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William Shakespeare: King Lear
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2000

West (Benjamin), King Lear, 1788
Benjamin West, King Lear, 1788

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary, except as otherwise noted.

Overall Impression: This is great Shakespeare with profound language and action, though a little hard to take in its bleakness and not something I would wish to make a steady diet of.

Per Bevington: Sources date to ancient legends. Geoffrey of Monmouth in "Historia Regum Britanniae" c. 1136 tells of King Lear or Leir, and traces his lineage to Burt the great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy through Locrine, Bladud, then Leir and leading on eventually to Arthur. [The Tudor kings though they derived from this dynasty]. This version has a happy ending. The story is repeated in "The Mirror for Magistrates" (1574), Warner's "Albion's England" 1586, and Holinshed's "Chronicles" 2nd Ed 1587, also Spenser "Faerie Queen". WS's immediate source was probably a more recent play called "The True Chronicle History of King Leir" publ. 1605 but prob. written as early as 1588. This also ends happily. The plot of Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund draws on Sidney's "Arcadia" 1590, and the traditional Vice character derives in part from late medieval morality plays. Tom o' Bedlam draws on Harsnett's "Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures" 1603.

Depicts a malign or indifferent universe, the wretchedness of human existence. Injustice appears to triumph for a long time. Earlier versions (by other authors) had ended more happily. Subsequent productions and criticism of WS's KL favored a happier ending (e.g., Tate, Samuel Johnson). Contains a complex double plot (Lear, Gloucester)—such complexity is found nowhere else in his plays. Lear and Gloucester are fathers who end up cared for by loving but rejected children, to whom they are belatedly reconciled. The play opposes allegorical-like parable (having folklore and legendary elements) with realism—this dualism of focus invites conflicting interpretations. Edgar's story grows increasingly improbable, his motives hard to follow. Edmund is gleefully villainous like Iago, but shows belated desire to do good. There is a union of the universal and the particular, both parable and compelling reality. Some of the tension is between fathers and their marriageable daughters (Lear/Cordelia), her right to her own life, and the ability to grant authority to her husband as well as to her father. Lear is deficient in self-knowledge—his acquisition of wisdom comes at great cost. His actions set in motion a civil war and a French invasion, and are only partly plausible on political grounds. Lear's Fool provides warnings about the impending disaster—there is an inversion of folly and wisdom [i.e., Lear is the real fool]. The Fool disparages kindness and love, yet later suggests it is better to be a fool and suffer than to win on the cynical world's terms. These inversions parallel Christian teachings such as "Blessed are the meek...", etc. Cordelia's vision of genuine love is of this exalted spiritual order. Lear's vision of perfect justice is visionary and utopian, utterly mad. Lear speaks his first kind and compassionate words to the fool, as he is losing his mind. Enlightenment comes to Gloucester and Lear only through suffering, and at a terrible price. They are devastated, savagely humiliated. Justice on earth is personified by a madman (Lear), Edgar (disguised as Tom o' Bedlam), and the Fool. Gloucester no longer needs eyes to see the truth. Other inversions invert the values of loyalty, obedience, and family bonds. Personal and sexual relationships betray the universal malaise. There is nowhere a healthy love that is both sensual and spiritual. Lear indicts carnality and expresses his fear of female sexual appetite. Edmund is the "natural" [itself a paradoxical word] son of Gloucester and spurns Boethian [or Christian] concept of divine harmony, opting for a Machiavellian rationalist creed. He creed provides the play the supreme test: which definition of the natural order is true [i.e., Machiavellian vs. Christian/divine order]. But several characters exhibit ultimately good and virtuous behavior: Cornwall's servants, Albany, Cordelia, Edgar, [Kent], even Edmund at the last. The play suggests that villainy will ultimately destroy itself. But here, the devastation is so appalling that our questions about justice go unanswered. Women must often die in order for men to learn their hard lessons. We cannot be sure what if any restoration can occur at the end, but we can at least decide whether to live like Cordelia and Edgar or to settle for being our worst selves like Edmund, Goneril, and Regan. "Overwhelmed as we are by the testimonial before us of humankind's vicious capacity for self-destruction, we are stirred nonetheless by the ability of some men and women to confront their fearful destiny with probity and stoic renunciation, adhering to what they believe to be good and expecting Fortune to give them absolutely nothing. The power of love, though learned too late to avert catastrophe, is at last discovered in its very defeat."

Per Alan Grob (lecture c. 1965): WS's finest work. The questions posed are metaphysical, about good vs. evil and the nature of the universe, not good vs. bad daughters. Lear is not only vain, he is generous. He also mistakes his power as residing in him rather than in his position. Lear's 3 great lessons: (1) that he is a human being, (2) that justice does not always prevail unless man makes it so, (3) the only human hope is human love (i.e., only love redeems the horrors of the world). Edmund is Machiavellian or Hobbesian, a modern argument for individualism, survival of the fittest. Gloucester is antiscientific in the extreme, believing in astrology, credulous. The Fool is a choric commentator with worldly wisdom. His view of man as an animal is determined by fear. In storm, Lear tries to impose on nature his own values, desiring retribution on his daughters, but Edmund realizes that nature is indifferent to man's needs. He comes in the storm to see the general injustice of the universe. Edgar represents essential man. Garment imagery plays a central role in the play, and Lear strips off his clothes as he gains greater understanding. But dressed in flowers in 4.6, Lear does not seem to have completely found reality. His clarity is incomplete as seen in his meeting with Cordelia (e.g., his belief that she must be a spirit because of her kindness to him, and his views about being in prison with her). Even human love, redemptive as it is to the inner life (i.e., providing life its meaning), cannot move the universe, and can increase suffering and horror.

Per Harold Bloom in "Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human": The four main characters are Lear, Fool, Edmund, and Edgar. Except for Edmund, everyone either loves or hates too much. Love is not a healer, it starts all the trouble and is a tragedy itself. The play manifests intense anguish about human sexuality and omits maternal love. The only valid loves shown are between Cordelia and Lear and between Edgar and Gloucester. The apparent misogyny is a mask for even more profound alienation. Freud believed repressed desire for Cordelia caused Lear's madness (Bloom feels Lear is anything but repressed). The play is profoundly nihilistic. It is set 9 centuries before Christ. Lear's rhetorical power preempts speech. Feminists attack Lear's views on sexuality. Edmund is highly attractive, WS's most original character, perhaps representing Christopher Marlowe. The play succeeds because of Lear's greatness of affect. There can be no King Lear of our times because individual scale is too diminished.

Act I

Act I Scene 1

Lear's palace in Britain, mythical ?preChristian times [Lear is said to be 6 generations removed from Aeneas in Geoffrey's Historia and precedes King Arthur]. The Earls of Kent and Gloucester discuss how evenly Lear has partitioned the country for distribution to his 3 daughters. Gloucester introduces his bastard ("natural") son Edmund to Kent and alludes to the good sport at his conception, as well as to his legitimate son Edgar. Edmund has been away for 9 years and will be leaving again.

Lear enters carrying a coronet [perhaps for Cordelia or her betrothed], along with his daughters, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, and attendants. He takes a map of Britain and explains why he is dividing his land: "'Tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl toward death." He asks "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, his eldest and wife of Albany, speaks first with great flattery: "... A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable. / Beyond all manner of so much I love you." Cordelia to herself worries "What shall Cordelia speak? / Love and be silent." Lear bestows her lands upon her.

The middle daughter Regan, married to Cornwall, then outdoes Goneril, saying "... 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." Cordelia worries further as Lear bestows Regan's portion.

When Lear in turn asks "our joy", Cordelia can only respond "Nothing". Lear is taken aback and warns "Nothing will come of nothing." But Cordelia recalcitrantly insists ". . . I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love Your Majesty / According to my bond [of filial obligation]; no more nor less." Lear warns her again and she says "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 honor 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 [i.e., exclusively]." Lear persists in challenging her answers and Cordelia insists she is being true, not untender. Lear then proclaims that he is disowning her: "Let it be so! Thy truth, then, be thy dower! / . . . / 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 forever. The barbarous Scythian, / Or he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom / Be as well neighboured, pitied, and relieved / As thou my sometime daughter."

Kent intervenes unsuccessfully to dissuade Lear. He calls for the King of France and Duke of Burgundy, suitors to Cordelia, to be admitted and tells Albany and Cornwall that they will divide the share that would have gone to Cordelia. Lear intends to keep 100 knights, will keep the name and prerogatives of king. He tells them to divide the coronet (?). Kent again tries to defend Cordelia, despite Lear's warning to him. He calls Lear mad and warns him "Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak / When power [Lear] to flattery [the daughters] bows? / To plainness honor's bound / When majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy state; / And, in thy best consideration check / This hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgment, / Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, / Nor are those emptyhearted whose low sound / Reverbs no hollowness [i.e., insincerity]." Lear is enraged, swears by Apollo, prepares to take his sword. Albany and Cornwall ask Lear to restrain himself. Kent tells him he does evil. Lear banishes him forever, swearing to Jupiter that his decision is irrevocable. Kent bids a sad goodbye to Cordelia and tells the other sisters that he hopes their future deeds will be in accordance with their flattering words.

Gloucester, France, and Burgundy enter. Lear addresses Burgundy, telling him that Cordelia's dowry has fallen, that now all she offers is herself. He is taken aback. France questions the gravity of her offence, since Lear had spoken so praisingly of her before. Cordelia defends herself to Lear before France: "If for I want [lack] that glib and oily art [of flattery] / To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend / I'll do't before I speak—that you make known / It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness, / No unchaste action, or dishonored step / That hath deprived me of your grace and favor, / But even for want [lack] of that [flattery] for which I am richer. / A still-soliciting [ever begging] eye, and such a tongue / As I am glad I have not, though not to have it /Hath lost me in your liking." Lear wishes she had never been born. 

France is amazed that this is the extent of her offense. Burgundy asks Lear to stick to his original dowry offer, but Lear refuses and Burgundy withdraws as a suitor. Cordelia expresses disdain for this suitor whose goal is not merely her love.

But France is consoling to her and wants her as his bride: "Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor, / Most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised, / Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon, / Be it lawful I take up what's cast away." He marvels that the neglect of the gods has led to his increased respect for her, and asks her to bid farewell to those present for a better life. Lear expresses more contempt for her and rudely tells her [and perhaps France] "begone / Without our grace, our love, our benison." Lear leaves. Cordelia speaks guardedly to her sisters, hoping they will care for her father as they have claimed they will. Regan and Goneril are hostile and say she has neglected her own duty to Lear. She and France depart.

Goneril and Regan, now alone, discuss the poor judgment Lear has shown in turning out Cordelia (thus revealing the negative opinion they shared of him all along). Goneril says "'Tis the infirmity of his age. Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself." But Regan says he has always been stormy and unpredictable: "The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash. Then must we look from his [old] age to receive, not alone the imperfections of long-ingraffed condition [i.e., long-implanted habit], but therewithal [added onto] the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them."

Act I Scene 2

At the Earl of Gloucester's House. Edmund soliloquizes on his self-serving amoral materialistic Machiavellian-like philosophy and resentment over his illegitimate status. He is plotting to win his father's lands away from the current heir, his brother Edgar, using evil deceit via a letter: "Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound. Wherefore should I / Stand in the plague of custom and permit / The curiosity of nations to deprive me, / For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines / Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us / With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base? / Who in the lusty stealth of nature take / More composition and fierce quality / Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed / Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops / Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then, / Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. / Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund / As to th' legitimate. Fine word, "legitimate"! / Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed, / And my invention thrive, Edmund the base / Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper. / Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" 

Gloucester enters, disturbed over Kent's banishment, the rude treatment of France, and the abrupt division of the kingdom. He sees the letter Edmund pretends to hasten to conceal, and asks to read it. Edmund acts reluctant, saying it is from Edgar. Gloucester reads it and sees in it a conspiracy against him: " . . . If our father would sleep till I waked him, you should half his revenue forever and live the beloved of your brother, Edgar." Edmund says he has heard Edgar say that aging fathers should be like wards of their sons. Edmund says he found the note in his closet. Gloucester is enraged at the ostensibly planned villainy. Edmund professes reluctance to believe Edgar capable of such action and proposes that he stage a meeting with Edgar which Gloucester would listen in on.

Gloucester blames the many recent adverse turn of events on hostile portents and malign forces: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature [natural science] can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects [devastating consequences]. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked twixt son and father. This villain of mine [Edgar] comes under the prediction; there's son against father. The king falls from bias of nature [natural inclination]; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing . . ."

Left alone, Edmund is more cynically rational in his view, refusing to blame the stars or fate etc. for the actions of men: "This is the excellent foppery [foolishness] of the world, that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits [excesses] of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance [astrological determinism, whereby a certain planet was ascendant at the hour of one's birth], drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in, by a divine [supernatural] thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish [lecherous] disposition on the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's tail [under the constellation Draco] and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. . . . O, these eclipses do portend these divisions!

Edgar arrives and Edmund tells him of an astrological prediction he heard regarding the effects of the eclipses that have occurred [in contrast to his just professed skepticism]: "I promise you, the effects he writes of succeed unhappily, as of unnaturalness between the child and the parent, death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities, divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against king and nobles, needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what." He proceeds to plant concern that his father is angry with Edgar due to an unstated offense and suggests he lay low and avoid Gloucester. Edgar suspects some villain is responsible for this. Edmund advises he arm himself. Left alone, Edmund gloats at the credulity of Edgar and his father.

Act I Scene 3

Albany's palace. Goneril discusses with her servant her anger at Lear's behavior. His 100 knights are riotous, he is constantly critical. "Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away! Now, by my life, / Old fools are babes again; and must be used / With checks [rebukes] as flatteries, when they are seen abused." She instructs Oswald to slack off on his former services to Lear, and wishes to provoke a confrontation.

Act I Scene 4

Same. Kent enters, disguised as Caius, hoping to resume his faithful service to Lear. Lear wants his dinner without delay. He asks Kent/Caius who he is, and Kent describes himself as an honest man—Lear agrees to hire him if he still pleases him after dinner. He calls for his fool.

Oswald enters and treats Lear rudely. His knight comments on the decline in graciousness and kindness with which they are being treated and received. Lear has also perceived a faint degree of neglect recently. The knight says Fool has been pining away since Cordelia left for France. Oswald reenters and again behaves impertinently toward Lear—Lear strikes him and trips him. Kent angrily pushes Oswald away.

Fool enters and seems to recognize Kent, calling him also a fool "for taking one's part [Cordelia] that's out of favor." He speaks to Lear humorously but ironically and bitterly about the foolishness of the king's actions toward his daughter, his giving of his lands to his daughter, the giving of all titles away except "fool". He says he has made his daughters into his mothers (i.e., to discipline him). He notes paradoxically that he can be whipped for being silent or for speaking his mind.

Goneril enters and begins to rebuke Lear for the insolence of his fool and his retinue. Fool alludes to the cuckoo now eating the head off of the sparrow that raised it. Lear is incredulous at her defiance and wonders aloud "Doth any here know me? This is not Lear. / Doth Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes? / Either his notion weakens, his discernings / Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? 'Tis not so. / Who is it that can tell me who I am?" Goneril proceeds to complain about his large retinue: "Men so disordered, so debauched and bold / That this our court, infected with their manners, / Shows like a riotous inn. / Epicurism and lust / Make it more like a tavern or a brothel / Than a graced palace." She ends with a request combined with a threat: "Be then desired, / By her, that else will take the thing she begs, / A little to disquantity your train . . ." Lear is enraged, calls her a degenerate bastard, and decides to depart for his other daughter Regan.

Albany enters and weakly tries to placate Lear, asking him to be patient. Lear is beginning to see his own foolishness and that Cordelia was right: "O most small fault, / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! / Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature / From the fixed place; drew from heart all love, / And added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear! / Beat at this gate [his head], that let thy folly in, / And thy dear judgment out!" He curses Goneril and wishes her to be sterile: "Hear, Nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear! / Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend / To make this creature fruitful! / Into her womb convey sterility; / Dry up in her the organs of increase, / And from her derogate body never spring / A babe to honor her! If she must teem, / Create her child of spleen, that it may live / And be a thwart disnatured torment to her! / Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth, / With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks, / Turn all her mother's pains and benefits / To laughter and contempt, that she may feel / How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child! Away, away!" He leaves but soon returns angry that she has already reduced his retinue to 50 men. He curses and casts off Goneril forever, assuming that Regan will treat him kindly. He seems to threaten to reassume royal power, and leaves.

Albany tries to moderate his wife's behavior toward Lear but she cuts him off. She angrily chases the Fool away. She fears her father, who could "hold our lives in mercy". She has Oswald carry a letter to Regan, telling of Lear's actions and asking for her solidarity against Lear. She concludes by chastising Albany for his mildness: "No, no, my lord, / This milky gentleness and course of yours / Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon [i.e., if you will excuse me for seeing it], / You are much more attasked [blamed] for want [lack] of wisdom / Than praised for harmful mildness." He counters "How far your eyes may pierce I can not tell. / Striving to better, oft we mar what's well."

Act I Scene 5

Before Albany's palace. Lear sends Kent/Caius with a letter to Regan at Gloucestershire. Fool predicts that Regan will be no more receptive to them than Goneril was, saying Lear would make a good fool and that "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise." Lear exclaims "To take 't again perforce! Monster ingratitude!" [Interpretable as (1) Goneril has forcibly taken back the privileges he retained for himself, or less likely (2) He is contemplating an armed restoration of his power.] Lear and Fool depart.

Lear, fearing he is going mad, exclaims "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! / Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!"

Act II

Act II Scene 1

At the Earl of Gloucester's house [2 days later]. Edmund speaks with Curan, a member of the household who tells him that Cornwall and Regan will be coming that night. Curan alludes to growing "wars" between Cornwall and Albany. To himself, Edmund sees this as an opportunity to promote his evil designs.

Edgar enters, and Edmund tells him to flee to save his life from his father's wrath and asks if he has spoken ill of Cornwall or Albany. He has Edgar draw his sword on him as Gloucester arrives [why does Edgar agree to do this? — because he trusts Edmund's good intentions?] They mock fight and Edmund wounds his arm as Edgar flees. Edmund tells his father that Edgar tried to persuade him to kill Gloucester, but he opposed this. Gloucester swears he will be caught and executed for his intended crime, and that the one who catches him will be rewarded. Edmund quotes what Edgar allegedly said, that no one would believe Edmund's story against Edgar's. 

Trumpets announce the arrival of the Duke, and Gloucester frets as to why they have come as he makes plans for his son's capture and Edmund's assumption of Edgar's role. Cornwall asks G. why his son has attacked him—Regan suggests it is because he has kept company with Lear's riotous knights. She has heard from Goneril by letter about their behavior at Goneril's house, and decided to leave so Lear would not find them at home when he arrived. Cornwall praises Edmund for his heroic actions in defense of his father and says, "You shall be ours. / Natures of such deep trust we shall much need; / You we first seize on.", and Edmund agrees to serve him. Regan explains further the reason for their abruptly planned visit, of the letters she received from both Lear and Goneril—they say they have come for his counsel.

Act II Scene 2

Outside Gloucester's house. Oswald (Goneril's servant) and Kent/Caius arrive separately. Kent is immediately insulting and provocative to Oswald and launches into an extended foul-mouthed and intemperate tirade against him, challenging him to fight (it has been 2 days since Kent kicked him at Goneril's). Gloucester arrives and Kent continues his diatribe, leaving all puzzled. Gloucester asks for an explanation and Kent says "Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain: / I have seen better faces in my time / Than stands on any shoulder that I see / Before me at this instant." Cornwall offers comments on such an unflattering knave as Kent. Oswald tells how Kent joined in the abuse heaped on him earlier by Lear. Cornwall calls for Kent to be placed in stocks, and will not relent even though Kent says he is the messenger of the King and such an action will show "malice / Against the grace and person of my master". He tells Regan "If I were your father's dog / You should not use me so." She has heard about him from her sister's letter. Gloucester worries at this affront to the king, but Regan is more concerned about the affront to her sister's own gentlemen by Lear et al. Gloucester tells Kent he will plea for him.

Left alone in the stocks, Kent pulls out a letter from Cordelia and hopes that the warming sun will rise soon, that she will come to remedy his plight, and that his fortune will improve.

Act II Scene 3

Same, with Kent now asleep in the stocks. Edgar enters—he is on the run, hiding to escape capture. He plans to assume the guise of or like crazy Poor Tom 'o Bedlam, naked, ragged, and grimy. 

Act II Scene 4

Same. Lear arrives with Fool and a gentleman. He wonders why he did not find Regan and Cornwall at home and why his messenger (Kent) to Gloucester has not returned to him. 

Kent greets his master, and Lear is shocked to learn Cornwall and Regan are responsible for placing him in the stocks: "'Tis worse than murder, / To do upon respect such violent outrage." Kent relates that he had earlier gone to their house with Lear's letter, and that before they replied to it, Oswald arrived with Goneril's letter. They made no response to Kent, but hastily left to come to Gloucester's. Fool comments on the dire implications of Regan's actions: "Fathers that wear rags / Do make their children blind, / But fathers that bear bags / Shall see their children kind. / Fortune, that arrant whore, / Ne'er turns the key to the poor." Lear is beginning now to realize how neither daughter will support him—he exits to look for his daughter. The Fool continues with further gloomy aphorisms, though pledging he will continue to serve Lear.

Lear reenters with Gloucester. He is angry that they have refused to speak with him or allow him entrance, pleading weariness. Gloucester warns Lear of Cornwall's fiery nature, but Lear is only further enraged to be denied an audience. He tries to calm himself and be forbearing of the indignity he is suffering. But seeing Kent in stocks, he concludes that the Duke and Regan are only feigning fatigue and demands via Gloucester to be admitted or he'll keep them awake with drums.

Finally Regan and Cornwall emerge with Gloucester. Lear threatens to disown Regan but also compares her favorably to her sharp-toothed sister. But Regan defends her sister and states Goneril was justified in wanting to limit the numbers of his riotous followers. She says "O, sir, you are old; / Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of her confine: you should be ruled and led / By some discretion that discerns your state / better than you yourself." She wants Lear to return to and ask Goneril for her forgiveness. Lear is contemptuous of this suggestion, but she insists. He is adamant against this and curses Goneril. Cornwall scorns this, but Lear continues his curse against her though he says Regan will never be so cursed and describes her as having a tender-hafted nature.

Lear demands to know who put Kent in the stocks. At the same time, trumpets announce the arrival of Goneril—she enters. Lear persists in the question, but Regan and Goneril join hands, united against him. Goneril says "All's not offense that indiscretion finds / And dotage terms so." Cornwall states Kent deserved to be in the stocks. Regan says she was not expecting Lear and is not prepared to entertain him and his retinue, and wants him to return to Goneril. But Lear rages "... No! Rather I abjure all roofs, and choose / To wage against the enmity o' the air, / To be a comrade with the wolf and owl ..." He would just as soon kneel to beg before France. He appeals to Goneril not to further anger him, that he will not see her again, and tries to restrain himself. Then he further reflects "But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter— / Or rather a disease that's in my flesh, / Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil, / A plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle / in my corrupted blood." He says he will be patient and stay with Regan. But Regan does not want the 100 knights, or even 50, and suggests it be reduced to 25. Lear ponders her ingratitude to him, but she is adamant. He reluctantly agrees to return to Goneril with 50 men. But now Goneril questions why he should need even 5 men of his own since she has so many servants.

Lear is incensed to have to defend his royal prerogatives and finally realizes he cannot depend on either daughter: "O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man's life's as cheap as beast's. Thou art a lady; / If only to go warm were gorgeous, / Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need— / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need! / You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, / As full of grief as age; wretched in both. / If it be you [the gods] that stir these daughters' hearts / Against their father, fool me not so much / To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger, / And let not women's weapons, water-drops, / Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural hags, / I will have such revenges on you both."

He leaves with Gloucester etc. Cornwall notes it will be a storm, but Goneril and Regan are indifferent to Lear's fate, though they each say they would take just him in provided he left his followers outside.

Gloucester returns and says the king is calling for a horse and will ride into the storm. Goneril asks Gloucester not to entreat Lear to stay. Regan cold-heartedly says "To wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors."


Act III Scene 1

An open place in Gloucestershire. Kent and a Gentleman enter separately and discuss how the king is contending against the storm, tearing his hair, trying to outstorm the storm, etc. Kent again refers to the impending conflict between Cornwall and Albany, and says an army from France has already landed at several ports in England. He asks the man to go to Dover and to report on the king's abused condition.

Act III Scene 2

Same area. Lear rages in sympathy with the storm: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!" But the more practical Fool wishes they had dry shelter, and asks him to ask his daughter's blessing [thereby acknowledging their authority]. But Lear for now only encourages the storm more, oblivious to the suffering of the Fool. Fool makes irreverent jokes.

Kent/Caius enters, and marvels at the ferocity of the storm. Lear rages on, claiming "I am a man / More sinned against than sinning." Kent says there is a nearby hovel, though he was denied entrance. Lear shows at last some recognition of the Fool's being cold in the storm and agrees to seek the hovel with Kent. Fool makes some satirical observations about the present and prophecies the future, referring to Merlin anachronistically (Arthur came well after Lear).

Act III Scene 3

Gloucester's house. Gloucester frets to Edmund that Cornwall et al have forbidden him from helping Lear. He alludes to the split between Cornwall and Albany, and to a letter he has received from the foreign forces promising revenge on Lear's plight. He wants to inform Lear and asks Edmund to cover up his absence. To himself, Edmund resolves instead to inform Cornwall immediately of his father's actions.

Act III Scene 4

An open place before the hovel. Kent urges Lear to enter, but he resists, saying that if he is relieved of the suffering caused by the storm, he will be left to suffer from the injury from his daughters. He worries that further thinking on his daughter's ingratitude will cause him to go mad. He sends Fool in and meanwhile expresses his developing compassion, worrying about the plight of others out in the storm: "Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, / How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you / From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this! " Edgar/Tom is heard yelling within and Fool comes back out, followed by Edgar, who tries unsuccessfully to drive them away.

Lear speaks at length to Edgar—Lear in his overt madness regards Edgar variously as a wise philosopher and a judge. He wonders if Edgar's daughters have caused this ruin to him. Edgar dispenses various advice, e.g. "Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman: keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lenders' books, and defy the foul fiend." Lear wonders "Is man no more than this" and commenting on Edgar's unclothed and more natural state, decides to take off his own (which Fool discourages).

Gloucester now enters. Edgar/Tom describes himself in mad phrases. Gloucester tells Lear he could not obey the harsh commands of his daughters. Lear continues his philosophical queries to Edgar, now on the cause of thunder. Kent comments Lear is losing his wits. Gloucester informs Kent/Caius that Lear's daughters are seeking his death, and recalls that Kent had predicted their unfaithfulness. He comments on his own traitorous son to Kent (as Lear and Edgar converse). Edgar refers to "Child Rowland to the dark tower came".

Act III Scene 5

Gloucester's house. Edmund has informed Cornwall of Gloucester's opposition and ostensible treason. Cornwall tells Edmund he will have revenge on Gloucester. Edmund feigns concern about going against his loyalty to his father to be loyal to Cornwall. Cornwall now wonders if Edgar had wanted to kill his father because he sensed the man merited death. He confers on Edmund the title of Earl of Gloucester, taking away the title and lands from his father, saying he now will serve as a father to Edmund.

Act III Scene 6

On Gloucester's estate, perhaps in or near his house. Gloucester conceals Kent and Lear, Fool, and Edgar. More mad talk, and witty observations by the Fool. Lear commences an imaginary trial of his daughters, with Edgar/Tom as judge [a parody on the theme of justice]. Edgar is moved to tears by the tragic Lear. Kent tries to get Lear to settle in and rest, and Lear finally goes to sleep. Gloucester enters, and urges Kent to transport Lear to Dover, as there is a plot to kill him—they take the sleeping king and depart. Edgar, to himself, observes "When we our betters see bearing our woes, / We scarcely think our miseries our foes. / Who alone suffers suffers most i' the mind, / Leaving free things and happy shows behind."

Act III Scene 7

Gloucester's house. Cornwall dispatches a letter to Albany via Goneril (accompanied by Edmund, Oswald, etc.)—he is aware the army of France has landed, and demands the traitor Gloucester. Regan wants him hung and Goneril suggests they pluck out his eyes. Cornwall advises Edmund that he will not want to be present to see the punishment inflicted on his father. He wants to be in close communication with Albany.

Oswald enters to say that the king is being taken to Dover by some of Gloucester's men. Cornwall believes he cannot execute Gloucester without a trial, and plans instead some other punishment. Cornwall's servants bring in Gloucester, who is bound, for a trial of sorts [this depiction of justice is a companion to that of 3.6]. Gloucester objects to this ill treatment in his own home by his guests. Cornwall demands to know what letters Gloucester has received from France [as has been related to C by Edmund]. Gloucester is evasive, but acknowledges he has sent Lear to Dover "Because I would not see thy [Regan's] cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister / In his anointed flesh rash [slice diagonally] boarish fangs." He chastises their cruelty to their father and says he will see vengeance on such children. This provokes Cornwall to grind out one of his eyes with his boot. Regan demands the other as well. One of Cornwall's servants intervenes, rebukes Regan, and wounds Cornwall, but is slain by Regan (who runs him through the back with a sword). Cornwall puts out Gloucester's other eye. Gloucester calls for his son Edmund, but Regan informs him it was Edmund that informed on him. Too late, Gloucester see the truth: "O my follies! Then Edgar was abused. / Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!" Regan demands that the blinded man be thrown out the gates of his own home and smell his way to Dover, in which Cornwall concurs. Two servants are left behind to plan how to help Gloucester and tend his eyes, hoping for the downfall of Regan & Cornwall.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

An open place. Edgar/Tom tells himself it is better to be openly despised than to be flattered but secretly despised. An old man (one of Gloucester's long-time tenants) enters, leading Gloucester. Gloucester tells him to leave for his own safety, saying "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw." Edgar is grieved to see his father so but maintains his disguise. Gloucester continues to the Old Man and Edgar bitterly: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport." Gloucester insists he be left with the naked madman, and sends the Old Man for clothing for Tom. He observes "'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind." He gives Edgar/Tom a purse and asks him to lead him to the edge of the cliff at Dover (even as Tom speaks of various fiends such as Flibbertigibbet), to which Edgar agrees.

Act IV Scene 2

Before Albany's house. Goneril and Edmund arrive and are greeted by Oswald. O. has informed Albany that the French army is landed, that she is coming, the action against Lear, etc., and he has reacted unexpectedly. Goneril says to Edmund he should turn back to rally Cornwall to war, since Albany seems to be becoming cowardly. She plans to assume power over her husband, tells Edmund she will send Oswald with letters from her, kisses him, and implies her eagerness to become his mistress, to which he gives his implied approval.

Albany comes out and berates Goneril for her cruelty to her own father [it is unclear if he also has been told about Gloucester's injuries], wonders if Cornwall put her up to it, calls for the heavens to rectify these wrongs, etc. She in turns berates him as cowardly and asks why he does not make preparations to defend against the French attack. He says she is a fiend, else he would tear her apart.

A messenger arrives to say the wound that Gloucester's servant gave to Cornwall, trying to save his remaining eye, has led to Cornwall's death. Albany apparently had not heard yet about Gloucester's abuse and he further condemns Goneril for this. The messenger gives her a letter from Regan, and she exits. Goneril to herself sees both an advantage and a threat to Regan's being widowed, and she worries that Regan will now be alone with Edmund. Albany asks where Edmund was when Gloucester was being punished, and he says he was coming with Goneril to Albany's. The messenger says that Edmund was the one who informed on his father and that he left to make it easier for Cornwall etc. to exact the punishment. Albany is grateful for Gloucester's efforts to help the king and vows to revenge his injuries.

Act IV Scene 3

French camp near Dover. Kent/Caius and a Gentleman discuss the sudden departure of the King of France back for France, on urgent home business—he has left the Marshal of France in charge. The Gentleman has given letters to Queen Cordelia, which have moved her both to joy and to tears: "Those happy smilets / That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know / What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence / As pearls from diamonds dropped." She is grieved to learn of her sister's behavior, their lack of pity in the storm, etc. Kent marvels "It is the stars, / The stars above us, govern our conditions, / Else one self mate and make could not beget / Such different issues [as the three sisters]." Kent says Lear, though present now there, is so ashamed that he is prevented from seeing her. Kent has important secret plans and asks the Gentleman to attend Lear.

Act IV Scene 4

The French Camp. Cordelia confers with the Doctor, distressed about the report about her mad father, who has been seen wandering and crowned with weeds. She asks them to find him and bring him to her. The doctor urges her to let him heal through rest. A messenger arrives to say the British troops are approaching. To herself, she says it is to aid Lear and her love for him and not any ambition for power that has caused her to persuade her husband to come to England.

Act IV Scene 5

Gloucester's house. Regan speaks to Oswald, who has been sent by Goneril with a letter to Edmund. She wonders why Edmund was sent away without speaking to Albany and wants to see the letter. She wishes they had killed Gloucester, since he will evoke pity. She believes Edmund has gone to kill his father and to spy on the enemy's strength. She knows Goneril loves Edmund and has noted the glances they have exchanged. She does not get to see the letter, but decides to send one of her own to Edmund, saying she is widowed and needs Edmund more than Goneril does. She offers a reward for him or anyone to kill Gloucester.

Act IV Scene 6

Open place near Dover. Edgar/Tom leads Gloucester to a place he insists is the edge of the cliff, though it is a flat area. He claims to hear the sea. Gloucester notes he speaks in a different voice [i.e., that of a fiend], but Edgar says it is only his garments that have changed, and describes in detail the cliff, the ocean, boats below, etc. Gloucester rewards and dismisses him. Edgar believes he is doing this to cure his father. Gloucester renounces the world, blesses Edgar (who he believes to be absent) and falls forward. Edgar then speaks to him in a new voice as if Gloucester had fallen like gossamer to the bottom of the cliff, saying his life is a miracle. Edgar says he saw him above with a monstrous fiend, and that therefore it must be the wishes of the gods for him to survive. Gloucester resolves to bear his afflictions without further efforts at suicide, recalling how Tom had often spoken of "The fiend".

Lear wanders in dressed in wild flowers, babbling about raising an army. He refers to Gloucester as Goneril with a white beard, and recalls his daughter's lies. He says he is "every inch a king" and speaks about adultery and the baseness of female sexuality: "Down from the waist they're Centaurs, / Though women all above. / But to the girdle do the gods inherit; / Beneath is all the fiends'. / There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulfurous pit, Burning, scalding, stench, consumption." Lear wants Gloucester to read a challenge he has written, and they talk of understanding without seeing, seeing with one's ears, etc. Lear continues to rant against beadles who lust for whores, hypocritical usurers, and other injustices rampant in the world. Edgar sees reason in his madness. Lear offers his own eyes to Gloucester, and recalls the newborn state: "We came crying hither. / Thou know'st the first time that we smell the air / We wawl and cry." He wants to kill his sons-in-law. 

A gentleman arrives with men searching for Lear, and Lear leads them on a chase, exiting. The gentleman praises the virtue of Cordelia and the pitiful state of the king, and tells Edgar of the impending battle and that Cordelia is nearby, though her army has moved on—he then exits. Gloucester has softened and proclaims "You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me; / Let not my worser spirit tempt me again / To die before you please!" Edgar offers to lead him away, a "most poor man, made tame to fortune's blows".

Oswald comes on them, hopes to win the promised bounty on Gloucester, draws his sword, is slain by Edgar's cudgel, and asks they give the love letter from Goneril to Edmund to Edmund. But Edgar reads the letter and decides to keep it as evidence of her lust for Edmund and plotting against her husband. He vows to show the letter to Albany. He hears the drum of the approaching army and leads his father away.

Act IV Scene 7

The French Camp. Cordelia praises and thanks Kent for his loyalty and aid to her father. He asks that he be allowed to remain in disguise [as Caius] for a while longer. The doctor tells her Lear is still sleeping, and she appeals to the gods to "cure this great breach in his abused nature". Lear is brought in, now properly clothed. Music awakens him. Cordelia tenderly addresses him, lamenting the inhumane treatment he had from her sisters. Lear replies "You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave. / Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead." He thinks she is a spirit. She asks for his blessing, and he attempts to kneel. He knows he is a foolish old man, does not seem to know her but realizes at last she is Cordelia. He thinks she is justified to kill him, but she is only loving. He says "Forget and forgive. / I am old and foolish" and is taken away.

Kent and Gentleman are left behind to discuss the approaching battle, etc.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

British camp near Dover. Edmund asks a gentleman if Albany is coming to his support. Regan fears something bad has happened to Oswald [since Goneril's letter has not been delivered], and Edmund agrees. Regan begins to court Edmund's love, asks if he has "found my brother's way to the forfended place [i.e., to Goneril's adulterous bed]?" He denies it, she asks him not to be familiar with Goneril, and he reassures her.

Goneril arrives with Albany etc. Goneril frets about losing Edmund to Regan. Albany has heard Lear is with Cordelia, and wants them to respond only to the invading army, and not against Lear and Cordelia who have just grievances. But Goneril dismisses his lenient attitude, and they prepare to plan the battle. Regan wants Goneril to go with her, to keep her from Edmund, and Goneril sees her intentions.

Edgar arrives in disguise and presents the letter from Goneril to Edmund to Albany, refusing to say who he is but stating that he will champion Albany against Edmund afterwards, if they are victorious in battle—he should sound a herald to summons him at the right time.

Edmund, left alone, comments on his indifference and deception toward both of the sisters and his plan to murder Cordelia and Lear: "To both these sisters have I sworn my love, / Each jealous [suspicious] of the other as the stung / Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take? / Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed, / If both remain alive. To take the widow / Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril, / And hardly shall I carry out my side [i.e., succeed in his plans], / Her husband being alive. Now then we'll use / His countenance for the battle, which being done, / Let her who would be rid of him devise / His speedy taking off [murder]. As for the mercy / Which he [Albany] intends to Lear and to Cordelia, / The battle done, and they within our power, / Shall never see his pardon; for my state / Stands on me to defend, not to debate."

Act V Scene 2

Battlefield. Lear and Cordelia flee across the stage. Edgar hides his father by a tree and prays that "the right may thrive" and that he will be able to return to him. He returns, saying Lear and Cordelia have been captured. Gloucester is despondent again, but Edgar insists "What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure / Their going hence [dying], even as their coming hither [birth]; / Ripeness [i.e., being at the proper end of one's life] is all". They exit together.

Act V Scene 3

British camp. Edmund, without speaking to them, orders Lear and Cordelia to be taken away under guard. Cordelia asks of Lear if they will see her sisters, but he wants to go immediately to jail. He is thrilled to be with her and fantasizes that they will live a blessed life in prison together, singing like birds, telling tales, and vows they will not be separated except by death.

After they are led away, Edmund gives secret papers to a captain [ordering Cordelia's execution].

Albany et al enters—he demands to have Cordelia and Lear handed over. Edmund pretends they are being kept until passions have cooled and his army has rested from battle before they are tried. Albany says Edmund is his subordinate, not like a brother. Regan tries to speak up on Edmund's behalf as Albany's equal, and Goneril jumps in against Regan's implied claims on Edmund. Regan takes ill in the stomach. Leaving, she offers her troops, patrimony, and herself to Edmund. Regan wants their engagement announced, but Albany squelches this by announcing he is arresting Edmund on capital treason for plotting with "this gilded serpent" Goneril against him. Goneril disparages this action as an "interlude" [i.e., like a melodramatic play or farce]. Albany throws down his glove in challenge to Edmund to back up his accusation. Regan is sicker, and Goneril to herself hopes the poison she gave her sister will be effective. Edmund throws down his glove in exchange. A herald is summoned, and Albany tells Edmund he must depend only on his own fighting skills, as his troops have been levied by Albany. Regan is taken to her tent. The herald sounds his trumpet and announces the call for anyone to take up the cause against Edmund. Edgar appears, armed [and not recognizable apparently], refuses to give his name, but accusing Edmund of treason etc. Edmund waives his right to not fight against an unknown inferior, they fight, and he is wounded. Albany asks him to spare Edmund [for trial]. Albany angrily responds to Goneril by showing her the letter she wrote to Edmund. She exits, refusing to comment.

Edmund acknowledges his treason, and "much, much more". He wants to know who Edgar is, and Edgar tells him "My name is Edgar, and thy father's son. / The gods are just, and of our pleasant [pleasurable] vices / Make instruments to plague us. / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes." Edmund knows his fate is sealed. Albany embraces Edgar, pledging he never meant any ill toward him or Gloucester. 

He asks Edgar where he has been, and Edgar relates how he secretly nursed his father disguised as a mad man. He revealed his identity to his father only as he was arming for the challenge, at which time he asked for his blessing. But his father's weakened heart burst at this news—he died "twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief". Edmund is moved at this speech. Edgar continues that the banished Kent arrived, grieved for Gloucester's death and told of his nursing of Lear also in disguise.

A gentleman arrives with a bloody knife, to say that Goneril has killed herself and that before she died she confessed to poisoning Regan, who has also died. Albany coldly claims "This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble, / Touches us not with pity." Kent arrives and wants to greet Lear and Cordelia. Albany asks Edmund where they are. The sister's bodies are brought in. Edmund reflects "Yet Edmund was beloved. / The one the other poisoned for my sake, / And after slew herself." 

Edmund wants at last to do some good before he dies, and urges them to run to the castle and save Lear and Cordelia from his order for execution. He sends his sword via a captain to the other captain, to persuade him against the deed commissioned by him and Goneril, namely to hang Cordelia and make it look like a suicide. Edmund is taken away.

Lear arrives with the dying Cordelia in his arms, wailing against her death. Kent wonders if this is the promised end [Last Judgement]. Lear wonders if she may still be alive. He praises her gentleness: "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman." He has killed the captain that hung her with his sword. Lear at last recognizes Kent, who admits he has been serving in the guise of Caius. Lear welcomes him. Kent tells him his older daughters are dead, but Lear has suspected that.

A messenger arrives to say Edmund is dead. Albany decides to resign his position and reinstate the king to power, to be succeeded by Kent and Edgar. Lear mourns the death of Cordelia, who indeed is not breathing, speaks of her lips, and dies. Kent urges they allow Lear's departing spirit to pass unimpeded. Kent declines to share in the rule of the land, as he believes he too will die soon, and Edgar sadly concludes: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long."