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King Lear

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King Lear

Have you ever made the wrong decision? Well it can't have led to consequences nearly as bad as those suffered by the legendary King Lear. Read on to find out more about the five-act play that Shakespeare wrote based on the tragic legend of King Leir.

AuthorWilliam Shakespeare
Written between1605-1606
First stage performance1606
GenreTragedy
FormVerseProse
Dramatic devicesDramatic ironyAsideSoliloquy
Literary devicesImageryAlliterationAllegoryForeshadowingMetaphor

King Lear Summary

King Lear is based on the legend of King Leir of the Brittons. The play follows an elderly King Lear as he descends into madness and poverty.

Tired of ruling, the 80-year-old King Lear wants to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He summons them and makes them profess their love for him. His eldest daughter, Goneril, and his middle daughter, Regan, express their love in grand terms. Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, only says that she loves him as much as a daughter is supposed to love her father, and that she will love her future husband just as much.

King Lear is furious and he exiles Cordelia, dividing his kingdom into two between Goneril and Regan. The Earl of Kent dares to challenge Lear on his decision. Lear banishes him too. The Duke of Burgundy who was one of Cordelia's suitors is not interested in her anymore, now that she has lost her inheritance. Her other suitor, The King of France, falls in love with her honesty even more, and he marries her. Cordelia and the King of France leave together.

Goneril and Regan talk to each other and we learn that they don't love their father. Kent is still loyal to Lear. He comes back disguised as a servant called Caius. Lear stays at Goneril's house but he soon finds out that neither she nor her husband, the Duke of Albany, respect him anymore. He goes to Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall.

The Earl of Gloucester has an illegitimate son, Edmund, and a legitimate son, Edgar. Edmund tricks Gloucester into believing that Edgar is plotting his murder. Gloucester banishes Edgar. King Lear is mistreated by Regan and Goneril and he realises that he has misjudged his daughters. Gloucester defends Lear in front of his two ungrateful daughters. Cast out by Regan and Goneril, Lear wanders on the heath and starts to descend into madness. He's only accompanied by the Fool and Kent (disguised as Caius). They are soon joined by Edgar, who is disguised as the mad beggar Tom.

The French army is in Britain. Cordelia is leading it with the intention of returning the throne to her father. There's the threat of another war - between Albany and Cornwall. Upon learning that his father knows of the impending French invasion, Edmund betrays Gloucester to Goneril and Regan. Edmund and Goneril travel to her house to inform Albany. Regan and Cornwall blind Gloucester. Cornwall is killed by a servant. Regan banishes Gloucester to wander on the heath, like Lear.

Edgar (disguised as Tom) finds Gloucester and takes care of him. Gloucester doesn't recognise him. Albany regrets that he helped his wife, Goneril, to mistreat and abandon Lear. Goneril, Albany and Regan join forces against the French. Goneril doesn't care for her husband anymore, she has developed feelings for Edmund. The widowed Regan thinks that she's better suited for Edmund than her sister. Kent (disguised as Caius) leads the mad Lear to Cordelia. Lear begs for Cordelia's forgiveness and she grants it to him.

Cordelia's army is defeated by the army led by her sisters, Albany and Edmund. Edmund gives orders for Cordelia and Lear to be hanged. Goneril poisons Regan. Regan dies offstage. Albany has come in possession of a letter addressed from Goneril to Edmund. The letter proves that Goneril wants Edmund to kill Albany. Albany confronts Goneril and turns on Edmund. The unrecognisable Edgar challenges his brother to a duel, and kills him. Right before he dies, Edmund wants to redeem himself. He sends a messenger to revoke the order for Cordelia's and Lear's hanging. Edgar reveals who he is. We learn that Gloucester has died happy from the shock of discovering that Edgar is alive. Edmund dies. Goneril is devastated. Offstage, she takes her own life.

Note that the deaths of three characters – Regan, Goneril and Gloucester – take place offstage. We learn about them from other characters. This device is called indirect action.

Edmund's messenger doesn't get to the executioner on time. Cordelia is hanged and Lear survives because he kills the executioner. Lear finally recognises Kent. Lear dies from all the pain he has experienced. Kent's loyalty to Lear goes beyond life, he wants to follow him in death. Albany and Edgar are the only ones left standing.

There are two different published versions of the play. In one of them, it is likely that Albany will be crowned King. In the other version, it's implied that Edgar will sit on the throne.

King Lear Themes and Quotes

What are some of the main themes of the play?

Order vs chaos

Things that love night

Love not such nights as these

- Kent, Act 3, Scene 2

Kent comments on the horrible storm that he, Lear and the Fool find themselves in as they're wandering on the heath. The chaos of the storm is an allusion to the chaos that reigns in the kingdom after Lear has divided it between Goneril and Regan.

At the beginning of the play, when Lear is King, there is order in the country. When he makes the wrong choice and splits the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, this order is broken and chaos ensues – both in politics and in the characters' personal relations. The banished Cordelia marries the King of France and uses this to her advantage – the French army fights with the army led by Goneril and Regan. Thanks to the wicked Goneril, Regan and Edmund, the characters Lear and Gloucester are left wandering on the heath. Eventually, the chaos that they have caused leads to the death of almost all characters in the play.

Moreover, when the order that existed in the kingdom turns to chaos, this also affects the characters' inner world, especially when it comes to Lear and Gloucester. Once a figure of authority, now Lear falls victim to insanity. He is lucky to have the loyal Kent by his side.

Lear is eventually forgiven by Cordelia which restores his sanity. When Glocester is betrayed by Edmund and blinded by Regan and Cornwall, he literally and figuratively loses sight of the order in his life. Edgar helps him along the way and prevents him from committing suicide.

Family relations

(...) How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is

To have a thankless child!

- Lear, Act 1, Scene 4

Disappointed by both Cordelia and Goneril, Lear curses them.

The family relations in King Lear are at the centre of the tragedy which unfolds. We will explore the relationships between father and children, and the relationship between siblings.

Lear misinterprets Cordelia's honesty and banishes her. In this way, he damages his relationships with the only daughter who truly loves him. Later, he realises that Goneril and Regan don't actually care for him; they were only flattering him so that he would give them the power they were greedy for. When each of them has half of the kingdom, Lear is homeless. Not welcomed into the homes of his two elder daughters, he wanders on the heath with nowhere to go. Eventually, Lear fixes his relationship with Cordelia. He realises his mistake and humbles himself before her. Cordelia forgives him which is further proof of her love for her father.

Additionally, Gloucester also misjudges his children. He lets his illegitimate son, Edmund, deceive him into believing the worst of his legitimate son, Edgar. Gloucester exiles Edgar and is left with Edmund. Edmund's actions ultimately lead to Gloucester being blinded and homeless. Edgar finds Gloucester wandering on the heath and, despite his father's treatment, he takes care of Gloucester. Cordelia and Edgar mirror each other – they are both children who are wiser than their fathers, and who forgive them for their sins.

Cordelia's relationship with Goneril and Regan is broken from the start. Goneril and Regan are jealous of Cordelia because she is Lear's favourite daughter. The two elder daughters manage to deceive their father and the youngest daughter has to leave the kingdom. Later, Cordelia's army loses against her sisters' army.

As for Goneril and Regan, they seem to be allies at first but they are also subject to their own rivalry which becomes apparent when they both fall in love with Edmund. Goneril's jealousy pushes her to poison Regan.

Furthermore, Edmund and Edgar are two half-brothers who are polar opposites. Edmund is wicked and selfish while Edgar is kind and selfless. Edmund succeeds in banishing Edgar which makes them enemies. When Edgar comes back, he challenges Edmund to a duel and fatally wounds him. In this way, Edgar avenges the crimes Edmund has committed, mainly against their father, Gloucester.

King Lear Daughters

Let's look at the daughters of the King Lear

Goneril

Goneril is Lear's eldest daughter. She's married to the Duke of Albany. Goneril makes Lear believe that she loves him when she’s actually only after her father’s power and fortune. Goneril doesn’t care for anyone but herself, until she falls in love with Edmund. She thinks her husband is a coward and appreciates Edmund’s ambition. Goneril poisons her sister, Regan, who also expresses interest in Edmund. When she finds out that Edmund has died, Goneril kills herself.

Regan

Regan is Lear's middle daughter. She's married to the Duke of Cornwall. Like Goneril, Regan lies to Lear by telling him that she loves him so that she can secure half of the kingdom. Regan is brutal – she and Cornwall gauge Gloucester's eyes out. After Cornwall dies, Regan competes for Edmund’s affections with her sister, Goneril. Because of this, Regan is killed by Goneril.

Cordelia

Cordelia is Lear's youngest daughter. She used to be her father’s favourite daughter before she had to answer just how much she loves him. Unlike her sisters’ exaggerated confessions of love, Cordelia’s answer is honest and moderate. This angers Lear and he disowns and banishes her.

When Cordelia is left without a dowry, her suitor the Duke of Burgundy is not interested in her anymore. However, the King of France appreciates Cordelia’s virtues and he marries her. Later, Cordelia is in charge of the French army and she comes back to Britain to help Lear reclaim the throne. Cordelia forgives Lear for his cruelty towards her. Her army loses the battle and Cordelia is hanged.

King Lear Characters

The characters in King Lear include the following

King Lear

King Lear is the titular character of the play. At the beginning of the story, Lear is a powerful monarch who’s used to things being done his way. At his old age, he’s tired of ruling so he wants to split his kingdom between his daughters. He believes that his daughters are obedient and he’d still be in charge but without so much responsibility.

He makes the wrong choice by abandoning the only daughter who loves him, Cordelia. Lear soon finds out that there’s no place for him with either one of his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan. Now that he’s transferred them his power, they neither love nor respect him. Lear’s pride and temper also cause him to dismiss his most loyal servant, the Earl of Kent. He’s lucky that Kent is so loyal that he serves him even when Lear doesn’t realise it.

The loyalty that Kent, Glocester and Cordelia express for Lear shows us that, despite his flaws, he’s valued and loved. As Lear wanders on the heath, he gradually descends into madness. However, he also humbles himself. When he comes face-to-face with Cordelia again, he asks for her forgiveness and he receives it. He has to watch her die; he escapes because he kills the executioner. Lear can’t take Cordelia’s death and he dies.

Kent

The Earl of Kent is Lear’s most loyal person. He’s also very straightforward. At the beginning of the play, Lear exiles Kent because he defends Cordelia. Kent disguises as a man called Caius and he finds Lear when he’s wandering homeless. Kent doesn’t hold a grudge against Lear and he guides him towards Cordelia and the French army. At the end of the play, when Lear dies, Kent makes the choice to follow him.

Gloucester

The Earl of Gloucester is a nobleman in Lear’s court. Gloucester’s relationship with his sons mirrors Lear’s relationship with his daughters. Gloucester makes the wrong choice by trusting his illegitimate son Edmund over his legitimate son Edgar.

Edmund wants revenge for Gloucester’s thoughtlessness in conceiving him out of wedlock. Gloucester’s lack of perception about Edmund’s true intentions foreshadows his literal blindness. Gloucester is blinded by Regan and Cornwall. He wanders alone but his loyal son, Edgar (disguised as the mad beggar Tom) finds him and saves his life. Like Lear, Gloucester also humbles himself and he grows fond of Tom. When he finds out who Tom really is, Gloucester dies happy.

Edgar

Edgar is Gloucester’s legitimate son and Edmund’s half-brother. Edgar is tricked by Edmund, he’s wrongfully accused of crimes he didn’t commit, and he’s banished by his father. Edgar then wisens up. He disguises himself as the beggar Tom and pretends to be mad. In this way, no one takes him seriously and he doesn’t attract too much attention.

Edgar takes care of his blind father, despite the harm that Gloucester has caused him. Edgar finds Goneril’s letter to Edmund in which she reveals that she wants her husband dead. Edgar gives Albany the letter. Still disguised, Edgar challenges Edmund to a duel and kills him, avenging Edmund’s treatment of him and Gloucester.

Edmund

Edmund is Gloucester’s illegitimate son and Edgar’s half-brother. Edmund is bitter because of his illegitimate status. He despises Gloucester and Edgar and wants to take all of their fortune. Edmund is cunning and wicked. He makes Gloucester banish Edgar, then he betrays Gloucester to Regan and Cornwall.

Both Regan and Goneril develop feelings for Edmund but he only cares about gaining power and wealth. At the end, when Edmund is dying, wounded by Edgar, he redeems himself. He sends a messenger to withdraw his order for the hanging of Cordelia and Lear.

Albany

The Duke of Albany is Goneril’s husband. He’s gullible and he lets his wife, Regan and Cornwall, make him a part of their evil plans. Albany later realises the wrong that they have done and he tries to save Cordelia and Lear. However, he is too late.

Cornwall

The Duke of Cornwall is Regan’s husband. Cornwall is just as vicious as Regan, Goneril and Edmund. He’s happy to ruin Lear’s life. Cornwall blinds Gloucester and he is killed by his servant who can’t tolerate such an act of meaningless cruelty.

How has King Lear Influenced Culture Today

King Lear is a classic in the English literary canon. It is also an extremely popular play that is continuously staged in different languages in theatres around the world. Famous actors who have taken on the iconic role of Lear include Laurence Olivier, Michael Gambon and Paul Scofield.

Did you know that the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres (1991), is a modern retelling of King Lear?

King Lear - Key Takeaways

  • King Lear is a five-act Shakespearean tragedy that was written in 1605-1606.
  • King Lear is based on the legend of King Leir of the Brittons.
  • The play follows an elderly King Lear as he descends into madness and poverty. Tired of ruling, he divides his kingdom into two and gives it to the two daughters who flatter him while abandoning the only daughter who truly loves him.
  • The main themes in King Lear are order vs chaos and family relations.

  • The main characters in the play are Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, Edmund, Albany, and Cornwall.

Frequently Asked Questions about King Lear

King Lear was written in 1605-1606.


King Lear is based on the legend of King Leir of the Brittons. The play follows an elderly King Lear as he descends into madness and poverty. Tired of ruling, he divides his kingdom into two and gives it to the two daughters who flatter him while abandoning Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves him. This sets into motion a series of events that ends in the death of his entire family.


In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear disowns his daughter Cordelia because, unlike her sisters, she doesn’t express her love in exaggerated terms. She tells Lear that she loves him as much as a daughter is supposed to love her father, and that she will love her future husband just as much.


King Lear is a tragedy which reveals that family relations can be complicated, especially when they’re also tied with politics. When Lear misjudges his daughters, this leads to chaos, not only in his family but also in his kingdom.


King Lear is one of Shaksepare’s greatest tragedies and an important work in the English literary canon.


Final King Lear Quiz

Question

Where does King Lear wander when he's banished from his home?

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Answer

On the heath

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Question

Who is King Lear's youngest daughter?

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Answer

Cordelia

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Question

Which character is blinded?

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Answer

Gloucester


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Question

True of false: Lear's relationship with Cordelia mirrors Gloucester's relationship with Edgar.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: Kent disguises as a mad beggar called Tom.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Why does Goneril poison Regan?

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Answer

Because they're both in love with the same man, Edmund, and Goneril wants him for herself

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Question

Who is Lear's most loyal person?

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Answer

Kent

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Question

True or false: Edmund is Gloucester's illegitimate son.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false: Lear is exactly the same in the beginning and in the end of the play.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which of these characters is still alive at the end of the play?

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Answer

Edgar

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