While Goneril and Regan deliver flattering speeches, Cordelia speaks honestly and is banished. 
  • Goneril and Regan turn against Lear. Distraught, he ventures into a storm, then is taken to meet Cordelia and the French army by Gloucester.
  • The British defeat the French in battle. Cordelia, Lear, Goneril, and Regan die, while the fate of the kingdom is left to Kent, Edgar, and Albany.

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Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

King Lear takes place in ancient Britain. 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 daughters and allow them to take responsibility.

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As they discuss this, Gloucester comments on his illegitimate son, Edmund. He mocks the young man's mother and brags 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.

Lear enters with his three daughters—Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia—and announces his plans. Lear plans on giving each daughter a share of the kingdom, but 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, coldhearted 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 honesty and not only disinherits Cordelia but banishes her from his presence forever. 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.

Meanwhile, Edmund begins planting suspicions in Gloucester's mind 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 and 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 eldest daughters, Lear pays a visit to Goneril. She is offended by the behavior of Lear's retinue, 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 letter advising her to join forces with her against their father. Regan rebukes Lear and puts Kent in stocks. Enraged, Lear is cast out into the storm.

Lear's party is joined by Edgar (disguised as Tom O'Bedlam), who is on the run from his father after Edmund faked an attack on Gloucester, leading Gloucester to proclaim Edgar an outlaw. Lear rages against his daughters and his fate in the storm, while the Fool observes all. Kent, now freed, leads the group to shelter.

Meanwhile, Gloucester speaks against the wrong done to Lear by Lear's daughters. While this does not endear him to Goneril and Regan, Edmund's revelation that Gloucester hopes to implement a plan to put Lear back on the throne with the help of the invading French army prompts them to lure Gloucester to Regan's castle and gouge out his eyes as vengeance. Blinded, Gloucester is cast out onto the heath to wander and die.

Despite their shared opposition to their father regaining power, Goneril and Regan begin to fight over the handsome, charismatic Edmund. Regan's husband dies, leaving her eligible to marry again. Goneril dislikes her own husband and hopes to have Edmund as a lover. The idea that Regan might marry the man she, Goneril, desires plants notions of murder in Goneril's heart.

On the heath, Gloucester comes across Edgar. Being blind, he does not recognize his son, who introduces himself to his father as Tom. Gloucester urges Edgar to take him to a cliff where he might jump to his death, and Edgar pretends to do so. When Gloucester does not die, Edgar claims he miraculously survived the fall.

By this point, Lear's mental state has deteriorated. Kent leads him to the French army, where Cordelia awaits him. Cordelia forgives her father, and Lear is overjoyed to see her, recovering from his madness for a time.

The French army meets Goneril and Regan's forces on the battlefield. Goneril's husband, Albany, is willing to fight but says they should not kill Lear or Cordelia. Meanwhile, Edmund plays the two sisters against one another, promising his love to each, and also plans on having Lear, Albany, and Cordelia killed no matter what.

After the French lose the battle, Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Here, everything begins to fall apart. Goneril poisons Regan, then stabs herself to death. Gloucester dies of joy when he learns the truth about Edgar. Edgar kills Edmund, but before Edmund dies, he tries to stop an order he gave to have Cordelia and Lear executed. It comes too late, however: Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms, himself having only escaped by killing his would-be executioner, and then dies of grief.

Albany declares that Kent and Edgar should assume joint rulership of the kingdom, and the surviving characters exit in a funeral march.

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