Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts, and nature.
Shakespeare's King Lear: A Summary
King Lear is recognised as one of William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. It is the story of an old monarch facing the facts of his life straight on and dealing with the consequences of his actions.
- Lear's epic struggle to come to terms with his loss of power creates a tense, moving drama that is disturbing yet magnetic.
- Family break-up, emotional upheaval and manipulating power-mad individuals make for a classic of the stage. Add to that jealousy, murder and banishment and the scene is set for a timeless tale of humanity that has intrigued audiences for centuries.
It is still highly relevant for modern times.
Although the majority of the characters are male, it is the females—the three daughters—who are pivotal to the story. Each brings something new to the action, each has a different approach to the plight of their beloved father.
- But it is Lear who ultimately captivates, raging against the gods, undergoing a personal transformation, questioning his existence and his place in a changing world.
- Lear discovers the truth about his authority, how he cultivated a court of flatterers and yes men, and how he was at fault when dividing his kingdom into three, a decision which ultimately undermines his rule and furthers his madness.
The play is quick-moving, quite violent and complex. I hope this simple analysis will help bring clarity and context and whet your appetite for King Lear's descent into madness.
Historical Context of King Lear
William Shakespeare's seven great tragedies—Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus—were written between 1599 and 1608 and performed at the Globe Theatre on the south side of the River Thames in London.
Lear was first performed in 1606 at the Royal Court in Whitehall. These tragedies reflect the life and times of Shakespeare, who was quite well established when the play was first performed.
As the new century began the poet and playwright experienced personal loss with the death of his father in 1601 and his mother seven years later in 1608. We know at this time he was also involved emotionally with the dark lady of the sonnets.
England too was in turmoil with the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 and the new monarch, King James, struggling to establish a new order. There were plots by terrorists to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1606, adding to the unstable nature of England's political system at the time King Lear was written.
- Family and personal issues such as loyalty, power, trust, break up, emotional break down.
- Old age, psychological/mental problems.
- Violence, torture, murder.
- Deception, political spin.
- The collapse of a system.
- War and national transformation.
- Morality,spirituality; religious ideas versus free will.
The Basic Story of King Lear
King Lear, an elderly monarch, realising that time is against him, decides to split his kingdom into three and give each of his three daughters power and land—according to how much they love him.
When the youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to express her love for her father (in contrast to the flattery shown by the two older sisters, Goneril and Regan) Lear flies into a ranting rage. He banishes Cordelia, verbally abuses her, hardly believing that the daughter he loved best could respond in such an outrageous fashion.
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Will he live to regret his impulsive behaviour?
The two older married daughters then begin to plot and weave their way towards power. They focus their attentions on young Edmund, bastard son to the good and faithful, but weak, Earl of Gloucester. Goneril and Regan know they have to work together if they're to get the better of Lear but fail to contain their mutual jealousy and hatred.
Near the end Goneril poisons her sister and leaves the audience in no doubt of her quiet enjoyment of the fact. Did Regan deserve such a fate? Well, perhaps. When the Duke of Cornwall tortures Gloucester and crudely gouges out his eyes who is it who pours scorn on the unfortunate man? Who is it who tells the blind Gloucester that it was Edmund who set things up against Edgar, Gloucester's true heir?
King Lear eventually succumbs when he witnesses his beloved Cordelia hanged. In a famous final scene he sits next to her limp body imploring Edgar, Kent and Albany to look at her.
'Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never,never.'
This is all too much for the ailing King and he passes away next to his youngest daughter.
- Lear, King of Britain
- King of France
- Duke of Burgundy
- Duke of Cornwall
- Duke of Albany
- Earl of Kent
- Earl of Gloucester
- Edgar, son to Gloucester
- Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester
- Curan, a courtier
- Old Man, tenant to Gloucester
- Oswald, steward to Goneril
- A Captain, employed by Edmund
- Gentleman attendant on Cordelia
- A Herald
- Servants to Cornwall
- Goneril,eldest daughter to Lear
- Regan, second eldest daughter
- Cordelia, youngest daughter.
Brief Summary of Act I
King Lear may well be already half mad by the time he asks his daughters for their love so he can give them lands to secure his kingdom's future. The Earl of Kent certainly thinks so when he says—Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad?—immediately following Cordelia's answer to the King.
Goneril and Regan seem pleased to see the back of their younger sister. They speak plainly of Lear's poor state of mind. Lear meanwhile confirms his madness by striking Goneril's steward Oswald, having the Fool 'teach' him the difference between a bitter fool and a sweet one, and turning the palace into a 'tavern and a brothel' according to Goneril.
This opening act convinces us that the old King is approaching breakdown and that the two eldest daughters and their husbands are consciously planning devious moves in order to gain advantage and power.
The weather is changing.
Simple Analysis: Act 1 - Lear's Descent Into Madness?
Act 1 Scene I
King Lear's Palace
Aging Lear wishes to split his kingdom into three and share it amongst his daughters. Asks 'Which of you shall we say doth love us most?'.Cordelia upsets him when she answers 'I love your Majesty according to my bond; no more nor less'. Lear flies into a rage. He banishes her and also Kent for interfering.
Act 1 Scene II
Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, tricks Gloucester with an invented letter supposedly written by Edgar his true son and heir. The contents reveal Edgar planning to get rid of Gloucester so that Edmund 'should enjoy half his revenue'. '
Act 1 Scene III
Duke of Albany's Palace
Goneril, with malicious intent, asks her steward Oswald to lie to King Lear when he returns from hunting. 'I will not speak with him. Say I am sick.'
Act 1 Scene IV
A hall in Albany's Palace
Kent in disguise and Lear and attendants abuse Oswald for his impudence. The Fool gives Lear some sound advice, teaches him a song or two. Goneril further enrages Lear by accusing him of keeping an 'insolent retinue' of men. Lear verbally abuses her, tells her that his other daughter, Regan, will 'flay thy wolfish visage' when she hears about this. He leaves, hurt and bitter and angry.'
Act 1 Scene V
Court before the Duke of Albany's Palace
Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with letters. The Fool and Lear exchange fooleries before Lear declares 'O ,let me not be mad,not mad, sweet heaven!'
Act 2 - Power Struggle in a Mighty Storm
Act 2 Scene I
A court-yard in the Earl of Gloucester's castle
Edmund hears rumours of friction between the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany. More pressing however is Edmund's further treachery regarding Edgar.The two meet briefly,Edmund slyly tricking Edgar into a mock sword fight, then screaming out for help as Edgar flees for his life. Edmund's father Gloucester appears, swears he will capture Edgar. Cornwall and Regan visit Gloucester, shocked at the news of 'the murderous coward' Edgar
Act 2 Scene II
Before Gloucester's castle
Kent and Oswald meet. Kent recognising Goneril's steward teases then insults him before demanding he draw his sword and fight. As Kent begins to beat him Edmund,Cornwall, Gloucester and Regan appear. Kent the King's messenger ends up in the stocks, by order of Cornwall, much to Gloucester's disapproval.
Act 2 Scene III
The open country
Edgar is forced out into the wilds, wandering half naked to face 'the winds and persecutions of the sky.'
Act 2 Scene IV
Before Gloucester's castle
Lear in heated and heavy discussion with Regan and Goneril. Who humiliated his messenger? Will Lear lose half his men to stay with Goneril? The sisters try to manipulate him as the storm outside intensifies. Lear again outraged,'I will have such revenges on you both..' Lear, desperate, departs.Gloucester is concerned for his welfare but the sisters and Cornwall want nothing to do with him.
Act 3 - Lear in Mortal Danger
Act 3 Scene I
Kent and a Gentleman meet. Kent tells of the imminent invasion from France,the cunning ambitions of Albany and Cornwall.Gives a ring to the Gentleman,tells him to go to Dover and give the ring to Cordelia.
Act 3 Scene II
Another part of the heath
Lear and the Fool meet up with Kent. Kent suggests they go to a hovel for shelter.
Act 3 Scene III
Gloucester tells Edmund of a letter he's received - 'tis dangerous to be spoken'- which means they must side with the King. Edmund deceives Gloucester.
Act 3 Scene IV
Before a hovel on the heath
Lear, Kent and the Fool discover Edgar (disguised as a madman) already in the hovel. Crazed exchanges follow before Gloucester, torch in hand, searches them out, not realising his son Edgar is amongst them. They leave the hovel.l
Act 3 Scene V
Edmund and Cornwall meet up. Edmund is ready to side with Cornwall against Gloucester,' though the conflict be sore between that and my blood.'
Act 3 Scene VI
An outhouse of Gloucester's castle
Gloucester tells Kent of the 'plot of death' against Lear, who is by now deranged. Gloucester tells them to make for Dover where they'll be safe.
Act 3 Scene VII
Cornwall takes control, has Gloucester arrested as a traitor. Regan and Cornwall interrogate and torture him. 'Come, sir, what letters had you late from France?' Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes then is injured himself in a sword fight with one of his servants, who is stabbed from behind by Regan. Gloucester learns of Edmund's treachery from Regan.
Act 4 - This Great Stage of Fools
Act 4 Scene I
Edgar meets up with the now eyeless Gloucester and an old man. Gloucester asks to be led to a high cliff in Dover.
Act 4 Scene II
Before the Duke of Albany's palace
Goneril and Edmund connive in Albany's absence. When Albany enters he accuses her of wrong doing... 'See thyself,devil!' She plays on his weakness ' Milk liver'd man!' Albany hears of Cornwall's death fighting with a servant after Gloucester's eyes were put out.
Act 4 Scene III
The French camp near Dover
Kent and a Gentleman from Cordelia's camp discuss Cordelia's reaction to letters sent describing events involving her sisters and Lear. Kent leads Gentleman to Lear.
Act 4 Scene IV
The French camp. A tent
Cordelia hears of Lear's exhaustion and madness. Sends soldiers to 'search every acre in the high-grown field'. There is news of 'The British..powers marching..'
Act 4 Scene V
Regan meets with Oswald. She tells him that Goneril 'does not love her husband' but has designs on Edmund. Regan then suggests that Edmund is 'more convenient for my hand' than for Goneril's. Also tells Oswald to 'cut off' Gloucester if he comes across him.
Act 4 Scene VI
The country near Dover
Edgar and Gloucester reach the cliffs. Gloucester still wishes to end his life. 'Away, and let me die.' Lear then appears 'fantastically dressed with weeds.' He recognises Gloucester albeit from a madman's perspective. Lear is then found by the Gentleman and attendants from Cordelia and goes running off with all of them following. As Edgar and Gloucester prepare to leave the scene Oswald appears,intent on murdering Gloucester. Edgar and Oswald fight. Oswald is killed. Edgar finds the letter from Goneril to Edmund in which she plots 'upon her virtuous husband's life.'.
Act 4 Scene VII
A tent in the French camp
Cordelia, Kent and Doctor with a sleeping King Lear. She kisses her father. he wakes. 'Where have I been? ..I know not what to say.' Cordelia and Lear make up.
King Lear: Challenge to the Actor
Many great actors have attempted the role of King Lear, from Orson Welles to Kevin Klein. It is a punishing challenge.
In the first act Lear changes from a revered and respected monarch in total charge of affairs to an exasperated, anxious and angry father. From the actor's point of view controlling the energy in the opening scenes is vital—too much anger too quickly wouldn't work, so the emphasis has to be on emotional turmoil rather than red-faced rage.
Lear's ensuing breakdown and what might be called insanity should be displayed as deranged playfulness and profound disturbance. This is the downfall of a person used to complete authority, having to come to terms with old age, change, disobedience and helplessness. Lear finds out what it's like to be an ordinary man, stripped of everything good.
In the play, Lear is 80 years old. This is why the role is best suited to experienced actors with a few lines on their face, a healthy white beard and enough experience to draw on so they don't mind playing someone half-crazed!
Act 5 - Who Loses and Who Wins
Act 5 Scene I
The British camp near Dover
Regan and Goneril, Edmund and Albany. Edmund is 'between' the sisters'Neither can be enjoyed if both remain alive.' Albany is given a letter by a disguised Edgar.The battle between Britain and France is about to commence.
Act 5 Scene II
A field between the two camps
Cordelia and Lear seen briefly as drums and colours pass. Edgar and Gloucester also close by but retreating.
Act 5 Scene III
The British camp near Dover
Cordelia and Lear taken prisoners. Edmund tells a Captain to follow them to prison and finish them off. Regan and Goneril both want Edmund. Albany appears, accuses Edmund of being a traitor and commands a herald to blow three times on a trumpet to call on any man who knows this to be true. Edgar appears. He fights with Edmund, kills him. Regan and Goneril both die, the former poisoned by her sister, the latter stabbed. Kent appears. Cordelia is brought in, hanged. Lear sits down beside her grief stricken. 'I might have saved her;now she's gone for ever.' Lear collapses and dies.
© 2012 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on December 28, 2012:
Many thanks for the comment Daisy M. Lear is a play charged with emotion from the opening scene - there's no escape for the audience! A true classic.
Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on December 28, 2012:
I attended a performance of King Lear when I was in college. What a powerful drama!
You did an impressive job with your article. The research. writing, and presentation of the material are all top-notch. Thanks for publishing this Hub.