King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Our modern-day English translation of the plot is designed to make the play accessible for new readers and students. Read alongside the original text, our King Lear overview makes the perfect study guide.
King Lear Overview
Lear is aging and in order to achieve a quieter, simpler life, has a desire to pass on his responsibilities of state to his three daughters, Gonerill, Regan and Cordelia. Instead of dividing his kingdom equally between them, he decides to devise a ‘love test’ in the hope that his favourite daughter Cordelia will prove that she loves him most and therefore win the largest share of his kingdom. However, Cordelia refuses to take part. In a furious rage Lear banishes Cordelia (along with his servant Kent for trying to defend her) and divides his kingdom between Gonerill and Regan.
Cordelia leaves Britain and marries the King of France. Gonerill and Regan feel threatened by their father’s unpredictable behaviour, and fearing that their inheritance may also be threatened decide to get rid of Lear by casting him out into a storm and locking him out with only two faithful servants; Kent, the Fool and ‘Poor Tom’ a counterfeit mad beggar (Edgar). Lear is driven to madness.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester, who is a friend of Lear’s, is being tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund, into thinking that his legitimate son Edgar is attempting to take his life. Edmund persuades Edgar to flee as Gloucester sends orders to hunt him down. Edgar takes on the guise of ‘Poor Tom’ and joins Lear. Gloucester attempts to help Lear to escape to Dover, when Gonerill and Regan hear that Gloucester has tried to help their father, they are enraged and he is blinded as a punishment.
Gloucester cannot forgive himself when he realises that Edmund has tricked him. He feels suicidal due to the guilt of hunting down his innocent son. ‘Poor Tom’ finds his blinded father and guides him to safety but unable to reveal his identity fails to assuage Gloucester’s guilt. Gloucester’s plotline mirrors that of Lear’s he suffers pain and despair and as a result becomes more sympathetic as the play goes on.
Having received letters about her father’s terrible situation, Cordelia returns to England with the French army with the intention of restoring her father to the throne. Cordelia and her father are reunited at the French camp in Dover. The French and British armies go into battle. The French army loses and Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned by Edmund.
Regan’s husband Cornwall dies and Gonerill fears she will now try and marry Edmund. Gonerill and Regan are both in love with Edmund and turn against each other as a result. Gonerill’s husband Albany turns against her denouncing her treatment of her father and Gloucester. Albany is now an enemy of Edmund and discovers that Edmund and Gonerill are plotting to kill him. Gonerill poisons Regan and then kills herself.
Edmund orders Cordelia and Lear to be killed. Edgar challenges Edmund to a fight, badly wounded, Edmund admits his wrong-doings and Edgar is restored to power having thrown off his disguise. He denounces his father and brother’s behaviour but regrets not revealing himself to Gloucester before his demise.
Gonerill’s husband Albany tries to save Lear and Cordelia but Cordelia is hanged in prison. Lear is driven further into madness by this act and through his madness comes to understand himself and others better. He dies a broken man.
“This tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else. Save what beats there: filial ingratitude. It is not as this mouth should tear this hand for lifting food to’t? But I will punish home. No I will weep no more – In such a night to shut me out? Pour on, I will endure. In such a night as this! O Regan, Gonerill, Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all – O that way madness lies. Let me shun that. No more of that.”
(Act 3, Scene 4)