William Shakespeare'sKing Lear


William Shakespeare

King Lear

Dramatis Personnae

Overview of the play

Study questions



King Lear


LEAR king of Britain (KING LEAR:)
EDGAR son to Gloucester.
EDMUND bastard son to Gloucester.
CURAN a courtier.
Old Man tenant to Gloucester.
OSWALD steward to Goneril.
A Captain employed by Edmund. (Captain:)
Gentleman attendant on Cordelia. (Gentleman:)
A Herald.
Servants to Cornwall.
(First Servant:)
(Second Servant:)
(Third Servant:)
| REGAN | daughters to Lear.
Knights of Lear's train, Captains, Messengers,
Soldiers, and Attendants

Overview of the play

                    England's aged King Lear had chosen to renounce his throne and divide
                 the kingdom among his three daughters. He promised the greatest portion
                 of the empire to whichever daughter proved to love him most. Goneril
                 lavished exaggerated praise on her father; Regan even outdid her sister
                 with a wordy show of hollow affection Cordelia, however, refused to stoop
                 to flattery, and insisted that she loved her father no more and no less than
                 was his due. Lear exploded at what seemed to him her untenderness and
                 immediately disowned her. Moreover, Lear banished the Duke of Kent
                 from the castle for defending Cordelia.

                 Two suitors had come to the British court to seek Cordelia's hand: the
                 Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. After Lear had disinherited
                 Cordelia, Burgundy suddenly lost interest in her he aspired to a wealthy
                 bride. The King of France, however, was delighted by Cordelia's honesty
                 and immediately asked for her hand. They departed for France, without
                 Lear's blessing, and Cordelia's part of the kingdom was divided between
                 Goneril and Regan, who were all too happy at their sister's fall from grace.
                 Furthermore, these two daughters decided that Lear had succumbed to a
                 sort of senility, and they set upon a plan to exploit his weakness to their
                 own advantage.

                 Meanwhile, in the Earl of Gloucester's castle, Edmund, Gioucester's bitter
                 and cunning illegitimate son, was fretting over his father's preference
                 toward the legitimate brother, Edgar. Edmund now forged a letter in which
                 Edgar supposedly expressed his intent to murder their father. Gloucester
                 immediately believed the letter and fled in distress from the palace. Then
                 Edmund, in mock concern, went and warned his brother that someone had
                 turned Gloucester against him. Edgar, too good at heart to suspect his
                 brother's treachery' accepted the story and escaped to the forest. Thus,
                 with two clever strokes, Edmund had managed to supplant his brother in
                 his father's affections.

                 After dividing his kingdom, Lear decided to lodge for a time at Goneril's
                 palace. Now that she had her half of his kingdom, however, she no longer
                 feigned love for him. In fact, she so distained her father that she ordered
                 her servants to mistreat and insult him. Accordingly, her servants began to
                 deal with him as a senile old man rather than as a king.

                 In the meantime, the banished Duke of Kent disguised himself and
                 presented himself to the king at Goneril's palace. Lear failed to recognize
                 the disguise and hired Kent as a servant. Then, with the help of the King's
                 Fool (whose biting jibes and puns provide some of the finest moments in
                 all literature), Kent began hinting to Lear that he had acted unwisely in
                 dealing with Cordelia, until the King began to perceive his folly. As Gonerit
                 continued to humiliate him, Lear, bemoaning his fate ("How sharper than a
                 serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child!"), determined to move on to
                 Regan's household. He did not know that Regan was at that moment on her
                 way to visit Gloucester. (In fact, all of the characters were now converging
                 on Gloucester's castle).

                 Near Gloucester, Edgar, still convinced that his life was in peril from his
                 father, lingercd in a local wood, disguised as a madman - Tom o' Bedlam.

                 Soon Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrived at Gloucester.
                 They were followed by King Lear not long after. When Goneril and her
                 household also appeared, the two sisters united to disgrace their father,
                 ordering him to dismiss all his servants. But this humiliation proved too
                 much for the old King, who, in a fit of anger and shame, rushed out of the
                 castle into a furious storm, where he wandered about madly, screaming
                 and cursing. Their plan having succeeded, the daughters locked the doors
                 behind him.

                 Then follows a most famous and stirring scene: Lear raged and cursed in
                 the midnight storm, with his frightened Fool cowering beside him, uttering
                 the most biting and ironic jokes, while Kent watched in disbelief.

                 Fortunately, Gloucester found them and led them to a little hovel, where they
                 encountered Edgar, still disguised as Tom O'Bedlam and pretending
                 derangement. Lear, now half mad himself, set about conducting a bizarre
                 mock trial of his daughters, with Kent, the Fool, and Edgar all serving in his
                 "court." (The mixture of Lear's denunciations, Edgar's incoherent chatter,
                 the Fool's punning and ironic commentary, and Kent's astonished silence,
                 create a superb scene of absurdity and despair).

                 Meanwhile, Kent had heard that Cordelia, back in France, was preparing
                 to ship a small army across the English Channel to rescue Lear. But
                 Edmund, who had also got wind of this news, hinted to Regan's husband,
                 the Duke of Cornwall, that Gloucester planned to side with Lear and the
                 French army against Regan and Goneril. Cornwall was furious, and agreed
                 to avenge himself on innocent Gloucester. (Very convenient for Edmund, of
                 course, as he would inherit his father's earldom!)

                 It was now a race against time: could Gloucester, Edgar, Kent and Lear
                 hold out against the treachery of Edmund, Regan, Goneril and Cornwall
                 until help arrived from France? They devised a plan to flee to Dover, there
                 to await the coming of Cordelia and the French troops. King Lear
                 managed to make his escape in time, drawn by Kent in a litter, but
                 Gloucester was not so lucky Cornwall caught him, jabbed out both his eyes,
                 then thrust him through the castle gates to "let him smell his way to Dover."
                 Crawling about blindly, the earl bumped into none other than his own son,
                 Edgar, still pretending to be insane. Edgar agreed to lead his father - who
                 remained unapprised of his true identity - to Dover, though and Gloucester
                 bitterly complained: "Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind."

                 While Kent with Lear and Edgar with Gloucester were making their
                 separate ways to Dover, a love affair brewed among the villains. Goneril
                 had become infatuated with the diabolical Edmund, who returned with her
                 to her palace. There she fell into a bitter argument with her husband, the
                 Duke of Albany, who vehemently chastised Goneril for her mistreatment of
                 Lear. Albany also informed his wife that Cornwall had been killed - struck
                 down by one of Gioucester's servants. Suddenly a frightening thought
                 paralyzed Goneril: now that her sister was a widow, would she too pursue
                 Edmund and his rising star? This fear was soon confirmed when Regan
                 sent a message to the castle professing her love for Edmund, followed by
                 an invitation to join forces with her. Since Albany's sympathies were now
                 with Lear, Goneril was forced to watch in frustrated rage as her sister and
                 Edmund set out together with their cohorts against the expected invasion.

                 In the mean time, at Dover, Kent met with the French officials while
                 Cordelia sent doctors to treat her father, who, by that time, was mentally
                 and physically spent. But Lear refused to meet with Cordelia; he had come
                 to understand his injuries against his loyal daughter and now felt too
                 ashamed to see her.

                 On his journey to Dover, the blind Gloucester had grown more and more
                 distressed. At last he implored Edgar to guide him to the brink of a cliff so
                 that he could throw himself off. But Edgar fooled him into thinking the level
                 ground was actually the top of a ridge. And when Gloucester fell forward
                 onto the ground, as if jumping from a cliff, Edgar changed his voice,
                 pretending to be a passerby at the cliff's base. He assured his father that
                 he had seen him fall from the dizzy height and survive he'd seen a miracle!
                 Gloucester believed the tale and accepted the "miracle" as a sign that he
                 was meant to live.

                 Now Lear, who had been delirious before he was finally rescued by
                 Cordelia, fell into a deep sleep. On awakening, he found himself purged of
                 his madness and begged Cordelia's forgiveness. Their reconciliation
                 complete, they were ready to join with Kent and the French army against
                 Edmund and his forces.

                 But Cordelia's troops were defeated, and Edmund sent orders that Lear
                 and his daughter be executed.

                 Meanwhile, Regan had collapsed in death, poisoned by her own jealous
                 sister. (Goneril herself would later die by suicide.) Just at that moment
                 Edgar burst in on the scene, engaged his brother Edmund in combat, and
                 dealt him a mortal wound. He then cast off his disguise and revealed his
                 true identity to his dying brother, also reporting that Gloucester, their father,
                 had died a few hours before. Edmund, apparently touched by the news of
                 his father's death, confessed that he had ordered the executions of Lear
                 and Cordelia, and dispatched a messenger to stop them. It was, alas, too
                 late - Lear entered, carrying the body of his beloved daughter, then he too
                 fell and died, broken-hearted. Only Albany, Kent, and Edgar survived. It fell
                 to these last two to jointly rule the shattered nation.

Study Questions for Shakespeare's King Lear

1. Why the Gloucester subplot?
2. Lear asks 3 important questions during the storm. Find them. Why are they important? How can they be
3. What does the storm represent?
4. What does clothing represent? Why does Lear try to shed his?
5. What part does divine intervention play? Is there a God or gods?
6. How do parents relate to their children in this world? Are the children anything like their individual parents?
7. Watch for references to seeing, eyes, perception, disease, and self-knowledge. How do these motifs and
issues function in this play?
8. Watch the speech patterns of individual characters. Who speaks in verse? In prose? In gibberish? In dialect?
When? Why? Why are there so many types of speech in this play?
9. Who does Lear address in his madness? Why?
10. What is the purpose of the Fool? What is his ultimate fate?
11. Is Edgar a plausible character? Why does he maintain his disguise for so long?
12. Is there any ultimate justice in this play? Is evil punished or good rewarded?
13. Critics have called Lear "unproducible". Do you agree? Why or why not?
14. Is Shakespeare making any statements about women and power in this play? Can you tell Goneril and
Regan apart? Does Cordelia resemble them or her father in any way?

Activities: taken from - King Lear: The global Shakespeare series

p.155 King Lear in respite care by Margaret Atwood (question 1), compare this poem to Paul Simon's Old Friends or Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game

p.161 Wise enough to play the fool by  Isaac Asimov (question 1)

p. 182 Cordelia by Anna Jameson (question 2), write a poem about Cordelia

p.185 Why King Lear is the cruellest play ( question 2)