King Lear by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) King Lear by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) Type of Work: Tragic drama Setting Medieval England Principal Characters Lear, King of Britain Cordelia, his faithful daughter Regan and Goneril, his two mean-spirited daughters The Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, their husbands The Earl of Gloucester Edmund , the Earl’s treacherous son Edgar, the Earl’s true son (later disguised as a madman) The Duke of Kent, Cordelia’s loyal helper Lear’s Fool, a comical character Story Overveiw England’s aged King Lear had chosen to renounce his throne and divide the kingdom among his three daughters. He promised the greatest portion of the empire to whichever daughter proved to love him most. Goneril lavished exaggerated praise on her father; Regan even outdid her sister with a wordy show of hollow affection Cordelia, however, refused to stoop to flattery, and insisted that she loved her father no more and no less than was his due. Lear exploded at what seemed to him her untenderness and immediately disowned her. Moreover, Lear banished the Duke of Kent from the castle for defending Cordelia. Two suitors had come to the British court to seek Cordelia’s hand: the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France.
After Lear had disinherited Cordelia, Burgundy suddenly lost interest in her he aspired to a wealthy bride. The King of France, however, was delighted by Cordelia’s honesty and immediately asked for her hand. They departed for France, without Lear’s blessing, and Cordelia’s part of the kingdom was divided between Goneril and Regan, who were all too happy at their sister’s fall from grace. Furthermore, these two daughters decided that Lear had succumbed to a sort of senility, and they set upon a plan to exploit his weakness to their own advantage. Meanwhile, in the Earl of Gloucester’s castle, Edmund, Gioucester’s bitter and cunning illegitimate son, was fretting over his father’s preference toward the legitimate brother, Edgar. Edmund now forged a letter in which Edgar supposedly expressed his intent to murder their father. Gloucester immediately believed the letter and fled in distress from the palace.
Then Edmund, in mock concern, went and warned his brother that someone had turned Gloucester against him. Edgar, too good at heart to suspect his brother’s treachery’ accepted the story and escaped to the forest. Thus, with two clever strokes, Edmund had managed to supplant his brother in his father’s affections. After dividing his kingdom, Lear decided to lodge for a time at Goneril’s palace. Now that she had her half of his kingdom, however, she no longer feigned love for him. In fact, she so distained her father that she ordered her servants to mistreat and insult him.
Accordingly, her servants began to deal with him as a senile old man rather than as a king. In the meantime, the banished Duke of Kent disguised himself and presented himself to the king at Goneril’s palace. Lear failed to recognize the disguise and hired Kent as a servant. Then, with the help of the King’s Fool (whose biting jibes and puns provide some of the finest moments in all literature), Kent began hinting to Lear that he had acted unwisely in dealing with Cordelia, until the King began to perceive his folly. As Gonerit continued to humiliate him, Lear, bemoaning his fate (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!”), determined to move on to Regan’s household. He did not know that Regan was at that moment on her way to visit Gloucester.
(In fact, all of the characters were now converging on Gloucester’s castle). Near Gloucester, Edgar, still convinced that his life was in peril from his father, lingercd in a local wood, disguised as a madman – Tom o’ Bedlam. Soon Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrived at Gloucester. They were followed by King Lear not long after. When Goneril and her household also appeared, the two sisters united to disgrace their father, ordering him to dismiss all his servants. But this humiliation proved too much for the old King, who, in a fit of anger and shame, rushed out of the castle into a furious storm, where he wandered about madly, screaming and cursing.
Their plan having succeeded, the daughters locked the doors behind him. Then follows a most famous and stirring scene: Lear raged and cursed in the midnight storm, with his frightened Fool cowering beside him, uttering the most biting and ironic jokes, while Kent watched in disbelief. Fortunately, Gloucester found them and led them to a little hovel, where they encountered Edgar, still disguised as Tom O’Bedlam and pretending derangement. Lear, now half mad himself, set about conducting a bizarre mock trial of his daughters, with Kent, the Fool, and Edgar all serving in his “court.” (The mixture of Lear’s denunciations, Edgar’s incoherent chatter, the Fool’s punning and ironic commentary, and Kent’s astonished silence, create a superb scene of absurdity and despair). Meanwhile, Kent had heard that Cordelia, back in France, was preparing to ship a small army across the English Channel to rescue Lear. But Edmund, who had also got wind of this news, hinted to Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall, that Gloucester planned to side with Lear and the French army against Regan and Goneril. Cornwall was furious, and agreed to avenge himself on innocent Gloucester.
(Very convenient for Edmund, of course, as he would inherit his father’s earldom!) It was now a race against time: could Gloucester, Edgar, Kent and Lear hold out against the treachery of Edmund, Regan, Goneril and Cornwall until help arrived from France? They devised a plan to flee to Dover, there to await the coming of Cordelia and the French troops. King Lear managed to make his escape in time, drawn by Kent in a litter, but Gloucester was not so lucky Cornwall caught him, jabbed out both his eyes, then thrust him through the castle gates to “let him smell his way to Dover.” Crawling about blindly, the earl bumped into none other than his own son, Edgar, still pretending to be insane. Edgar agreed to lead his father – who remained unapprised of his true identity – to Dover, though and Gloucester bitterly complained: “Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” While Kent with Lear and Edgar with Gloucester were making their separate ways to Dover, a love affair brewed among the villains. Goneril had become infatuated with the diabolical Edmund, who returned with her to her palace. There she fell into a bitter argument with her husband, the Duke of Albany, who vehemently chastised Goneril for her mistreatment of Lear. Albany also informed his wife that Cornwall had been killed – struck down by one of Gioucester’s servants.
Suddenly a frightening thought paralyzed Goneril: now that her sister was a widow, would she too pursue Edmund and his rising star? This fear was soon confirmed when Regan sent a message to the castle professing her love for Edmund, followed by an invitation to join forces with her. Since Albany’s sympathies were now with Lear, Goneril was forced to watch in frustrated rage as her sister and Edmund set out together with their cohorts against the expected invasion. In the mean time, at Dover, Kent met with the French officials while Cordelia sent doctors to treat her father, who, by that time, was mentally and physically spent. But Lear refused to meet with Cordelia; he had come to understand his injuries against his loyal daughter and now felt too ashamed to see her. On his journey to Dover, the blind Gloucester had grown more and more distressed.
At last he implored Edgar to guide him to the brink of a cliff so that he could throw himself off. But Edgar fooled him into thinking the level ground was actually the top of a ridge. And when Gloucester fell forward onto the ground, as if jumping from a cliff, Edgar changed his voice, pretending to be a passerby at the cliff’s base. He assured his father that he had seen him fall from the dizzy height and survive he’d seen a miracle! Gloucester believed the tale and accepted the “miracle” as a sign that he was meant to live. Now Lear, who had been delirious before he was finally rescued by Cordelia, fell into a deep sleep.
On awakening, he found himself purged of his madness and begged Cordelia’s forgiveness. Their reconciliation complete, they were ready to join with Kent and the French army against Edmund and his forces. But Cordelia’s troops were defeated, and Edmund sent orders that Lear and his daughter be executed. Meanwhile, Regan had collapsed in death, poisoned by her own jealous sister. (Goneril herself would later die by suicide.) Just at that moment Edgar burst in on the scene, engaged his brother Edmund in combat, and dealt him a mortal wound. He then cast off his disguise and revealed his true identity to his dying brother, also reporting that Gloucester, their father, had died a few hours before.
Edmund, apparently touched by the news of his father’s death, confessed that he had ordered the executions of Lear and Cordelia, and dispatched a messenger to stop them. It was, alas, too late – Lear entered, carrying the body of his beloved daughter, then he too fell and died, broken-hearted. Only Albany, Kent, and Edgar survived. It fell to these last two to jointly rule the shattered nation. Commentary Since King Lear’s setting is pre-Christian Britain, some readers chafe under the sort of nihilistic fatalism that colors the characters’ thinking (“As flies to wanton boys we are to the gods.
. . “). And truly, it’s hard to think of any other play so vast, passionate and bitter as this. The work is unusually demanding on the reader or spectator, with so many prominent figures suffering so much for so long, only, in the end, to find so little redemption. True, there is a good deal of humor throughout the play, especially in the lightning-fast wisecracks and puns of the Fool and in the cryptic babble of Edgar masquerading as a madman.
But even the humor has a steady, grim undertone. The main plot is marvelously conceived. Just as Lear mistakenly believes that Cordelia has wronged him and his other daughters have served him, so Gloucester jumps to the conclusion that Edgar opposes him and Edmund defends him when in both cases precisely the opposite is true. The horrific consequences of these misjudgments intertwine and drive the action along.