the illustrated shakespeare
A tragedy in five acts first performed in 1605-06 and published in a quarto edition in 1608, from an inadequate transcript of foul papers, with use made of a reported version. The First Folio version was prepared from the quarto collated with a promptbook of a shortened version. One of Shakespeare's finest tragedies, widely regarded as Shakespeare's crowning artistic achievement. The work displays a pessimism and nihilism that make it a modern favourite.

The scenes in which a mad Lear rages naked on a stormy heath against his deceitful daughters and nature itself, considered by many scholars to be the finest example of tragic lyricism in the English language. Shakespeare took his main plot line of an aged monarch abused by his children from a folk tale that appeared first in written form in the 12th century, based on spoken stories that originated much further into the middle Ages. In several written version of "Lear," the king does not go mad, his "good" daughter does not die, and the tale has a happy ending.

This is not the case with Shakespeare's Lear, a tragedy of such consuming force that audiences and readers, left to wonder whether there is any meaning to the physical and moral carnage with which King Lear concludes. Like the noble Kent, seeing a mad, pathetic Lear with the murdered Cordelia in his arms, the profound brutality of the tale compels us to wonder "Is this the promis'd end?" (V, iii. l.264). That very question stands at the divide between traditional critics of King Lear who find a heroic pattern in the story, and modern readers who see no redeeming or purgative dimension to the play at all, the message being the bare futility of the human condition with Lear as Everyman.

King Lear, the aging King of Britain, decides to abdicate the throne, splitting his kingdom evenly between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and the young Cordelia. Goneril, when asked, spills out her protestations of love for her father; Regan follows with even more flattery. Cordelia, however, is sincere in her love of Lear, and she declines to pander to him-she simply says she loves him the way a daughter should love her father. Lear, put off by her lack of enthusiastic flattery disinherits her, despite claims from the King of France that he would proudly marry her. When one of his lords, Kent, tries to reason with him, Lear banishes him also from the kingdom. Also introduced at this time are Gloucester's two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Edmund is Gloucester's bastard, and intends to gain his father's inheritance by tricking him into thinking that Edgar is plotting to murder him. Edgar disguises himself as a madman and goes into hiding. The king of France, who has courted Cordelia, says that he still wants to marry her even without her land, and she accompanies him to France without her father's blessing.

Lear quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Soon discovering how much love Goneril and Regan really hold for him. Lear, transformed, from a powerful king, to an impotent old man. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes insane. With only Kent (who has disguised himself and disobeyed Lear's decree of banishment) and a Fool to accompany him.

Meanwhile, an elderly nobleman named Gloucester also experiences family problems. His illegitimate son, Edmund, tricks him into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, is trying to kill him. Fleeing the manhunt that his father has set for him, Edgar disguises himself as a crazy beggar and calls himself "Poor Tom." Like Lear, he heads out onto the heath.

On a lonely heath, he rages at a storm. There they encounter Edgar, in his disguise as Tom o' Bedlam. Gloucester helps them, providing shelter and sending them to Dover to meet Cordelia and the French king, who is landing an army in England to come to Lear's aid.

When the loyal Gloucester realizes that Lear's daughters have turned against their father, he decides to help Lear in spite of the danger. Regan and her husband, Cornwall, discover him helping Lear, accuse him of treason, blind him, and turn him out to wander the countryside.

In his poor, blind state, Gloucester encounters Edgar (still disguised). Edgar does not yet reveal himself but leads his father toward Dover. In the meantime, Albany, husband of Goneril, has voiced his displeasure at the treatment of Lear and Gloucester. With Regan becoming a widow, and Goneril seeing her husband as a coward, both women turn their attentions to Edmund as a prospective love interest. While this intrigue is going on, the English and French armies meet on the battlefield; the English win the day. When Lear and Cordelia are taken captive, Edmund gives an order that they be hanged, unbeknownst to Albany. Edgar encounters Edmund, and the two duels, with Edgar giving Edmund a mortal wound. Word also arrives that Regan and Goneril are dead; Goneril poisoned Regan to win Edmund from her, and then killed herself upon Edmund's defeat.

Edmund's betrayal of Cordelia leads to her needless execution in prison; and Lear finally dies out of grief at Cordelia's passing. Knowing he is about to die, Edmund repents and reveals his plots-including the impending deaths of Lear and Cordelia. His repentance will go for naught. Lear enters, bearing Cordelia's body. Overcome by his sorrow, Lear collapses and dies beside his lone loving daughter. Gloucester is dead as well, having been reconciled at the last with Edgar. Kent and Edgar depart, leaving Albany to rule Britain.
Albany, Edgar, and the elderly Kent, left to take care of the country under a cloud of sorrow and regret.

Shakespeare's contemporaries believed Lear to have been a historical monarch. For Shakespeare, however, although he gave the play something of a chronicle structure, the interest lay not in political events but in the personal character of Lear. The main theme of the play is put into the mouth of the evil Regan, speaking to the pitiful Gloucester:

O, sir, to wilful men

The injuries that they themselves procure

Must be their schoolmasters.

The various stages of Lear's spiritual progress (a kind of "conversion") are carefully marked. He learns the value of patience and the worth of "unaccommodated man." He begins to realize his own faults as a king and almost understands his failure as a father. He begins to feel for the "poor naked wretches" and confesses, "O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this." His instability of mind, almost a predisposition to madness, is shown from the beginning. His terrible rages and curses, first upon Cordelia and later upon Goneril and Regan, and his ranting and tyrannical language all foreshadow his breakdown. His faithful counsellor is plain with him: "Be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad"; and his daughters shrewdly judge him: "he hath ever but slenderly known himself." He is painfully conscious of approaching madness, but gradually the bombast of his sanity gives place to a remarkable kind of eloquence, flowing easily and never incoherent. His "ravings" are intelligible to the audience, however perturbing they may seem to the other characters on the stage. They express a point of view that, had he understood it earlier, would have saved him from many errors of judgment. The mode of speech of the mad king contrasts strongly with the congenital inconsequentiality of his Fool and the assumed madness of Edgar as "Poor Tom."

King Lear's subplot focuses on the fortunes of Gloucester--another father suffering from "filial ingratitude" and from his false judgment of the characters of his children. This subplot is introduced in the opening scene, in some detail, as if it were of as much importance as the main plot. The stages by which Gloucester similarly learns by suffering are clearly indicated. He begins by being the cheerful sinner, but gradually his sense of pity and duty become stronger, and he reveals himself to Edmund: "If I die for 't, as no less is threatened me, / the King my old master must be relieved." This revelation of his good intentions to the treacherous Edmund leads directly to his downfall and to his being blinded.

Two of the "good" characters, Edgar and Albany (Goneril's husband), also grow in moral stature and strength in the course of the play. At first, Edgar seems rather ineffectual, quite unable to cope with the villainy of his half brother Edmund; but eventually he emerges as a strong character, confirmed by suffering and by compassion, able to fight and overcome Edmund in the ordeal at arms; and eventually, as one of the survivors, he is entrusted, along with Albany, with the future of the kingdom. Albany, too, is gradually built up, from being the weaker partner in his marriage to being the spokesman of virtue and justice, with an authority able to cope with the force of Edmund's malignant energy.

Yet the representatives of goodness and of hope in King Lear do not emerge dynamically, and it has been difficult for champions of Shakespeare's moral and religious orthodoxy to combat the play's great pessimism.