MODERN KING LEAR PLOT SUMMARY
Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on a mythical story of an ancient king of pre-Christian Britain. The story likely had elements of truth to it, but Shakespeare presented it in a more contemporary format that his audiences could understand.
King Lear, an aged monarch, has decided to divide his kingdom up among his three daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Goneril is married to the Duke of Albany and Regan to the Duke of Cornwall. Cordelia is still single, and two men are residing in court, competing for her hand in marriage (and her dowry) – the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy.
When Lear calls his servants, retainers, court and family together he is pleased with the obsequious flattery he receives at the hand of his two older daughters, Goneril and Regan. He does not realize that they are probably already scheming to take away all of his power. Lear has decided to give control over to his daughters and their husbands but not to relinquish quite everything – he fully expects to retain some influence at court and be given the respect due a monarch of his age and experience.
Lear’s third daughter, his favorite, Cordelia, refuses to use false flattery with her father and he is outraged and decides to cut her dowry down to a miniscule size. The King of France, smitten by Cordelia, wishes to marry her regardless, and they are sent from the kingdom back to France.
In a subplot that mirrors the main story, one of Lear’s supporters, the Earl of Gloucester is soon betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund – who tells him his legitimate son Edgar is plotting against it. Goneril and Regan have already turned against their father with the avid support of Regan’s husband the Duke of Cornwall. They alienate the Earl of Kent, who is sent away by Lear, believing him to be unfaithful to his King. In time, Gloucester is blinded by the Duke of Cornwall and is helped by his son Edgar, now banished and disguised as a peasant.
One stormy night, after being bitterly disappointed by his second daughter, Regan, Lear blunders out into the night, ranting that he cannot take such treatment any longer. His Fool, formerly a servant of Cordelia’s, goes with him, and protects the King, who is clearly becoming unhinged. Eventually, they hide in a shelter with Edgar, who is posing as a peasant named Tom.
In time, the news comes that the King of France has landed, coming to the aid of Lear. However, Edmund has managed to find enough troops to support his cause, and attacks the French at Dover. Cordelia is in the camp there, and is reunited with her father, and their differences resolved. Edmund takes Cordelia and Lear prisoner, and Gloucester and Edgar are also at Dover, and Gloucester dies, but not before Edgar reveals his true identity. Edmund defeats the French and orders Cordelia to be hanged, which brings on Lear’s sudden death. Meanwhile, Goneril has killed Regan and then herself as a result of their rivalry over Edmund.
Edgar kills Edmund and now that all the protagonists are gone, it is left up to him, and the Earl of Kent to restore the kingdom.
MODERN KING LEAR CHARACTER ANALYSIS
King Lear is based upon a mythical character who may have been an early monarch of Britain in pre-Christian time. The myth was still commonly known in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In Shakespeare’s play, the King is old (in his eighties) and has decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He becomes angry with his youngest daughter so divides it between the two older daughters, Goneril and Regan. This in time leads to his downfall and his tragic death.
Goneril is the eldest of King Lear’s three daughters and the wife of the Duke of Albany. After flattering her father and conniving to convince him to give up his kingdom in all but name, Goneril turns against her father once she has her portion and begins treat him poorly and in time, to plot his demise. Her husband turns against her before the end of the play as she falls in love with Edmund, the son of the Earl of Gloucester.
Regan is the second and middle daughter of King Lear and is much like her sister Goneril. She plays up to and flatters her father who believes she and Goneril truly love him. After she receives her portion of her father’s kingdom, she also turns against him and feels little compassion for his miserable state. Regan is married to the Duke of Cornwall, a nasty and vindictive man. Regan dies by poison at the end of the play at the hands of her sister Goneril, who then kills herself.
Cordelia is the youngest of the three daughters of King Lear. At the beginning of the play, she is being courted by the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. She decides to marry the King of France. When Lear is dividing up his kingdom in the first scene of Act 1, Cordelia refuses to flatter him, but behaves as she has always done. Lear banishes her and leaves her no land. In the end, Cordelia is reunited with her father shortly before he dies.
Duke of Albany
The Duke of Albany is married to Goneril, King Lear’s oldest daughter. As a man in that time period, he has as much, if not more, influence in their portion of the kingdom as his wife does. Albany is torn between supporting his wife and supporting her father, but his sense of ethics and strong character win out in the end as he turns against Goneril and supports Lear.
Duke of Cornwall
He is married to Regan, Lear’s middle daughter. As a man in that time period, he has as much, if not more, influence in their portion of the kingdom as his wife does. Unlike his brother-in-law Albany, Cornwall joins in his wife’s scheming against her father to usurp his power. He also allies himself with Edmund, son of Gloucester. In the end, he loses his life due to his scheming.
Earl of Gloucester
The Earl fights against the corruption of the daughters of his King but never gives up his loyalty to Lear, even after losing his sight in an assault by the Duke of Cornwall. A subplot of the play, Gloucester’s divided loyalties of his sons Edmund and Edgar, mirror the machinations of Lear’s daughters against him. He goes to Dover with his “good” son, disguised as a peasant, to lend support to his king.
Earl of Kent
A faithful supporter of the King, Kent gets wind that treachery is in the air, and is placed in the stocks for hitting Goneril’s servant. Lear banishes him but Kent stays in the area, taking on a disguise and getting himself hired as a servant to the King. Throughout the play, he serves as Lear’s faithful servant and intervenes on the old King’s behalf when necessary. At the end, he expresses his feelings about his demise – the King is dead and he will soon die too as his work on Earth is done.
Edgar is the legitimate son of the King of Gloucester and is slightly older than his half-brother Edmund. Edmund tricks their father into thinking Edgar is plotting against him (the Earl) and Gloucester banishes Edgar. Edgar lives rough and when his shelter is found by the King, Kent, and the Fool, pretends to be a peasant (“Poor Tom”) who is out of his mind. In time, he rescues his father who has been blinded.
Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, the result of a brief romance. Gloucester maintains he treats him no differently than his son Edgar, who is legitimate. Edmund begrudges his brother his inheritance (he is not due anything because he is illegitimate) and swears he will get rid of Edgar so he may take what is “rightfully” his, as he feels he is the better man. Edmund sides with Goneril and Regan and leads them both on, and his having an actual affair with Goneril is almost certain.
Goneril’s faithful steward, Oswald plots against her father for their King’s downfall. He serves as a go-between and a spy. Oswald is seen as a weak person without ethics, one who would sell anyone down the river to better his own position. This is the Earl of Kent’s opinion of Oswald and Kent finds himself banished when he expresses what he thinks. Oswald is the perfect obsequious servant and dies for his mistress, Goneril.
The King’s Fool, who was originally Cordelia’s before she went to France, takes over her role as Lear’s protector. He spends much of his time in the play spouting nonsense doggerel and silly rhymes – disguised as pithy observations of what is going on around him. The Fool accompanies Lear when he leaves the castle and wanders around the heath and makes sure he comes to no harm.
King of France
Early in the play Lear mentions the King of France as a possible husband for Cordelia and, in fact, he is staying with the court while he competes with another suitor. Although Lear cuts Cordelia’s dowry down to a minimum, France still wants to marry her, for he has grown to love her. Later he invades Lear’s kingdom when it is threatened by those who have turned against the King.
Duke of Burgundy
The Duke of Burgundy is competing for Cordelia’s hand with the King of France. He has no interest in her once Lear decides his youngest daughter will be cut out of her share of his land and holdings. He serves as a contrast to the King of France, who loves Cordelia despite her lack of dowry.
Various servants and other retainers appear in the play. In one pivotal scene, after Cornwall blinds Gloucester, the Duke of Albany’s servants leave in disgust, deserting their master for such heinous actions against an innocent man.
EXCERPT FROM KING LEAR IN PLAIN AND SIMPLE ENGLISH
SCENE I. King Lear's palace. Enter KENT, GLOUCESTER, and EDMUND
I thought the king had more affected the Duke of
Albany than Cornwall.
I thought the King preferred the Duke of
Albany over Cornwall.
It did always seem so to us: but now, in the
division of the kingdom, it appears not which of
the dukes he values most; for equalities are so
weighed, that curiosity in neither can make choice
of either's moiety.
I always thought so too; but now, in the way
he's split up the kingdom, one can't see which of
the Dukes he prefers; it is so finely
balanced that neither would be able to say
that he prefers the other's portion.
Is not this your son, my lord?
Isn't this your son, my lord?
His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge: I have
so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am
brazed to it.
He was brought up, Sir, at my expense: I have
so often been embarrassed to admit he's mine
that now I'm quite hardened to it.
I cannot conceive you.
I can't make you out.
Sir, this young fellow's mother could: whereupon
she grew round-wombed, and had, indeed, sir, a son
for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.
Do you smell a fault?
Sir, this young fellow's mother could: and so
her womb swelled and in fact she had a son
in the cradle before she had a husband in her bed.
Do you think that's wrong?
I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it
being so proper.
I wouldn't wish it any different, given there's
such a good result.
But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year
elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account:
though this knave came something saucily into the
world before he was sent for, yet was his mother
fair; there was good sport at his making, and the
whoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know this
noble gentleman, Edmund?
But I have, sir, a legitimate son, a year
older than this one, whom I don't rate as more important:
although this scoundrel came rather cheekily into
the world before he was wanted, his mother was
beautiful; conceiving him was good fun, and the
bastard must be acknowledged. Do you know this
noble gentleman, Edmund?
No, my lord.
No, my lord.
My lord of Kent: remember him hereafter as my
The Earl of Kent: from now on always remember that he is
my honored friend.
My services to your lordship.
At your Lordship's service.
I must love you, and sue to know you better.
We must be friends, and I will try to get to know you better.
Sir, I shall study deserving.
Sir, I shall try to deserve the compliment.
He hath been out nine years, and away he shall
again. The king is coming.
Sennet. Enter KING LEAR, CORNWALL, ALBANY, GONERIL, REGAN, CORDELIA, and Attendants
He's been abroad for nine years, and he'll be
going back. The King is coming.
Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.
Go and look after the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.
I shall, my liege.
Exeunt GLOUCESTER and EDMUND
I shall, my lord.
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answer'd. Tell me, my daughters,--
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first.
In the meantime I shall reveal my secret plan.
Give me that map. Be aware that I have divided
my kingdom into three: I am determined
to throw off all work and duty in my old age;
I will hand them over to younger men, while I
crawl towards death unencumbered. Our son Cornwall,
and you, just as loving son Albany,
I have determined that today I will announce
the different dowries of my daughters, so that
we can nip any future disputes in the bud. The Princes of France and Burgundy,
great rivals for the love of my youngest daughter,
have been staying in my court, out of love, for a long time,
and will be given my decision today. Tell me, my daughters–
since I am now throwing off my kingship,
ownership of land and the cares of state–
which of you shall we say loves me the most?
The biggest share will go to the one where merit most enhances nature. Goneril,
my firstborn, you speak first.
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
Sir, I love you more than words can express;
more than my eyesight, my freedom and my liberty;
more than anything of value, expensive or rare;
as much as life, grace, health, beauty, honor;
I am the most loving child ever, no father could find better;
my love makes me breathless and speechless;
I love you beyond all expression.
[Aside] What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.
What shall Cordelia do?
You must love, and be silent.
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich'd,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,
We make thee lady: to thine and Albany's issue
Be this perpetual. What says our second daughter,
Our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall? Speak.
All of this territory, from this line to this,
full of shady forests and open plains,
with many rivers and extensive meadows,
we make you the lady of: this shall be handed down to your children
in perpetuity. What does my second daughter say,
dearest Regan, the wife of Cornwall? Speak.
Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.
Sir, I am
identical in this way to my sister,
and of equal merit. She has
spoken everything that is in my heart,
only she falls short: I have to say
that no other happiness means anything to me,
nothing which the highest sense could feel;
the only thing that makes me happy
is your dear highness' love.
[Aside] Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love's
More richer than my tongue.
This is bad for you Cordelia!
And yet it isn't, since I'm sure that my love
is more than I can say.
To thee and thine hereditary ever
Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
Than that conferr'd on Goneril. Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess'd; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
You and your descendants for ever
shall have this large third of my beautiful country;
it's no less spacious, profitable or lovely
than Goneril's share. Now, the light of my eye,
last but not least; the one whose young love
the Dukes of France and Burgundy
are fighting to win; what can you say to get
a richer third than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
You won't get anything for nothing: try again.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
I'm sorry, but I cannot force myself
to express my feelings: I love your Majesty
just as I should; no more nor less.
How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
What's this, Cordelia! You should speak differently,
or you'll talk yourself out of your fortune.
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
My good lord,
you've fathered me, brought me up and loved me: I
repay you in the proper way,
by obeying you, loving you and honoring you.
Why do my sisters have husbands, if they say
that all their love is for you? When and if I marry,
the lord who takes my hand will also get
half my love, of my attention and care:
I certainly will not marry like my sisters,
only having love for my father.
But goes thy heart with this?
Are you speaking from the heart?
Ay, good my lord.
Yes, my good lord.
So young, and so untender?
You're so young and so hardhearted?
So young, my lord, and true.
So young, my lord, and honest.
Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.
So be it; let your honesty be your dowry then:
by the holy light of the sun,
these secrets of the underworld and the night;
by the movement of the stars
which mark our births and deaths;
I hereby disown all my fatherly duties,
family relations and blood ties,
and declare that you are now a stranger to my heart and me
forever, from this moment on. The barbarian Scythian,
or the ones who make their parents into stews
to assuage their appetites, shall be as close
to my heart, just as helped and pitied
as you, who was once my daughter.
Good my liege,--
My good Lord–
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence, and avoid my sight!
So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father's heart from her! Call France; who stirs?
Call Burgundy. Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughters' dowers digest this third:
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.
I do invest you jointly with my power,
Pre-eminence, and all the large effects
That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustain'd, shall our abode
Make with you by due turns. Only we still retain
The name, and all the additions to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,
This coronet part betwixt you.
Giving the crown
Do not come between the Dragon and his victim.
I loved her the most, and thought that she
would look after me in my retirement. Get out, don't let me see you again!
There will be no peace this side of the grave, and I take
her father's heart away from her! Call France; who's going to do it?
Call Burgundy. Cornwall and Albany,
take this extra third along with my two daughters' dowries:
let her marry her pride, which she calls honesty;
I give you both my power to share,
my superiority and all the other privileges
of kingship. I shall stay with you month and month about
with a retinue of a hundred knights, which you shall pay for.
I shall keep the title of King, and the honours due to it;
the power, income and administration of the rest
is yours, beloved sons: to confirm this
you can split this crown between you.