King Lear Characters

Analysis of the tragic heroes of Shakespeare's King Lear

The characters in King Lear are members of the royal court. In many ways, the play is a family drama, as Lear and his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril, navigate the issue of succession. In a parallel and related drama, the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, one legitimate, one born out of wedlock, deal with similar issues. In this way, much of the drama of the play comes from the failure of intimacy in familial relationships, and the lack of connection—an inability to say what we mean—that stems from hierarchical societal rules.

Lear

The king of Britain, Lear shows remarkable development over the course of the play. He is first shown to be shallow and insecure, and thus often invites us to consider the boundary between natural and socially constructed. He prefers, for example, the surface-level flattery of Regan and Goneril over the genuine, though reticent, love of Cordelia.

Lear is also growing old and lazy with his royal duties, although he continues to demand the respect due a king, growing furious when Oswald, Regan’s steward, refers to him as “my noble lady’s father” instead of “my king.”

After he has faced the hardships that the play’s plot presents him with, Lear shows a more tender side as he learns, too late, to value his youngest daughter, and says of himself—in a notable contrast to his response to Oswald above—“as I am a man.” Throughout the play, the state of Lear’s sanity is in question, though at some point he must have been a beloved king and a good father, as he has inspired loyalty in love in many characters.

Cordelia

The youngest child of Lear, Cordelia is the only daughter who truly loves her father. Nevertheless, she is kicked out of the royal court for refusing to flatter him. One of the interpretive challenges of King Lear is why Cordelia refuses to express her love to him. She displays a distrust of her own words, hoping to let her action—the love she has displayed for her whole life—speak for itself. For her honesty and mild nature, she is well-respected by many of the play’s most admirable characters. Characters like Lear and his other daughters are, however, unable to see the good in her and trust it. 

Edmund

The illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund begins the play ambitious and cruel. He hopes to depose his legitimate elder brother, Edgar, and is responsible for his father’s torture and near death. Edmund, however, also shows notable development; as he lies on his deathbed, Edmund has a change of heart and attempts, in vain, to retract the orders that would see Cordelia executed.

Despite his cruelty, Edmund is a rich and complex character. He reviles the “plague of custom” that forces him, as the illegitimate son, to be so disrespected by society, and points out the arbitrary and unfair nature of the system into which he was born. However, it becomes clear that he only fulfills society’s expectation of him as “base.” In the same vein, although he declares his allegiance to the nature in place of societal expectations, Edmund goes against it in betraying his closest familial relations. 

Earl of Gloucester

The father of Edgar and Edmund, Gloucester is a faithful vassal of Lear. For this loyalty, Regan and her husband, Cornwall, put out his eyes in a disturbingly cruel scene. However, though he is loyal to Lear, it’s clear he was not loyal to his own wife. The first scene of the play sees Gloucester gently teasing his bastard son Edmund about his illegitimate status; it later becomes clear that this is a real source of shame for Edmund, underscoring the vulnerability and accidental cruelty inherent in familial relationships. It also becomes clear that Gloucester is unable to recognize which son is truest to him, as he believes Edmund’s lies that Edgar is planning to usurp him. For this reason, his blindness becomes metaphorically significant.

Earl of Kent

A loyal vassal of King Lear, Kent spends most of the play disguised as Caius, a lowly servant. His willingness to be mistreated by Oswald, Regan’s obnoxious steward, obviously far beneath Kent in rank, demonstrates his commitment to Lear and his general humility despite his aristocratic heritage. His refusal to become king and his ensuing suggestion that he will follow Lear into death, further underscore his loyalty.

Edgar

The legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Significantly, Edgar shows himself to be "legitimate" in more ways than one, as a loyal son and a good man, highlighting the theme of language and truth. Even still, his father banishes him when he is fooled into believing Edgar is attempting to usurp him. Nevertheless, Edgar saves his father from committing suicide and challenges his scheming brother to a mortal duel. It is Edgar who reminds the audience in the play’s closing soliloquy that we ought to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say," highlighting his honesty and the deception throughout the play caused by societal rules.

Regan

The middle daughter of Lear. Ambitious and cruel, she teams up with her elder sister Goneril against their father. Her brutality is clearest when she and her husband torture the helpless Gloucester for attempting to protect his king. Regan is notably masculine, like her elder sister; when Cornwall is wounded by a vengeful servant, Regan grabs a sword and kills the servant.

Goneril

The eldest daughter of Lear. She is as ruthless as her younger sister Regan, with whom she joins against their father. She is loyal to no one, not even her new husband Albany, whom she considers weak when he is repulsed by her cruelty and reproaches her for how she disrespects her father. Indeed, Goneril inhabits a more masculine role as she takes over her husband’s army. She is similarly disloyal to her sister Regan when it comes to their mutual love interest, Edmund, indulging instead in a backstabbing and jealous relationship.

Duke of Albany

The husband of Goneril. He comes to inhabit a braver role as he grows to disapprove of his wife’s wanton cruelty and mistreatment of her father. Although Goneril accuses him of being weak, Albany shows some backbone and stands up to his imperious wife. At the end of the play, Albany confronts her about her plot to have him killed, and she flees, killing herself offstage. Ultimately, Albany becomes king of Britain after his wife's death.

Duke of Cornwall

The husband of Regan. He shows himself to be as despotic as his wife, almost taking glee in torturing the good Earl of Gloucester. In contrast to his evil ways, Cornwall is killed by a loyal servant who is so moved by Gloucester’s heinous mistreatment that he risks his life for the earl.

Oswald

Regan’s steward, or head of household. Oswald is groveling and obnoxious in the presence of those higher in rank than he, and abuses his power with those beneath him. He in particular frustrates Kent, whose humility is one of his foremost traits.

Fool

Lear’s faithful jester. Although the Fool is willing to make light of Lear’s situation, his teasing would be useful advice, if the king would listen. When the Fool follows Lear into the storm, a more serious side of the Fool is revealed: he is extremely loyal to his king despite his flippant attitude.