King Lear KING LEAR: THE PLOT There are really two plots in King Lear, a main plot and a fully developed subplot. Each has its own set of characters. In the main plot, there is the head of the family, the 80-plus-year-old king of Britain, Lear. He has three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The Duke of Albany is married to the oldest, Goneril, and the Duke of Cornwall is married to Regan, the middle daughter.
Cordelia has two suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. The court jester, the Fool, is by extension a member of the Lear family and part of the main plot, as is the Earl of Kent, Lear’s loyal follower. The Earl of Gloucester, also a member of Lear’s court, is the head of another family and the focus of the subplot. He has two offspring, an older, legitimate son named Edgar and a younger, illegitimate or bastard son named Edmund. Various minor characters appear from time to time.
They are easily identified by their connections with whatever main character they serve or speak of. As the play opens, Lear has decided to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Cordelia’s husband will be chosen for her immediately after Lear executes this living will. Before he allots the shares, Lear asks each daughter to make a profession of her love for him in order to receive her entitlement. Goneril and Regan waste no time professing love for their father, but Cordelia is speechless. She loves her father as any daughter should, no more and no less.
Lear is outraged by what he sees as her lack of devotion. He cuts Cordelia out of her share and banishes her. Her share is divided between Goneril and Regan. Lear gives them everything but keeps a retinue, a following of 100 knights who will accompany him as he alternates monthly visits between his two daughters. Cordelia’s suitors are called in. Without a dowry, Burgundy rejects her; but the King of France sees her true worth and leads Cordelia off to marriage and his protection.
At Gloucester’s castle, Edmund reveals that he will not let his illegitimate birth and older brother prevent him from inheriting his father’s estate. He devises a plan to convince Gloucester that Edgar is secretly planning to kill his father to get his hands on the family property and enjoy it while he’s still young. Edmund then tells Edgar that their father is after him for some mistaken notion of a reported crime. Eventually Gloucester is convinced of Edgar’s treachery and seeks to put his older son to death. Edgar flees for his life.
Meanwhile, Lear discovers that living with his two daughters is no joy. He is so outraged by their cruel behavior toward him that he curses them and rushes out into a violent storm. During his exposure to the elements he is accompanied by Kent, the Fool (his court jester), and eventually by Edgar, who has disguised himself as a lunatic beggar named poor Tom. Gloucester tries to help Lear and his followers but is betrayed to Cornwall and Regan by Edmund. As punishment, Gloucester is blinded and sent out into the storm, too.
Edgar, still disguised, discovers his blind father and leads him to Dover, where he joins Lear, who has gone mad from exposure to the elements and the anguish he has suffered at the hands of his daughters. The news of Lear’s treatment had reached Cordelia, and the King of France has sent an invading force to England to help restore Lear’s rights to him. In Dover, where they have landed, Cordelia finds Lear and helps to restore his sanity by loving care. While preparing to fight the French invaders, Goneril and Regan have developed a passion for Edmund. But before they can do anything about it, the battle is fought. The French lose, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoners.
Edmund sends Lear and Cordelia to prison with orders for them to be secretly killed. When Albany enters, he accuses Edmund of treason for plotting with Goneril against him and the interests of the state. Edmund is given the chance to defend his honor in a duel. Edgar appears in a new disguise to take up this challenge and mortally wounds Edmund. Goneril sees the handwriting on the wall and flees from the scene.
Edmund confesses all his crimes as a servant enters and announces that Goneril has poisoned Regan and killed herself. Edmund then reveals that he has ordered Lear’s and Cordelia’s deaths. Albany sends soldiers to prevent it, but he’s too late. Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. As he weeps for her, surrounded by the bodies of Goneril and Regan, the survivors can only stare in respectful awe. Albany, the victor of the battle, relinquishes rule of the country to Kent and Edgar, but the worn-out Kent doesn’t accept.
Edgar is left to restore order in England as the bodies of the dead are carried away. Book Reports.