by William Shakespeare
synopsis by Roxanne Fay, dramaturg
Shakespeare probably wrote King Lear around 1604, sandwiched between his two other great tragedies, Othello and Macbeth.
King Lear is set in the pre- Christian court of an aging monarch, inspired by lore of an ancient king, Leir of Britain, who lived around the 8th century BCE -around the time of the founding of Rome.
The play is a true tragedy.
Both Lear and the Earl Of Gloucester are men with a tragic flaw (most notably, in Lear’s case, this flaw is pride or hubris) that cause them to make a fatal mistake. Both descend into hell, achieve self-knowledge, and are profoundly changed, but change comes too late to stop the catastrophes they have created.
King Lear has ruled for many years and he, in essence, decides to “retire” and to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters, with whom he means to live on a rotating schedule.
His eldest, Goneril, is married to the Duke of Albany and his middle child, Regan, is married to the Duke of Cornwall. Also present at the court are the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, both hoping to marry Lear’s youngest (and favorite) daughter Cordelia.
Before dividing his kingdom, Lear challenges his daughters to prove which of them loves him best. His two elder daughters make passionate speeches about the depth of their love for him, but his youngest, horrified by their excesses, refuses to say anything. Her honesty and unwillingness to exaggerate her feelings enrages Lear and he banishes her forever. He divides his country between his elder daughters and their husbands. On learning that Cordelia will no longer inherit anything from Lear, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his proposal of marriage, and Cordelia leaves with the King of France who loves her for her honesty. When Lear’s rash behavior is challenged by his most faithful servant, the Earl of Kent, he is banished too, but returns in disguise to serve his old master in secret.
Misjudging the loyalty of his two eldest daughters, Lear soon finds himself stripped of all the trappings of state, wealth and power that had defined him, banished into a storm with only his Fool and the disguised Kent for company.
As he descends into madness he learns the error of his ways.
In a parallel story, the Earl of Gloucester is misled by his scheming illegitimate son, Edmund, into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, wishes to murder him in order to inherit his title and lands (Edmund is planning to gain his brother Edgar’s lands by disinheriting him). Edgar escapes his father’s anger by running away and disguising himself as a mad beggar called ‘Poor Tom’. Gloucester tells Edmund of his intention to help the banished Lear, and advises Kent to take Lear to Dover, where Cordelia and a French army are set to arrive, but Edmund has informed on Gloucester to Cornwall, and when Gloucester returns to the castle he is accused of being a traitor, his eyes are put out. In this moment of unspeakable cruelty, Cornwall is killed by a servant and the blinded Gloucester is thrown out into the wilderness.
Edgar encounters his blind father, and, as Poor Tom, leads him to Dover, where they find Lear.
As both Lear and Gloucester learn the true nature of their children, their hopes rest with Cordelia, who has returned to Britain in charge of a French army, intending to restore her father to his rightful place of rule.
Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don’t want to know how it ends…
Cordelia’s army prepares to meet the army led by her sisters and their husbands, as Goneril and Regan compete for Edmund’s love. Goneril believes that now her sister’s husband is dead, Regan intends to marry Edmund so she poisons her and plots to kill her own husband.
The sisters’ army defeats Cordelia’s forces. Both Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned by Edmund, who plans that Cordelia should be hanged in prison. Edgar, still in disguise, accuses Edmund of his treachery and challenges him to a duel. Edmund is fatally wounded, but with his dying breath sends a messenger to save Cordelia’s life. On hearing of his death, Goneril kills herself. Edmund’s message arrives too late to save Cordelia’s life. Lear dies soon after of his grief. Gloucester, having been reconciled at last with Edgar, also dies of his traumas. Kent and Edgar both depart, which leaves Goneril’s widowed husband, Albany, to rule Britain.