What Is King Lear About?

The King Lear Story

The epic tragedy, King Lear, has often been regarded as Shakespeare's greatest masterpiece, if not the crowning achievement of any dramatist in Western literature. This introduction to King Lear will provide students with a general overview of the play and its primary characters, in addition to selected essay topics. Studying a Shakespearean play deepens students' appreciation for all literature and facilitates both their understanding of themes and symbolism in literary works and their recognition of effective characterization and stylistic devices. Dozens of versions of the tale of old Lear were readily available to Shakespeare and shaped the main plot of his own drama. However, it is clear that Shakespeare relied chiefly on King Lear, fully titled The True Chronicle History of King Lear, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, the anonymous play published twelve years before the first recorded performance of Shakespeare's King Lear.  



An elderly king, Lear is ready to step down from his position of power, and makes the decision to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. King Lear offers the largest share of his realm to the daughter who loves him best, and his daughters Goneril and Regan please him by profusely expressing their love. His youngest daughter Cordelia, however, cannot put to words her love for her father and instead of embellishing her sentiments she speaks candidly, which angers King Lear. Enraged, he cuts Cordelia out of her inheritance, dividing his kingdom between his two other daughters. Kent, a nobleman who is loyal to King Lear, openly protests against the king’s decision. As a result of his objections, Kent is exiled by King Lear

Despite the fact that Cordelia has been disowned by King Lear, the King of France still pursues her hand in marriage, and she leaves her father’s kingdom to marry the King of France. King Lear decides to live in turn with his two daughters and their husbands. Goneril is married to the Duke of Albany, and Regan is married to the Duke of Cornwall. Unbeknownst to King Lear, Goneril and Regan reveal to one another that they do not love or respect their father.

It soon becomes apparent that King Lear has made a mistake with the division of his kingdom, as his two daughters try to undercut him. Unwilling to believe his daughters would betray him, King Lear gradually begins to lose his mind. The exiled Kent returns in disguise as Caius, and is able to watch over King Lear when he is hired as a servant. King Lear goes between Goneril and Regan, both daughters disrespecting their father with their disobedience.

Edmund, an illegitimate son of Gloucester, transpires to supplant his legitimate brother Edgar. He deceives his father Gloucester with a fake letter, convincing him that Edgar planned to take over their estate. Edmund goes so far as to fake an attack by his brother Edgar, and Gloucester disowns his legitimate son, declaring him a fugitive.

Furious over their disobedience, King Lear heads out during a storm to rage against his unappreciative daughters. Kent follows to protect the king. Gloucester too objects to King Lear’s mistreatment. Walking on the heath after the storm ends; King Lear encounters Edgar, who is disguised as the madman Tom o’Bedlam. Edgar speaks nonsense as King Lear criticizes his daughters. Eventually, Kent leads them both to shelter.

Gloucester is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund when Edmund shows a letter from Gloucester imploring the King of France to aid in battle against Regan and Goneril. When Regan and her husband Cornwall are told of Gloucester’s betrayal, they blind him. Caught in the act by a servant, Cornwall is attacked and killed. The blind Gloucester is discovered by his disguised son Edgar, and led to the city of Dover. Gloucester implores his disguised son to lead him to Dover so that he may throw himself off a cliff. But Edgar tricks his father into believing he has walked off a cliff yet survived. King Lear is also led by Kent to join the French army in Dover, which is commanded by his daughter Cordelia. The French forces are defeated by those of Regan, Goneril, Edmund and Albany. King Lear and Cordelia are captured, and Edmund secretly orders their execution.

A love triangle develops between Goneril, Regan and Edmund. Goneril prefers Edmund over her husband Albany, while Regan pursues Edmund after the death of her husband. Goneril ultimately poisons her sister to eliminate her rival. Goneril plots to have her own husband Albany killed so that she can be with Edmund, but her plans are discovered and she flees. Albany confronts Edmund over his betrayal and brands him a traitor. Edgar removes his disguise and duels with Edmund, ultimately killing him. The audience learns that Goneril has committed suicide, and that Gloucester died from shock after Edgar revealed that he was still alive.

While Albany sends men to reverse Edmund’s orders of execution, they arrive too late, as Cordelia has already been killed. King Lear, however, survives by killing the executioner. While King Lear is urged to once again resume his rule over the kingdom, stricken by grief, the king dies. The task falls to Albany and Edgar to ultimately sort out the realm.

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