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.
- Article by:
- Gillian Woods
- Tragedies, Interpretations of ‘madness’
Gillian Woods considers how the Fool and Poor Tom, two characters in King Lear who stand outside the social order, enhance the play's investigation of madness, civilisation and humanity.
- Article by:
- Kim Ballard
- Tragedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
A number of Shakespeare's plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare's most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.
- Article by:
- Kiernan Ryan
- Tragedies, Power, politics and religion
Professor Kiernan Ryan argues that the subversive spirit of King Lear remains as powerful as ever, four centuries after it was first performed.
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