King Lear

King Lear is a tragedy based on the chronicle history of a pre-Roman, Celtic king of Britain. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear, intending to retire, stages a love test for his three daughters: he will portion his kingdom between them as dowries according to how much they profess to love him. The eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, give exaggerated protestations of love that please their father, but Cordelia answers that she loves Lear only according to her bond, no more, no less. Infuriated by Cordelia’s lack of flattery, Lear divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, disinheriting Cordelia who then leaves Britain to marry the King of France. Lear also banishes his courtier Kent for speaking in Cordelia’s defence. Lear divests himself of kingship in all but name and honour, telling the husbands of Goneril and Regan (the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall) to part his crown between them.

The play charts Lear’s descent into madness after Goneril and Regan strip him of his retinue and cast him out from their homes. The play also follows the fortunes of the courtier Gloucester and the evil plots of his illegitimate son, Edmund. Edmund drives away his legitimate brother Edgar, betrays his father and occasions his blinding, and drives a wedge between Goneril and Regan as he strives for political power. Lear wanders the heathland through a night of raging storm, attended only by his Fool, the loyal Kent (disguised as Caius), and Edgar (disguised as a mad beggar). Lear is confronted by his own mortality, the emptiness of social convention and the trappings of power, and his guilt in exiling Cordelia. Cordelia, leading a French army to defend Lear’s right, invades Britain and is reconciled with her father, however they are both captured and Cordelia is murdered in prison. The grief of this news kills Lear.

Related articles

Character analysis: The villains in King Lear – Edmund, Goneril and Regan

Article by:
Carol Atherton
Theme:
Tragedies

Using a close analysis of the characters’ traits, actions and language, Carol Atherton considers how Shakespeare presents Goneril, Regan and Edmund as the villains of King Lear.

Sovereignty and subversion in King Lear

Article by:
Kiernan Ryan
Themes:
Power, politics and religion, Tragedies

Professor Kiernan Ryan argues that the subversive spirit of King Lear remains as powerful as ever, four centuries after it was first performed.

Royal Shakespeare: a playwright and his king

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Themes:
Power, politics and religion, Tragedies

Shortly after James I took the throne, he announced that he would be the new sponsor of Shakespeare's theatre company, which renamed itself the King's Men. Andrew Dickson explains how the royal sponsorship affected the company, and the ways in which the playwright's later works engage with his transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean subject.

Related collection items

Related people

Related teachers' notes

King Lear: The Disintegration of the Social Structure

King Lear: The Disintegration of the Social Structure

Explore ideas of social instability and disorder in King Lear and in King James’s England.

PDF Download Available

Related works

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Created by: William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, eagerly anticipating his marriage to Hippolyta, ...

Coriolanus

Created by: William Shakespeare

Coriolanus is a tragedy following the fortunes of Caius Martius: a Roman general distinguished in the field of ...

Doctor Faustus

Created by: Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus: plot and character overview Would you sell your soul? And, if you would, for what? Doctor Faustus ...

Edward II

Created by: Christopher Marlowe

Edward II: plot and character overview Outraged by Edward’s elevation of his male favourite Gaveston, ...