'King Lear' Summary

Table of Contents

King Lear, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, is the tragic story of a king, the issue of succession, and betrayal. Lear's insecurity and questionable sanity lead him to shun the daughter who loves him most and fall victim of his elder daughters' malice. In a parallel story, the Earl of Gloucester, who is faithful to King Lear, is also manipulated by one of his sons. Societal rules, power hungry characters, and the importance of speaking truly all play key roles throughout the story.

Act One

The play begins with the Earl of Gloucester introducing his illegitimate son Edmund to the Earl of Kent. Though he was raised away from home, Gloucester says, Edmund is well-loved. King Lear of Britain enters with his retinue. He is getting old and has decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, declaring that whoever loves him most will get the largest share. The two older sisters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him in absurdly overblown terms and thus fool him into giving them their share. However, the youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, is silent and suggests that she has no words to describe her love. Enraged, Lear disowns her. The Earl of Kent springs to her defense, but Lear banishes him from the country.

Lear then summons the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, Cordelia’s suitors. The Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit once he discovers her loss of property. The King of France, meanwhile, is impressed with her and decides to marry her anyway. Cordelia leaves for France. Lear then announces he will reserve a retinue of one hundred knights, and will live alternately with Goneril and Regan. The two elder daughters speak privately and reveal their declarations were insincere, and have nothing but disdain for their father.

Edmund soliloquizes about his disgust with society’s attitude toward bastards, which he calls a “plague of custom,” and announces to the audience his plot to usurp his legitimate older brother Edgar. He gives his father a false letter which suggests it is Edgar who plans to usurp their father the earl.

Kent returns from exile in disguise (known now as “Caius”) and Lear, staying at Goneril’s, hires him as a servant. Kent and Lear squabble with Oswald, Goneril’s obsequious steward. Goneril orders Lear to reduce the number of knights in his retinue as they have been too rowdy. He decides his daughter no longer respects him; enraged, he sets off for Regan’s. The fool points out that he was foolish to give up his power, and suggests Regan will treat him no better.

Act Two

Edmund learns from a courtier that trouble brews between the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Goneril and Regan. Edmund uses the visit of Regan and Cornwall to fake an attack by Edgar. Gloucester, fooled, disinherits him and Edgar flees.

Kent, arriving at Regan’s with news of Lear’s arrival, encounters Oswald and harangues the cowardly steward. His treatment lands Kent in the stocks. When Lear arrives he is shocked by the disrespect to his messenger. But Regan dismisses him and his complaints against Goneril, enraging Lear but causing him to realize he has no power. Regan refuses his request to shelter him and his one hundred knights, when Goneril arrives. He attempts to parley between them, but by the end of the discussion, both daughters have refused him any servants if he wishes to stay with them.

Lear rushes out onto the heath, followed by the fool, as he vents his anger against his ungrateful daughters into a massive storm. Kent, loyal to his king, follows to protect the old man, as Gloucester protests against Goneril and Regan, who close the doors to the castle.

Act Three

Lear continues to rant madly on the heath in one of the most poetically significant scenes in the play. Kent finally finds his king and the fool and leads them to shelter. They encounter Edgar, disguised as a madman named Poor Tom. Edgar babbles madly, Lear rages against his daughters, and Kent leads them all to shelter.

Gloucester tells Edmund he is upset because Goneril and Regan, seeing his loyalty to Lear, seized his castle and ordered him never to speak to Lear again. Gloucester goes to help Lear, in any case, and finds Kent, Lear, and the fool. He shelters them on his estate.

Edmund presents Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril with a letter that shows his father has kept secret information of an incoming French invasion designed to help Lear win back his power. A French fleet has indeed landed in Britain. Edmund, who has been given his father’s title, and Goneril depart to warn Albany.

Gloucester is arrested and Regan and Cornwall gouge out his eyes in revenge. Gloucester cries for his son Edmund, but Regan jubilantly tells him Edmund was the one who betrayed him. A servant, overcome with the injustice of the act, mortally wounds Cornwall, but is quickly killed by Regan himself. Gloucester is put out onto the heath with an old servant.

Act Four

Edgar encounters his blind father on the heath. Gloucester does not realize who Edgar is and laments the loss of his only faithful son; Edgar, however, remains in his guise of Tom. Gloucester begs the “stranger” to lead him to a cliff.

Goneril finds herself attracted to Edmund more than her husband Albany, whom she views as weak. He has recently become more disgusted by the sisters’ treatment of their father. Goneril decides to take over her husband’s forces, and sends Edmund to Regan to encourage her to take over her husband’s forces as well. However, when Goneril hears Cornwall has died, she fears her sister will steal Edmund from her, and sends him a letter through Oswald.

Kent leads Lear to the French army, commanded by Cordelia. But Lear is mad with shame, anger, and hurt, and refuses to speak to his daughter. The French make ready to fight the approaching British troops.

Regan convinces Albany to join forces with her against the French. Regan declares to Oswald her romantic interest in Edmund. Meanwhile, Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff as he asked. Gloucester intends to commit suicide, and faints at the edge. When he awakens, Edgar pretends to be an ordinary gentleman and tells him he has survived an incredible fall, and that the gods must have saved him. Lear appears and rants madly, but strangely perceptively, recognizing Gloucester and pointing out Gloucester’s downfall came from his adultery. Lear then disappears again.

Oswald appears, having been promised a reward if he kills Gloucester. Instead, Edgar protects his father (in yet another persona) and kills Oswald. Edgar finds Goneril’s letter, which encourages Edmund to kill Albany and take her as wife.

Act Five

Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their troops. While Albany agrees to defend Britain against the French, he insists they do not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters squabble over Edmund, who has encouraged both of their affections. Edgar finds Albany alone and hands him the letter. The British defeat the French in battle. Edmund enters with troops holding Lear and Cordelia as captives, and sends them away with ominous orders.

At a meeting of the British leaders, Regan declares she will marry Edmund, but is feeling suddenly ill and retires. Albany arrests Edmund on a charge of treason, calling for trial by combat. Edgar appears, still disguised, and challenges Edmund to a duel. Edgar mortally wounds his illegitimate brother, though he does not die immediately. Albany confronts Goneril about the letter plotting to kill him; she flees. Edgar reveals himself and explains to Albany that upon discovering Edgar was his son, Gloucester was overcome with both grief and joy, and died.

A servant comes in with a bloody knife, reporting that Goneril has killed herself and fatally poisoned Regan. Edmund, dying, decides to try to save Cordelia, whose death he had ordered, but he is too late. Lear enters bearing Cordelia’s corpse. Lear, mourning his daughter, is overcome with grief and dies. Albany asks Kent and Edgar to rule with him; Kent declines, suggesting he is near death himself. Edgar, however, suggests he will accept. Before the play closes, he reminds the audience to always speak truly—after all, the tragedy of the play hinges on the culture of lying present in Lear's court.

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Rockefeller, Lily. "'King Lear' Summary." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/king-lear-summary-4691817. Rockefeller, Lily. (2020, January 29). 'King Lear' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/king-lear-summary-4691817 Rockefeller, Lily. "'King Lear' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/king-lear-summary-4691817 (accessed May 29, 2023).