'King Lear' Overview

Shakespeare's Familial Tragedy Play

Act 5 Scene 3 From King Lear By William Shakespeare 19th Century
Act 5 Scene 3 from King Lear by William Shakespeare, 19th century. Lear grieving over the death of his daughter Cordelia. The play was first performed in c1605. Artist Unknown. Heritage Images / Getty Images

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s many influential plays, estimated to have been written between 1603 and 1606. Set in Britain, the play has as a major influence the mythological pre-Roman Celtic King Leir. Despite its early roots, the tragedy forces its audience to grapple with enduring themes, including the line between nature versus culture, the role of legitimacy, and the question of hierarchy, and it has maintained its powerful influence even up to the present day.

Fast Facts: King Lear

  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Publisher: N/A
  • Year Published: estimated 1605 or 1606
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Type of Work: Play
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Nature versus culture, family roles, hierarchy, language, action, legitimacy, and perception
  • Main Characters: Lear, Cordelia, Edmund, Earl of Gloucester, Earl of Kent, Edgar, Regan, Goneril
  • Notable Adaptations: Ran, legendary Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa
  • Fun Fact: In the myth of King Leir, which inspired Shakespeare’s play, Lear and Cordelia both survive and Lear even returns to the throne. Shakespeare’s heartbreaking ending was criticized by many less disposed towards tragedy.

Plot Summary

King Lear is the story of the ageing king of Britain, Lear, and his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. When he asks them to prove their love for him in exchange for one third of his kingdom, all but Cordelia manage to flatter him enough. Cordelia is clearly the daughter who loves him the most, and yet she is banished; Regan and Goneril, meanwhile, quickly reveal they despise him. They send him out of their houses in a state of half-madness with only his most loyal servants to protect him. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, attempts to usurp his father and elder brother Edgar, plotting to kill his father and have Edgar banished from their home.

When the French army, led by Cordelia and her new husband the French king, arrives on the British shore, Goneril fights with Regan for the love of Edmund. Eventually, Goneril poisons her sister; however, when her husband Albany confronts her for her cruelty, Goneril kills herself offstage. Edmund captures Cordelia and has her put to death—his change of heart comes too late to save her—, and Edgar kills his cruel half-brother in a duel. Both Gloucester and Lear die of grief. Albany takes up the throne of Britain after the play’s bloodbath concludes.

Major Characters

Lear. King of Britain and the play’s protagonist. He starts the play as an insecure and cruel old man, but grows to realize his children’s true natures.

Cordelia. Lear’s youngest and truest daughter. She is well-respected by those who can recognize goodness, spurned by those who cannot.

Edmund. Gloucester’s illegitimate son. Scheming and deceitful, Edmund grapples with his own status as bastard.

Earl of Gloucester. A loyal subject of Lear’s. Gloucester is blind to how his own actions—of infidelity to his wife—have damaged his son Edmund and torn his family apart.

Earl of Kent. A loyal subject of Lear’s. Once he is banished by Lear, Kent is not afraid of pretending to be a peasant to continue serving his king.

Edgar. The legitimate son of Gloucester. A loyal son, Edgar maintains his status as “legitimate” and true son.

Regan. Lear’s middle daughter. Regan is ruthless, putting out Gloucester’s eyes and scheming to get rid of her father and sister.

Goneril. Lear’s eldest daughter. Goneril is loyal to no one, not even her sister and partner-in-crime Regan.

Major Themes

Nature vs. Culture, Family Roles. With its depiction of two daughters who only proclaim their love for their father based on his ability to give them land, the play demands that we investigate this theme. After all, the natural thing for daughters to do is to love their father; however, the culture of Lear’s court sees them hating him, and lying about it to win power within their social sphere.

Nature vs. Culture, Hierarchy. In one of the most famous scenes of the play, Lear attempts to prove his power over even nature, despite the fact that he cannot control his own daughters. 

Language, Action, and Legitimacy. The play is largely interested in legitimate inheritance, and in particular how that legitimacy is proven through language or action. In the beginning of the play, language is enough; by the end, only those who prove their goodness through action are shown to be legitimate enough to inherit.

Perception. A common theme in Shakespeare’s plays, the inability to perceive is central to King Lear. After all, Lear cannot see which of his daughters to trust; in the same way, the Earl of Gloucester is fooled by Edmund into thinking Edgar is the traitorous one.

Literary Style

King Lear has had remarkable literary significance from its first performance, which is estimated to have been between 1603 and 1606. It is a tragedy, a genre with roots in classical Greek theatre. Shakespeare’s tragedies generally end in multiple deaths; King Lear is no exception. Generally acknowledged to be one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, it is a play that makes use of complex language and imagery concerned with nature, culture, loyalty, and legitimacy.

The play was written during the reign of Elizabeth II. There are numerous early versions of the play still in existence; each, however, has different lines, so it is the job of the editor to decide which version to publish, and accounts for the many explanatory notes in editions of Shakespeare.

About the Author

William Shakespeare is probably the highest regarded writer of the English language. Although the date of his exact birth is unknown, he was baptized in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564 and married Anne Hathaway at age 18. Sometime between the age of 20 and 30, he moved to London to start his career in theatre. He worked as an actor and a writer, as well as a part-time owner of the theatre troupe the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. Since little information about commoners was retained at the time, not much is known about Shakespeare, leading to questions about his life, his inspiration, and the authorship of his plays.