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King Lear

King Lear: Summary

King Lear is one of the great tragedy by William Shakespeare. In the main story, King Lear has three daughters. He plans to give up his throne, intent on retiring. He tells his daughters, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan, that he will base their inheritance on how much they love him, and that they must prove their love to him. Cordelia, who is unmarried but could possibly become the wife of either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France, tells her father that there are no words to express how much she loves him. Reagan, Duchess of Cornwall, and Goneril, Duchess of Albany, make lavish shows to prove their love for their father. Lear, devastated by Cordelia’s minimal response, grants her no land, and instead splits Britain in two, giving half to Regan and half to Goneril. He determines that Cordelia must marry; after the Duke of Burgundy’s suit is rejected, she ends up with the King of France.

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester (pronounced Glow-ster) has two sons, one legitimate and one illegitimate. Edgar, the older son, is the legitimate one, and Edmund, the younger, is a bastard. Edmund is determined to inherit his father’s estate despite the fact that Edgar is the legitimate heir. Intent on getting his inheritance all the sooner, Edmund devises a plan and tells his father that Edgar is plotting to kill him. Meanwhile, Edmund tells his brother that their father has caught wind that Edgar committed some horrible crime, and is after him for it. Upon hearing this, Edgar leaves his father’s lands.

By now, Lear has discovered that Regan and Goneril do not actually love him. They treat him horribly, earning his ire—but it is too late for him to do anything about it, because he has already given them each half of his kingdom. He curses both Regan and Goneril, and runs outside into a storm. His fool follows him, and it’s here that the two stories begin to weave together. Edgar, who has been traveling incognito as a mad beggar, to hide from his father, comes upon Lear and the fool. Gloucester arrives and tries to help Lear find his way out of the storm and back to sanity, but Edmund has other ideas.

Working with the Duke of Cornwall and Regan, Edmund arranges for his father to be punished. They gouge out his eyes and force him to go out into the storm, which is a metaphor for madness. There Gloucester comes upon Edgar, who is still disguised. Edgar guides his father out of the storm to Dover, where they once more meet up with Lear and Kent. Lear is even more insane than earlier.

In France, Cordelia catches wind of her sisters’ ill treatment of their father. She finds out that not only did they take away the small group of 100 men he kept with him after abdicating the throne, but that they chased him away. This wrong causes the King of France to send an invading force into England in an attempt to restore Lear’s kingly rights. Cordelia goes to England too, where she finds her father and restores his sanity through her love and devotion.

At the same time, with Gloucester and Edgar out of the way, Edmund is ready to take over the earl’s estate. This prompts both Goneril and Regan to throw their support his way, competing for his attention and ultimately, his devotion. They are still fighting the French troops at this point, and so they each have a battle on two fronts. They manage to best the French, though, and both Lear and Cordelia are taken as prisoners. In the wake of the battle, Edmund secretly orders that Lear and Cordelia both be executed.

The Duke of Albany discovers this plot and declares Edmund a traitor for plotting with Goneril. A duel is arranged for Edmund, so that he can defend his honor, but he ends up having to duel Edgar, who is armored and disguised. Edgar delivers a fatal wound to Edmund, who confesses everything he has done to try to secure his father’s lands for himself. A servant enters after Edmund’s confessions and announces that not only has Goneril poisoned Regan, but she has also committed suicide. Edmund admits at this point that he ordered Lear’s and Cordelia’s deaths.

Lear enters with the dead Cordelia cradled in his arms. It is not until Lear is holding Cordelia, who is dead, that he realizes that she loved him far more than Regan or Goneril ever had. He refuses to acknowledge her death, and then he dies.

Albany, winner of the battle, hands the country over to Kent and Edgar. Kent, worn out by all of the tragedy, refuses the offer. Edgar is left as the new king, charged with the task of restoring order to Britain.