Shakespeare inherited his plots from a wide range of sources. His Histories speak for themselves: in charting the course of the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, Shakespeare’s project was to bring recent events vividly to life in flesh and blood. Similarly with his Classical plays – “Julius Caesar” for example or “Antony and Cleopatra” – Shakespeare inherited plots from Classical texts and traditions, and put them on the stage, invested with character and poetry.
Other plays had other sources. “Macbeth”, once again, was an inherited narrative, retailing the story of an eleventh-century king of Scotland. “Cymbeline” similarly was a Celtic King from around the time of the Ancient Romans. “King Lear” is based on the story of Leir, another Celtic King, who ruled some centuries earlier, possibly around 800 B.C.E.
Shakespeare was not the first writer to be inspired by the story of Leir. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, wrote about him in his History of the Kings of Britain. Edmund Spenser revives the story in his epic poem The Faerie Queene, published in the 1590s, almost certainly an inspiration for Shakespeare. An anonymous version of the story was written for the stage, entitled King Leir, registered in 1594.
This particular dramatization would have been familiar to many of the patrons of the Globe Theatre when they paid their pennies to watch Shakespeare’s version of the story. If so, then Shakespeare’s “King Lear” would have come as a painful shock when the final scenes were reached, since the earlier anonymous version has a happy ending, with the King returned to his throne. In Shakespeare’s version – spoiler alert – the old King is left to die with the lifeless body of his daughter Cordelia in his arms, a bitter reversal of the original story and a sobering challenge to his audience’s cosy expectations.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Gloucester introduces Kent to his illegitimate son Edmund, who has been away for nine years.
Gloucester admits that he was previously embarrassed by Edmund, but is now used to the shame.
Lear announces that he is dividing his kingdom so that “future strife / May be prevented now”.
The new kingdoms will be uneven in size, so he will allocate the largest to whoever loves him most.
Goneril says she loves her father more than words can say, and Lear rewards her and Albany.
Regan is equally forthright about her love, and is rewarded with a “third of our fair kingdom”.
Cordelia contrasts herself with her sisters, saying that unlike them she must love her husband too.
Hearing her answer, Lear “disclaim[s] all my paternal care” and calls her “my sometime daughter”.
He divides the remaining third of his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and announces his plans.
Kent begs Lear to reconsider his decisions, condemning a process where “power to flattery bows”.
Lear dismisses his doubts, and banishes Kent from “our dominions” on pain of death.
Kent leaves, with praise for Cordelia while warning Goneril and Regan to live up to their promises.
Seeing Cordelia newly deprived of her inheritance, Burgundy is no longer so keen to marry her.
France is mystified by her fall from favour, but Cordelia stands by her honesty and plain-speaking.
France calls her an “unpriz’d precious maid” so though she is now “dow’rless”, he will marry her.
Cordelia enjoins her sisters to look after Lear, adding their “plighted cunning” will emerge in time.
Goneril and Regan agree to work together to manage their father, given “the infirmity of his age”.
Act One Scene Two
Edmund resents his inferior status caused by his illegitimate birth and plans to challenge his brother.
Pretending to conceal a letter said to be from Edgar, Edmund engages Gloucester’s interest.
The letter seems to invite Edmund to join Edgar in sharing their father’s wealth between them.
Edmund persuades an increasingly angry Gloucester that Edgar has discussed this plan before.
Edmund pretends to defend Edgar and offers to set up a conversation for his father to overhear.
Gloucester believes that recent celestial events have split families and brought mutinies and treason.
Edmund, alone again, dismisses celestial influence as “evasion” and puts his faith in himself.
When he warns Edgar of Gloucester’s anger at him, Edgar says, “Some villain hath done me wrong”.
Edmund believes his “noble” brother is especially vulnerable because of his “foolish honesty”.
Act One Scene Three
Goneril finds her father a difficult guest, but if the servants disrespect him, he will soon go to Regan.
Act One Scene Four
Kent reappears disguised so as to avoid the issue of his banishment and prove useful to Lear.
Lear notices that he is being disrespected by the servants, and angry with his daughter hits Oswald.
The Fool arrives and advises Lear to seek to live moderately (“Speak less than thou knowest” etc).
When he asks the Fool if he’s calling him a fool, he is told, “All thy other titles thou hast given away”.
Goneril arrives to rebuke her father for the misbehaviour of his knights, leaving him bewildered.
She insists that he “disquantity” his retinue and offer hospitality only to men of his own age.
Lear makes to leave for Regan, bitterly cursing Goneril and wishing “a thankless child” on her.
Lear threatens Goneril that Regan “with her nails” will “flay thy wolvish visage” in his defence.
Lear leaves for Regan, while Goneril rebukes her husband Albany for his “milky gentleness”.
Act One Scene Five
In a light-hearted but true rebuke, the Fool derides Lear for having grown old before he grew wise.
Act Two Scene One
Curan a courtier passes on gossip to Edmund about a rift between the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany.
Edmund implies that his brother Edgar has “spoken ‘gainst” the two Dukes and against Gloucester.
He pretends to fight Edgar, then, after advising his brother to flee, stabs his own arm.
Gloucester appears, to be told that Edgar tried to recruit Edmund to “the murther” of their father.
When Edmund refuses to join him in the plot – he claims – Edgar stabbed him and fled the scene.
Gloucester is confident that “The noble Duke my master” – Cornwall – will have him executed.
Edmund seeks reassurance that his word will be believed against Edgar’s, and he receives it.
Cornwall and Regan arrive at the castle to praise Edmund for his “childlike office” and loyalty.
Cornwall tells Edmund “you shall be ours” because he says he needs “Natures of such deep trust”.
Regan explains that they are visiting Gloucester because of the rift between Goneril and Lear.
Act Two Scene Two
Oswald arrives at Gloucester’s castle to encounter an angry Earl of Kent, who attacks him physically.
The enquiry into Kent’s conduct achieves nothing so though he is Lear’s envoy he is put in the stocks.
Gloucester speaks up on Kent’s behalf but his pleas are disregarded: “’Tis the Duke’s pleasure”.
Kent alone reads a letter from Cordelia in which she pledges to help “give / Losses their remedies”.
Act Two Scene Three
Edgar, on the run from Gloucester, resolves to disguise himself as “poor Tom”, a mad beggar.
At Two Scene Four
Lear arrives to find his messenger Kent in the stocks, an insult he regards as “worse than murther”.
He goes in search of Regan but returns appalled that his daughter says she is too tired to see him.
Gloucester reminds Lear that Cornwall can be “fiery” as well as “fix’d … / In his own course”.
Lear complains about Goneril but Regan thinks the fault lies with Lear’s failure to “value her desert”.
Also she suspects that Lear’s “followers” have caused the problem with their “riots”.
So the fault is probably Lear’s and he should return to Goneril and “Say you have wrong’d her”.
Lear absolutely refuses to apologise to Goneril, on whom he wishes the “vengeances of heaven”.
Reegan fears that when Lear’s mood is again “rash” he will turn on her as he has on her sister.
But Lear reassures her that she will be bound by “dues of gratitude” for her “half of th’ kingdom”.
Goneril arrives, to be welcomed by Regan, while Cornwall finally admits he put Kent in the stocks.
Regan encourages Lear to return to Goneril minus half his retinue, but he refuses point-blank.
Lear volunteers that he will stay with Regan, but she responds “Not altogether so”.
Rather than a hundred knights, he will be allowed 25. Goneril is not sure he needs any at all.
Lear denounces them as “unnatural hags” and swears he will be avenged on both of them.
Lear withdraws with his retinue of Gloucester, Kent (now evidently released) and the Fool.
When Gloucester returns, with the storm brewing, the sisters encourage him to lock his doors.
Act Three Scene One
Kent learns that Lear is out confronting a storm so wild it would make wild animals take shelter.
Kent reveals to the Gentleman that Albany and Cornwall have fallen out with each other.
He also reveals that the French King has spies in the English court, and tells him to head for Dover.
They agree that they should separate to look for Lear as the Gentleman makes his way to Dover.
Act Three Scene Two
The Fool begs Lear to make peace with his daughters so that they can find shelter from the storm.
But Lear is in no hurry to escape from the elements, instead continuing to fixate on his daughters.
Kent appears to encourage Lear and the Fool to take shelter from the storm in a hovel.
As Lear and Kent take shelter, the Fool predicts future “confusion” for the Isles of Britain.
Act Three Scene Three
Gloucester confides in Edmund his unhappiness with the decisions taken by Lear’s daughters.
He confides in him his sympathy for Lear – and adds that there is “division betwixt the Dukes”.
Gloucester reveals he has received a letter about the French army that is locked safely in his closet.
Left alone, Edmund decides to betray these confidences to the Duke and gain what his father loses.
Act Three Scene Four
Lear says his indifference to the storm is a measure of his deeper pain at his daughters’ behaviour.
He berates Regan and Goneril that they have behaved so cruelly when his “frank heart gave all”.
He regrets that when he had the power as King to make life easier for others, he failed to do so.
In the hovel the Fool encounters Edgar, disguised as “poor Tom”, naked and apparently mad.
But he explains he was once a courtier who lived for pleasure, satisfying all his appetites.
Despite the Fool’s protests, Lear begins to tear off his own clothes in sympathy with poor Tom.
Gloucester arrives to redeem the promise he made to Edmund to give Lear shelter from the storm.
He laments the loss of his son Edgar “now outlaw’d”, whom Lear now respects and knows as Tom.
Act Three Scene Five
Edmund deceives Cornwall into thinking he regrets having to reveal the truth about his father.
Cornwall vows to take his revenge on Gloucester, and promises that Edmund will assume the title.
Act Three Scene Six
Lear’s retinue shelter in a farmhouse near the castle, where they set up a mock trial of his daughters.
Gloucester reports that there is a death threat against Lear and the party must leave now for Dover.
Edgar speaking as himself reports that his “miseries” seem less heavy compared to Lear’s suffering.
Act Three Scene Seven
In Gloucester’s castle, Cornwall orders his arrest, while Regan and Goneril suggest punishments.
Gloucester is brought in, bound helpless to a chair, and forced to reveal Lear’s whereabouts.
Cornwall makes to blind Gloucester but is interrupted by a servant, who tells him “Hold your hand”.
The servant is stabbed by Regan from behind and dies. Cornwall blinds Gloucester.
Regan reveals that Edmund betrayed Gloucester as he is led away to “smell / His way to Dover”.
Cornwall orders for the dead servant to be thrown out, then reveals he has been badly stabbed.
Act Four Scene One
Edgar encounters his blind father led by an old retainer and undertakes to bring him to Dover.
Act Four Scene Two
Oswald tells Goneril that her husband Albany is wavering as she makes common cause with Edmund.
Albany condemns his wife for her part in the exile of her father Lear and predicts fate will avenge.
She replies that France “spreads his banners” on British soil and he should be preparing to fight.
Albany, furious with his wife, tells her he would willingly “dislocate and tear / Thy flesh and bones”.
News comes that Cornwall has been killed by one of his own servants while blinding Gloucester.
A letter from Regan arrives for Goneril. She is unhappy that Regan – now a widow – is with Edmund.
Albany is told of Edmund’s treachery, and pledges to Gloucester to “revenge thine eyes”.
Act Four Scene Three
Kent is told that Cordelia is now in Britain but her husband France had to return home suddenly.
He is informed that Cordelia grieves to read of the state of the kingdom in her absence.
He hears that Lear, now arrived in Dover, is too ashamed at his own behaviour to meet Cordelia.
Act Four Scene Four
Cordelia despatches soldiers to locate Lear and bring him to her for the “repose” he needs now.
News arrives to confirm her view that the British armies of her sisters are marching towards Dover.
Act Four Scene Five
Regan is jealous that her sister has been in communication with Edmund, whom she admires.
She says it was folly to let Gloucester live after he was blinded as he “moves / All hearts against us”.
She believes Edmund is better suited to herself than to Goneril and has a letter for him.
Act Four Scene Six
Edgar pretends that he has brought Gloucester to the top of the cliffs above the sea at Dover.
Gloucester proclaims “This world I do renounce” and with Edgar’s name on his lips, leaps forward.
Edgar, now disguised as a gentleman, revives Gloucester and persuades him his life is a “miracle”.
Lear appears, evidently mad, though he recognises Gloucester and pardons him for his adultery.
Lear’s incoherent thoughts drift from adultery to sexual intercourse to childbirth.
Cordelia’s men arrive to bring Lear to safety but when he escapes from them, they give chase.
Oswald appears and recognising Gloucester makes to murder him to win the prize for his death.
But Edgar adopts the disguise of a peasant and kills Oswald, who hands him the letters as he dies.
The letters from Goneril to Edmund incite the murder of her husband Albany and their marriage.
Edgar buries Oswald, then leads his father to safety keeping the letters for “the mature time”.
Act Four Scene Seven
Kent is with Cordelia now in Britain, though he wants his disguise to remain a secret for now.
Lear is brought in from his rest, and recognises Cordelia though he is still not in his right mind.
He fears Cordelia will want to punish him for his treatment of her but she says she has no cause.
News arrives that Cornwall has been “slain” and that his troops are under the command of Edmund.
Act Five Scene One
Regan cross-examines Edmund about his relations with Goneril, and begs him not to sleep with her.
Goneril arrives to reveal that she would prefer to lose the battle than lose Edmund to her sister.
Albany pledges to fight against the invading French and he leaves with Goneril and Regan.
Edgar, in disguise, hands to Albany the letter from Goneril to Edmund that he acquired from Oswald.
Edmund appears, reflecting on whether to choose Goneril or Regan, but that is for after the battle.
Meanwhile Albany’s plans to deal mercifully with Lear and Cordelia will not materialise, he says.
Act Five Scene Two
First Cordelia is seen with Lear, then Edgar leads his father to shelter under a tree during the battle.
But he soon returns to collect his reluctant father as the battle is lost and Lear captured.
Act Five Scene Three
Edmund orders Lear and Cordelia be taken to prison while Lear imagines the joy of being with her.
Edmund gives instructions to a Captain which though vague imply that he will not be merciful.
Albany requests that Edmund give up his captives, but Edmund says he will do so tomorrow.
Albany tells Edmund he is not his equal, but Regan and Goneril quarrel over his powers and status.
Regan, suddenly unwell, declares that she is to marry him and make him “My lord and master”.
Albany insults Edmund (“Half-blooded”) and orders his arrest before challenging him to combat.
Regan is growing more unwell and is taken away, as Edgar appears as promised to fight Edmund.
He rebukes Edmund as a traitor to “thy brother and thy father” and mortally wounds him.
Albany confronts Goneril with her letter to Edmund, calling for his murder, and she flees.
Edmund accepts he is dying, and when Edgar reveals his own identity, Edmund admits his guilt.
Edmund briefly summarises his story, and announces that when he told his father, he died happy.
A courtier bursts in to reveal that Goneril has stabbed herself and Regan died of poisoning.
Edmund repents and orders that Lear and Cordelia be released before his sentence is carried out.
Lear enters with Cordelia’s body in his arms, and is informed of the deaths of Goneril and Regan.
Hearing of Edmund’s death, Albany promises the virtuous will be rewarded and the guilty punished.
Lear dies, certain that Cordelia is alive (“Look there!”), leaving Albany to look to the future.
Kent is reluctant to govern, leaving Edgar and Albany (“we that are young”) to restore the state.
The opening discussion between Gloucester and Kent introduces one of the key themes of the play, namely relations between generations, between parents and their off-spring. Gloucester’s confession that in the past he has been ashamed of his illegitimate son Edmund is somewhat shocking to a modern audience; equally shocking may be the representation of a character born out of marriage as devious, cruel and not to be trusted.
Lear’s purpose in dividing his kingdom is to prevent “future strife” by managing the transition between generations. The transfer of power is a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s work, informing as many as one half of all his plays in one way or another. Rarely is it managed so ineptly as here, with flattery apparently the key route to preferment.
Cordelia insists that, unlike Goneril and Regan, she cannot give all her love to her father as she must also love her husband. The competing claims of father and husband towards young women are a constant theme in Shakespeare’s work: in “Othello” for example, Brabantio has to back down when Desdemona says her prior loyalty is to her husband Othello, and in his early narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece”, Shakespeare presents a dispute between father and husband over which should act as chief mourner after Lucrece’s death. The husband wins. Juliet’s conflict of loyalty between Capulet and Romeo is a further instance.
As he renounces responsibility for Cordelia in 1.1, Lear swears by “the sacred radiance of the sun” and “all the operation of the orbs” whose existence, it seems, governs our birth and death (“From whom we do exist and cease to be”). One of the themes of the play is the role played by the heavens (or the gods, or fate) in our fortunes here on Earth. Lear, it seems, has a somewhat pagan take on this – later in this scene he swears by Apollo.
Other characters take a different view of destiny: for example, at the start of the next scene (1.2), Edmund swears by nature as “my goddess” while Gloucester (like Lear in 1.1) believes that “late eclipses in the sun and moon” have divided families and disturbed society. Edmund dismisses such talk as “foppery” and “evasion”. But in speaking to his father in 2.1, he pretends he has invoked the “revenging gods”.
Any number of analyses are advanced in the course of the play for the fates governing the human condition – for example, in 4.1, Gloucester reflects on life on earth with a vivid simile: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport”. The universe is hostile, then – and he has good reason to believe this to be true.
Albany in 4.2 evidently fears divine retribution for his part in the unfolding cruelty when he suggests that “If that the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vile offences, / It will come ….” As we have seen, this is one of many attempts by characters in the play to make sense of these events. His wife calls him “a moral fool” but when news comes that Cornwall has been killed while blinding Gloucester, he feels justified by events: “This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge!” For Albany, then, there is a kind of cosmic justice, or karma, and life is not simply governed (as Gloucester believes) by sadistic fates.
One scene later, Kent has a different view: “It is the stars, / The stars above us, govern our conditions …”. This is the scene (4.3) in which he reveals that Lear is too embarrassed by his past behaviour to meet Cordelia.
Meanwhile in the final scene 5.3, Edgar decides that “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to scourge us.” Edgar also reveals that Gloucester has died – his heart “burst smilingly” – before news arrives that Goneril has poisoned Regan, and has, as Edmund later speculates, stabbed herself. Goneril’s husband Albany describes this as a “judgement of the heavens.”
By the end of 1.1, both France and Goneril have pointed out that Cordelia was once the king’s favourite. France describes her as Lear’s “best object / Most best, most dearest” and Goneril reminds Regan “He always lov’d our sister most”. She adds that Lear has shown “poor judgment” but has always been “rash”, while Regan fears that “Kent’s banishment” is an ominous sign for the future. So it will prove.
Edmund’s resentment towards his father Gloucester and brother Edgar fuel his determination to seek revenge for his low status. Brothers in conflict are a familiar theme in Shakespeare’s plays, from Richard III (who murders his brother Clarence) to “The Tempest”, where Prospero is usurped by his younger brother Antonio. Edmund’s anger towards his father Gloucester underlines that this sub-plot runs parallel with the main narrative involving Lear and his daughters: both plots explore dysfunctional relationships between parents and children, one of the key themes of the play.
Edmund emerges at the beginning of 1.2 as a classic Shakespearean villain, along the lines of Iago in “Othello” or Richard III. This kind of villain – persuasive, ingenious, cynical, contemptuous of kindness and adept at concealing their essential nature – was inherited by Shakespeare from Medieval Morality Drama, where the role of The Vice is to distract well-meaning characters from the paths of virtue. In Shakespeare the audience is invariably better informed than those positive characters who will fall victim to the machinations of The Vice – often kept up to date (as in this scene) through the villain’s use of soliloquy.
A common characteristic of Shakespeare’s villains is that though the audience knows they are not to be trusted, they are somehow canny enough to acquire the trust of their fellow characters. For example in “Othello”, Iago is called “honest Iago” around thirty times in the play – though he is anything but honest. In “King Lear”, Edmund (whom the audience know to be a scoundrel) engages the trust of his father the Earl of Gloucester – and in 2.1 of the Duke of Cornwall too. He tells Edmund: “Natures of such deep trust we shall much need” – while the audience quietly fears that such a commitment will not end well.
The role of the Fool in 1.4 and 1.5 is simply to speak truth to power. Many of the characters in the play think Lear makes “poor” decisions (as Goneril does), but they have not said so, or they have said so and been dismissed – like Kent. But the Fool gives plain advice to Lear without inhibition and he says what the audience is thinking: “Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown”, Lear is told, “when thou gav’st thy golden one away”.
When in 3.3 Gloucester tells Edmund that he resents having his castle taken over by Goneril and Regan and that his loyalties remain with Lear, the audience know that he would be better off keeping his own counsel. Predictably, once Edmund is alone, he informs the audience that he will soon be sharing news of Gloucester’s disloyalty with the two sisters.
By 3.3 a distinct generation gap has emerged, in which the younger characters (Goneril, Regan, Edmund) are in various ways involved in overturning the older (Lear, Gloucester): “The younger rises when the old doth fall,” as Edmund puts it. Edmund’s betrayal of his father to the Duke of Cornwall in 3.5 is in this spirit.
Exposed to the storm in 3.4, Lear begins to repent of his past indifference to people who, like him now, have nothing: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,” he says, “That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, / How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides / … defend you / From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!” Lear’s transformation begins here, in the storm, shut out from shelter by his “ungrateful” daughters.
In 4.2 Albany resolves to break with his wife, Goneril, her sister Regan and Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund. So the new ruling elite begins to split and a familiar Shakespearean trope, the weakness of an aristocracy undermined by schisms and infighting, begins to emerge. After the death of her husband Cornwall, Regan desires for Edmund to take his place, but her split from Goneril becomes clear when she realises in 4.5 that her own sister (still married to Albany) is also keen to marry Edmund.
The theme of letters in “King Lear” is worth exploring. Three examples stand out: an invented letter from Edgar to Edmund about killing Gloucester in Act One; the letter in Act Three which Gloucester has received “this night”, detailing the French advance, which he shows to Edmund and which results in his blinding; and the letter Goneril gives Oswald to give to Edmund which Regan tried unsuccessfully to open, which Albany reveals in 5.3 and which causes Goneril to commit suicide. Letters are a familiar feature of Shakespeare’s plays (“Macbeth”, for example, “Hamlet”, “Twelfth Night”, to name a selection), though they rarely play so prominent a role as here.
Unlike Richard III and Iago, whom he otherwise resembles, Edmund repents at the close, and having ordered Cordelia’s execution, tries in vain to rescind the instruction. “Some good I mean to do,” he says, “Despite of mine own nature.” Too late of course, but it is worth comparing his moral courage in this isolated instance to the cowardice of Iago in “Othello”: his reaction to being exposed as a criminal is to refuse to co-operate with any enquiry into his actions. Edmund is not wholly evil, it seems.
Shakespearean male characters who stab themselves or are stabbed by others are too legion to list. Female characters who stab themselves in his work include Juliet (who also takes poison) and in “The Rape of Lucrece”, the eponymous heroine when her suffering becomes too intense to bear. To this list may now be added Goneril.
Who’s Who / Characters
At first the wilful and self-regarding distribution of his kingdom to two daughters practised in flattery is condemned even by those benefitting from this “rash” scheme. But deprived of his status and told some home truths by the Fool, he learns to regret his past failings and comes in the end to a reconciliation with the one daughter who was always his favourite and whose compassionate values he has learned to share.
Goneril and Regan
They were never their father’s favourites, and in the way they treat him and one another, it is possible to see why. At first their ingratitude to their father is equalled only by the emptiness of their flattery of him. But later events are intended to shock: their ruthless dismissal of their father’s dignity, Regan’s part in Gloucester’s blinding, their rivalry over the villain Edmund – all combine to create criminals equalled only (among Shakespeare’s female characters) by Lady Macbeth.
The opening scene makes clear that she was always her father’s favourite – making still more unforgiveable his treatment of her. Strongly contrasted with her sisters but firmly in line with many another Shakespearean heroine in her virtues – of kindness, compassion and patience – her execution in the final scene underlines one of the play’s main themes, the heartlessness of the universe.
Loyal to Lear but easily outwitted by his illegitimate son Edmund, his initial complacency is shattered by events that spiral rapidly out of his control. The cause is his trust of Edmund, who deceives him into hostility towards his son Edgar and then betrays him to the savagery of Cornwall and Regan. Often in Shakespeare’s plays the most grotesque events take place off stage: one thinks of the murder of Duncan. The blinding of Gloucester ranks alongside the most shocking scenes in Shakespeare – a crime that brings him to his famously nihilistic conclusion that human beings are merely the playthings of sadistic gods.
The source of much of the criminal mayhem that overwhelms the kingdom under Goneril and Regan, he engages the trust of his father as skilfully as Iago deceiving Othello, and proves as motivated as Richard III in ascribing his evil-doing to the evil once done to him. His betrayal of his father in order to acquire his status and wealth is particularly shocking, though his anomalous attempts at repentance in the final scene as he is dying suggest that his character is not wholly evil.
Married to Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughter, initially something of a fellow-traveller with her but subsequently doubtful about the path being taken by the sisters, he rebukes Edmund after the battle with France and emerges as one of those on whom the rebuilding of the state will depend.
Responsible for the play’s most shattering violence, he is rewarded by being killed by a servant, a suitable rejoinder by fates whose sadism he advanced.
Lear’s companion and erstwhile court jester, empowered to speak truth to power and speak plainly about Lear’s folly.
- For how long has Edmund been away, according to Gloucester in the play’s first scene?
- Give the name and title of the King of France’s rival for Cordelia’s hand.
- Give the name of Goneril’s steward whom Lear strikes in 1.4.
- Which part of his own body does Edmund stab after his simulated fight with Edgar in 2.1?
- What advice does Regan give Lear in 2.4 after he swaps Goneril’s hospitality for hers?
- Where does Gloucester tell Edmund he intends to hide the letter he receives in 3.3?
- Who kills the servant who kills Cornwall?
- How does Edgar obtain the letter Goneril wrote to Edmund?
- What is the specific punishment Edmund ordains for Lear and Cordelia in the final scene?
- What instruction does Lear issue when he gazes on the body of Cordelia?
- Nine years
- The Duke of Burgundy
- In the arm
- Return to Goneril
- In his closet
- Oswald hands it to him
- No specific punishment
- Undo this button
The play has two substantial narratives or plots, one telling the story of Lear, the other of Gloucester. These plots tell essentially the same tale: of an old man, a widower, who is let down by those children he trusts, and is supported by those children he lets down. Both old men are shown the error of their ways before a death that is in some ways a merciful release. The sub-plot might have been used as a counterpoint to the main plot, but instead it reinforces it.
The essence of the tale is transformation. In acts one and two Lear is presented as superficial, arrogant, judgemental, cruel, capricious, entitled. The ordeal of the storm gives him empathy and the kindness of his new retinue and Cordelia’s many virtues bring out the gentle and humane elements in his character.
The source for this transformation, the storm, is clearly metonymic, in that it happens and is experienced by those characters caught up in it. But it is also metaphorical, reflecting the breakdown of order and hierarchy in the kingdom, as well as a kind of nervous breakdown for Lear, the trigger for the change in him.
The depth and richness of this play is reflected in the layering of its many themes. These include questions like:
(1) destiny and fate – who controls these, or is there no control? Are there gods and are they benign, or are our actions dictated by planets? Or is fate simply random?
(2) families and generations – do children owe their parents debts of care and kindness? How valid is the hereditary principle? Should we expect solidarity within families?
(3) sight and insight – why does it need a storm – metaphorical and metonymic – for Lear to gain insight and humanity? Why must Gloucester lose his sight in order to be transformed by the gift of life?
Clearly this is not an exhaustive list. There are also characteristically Shakespearean questions to do with power and the transfer of power, not to mention gender and the familiar theme of fathers and daughters.
Finally, some Shakespearean comparisons: the narrative follows substantially the same structure as “Macbeth”. The first two acts are used to show the emergence of disequilibrium (Macbeth kills Duncan / Lear’s daughters abandon him); the third and fourth acts reveal the main character’s transformation (Lear’s increasing empathy; Macbeth’s increasing cruelty); the final act describes the armies gathering to put right the wrong (in “Lear” ambiguously, in that the winners end up losing, in “Macbeth” more clearly in that Malcolm is restored).
The character of Lear looks back to “Timon of Athens”: the victims of ingratitude, both characters abandon past lives for austere futures, past riches for bleak and uncertain fates. Goneril looks forward to Lady Macbeth in her cruelty. Edmund (as mentioned) has antecedents as recent as Iago and as old as Richard III.