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King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. It was believed to have been written between 1605-1606, and was based on a legend of the Leir of Britain, a pre-Roman Celtic king from mythology. Shakespeare’s King Lear brilliantly depicts the senility and increasing madness of its title character as he splits his kingdom into portions for his daughters’ based on their false declarations of love for him.

King Lear, wanting to retire from the duties the monarchy demands of him, makes the decision to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters. Courting flattery and praise, he announces he’ll give the largest share to the daughter who loves him the most. His eldest daughter, Goneril, first proclaims her love in the most fulsome description, delighting Lear and causing him to award Goneril her share as soon as she is finished speaking. Not wishing to be outdone, his second daughter Regan uses similarly flowery and language to convince her father of her adoration. She as well is awarded her share of his realm.

His youngest daughter Cordelia sees the false flattery her two sisters have heaped upon her father. Cordelia was always Lear’s favorite and most-loved daughter, she herself is unable to bring herself to lie to her father in the same way. She at first refuses to say anything, and then when prodded speaks honestly and tells him she does not have words to express her love. Lear is infuriated and disinherits Cordelia, dividing the share that would be hers among Regan and Goneril.

It is observed that King Lear, by dividing his wealth between just two daughters has also given shares of his realm to their husbands, Goneril’s Duke of Albany and Regan’s Duke of Cornwall. Cordelia is the only sister that remains unmarried, though there are two suitors present vying for her hand, the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. The Earl of Kent also observes that Cordelia has been treated unfairly and objects to the King’s reasoning. This also infuriates King Lear and he speaks his mind, earning him abuse from King Lear. At the same time, the Earl of Gloucester has introduced his other illegitimate son to the Earl of Kent.

Lear makes it clear to his daughters that he will divide time between their two residences. He has reserved to himself a retinue of 100 people, a group of nobles and servants, that will stay with him at all times. Goneril and Regan profess to have believed their father to be a silly old man and that their declarations of love were contrived.

The Earl of Kent returns under disguise from his exile under the name of Caius and is hired by King Lear as a servant. Lear discovers that his two daughters do not respect him as he believed they would, and Goneril reduces his retinue. Lear is enraged and leaves for Regan’s home, on the way he is mocked by a fool.

Lear grows furious with both daughters and develops into a total madman. As Gloucester’s son Edmund grows more jealous of his legitimate older brother Edgar, he betrays Lear and leads him towards impending war. Both Goneril and Regan began to fall in love with Edmund, and Goneril’s affections lead her to poison her sister, but not before her honest husband joins forces with the Lear and becomes disgusted with his Goneril’s actions. Cordelia helps to lead the French army along with her husband, but in the end the Earl of Kent and Cordelia take charge of the mad King Lear.

As the French and English fight, Cordelia is executed . Goneril commits suicide after Cordelia appears dead in her father’s arms. The ending of the story implies that Albany will be crowned king.

King Lear Summary

King Lear divides his kingdom among the two daughters who flatter him and banishes the third one who loves him. His eldest daughters both then reject him at their homes, so Lear goes mad and wanders through a storm. His banished daughter returns with an army, but they lose the battle and Lear, all his daughters and more, die.

Act I

King Lear begins as the Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund, to the Earl of Kent. Lear, King of Britain, enters with his court. Now that he is an old man, Lear has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. The division will depend on the quality of each princess’ declarations of love for her father before the court. Goneril, Duchess of Albany, and Regan, Duchess of Cornwall, both speak enthusiastically and earn their father’s praise. But Cordelia, the youngest, says nothing because she cannot voice her deep love for Lear. Misunderstanding his daughter, Lear disowns and banishes her from the kingdom. He also banishes the Earl of Kent, who had taken Cordelia’s side against the King.

This action by the king divides the kingdom, both figuratively and literally. Cordelia’s suitor, the Duke of Burgundy, rejects her once she is dowerless, but the King of France values her honesty and takes her as his wife. Lear’s kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan and their suitors (the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, respectively). Lear plans to alternate living with each of them.

Nothing will come of nothing


Act II

Meanwhile, Edmund is determined to be recognised as a rightful son of Gloucester. By a trick, he persuades his father that his legitimate brother, Edgar, is plotting against Gloucester’s life. Warned by Edmund that his life is in danger, Edgar flees and takes the disguise of a Bedlam beggar. Edmund becomes a courtier to Goneril. Goneril meanwhile grows increasingly exasperated by the behaviour of Lear’s hundred companions who are upsetting her life at Albany’s castle, and she criticises her father.  Kent has returned from exile in disguise and wins a place as a servant to Lear. Kent accompanies Lear when, in a rage against her criticisms, he curses Goneril and leaves. Lear goes, unannounced, to live with Regan and Cornwall who, it turns out, has gone out to visit Gloucester. When Lear arrives at Gloucester’s house to find Regan, she spurns him and his followers, namely his devoted companion, the Fool.


Despairing for his daughters, and deeply regretting rejecting Cordelia, Lear goes mad at the height of a great storm. He and the Fool run wild on the heath until Gloucester takes them into a hut for shelter. He then seeks the aid of Kent to get them away to the coast, where Cordelia has landed with a French army to fight for her father against her sisters and their husbands. Gloucester then leaves and returns home. 

Jesters do oft prove prophets


Meanwhile, Edmund is employed as a messenger between the sisters and is courted by each in turn. He persuades Cornwall that Gloucester (his father) is an enemy because he has been in touch with France and helped Lear and when they are turned away by Regan. As punishment for Gloucester’s seeming betrayal, Cornwall and Regan pluck out his eyes and abandon him. During the act of blinding Gloucester, a servant stabs Cornwall, who dies. But Regan continues to rule with Edmund’s help. 

Act IV

Out in the storm, Lear finds shelter where Edgar has also taken refuge, still disguised as the beggar. The Fool, the mad king, and the disguised “insane” beggar become unlikely companions before they are separated. Edgar finds Gloucester wandering the heath alone and in agony. Since his father is blind, Edgar leads the despairing man to the coast and helps him along the journey to come to an acceptance of his life. Gloucester later meets the mad Lear on Dover beach, near Cordelia’s camp. With Kent’s aid, Lear is rescued and re-united with Cordelia. Gloucester, now reunited with Edgar, dies quietly alone.

Act V

The French forces are overcome by Albany’s army led by Edmund, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Goneril has already poisoned Regan in their jealous rivalry over Edmund’s attention. Edgar, disguised now as a loyal knight, challenges Edmund to a duel and wounds him mortally. Seeing no way out, Goneril kills herself, and the dying Edmund confesses his misdeeds and releases Cordelia. However, it is too late to save Cordelia from the hangman. Lear’s heart breaks as he carries the body of his beloved youngest daughter in his arms, and he dies. Albany and Edgar are left to re-organise the kingdom and resolve the civil wars.

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