King Lear Summary

King Lear by William Shakespeare

     King Lear is a tragedy by Shakespeare about a King who lets his ego get in the way of making good decisions. At eighty years old, he decides it's time to divide up his kingdom between his three daughters, and even though he knows his youngest daughter, Cordelia, loves him the most, he decides to have a contest in which they must profess how much they love him, expecting Cordelia to win. His two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, lie about how much they love their father. Cordelia is upset by their lies and the pointlessness of the contest, so she responds with the word nothing. Her father is shocked that she cannot tell him how much she loves him, but she just can't put it into words. Therefore, as punishment, he takes away all of Cordelia's land and splits in between Goneril and Regan. He then asks Cordelia's suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, if they still want to marry his daughter, knowing she has received no land. Burgundy says he is no longer interested, but France sees Cordelia for the good person she is and happily agrees to take her home with him. This contest did benefit Cordelia in showing her which suitor did not just want her for her money.

     Meanwhile, Gloucester, who is an earl and advisor to Lear, is having trouble with his sons. Edmund, who is younger and illegitimate, is angry that he doesn't stand to inherit from Gloucester, so he plots to make his older brother, Edgar, look bad. Like Lear, Gloucester believes his son's lies and thinks Edgar wants him dead. A kind-hearted soul, Edgar also believes his brother's lies that people are conspiring against him, so he flees and decides to disguise himself as a crazy beggar for protection.

     After dividing his kingdom, Lear lives with his daughter Goneril but behaves badly, so he decides to move in with Regan. Regan does not appreciate the rudeness of him and his knights either, so they argue, and Lear runs off alone into a storm. Out in the storm, he is joined by his banished friend Kent, in disguise, and his Fool. Both of these men try to impart the truth to Lear in their guise of nonsense. Lear also encounters Edgar, disguised as a crazy person, and has revelations about life during his bout with madness. Eventually, his friends lead him out of the storm, and he is reunited with Cordelia.

     Several battles have been brewing within the kingdom: one over land, and one over the love of Edmund. It seems both Goneril and Regan are attracted to Edmund although Regan stands a better chance with him after her husband Cornwall dies from a stab wound inflicted by a servant who was trying to keep Gloucester from having his eyes plucked out. The blind Gloucester is supposedly led by his disguised son Edgar to the edge of a cliff where he plans to kill himself; however, Edgar makes sure he just falls on his face and then acts as though he fell off the cliff and miraculously survives.

     Shortly after reuniting with Cordelia, she and Lear are taken to prison where Edmund has ordered the Captain to hang Cordelia and make it look like a suicide. Goneril has poisoned her sister Regan to keep her from being with Edmund. Albany finds out Goneril has been unfaithful and challenges Edmund to a duel unless someone else wants to fight Edmund on his behalf, so Edgar shows up and kills his brother Edmund, revealing his true identity to him before he dies. He also confesses that when he revealed his identity to Gloucester, he had a heart attack and died too. Goneril feels guilty about what she has done and commits suicide. Lear shows up with Cordelia dead in his arms and dies beside her.

     In the end only Albany remains with Kent and Edgar, so he asks that they all rule together, but Kent declines. Lear is considered a tragic hero for letting his fatal flaw cause changes in his fortune, newfound knowledge, and eventually his death, which is a punishment that exceeded his crime.

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