King Lear is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. It tells the story of a king who bequeaths his power and land to two of his three daughters, after they declare their love for him in an extremely flattering and rewarding way. Her third daughter receives nothing, because she does not flatter him as her sisters had.
There is no direct evidence to indicate when King Lear was first written or performed. It is believed to have been composed sometime between 1603 and 1606. Derived from the leir legend of Great Britain, a pre-Roman Celtic mythological king.
Summary and Synopsis
Lear, the elderly king of Great Britain, decides to relinquish the throne and divide his kingdom equally among his three daughters. However, he tests his daughters and asks each one to tell them how much they love him.
Goneril and Regan, Lear’s eldest daughters, give their father flattering answers. But Cordelia, Lear’s favorite and youngest daughter, remains silent and says she has no words to describe how much she loves her father. Lear is enraged and rejects Cordelia.
The King of France, who was courting Cordelia, says that he still wants to marry her even without his land, and she accompanies him to France without his father’s blessing.
Lear quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Goneril and Regan quickly begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still possesses. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes crazy. He runs away from his daughters’ houses to wander during a great storm, accompanied by his Fool and Kent, a nobleman in disguise.
Meanwhile, an elderly nobleman named Gloucester also experiences family problems. His illegitimate son, Edmund, tricks him into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, is trying to kill him.
Fleeing the human hunt that his father had prepared for him, Edgar disguises himself as a mad beggar and calls himself “Poor Tom”. Like Lear, he heads for the heath.
When the loyal Gloucester realizes that Lear’s daughters have turned against their father, he decides to help him despite the danger. Regan and her husband, Cornwall, discover him helping Lear, accuse him of treason, blind him, and make him wander the countryside. He ends up being led by his disguised son, Edgar, to the city of Dover, where Lear was also taken.
At Dover, a French army arrives as part of a Cordelia-led invasion in an effort to save her father. Edmund appears to be romantically involved with Regan and Goneril, whose husband, Albany, is increasingly sympathetic to Lear’s cause. Goneril and Edmund conspire to kill Albany.
The desperate Gloucester tries to commit suicide, but Edgar saves him. Meanwhile, the English troops arrive in Dover, and led by Edmund, they defeat the French led by Cordelia. Lear and Cordelia are captured.
In the weather scene, Edgar duels and kills Edmund; we learn of Gloucester’s death; Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy for Edmund and then commits suicide when her betrayal of Albany is revealed; Edmund’s betrayal of Cordelia leads to his unnecessary execution in prison; and Lear eventually dies of grief over Cordelia’s passing. Albany, Edgar and old Kent must guard the country under a cloud of regret and sorrow.
One aspect of King Lear that makes it an unusual tragedy is that Lear, certainly a tragic figure, is a relatively benign protagonist who realizes his mistakes and regrets them.
Despite Lear’s moments of clarity, the play inevitably moves toward a tragic conclusion that, unlike other tragedies, does not feel very cathartic. Catharsis is the moment of release an audience feels after experiencing strong emotions.
King Lear certainly involves the emotions of the audience, but while cathartic experiences lead to a feeling of renewal, Shakespeare’s play does not. The punishment in the play often outweighs the crime. Leaving the audience deeply sad and practically hopeless, King Lear is among Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies.
In the work, the reflection on the nature of human suffering and kinship is particularly notable. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “No man ever wrote a better tragedy than Lear.”
- King Lear: the old king of Great Britain and the protagonist of the play. Lear is used to enjoying absolute power and being flattered, and does not respond well to being contradicted or challenged.
- Cordelia: Lear’s youngest daughter, disowned by her father for refusing to flatter him. Cordelia is held in very high esteem by all the good characters in the play: the King of France marries her only for her virtue, overlooking her lack of dowry.
- Goneril: Lear’s ruthless eldest daughter and wife of the Duke of Albany. Goneril is jealous, treacherous and amoral.
- Regan: Lear’s middle daughter and wife of the Duke of Cornwall. He is as ruthless as Goneril and as aggressive in every way. In fact, it is difficult to think of any quality that distinguishes her from her sister.
- Gloucester: a noble loyal to King Lear. He is an adulterer, who fathered a bastard son, Edmund. Her fate is in many ways parallel to Lear’s: she misjudges which of her children to trust.
- Edgar: Gloucester’s eldest and most legitimate son.
- Edmund: Gloucester’s illegitimate youngest son. Edmund resents his bastard status and plans to usurp Gloucester’s title and Edgar’s possessions.
- Kent: A nobleman of the same rank as Gloucester who is loyal to King Lear. Kent spends most of the play disguised as a peasant, is extremely loyal, but gets into trouble throughout the play by being extremely direct and frank.
- Albany: The husband of Lear’s daughter, Goneril. Albany is good at heart, and finally denounces and opposes the cruelty of Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall.
- Cornwall: The husband of Lear’s daughter Regan. He is dominant, cruel and violent, and works with his wife and sister-in-law Goneril to persecute Lear and Gloucester.
- Silly: Lear’s jester, who uses double talk and seemingly frivolous songs to give Lear important advice.
- Oswald: the butler, or chief servant, in the house of Goneril. Oswald obeys his lover’s orders and helps her in her conspiracies.
Shakespeare explores the themes of power and weakness through the character of King Lear. By dividing the kingdom among his daughters, Lear renounces the throne, stripping himself of power. In her weakened state, she becomes almost childish, trusting her unreliable daughters for refuge and emotional support.
Lear disrupts the natural order by breaking ties with his daughter Cordelia and banishing her from Britain. This unnatural act (of a father who abandons his family) reflects the interruption of the political order by abdicating his throne prematurely.
In the end, Lear’s interference with the laws of nature causes his downfall.
Shakespeare describes the tragedy of the aging process, showing King Lear’s descent from a noble king to a weak old man experiencing physical and mental decline. Like most parents, Lear must trust that their children will receive support in their old age. In your case, this proves to be a particularly disastrous mistake.