King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The title character descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. It has been widely adapted for the stage and motion pictures, and the role of Lear has been coveted and played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.
The play was written between 1603 and 1606 and later revised. Shakespeare's earlier version, The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, was published in quarto in 1608. The Tragedy of King Lear, a more theatrical version, was included in the 1623 First Folio. Modern editors usually conflate the two, though some insist that each version has its individual integrity that should be preserved.
After the Restoration, the play was often revised with a happy ending for audiences who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century Shakespeare's original version has been regarded as one of his supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a
King Lear, who is elderly and wants to retire from power, decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, which pleases him. For Cordelia, there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she speaks honestly but bluntly, which infuriates him. In his anger he disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Kent objects to this unfair treatment. Lear is further enraged by Kent's protests, and banishes him from the country. Lear summons the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, who have both proposed marriage to Cordelia. Learning that Cordelia has been disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway
Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, revealing that their declarations of love were fake, and they view Lear as an old and foolish man.
Edmund resents his illegitimate status, and plots to dispose of his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise under the name of Caius, and Lear hires him as a servant. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to behave better and reduces his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him an outlaw.
Bearing Lear's message to Regan, Kent-as-Caius meets Oswald at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall. When Lear arrives, he objects to the mistreatment of his messenger, but Regan is as dismissive of her father as Goneril was. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and supports Regan's argument against him. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests against Lear's mistreatment. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets Edgar, in the guise of a madman named Tom o' Bedlam. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Kent leads them all to shelter.
Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Once Edmund leaves with Goneril to warn Albany about the invasion, Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes. As he is doing so, a servant is overcome with rage by what he is witnessing and attacks Cornwall, mortally wounding him. Regan kills the servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him; then she turns him out to wander the heath too. Edgar, in his madman's guise, meets his blinded father on the heath. Gloucester, not recognising him, begs Tom to lead him to a cliff at Dover so that he may jump to his death.
Goneril discovers that she finds Edmund more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as cowardly. Albany has developed a conscience - he is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces his wife. Goneril sends Edmund back to Regan; receiving news of Cornwall's death, she fears her newly widowed sister may steal Edmund and sends him a letter through Oswald. Kent leads Lear to the French army, which is commanded by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and terribly embarrassed by his earlier follies. At Regan's instigation, Albany joins his forces with hers against the French. Goneril's suspicions about Regan's motives are confirmed and returned, as Regan rightly guesses the meaning of her letter and declares to Oswald that she is a more appropriate match for Edmund. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. Lear appears, by now completely mad. He rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald appears, still looking for Edmund. On Regan's orders, he tries to kill Gloucester but is killed by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds Goneril's letter, in which she encourages Edmund to kill her husband and take her as his wife. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness slowly passes. Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that they fight the French invaders but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters lust for Edmund, who has made promises to both. He considers the dilemma and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives Goneril's letter to Albany. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund sends them off with secret orders for execution.
The victorious British leaders meet, and the recently widowed Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan falls ill, and is escorted offstage, where she dies. It is stated that Goneril slipped poison into her food. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears in his own clothes, and challenges Edmund to a duel. Edgar wounds Edmund fatally, though he does not die immediately. Albany confronts Goneril with the letter which was intended to be his death warrant; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself, and reports that Gloucester died offstage from the shock and joy of learning that Edgar is alive, after Edgar revealed himself to his father.
Offstage, Goneril, with all her evil plans thwarted, commits suicide. The dying Edmund decides, though he admits it is against his own character, to try and save Lear and Cordelia; however, his confession comes too late. Soon after Albany sends men to countermand Edmund's orders, Lear enters bearing Cordelia's corpse in his arms, having survived by killing the executioner. Lear now recognizes Kent, but fails to make the connection between Kent and his alter-ego, Caius. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but like Gloucester, the trials Lear has been through have finally overwhelmed him, and he dies. Albany then asks Kent and Edgar to take charge of the throne. Kent declines, explaining that his master is calling him on a journey. It is unclear whether Kent intends to commit suicide, following Lear into death, or feels he is going to die in the same manner as Lear and Gloucester. Finally, either Albany (in the Quarto version) or Edgar (in the Folio version) has the final speech, with the implication that he will now become king.
Points of debate
The play opens with a formal ceremony in which King Lear seemingly divides his kingdom among his daughters according to their avowals of their love for him. If this were a test, it would make most sense for Lear to hear out all three daughters before starting to divide the kingdom. David Ball posits an alternative interpretation. He bases this analysis on the conversation between Kent and Gloucester which are the first seven lines of the play and serve to help the audience understand the context of the drama about to unfold.
Ball interprets this statement to mean that the court already knows how the King is going to divide his kingdom; that the outcome of the ceremony is already decided and publicly known. Nor do Kent and Gloucester express the slightest surprise about the division.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the King's "contest" has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
JusticeKing Lear is a brutal play, filled with human cruelty and awful, seemingly meaningless disasters. The play’s succession of terrible events raises an obvious question for the characters—namely, whether there is any possibility of justice in the world, or whether the world is fundamentally indifferent or even hostile to humankind. Various characters offer their opinions: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport,” Gloucester muses, realizing it foolish for humankind to assume that the natural world works in parallel with socially or morally convenient notions of justice (4.1.37–38). Edgar, on the other hand, insists that “the gods are just,” believing that individuals get what they deserve (5.3.169). But, in the end, we are left with only a terrifying uncertainty—although the wicked die, the good die along with them, culminating in the awful image of Lear cradling Cordelia’s body in his arms. There is goodness in the world of the play, but there is also madness and death, and it is difficult to tell which triumphs in the end.
Authority versus ChaosKing Lear is about political authority as much as it is about family dynamics. Lear is not only a father but also a king, and when he gives away his authority to the unworthy and evil Goneril and Regan, he delivers not only himself and his family but all of Britain into chaos and cruelty. As the two wicked sisters indulge their appetite for power and Edmund begins his own ascension, the kingdom descends into civil strife, and we realize that Lear has destroyed not only his own authority but all authority in Britain. The stable, hierarchal order that Lear initially represents falls apart and disorder engulfs the realm.
The failure of authority in the face of chaos recurs in Lear’s wanderings on the heath during the storm. Witnessing the powerful forces of the natural world, Lear comes to understand that he, like the rest of humankind, is insignificant in the world. This realization proves much more important than the realization of his loss of political control, as it compels him to re-prioritize his values and become humble and caring. With this newfound understanding of himself, Lear hopes to be able to confront the chaos in the political realm as well.