King Lear is a tragedy written in five acts written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1603 and 1606, considered one of his greatest works. It deals with the ancient Celtic myth of King Leir, who divided his kingdom between two of his three daughters, with disastrous results. It has been suggested that an anonymous folk play known as "King Leir" was the inspiration and source of this play by Shakespeare, although others have suggested that Shakespeare himself wrote King Leir, too.
Adaptations of King Lear to give it a happy ending, and thereby make it more popular, include The History of King Lear (1681) by the English poet Nahum Tate.
Lear, King of Britain
King of France
Duke of Burgundy
Duke of Cornwall
Duke of Albany
Goneril, daughter to Lear, married to the Duke of Albany
Regan, daughter to Lear, married to the Duke of Cornwall
Cordelia, daughter to Lear
Earl of Kent
Earl of Gloster
Edgar, son to Gloster
Edmund, illegitimate son to Gloster
Oswald, steward to Goneril
King Lear decides in his old age to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Wishing to hear flattery, he gives them each the chance to compete for larger portions of the kingdom by outdoing one another in their professions of love for him. Cordelia, though she loves her father, can't bring herself to flatter him like the other two, and refuses to speak when asked. This sends Lear into a rage, after which he disowns her and gives her portion to Goneril and Reagan, despite the protests of his liege, the Earl of Kent. Lear banishes him as well. Cordelia, for whom Lear had also been seeking a husband at the same meeting, is quickly rejected by the Duke of Burgundy. The King of France, however, sees through Lear's sudden change of heart and takes Cordelia as his bride. They depart for France. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan talk among themselves of how their father appears to be losing his mind, and begin to conspire against him.
The next scene takes place inside the Earl of Gloster's castle. Gloster's bastard son, Edmund, is in the process of forging a letter from Edward, his half-brother and the rightful heir, in which Edward supposedly expresses a wish to kill his father. When Gloster enters the room, Edmund pretends to hide the letter, prompting Gloster's curiosity. Upon reading it, Gloster asks Edmund to seek out Edward so that he can be punished. As he leaves, Edward enters, and Edmund warns him deceitfully that their father appears angry enough to kill him, advising him to flee and never return.
King Lear has since taken up residence in the castle which belongs to Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. Goneril is angry with Lear for striking her servant, Oswald. She tells Oswald to give Lear and his 100-knight entourage a cold reception, in the hope that this will drive them away from the castle. The banished Earl of Kent enters the castle in disguise to offer his service to Lear, who accepts after a short interrogation. Oswald comes to Lear, and refuses to answer his inquiries, departing rudely, and refusing to recognize him as the king. Lear strikes him again, and Kent violently pushes him out of the room. Lear's fool comes in, and humorously ridicules Lear for abdicating his kingdom, reminding him that he'd given up all of the privileges that came with them. Goneril enters, and complains bitterly to Lear that his rowdy entourage has been wreaking havoc in the castle. Enraged at her impudence, Lear leaves for Reagan's castle, only to find out that Goneril had already dismissed 50 of his knights. He re-enters to threaten her with certain death once he reunites with Regan and leaves again. The fool and Kent leave shortly behind him. Goneril sends Oswald to Regan's castle with a letter, asking him to tell her a trumped-up story about Lear's reasons for leaving. Unaware of this, Lear sends Kent to the Earl of Gloster with letters of his own.
In Gloster's castle, Edmund attempts to start rumors of war between the dukes of Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Goneril and Regan. Edward returns, and Edmund shoos him away with the warning that Gloster knows where he has been hiding. Edward flees to the countryside, later to disguise himself as a madman. Hearing Gloster coming, Edmund draws his sword and wounds himself in the arm, telling his father that he received the blow from Edward while trying to defend their father's honor. Gloster vies to catch Edward, and to make Edmund his heir. Regan and Cornwall enter, telling Gloster of Lear's madness, explaining that they left their castle to avoid being home when Lear visits. Gloster explains his predicament to them, and they declare Edmund the next Earl. Regan betrays some attraction to Edmund as she darkly welcomes him into her service.
Outside the castle, Oswald and Kent meet again, each bearing letters. Kent unleashes a tirade of insults against Oswald, and draws his sword. Oswald backs away, and Kent responds by beating him. Edmund enters along with Regan and Cornwall, breaking up the fight and putting Kent in the stocks overnight as punishment. Gloster attempts to dissuade them without success, and leaves disgruntled.
King Lear and his entourage arrive, having already been to Cornwall's castle and not finding them at home. He sees Kent in the stocks and finds out who put him there. He demands to see Cornwall and Regan for an explanation, and to his consternation, they refuse to see him. He entreats Gloster to bring them to him, and as they arrive, they remove the stocks. Regan tries to reason with Lear, saying that his knights placed too much of a burden on Goneril's castle, and suggesting that he return there to apologize. Believing this beneath his digity, Lear refuses. Goneril enters, and together she and Regan demand that Lear dismiss his army and stay with them peacefully—their reasoning is that he is too old and no longer in need of an army, though they secretly are hoping to remove the threat that his men represent to their rule. Feeling betrayed, Lear exits in a rage with a vicious storm on the horizon.
Having gone completely mad, Lear has gone into the open countryside to rage against the storm, accompanied only by his faithful Fool. The Earl of Kent has heard the rumors of division between Albany and Cornwall, and has also heard that the King of France is aware of the intrigues and is planning a massive invasion to capitalize on the disorder. Meanwhile, in Gloster's castle, the Earl tells Edmund of his displeasure at the intrigues against the king. Having also heard the false rumor of division between the dukes, Gloster tells his son about a letter locked in his closet which expresses his intention to side with Lear against his daughters.
Lear continues to shout down the elements, while the Fool tries to convince him to return to shelter. Kent arrives and leads them to a hovel, which turns out to be inhabited by the naked Edgar, pretending to be crazy. Gloster finds them, and not recognizing Edgar, tells Lear that Goneril and Regan are forbidding him from opening his castle to Lear's company. Lear takes an interest in the mad young man, and asks him to preside as judge in a mock trial. They grab a few cats, and cross-examine them as if they were Goneril and Regan. Lear soon passes out, and is carried away by Kent and the Fool to Dover, where they are to seek out Cordelia and the King of France.
Back in Gloster's castle, Edmund betrays his father, giving his letter to Cornwall. Gloster is sent for, and brought in to be viciously interrogated by Regan and Cornwall. After sending away Edmund, they gouge out Gloster's eyes, and their cruelty offends one of the servants to the point where he draws his sword and strikes down Cornwall dead. Regan takes a sword and kills the servant. Gloster is ejected from the castle, and two more servants, moved by sadness, follow behind him to comfort him and escort him to the nearest village.
Edgar finds his father in a wretched state, and still feigning madness, begins to lead him to Dover. At the Duke of Albany's palace, Goneril and Edmund are alone, bad-mouthing her husband. Oswald enters, and Goneril sends the Edmund to Cornwall's castle to organize an army against France. Albany enters, and reproaches Goneril half-heartedly for her aggression, which leads her to call him "milk-livered." A servant enters and tells them about Gloster's eyes and Cornwall's death. Albany is horrified, and Goneril is disgusted at her husband's weakness. Goneril exits with dark intentions of killing her husband, and Albany finds out that she has been having an affair with Edmund, vowing to avenge Gloster's eyes.
Back in Gloster's castle, Regan finds out that Goneril is interested in Edmund, and of her plans to murder Albany. She has intentions herself of marrying Edmund now that her husband is dead, and is annoyed at her sister's machinations.
At Dover, the French king has withdrawn, leaving his army, one general, and Cordelia behind. Kent has informed Cordelia about Lear's predicament, and she enlists a doctor to help once they reunite. Gloster asks Edgar to lead him to a cliff to let him jump, and Edgar instead brings him to the middle of the field. Gloster jumps and passes out. Edgar wakes him up, pretending to be a commoner, and they soon reunite with King Lear. They commiserate over Regan and Goneril's wickedness, and Oswald finds them, drawing his sword to kill Gloster. Edgar draws his sword and kills Oswald instead. They read a letter which the servant had been carrying, revealing Goneril's plot to kill Albany. Cordelia finds them, and as the battle draws near, she and her father share a tearful reunion.
Regan asks Edmund if he loves Goneril, which he denies. Albany and Goneril enter with news about the French invasion, and they join forces to push back. As they leave to begin the war council, Edgar enters and speaks privately with Albany, giving him the letter he found on Oswald.
Before the battle begins, Edgar brings Gloster to safety under a shady tree. He comes back later announcing that the French invasion has been crushed, and Lear and Cordelia taken as prisoners. Edmund sends the two off with a secret note ordering their execution. Albany congratulates Edmund on his victory, but reminds him of his subordinate position. This angers Regan, who stands up for him, which makes Goneril jealous. They proceed to argue over Edmund, to the amusement of Albany, who brings out the letter and puts Edmund under arrest for high treason. Regan gets sick and leaves, and Goneril's reaction shows that she had poisoned her.
As the herald trumpets blow, Edgar enters, still in disguise, to duel with Edmund. After Edmund falls to the ground, Albany tells Goneril what he knows, and she leaves. Edgar reveals his identity, as well as Kent's, and says that Gloster died happy after knowing Edgar had revealed his identity to him. Before he dies, Edmund repents his wrongdoings, and warns them that the Lear and Cordelia will soon be killed. Edgar runs off to save them. A servant comes in, bearing the news of Goneril's suicide and of Regan's death by poisoning. Lear comes in carrying Cordelia, who had already been hanged. Lear recognizes Kent, and dies in despair.
King Lear examines, above all, the nature of true loyalty. In the opening scene, it is the characters who speak most flatteringly to the king that are actually plotting his demise. But it is the ones who are brave enough to criticize the king that turn out to be his greatest allies in the end.
The play is also quite pessimistic and dark, and delves deeply into madness, not only Lear's, but the feigned madness of Edward as well.
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III, iv)
I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more since.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport. (IV, i)
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.(IV, vi)
Open Source Shakespeare - King Lear