An old and selfish king, King Lear, assembles his court and his three daughters to tell them that he has decided to divide his kingdom between them. He tells his daughters that he wants to be free of all cares and burdens in his old age and that the largest part of his kingdom will be given to the one who loves him most. He listens to his eldest daughter first. Goneril, who is married to Lord Albury, declares that she loves her father ‘more than words can wield the matter’. Then he listens to his next daughter. Regan, who is married to Lord Cornwell, says that her love goes beyond Goneril’s love in that she ‘is enemy to all other joys’ and only happy because of her father’s love. Lear is pleased with both of his daughters and he gives to them and their husbands a third of his kingdom.
Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, plots against his legitimate brother, Edgar. He thinks of a way of removing Edgar from his father’s affections so that he can inherit all that his father owns. Edmund writes a letter of conspiracy against Gloucester, but pretends that Edgar has written it and furthermore makes sure that his father reads it. When Gloucester reads of Edgar’s supposed intention to take his place and manage his revenue, he is furious. He is also disturbed by unnatural events such as eclipses in the sun and moon which he thinks are bad omens which point to discord, mutiny and treason. Edmund later convinces Edgar that his father is angry with him. He tells him to think of what he has done to anger Gloucester and advises him to carry a weapon to protect himself. When Edgar has gone, Edmund mocks his ‘credulous father’ and his brother’s ‘foolish honesty’.
Lear has been staying with Goneril and she very quickly becomes tired of his demanding behaviour and riotous knights. She advises her steward to be ‘slack of former services’ and not to worry if he offends Lear or his knights. Goneril says Lear can go to live with Regan if he does not want to be treated like that and describes him as an idle old man, saying ‘old fools are babes again’.
Kent, who has been banished, is still in the country but has taken on a disguise. While he is disguised, he offers his services to Lear. The king does not recognise him and takes him into his service. Lear begins to notice that Goneril and her husband and her servants are unkind and neglectful to his knights and to him. He also notices that his fool is absent and his knights tell him that he is pining away because Cordelia has left England. When Kent (in disguise) notices Goneril’s steward being rude to Lear, he challenges him and throws him out. Lear’s Fool appears and criticises Lear for throwing away his crown and giving his daughters so much power over him. When Goneril appears to complain about Lear’s knights and his fool, Lear confronts her and she tells him that he must reduce the number of knights who follow him. Lear is furious and accuses her of being a thankless child. He leaves Goneril in anger and goes to stay with Regan.
Scene 5Lear gives Kent some letters to deliver to Gloucester. When Kent leaves, the Fool warns Lear against foolish behaviour and Lear begins to doubt his own decisions and behaviour, saying ‘O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven’.
In Gloucester’s castle a messenger comes to Edmund to tell him that Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall are coming to stay that night. Edgar also comes to see Edmund and Edmund tells him to leave the castle quickly because of his father’s anger. He also tells Edgar that the Duke of Cornwall is angry with him as well. As they are talking, Gloucester arrives and Edmund attacks Edgar with a sword, telling him to pretend to defend himself and escape. As Edgar escapes from the castle, Edmund wounds his own arm with his sword. He tells Gloucester that Edgar tried to convince him to murder their father and then attacked him. Gloucester is outraged. He vows to hunt down Edgar and to legitimise Edmund. When Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrive they hear the gossip about Edgar confirmed and they congratulate Edmund on being a dutiful son. Regan also reveals that they have received letters from Goneril and Lear and that they have come to stay with Gloucester because they want to avoid seeing Lear. They also want Gloucester’s help with the problem that is developing.
Goneril’s steward, Oswald, has travelled to Gloucester’s castle with letters and meets Kent, still in disguise. Kent remembers his rudeness to Lear and quarrels with him, first with insults and then with his sword. As Oswald calls for help, Edmund arrives along with Gloucester, Regan and Cornwall. Kent continues to insult Oswald and also insults the Duke of Cornwall. The angry Duke places Kent in the stocks even though he reveals that he is in the king’s service and that he dishonours the king by publically punishing him. Cornwall and Regan are determined that Kent should be punished and do not listen when Gloucester tries to convince them against it. Kent is put in the stocks and when he is alone he reads a letter from Cordelia who has been told that he is in disguise with the King and promises to help.
Edgar, in a long soliloquy, reveals that he has escaped from the men who were sent to arrest him and that he is hiding in the woods for safety. His disguise is one of the ‘basest and most poorest shape’ and he has torn his clothes and dirtied his skin so that he resembles a lunatic beggar similar to the Bedlam beggars. He is no longer called Edgar but ‘Poor Tom’.
Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle and is angry to find Kent in the stocks. He demands to know why and goes to speak to Regan. He is even more angry when he is told they are too tired from their journey and will not speak to him. Gloucester tries to help and eventually brings Regan and Cornwall out to speak to Lear. Kent is released from the stocks and Lear tells Regan that her sister Goneril has turned against him. He tells her of her ‘sharp-toothed unkindness’, but Regan stands up for her and advises Lear to return to Goneril and ask her forgiveness. Lear is horrified that his two daughters should treat him like this and as they talk a trumpet announces the arrival of Goneril. Regan and Goneril together try to convince Lear that he has no need of his train of knights, but should instead be dependent on them and their servants to serve him. Lear becomes increasingly distressed that his daughters, now that they have all his wealth and authority, have turned against him. He tries to hold back tears of rage and madness and leaves with Kent and his Fool. As he leaves a storm erupts, Gloucester tries to follow Lear to bring him back into the castle, but Goneril and Regan tell him that Lear has made his own choice and the castle is locked.
Out on the heath in the storm, Kent meets a gentleman who is loyal to the king and tells him of all that has happened. Kent also tells him of news and spies from France who are in England to await a French invasion. He gives the gentleman his ring and his purse and tells him to go to Dover and to give a report of all that is happening to Cordelia.
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On the heath, Edgar sees the blinded Gloucester being led by an old man and is sad and angry to see he has been treated so violently by Cornwall and Regan. The old man leaves Gloucester with Edgar, still in disguise as Poor Tom, and Gloucester asks him to take him to Dover. Gloucester gives him all his money and asks him to take him to the edge of one of the cliffs so he can end his life. Edgar agrees and tells him that Poor Tom shall lead him there.
Goneril arrives at her husband’s home with Edmund, but her husband, Albury, does not come to greet her. She learns that Albury smiled at the news of the French soldiers who were coming to help Lear. Goneril was disgusted and as she sends Edmund back to Cornwall she kisses him and tells him that she will send word to him through her servant. Albury rebukes Goneril for her fiendish behaviour. When a servant arrives to tell them that Cornwall died from the wound inflicted by his servant, all Goneril cares about is that Regan is now alone with Edmund. Albury learns from the messenger that Edmund had betrayed his father and he swears to revenge old Gloucester.
Kent finds out from a gentleman at the French camp near Dover that the French general carries on with the plan to come to Lear’s aid. He hears how Cordelia wept to read what her father had suffered at the hands of her sisters. Kent tells the gentleman that Lear does not want to see Cordelia because he is ashamed of the way he has treated her. He brings the gentleman to meet Lear and leaves him to look after him.
Scene 4Lear has been brought to the French camp and is being looked after by a doctor. When Cordelia arrives they discuss how to restore his bereaved senses. A messenger then arrives with news that the British forces are coming nearer and Cordelia leaves Lear with the doctor as the battle preparations carry on.
In Gloucester’s castle Oswald arrives with a letter from Goneril for Edmund. Now that he husband is dead, Regan also wants to marry Edmund and she tries to convince Oswald to let her read the letter. She wants Oswald to return the letter to Goneril and she tells him that she will reward him more than her sister would. She also wants Oswald to find Gloucester and kill him because he moves people to pity and they are turning against her.
Scene 6In the fields near Dover, Edgar tells Gloucester that he has led him up to the edge of a cliff and describes the steep drop into the sea beneath the cliff. The blind Gloucester believes him and, giving him a purse with a jewel in it, tells him to go away and leave him. Edgar takes the purse but stays nearby as Gloucester kneels and prays. He renounces the world and blesses his son Edgar, then throws himself forward. He falls, but does not fall off the cliff because Edgar has tricked him. Edgar calls to him and describes how he miraculously survived a dreadful fall from the top of a cliff. While Gloucester starts to believe he has miraculously escaped death, Lear appears draped in flowers and speaking nonsense. Edgar is appalled at his descent into madness and Gloucester recognises the king’s voice. Lear also recognises Gloucester and bitterly rails against the injustices of life. A gentleman from Cordelia arrives to lead Lear away, but Lear thinks he is being taken prisoner by Goneril and Regan and he runs away.
As Edgar leads Gloucester away to a safe place, Oswald finds them and draws his sword to kill the blind man. Edgar protects him and kills Oswald. As Oswald dies he gives Edgar, thinking he is a peasant, a letter to deliver to Edmund. As he reads the letter, Edgar finds out that his brother has become Earl of Gloucester and that Goneril wants him to kill Albury so he can marry her. Edgar is horrified and vows to help Albury.
While Lear is again asleep in the care of doctors, Cordelia talks to Kent and thanks him for taking care of her father. Cordelia is filled with pity for her father and for the way he has been treated by her sisters. The doctors allow Cordelia to awaken him but when he awakens Lear is sad to find he is still alive and thinks that Cordelia is a spirit. When Lear realises Cordelia really is with him, he tries to kneel and ask her for forgiveness but she will not let him kneel before her. The doctors advise that he should rest more and Cordelia leads him back to bed. Kent and a gentleman talk about the forthcoming battle and both agree that it will be a dangerous and bloody battle.
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At the British camp near Dover Regan asks Edmund if he loves her sister Goneril and Edmund promises her that he will not be too familiar with her. Goneril and her husband Albury arrive and Goneril is more concerned about losing Edmund than about losing the battle. Edmund and Albury leave to prepare for battle and Goneril and Regan stay in a different part of the camp. Just before leaving for battle Edgar arrives in disguise and gives Albany the letter from Goneril to Edmund.
Meanwhile Edmund wonders which of the two sisters he should marry and how he can get rid of Albany. He decides to wait until after the battle to get rid of him and to make sure that Albany has no opportunity to show mercy to Lear and Cordelia.
Just before the battle starts, Edgar makes sure his father has a safe place to stay and promises to come back for him. Edgar leaves to join the battle, but returns with news that Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. At first Gloucester refuses to go with him and wants to suffer the same fate as the king, but Edgar convinces him to go with him.
In the British camp near Dover, Edmund has Cordelia and Lear as prisoners and orders them to be locked up. As they are led off he gives the captain instructions to kill them and makes him promise to carry them out and send word to him. Albany arrives and praises Edmund for his part in the battle. He asks Edmund to hand over Lear and Cordelia to him. When Edmund refuses and Albany questions his right to refuse him, Regan supports Edmund and tells them that he is her husband. Goneril’s jealous reaction leads Albany to threaten Edmund and challenge him to a duel. Regan begins to complain that she feels ill and Goneril reveals to the audience that she has poisoned her.
A herald sounds out the challenge against Edmund and Edgar arrives, in disguise, to fight him. Edgar and Edmund fight and Edgar wins the fight and wounds Edmund. As Edmund is dying Albany confronts Goneril with the letter she wrote to Edmund and she runs away. Edmund asks for the name of the person who has defeated him and Edgar reveals his true identity. Edmund acknowledges the justice of dying at the hands of the brother he has wronged. Edgar tells them that he revealed his identity to his father and asked for his blessing just before fighting Edmund. He also told them how Gloucester was so happy and yet so distressed that he died as he smiled on him. As he speaks a man rushes in with a bloody dagger to say that Goneril has killed herself and confessed to poisoning her sister. As Edmund sees the dead bodies of Goneril and Regan brought in and as Albany asks where Lear and Cordelia are, he decides to confess before he dies. Edmund tells them to quickly run to Lear and Cordelia because he has given orders that they are to be killed. But it is too late. As Edmund is taken away, Lear arrives carrying the dead Cordelia and grieving over her. He tells them that he killed the guard who was hanging Cordelia and he dies of a broken heart as he weeps over her. Albany hands over the kingdom to Kent and Edgar, but Kent says he will shortly follow the king and Edgar is left as ruler as the play ends.
Making sense of the play
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