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
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
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
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.