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Henry Irving King Lear

King Lear

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's King Lear

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): King divides kingdom, snubs daughter, goes mad, there's a storm, and everyone dies.

King Lear Summary

King Lear divides his kingdom among the two daughters who flatter him and banishes the third one who loves him. His eldest daughters both then reject him at their homes, so Lear goes mad and wanders through a storm. His banished daughter returns with an army, but they lose the battle and Lear, all his daughters and more, die.

More detail: 3 minute read

Act I

King Lear begins as the Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund, to the Earl of Kent. Lear, King of Britain, enters with his court. Now that he is an old man, Lear has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. The division will depend on the quality of each princess' declarations of love for her father before the court. Goneril, Duchess of Albany, and Regan, Duchess of Cornwall, both speak enthusiastically and earn their father's praise. But Cordelia, the youngest, says nothing because she cannot voice her deep love for Lear. Misunderstanding his daughter, Lear disowns and banishes her from the kingdom. He also banishes the Earl of Kent, who had taken Cordelia's side against the King.

King Lear in China. Two Samurai guards point spears at Lear (long robes, white hair and beard) at the top of some steps, while another drags Cordelia away. Lear reaches out to her outstretched hand.
King Lear in China, Universal Shakespeare

This action by the king divides the kingdom, both figuratively and literally. Cordelia's suitor, the Duke of Burgundy, rejects her once she is dowerless, but the King of France values her honesty and takes her as his wife. Lear's kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan and their suitors (the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, respectively). Lear plans to alternate living with each of them.

Nothing will come of nothing

— King Lear, Act 1 Scene 1

Act II

Meanwhile, Edmund is determined to be recognised as a rightful son of Gloucester. By a trick, he persuades his father that his legitimate brother, Edgar, is plotting against Gloucester's life. Warned by Edmund that his life is in danger, Edgar flees and takes the disguise of a Bedlam beggar. Edmund becomes a courtier to Goneril. Goneril meanwhile grows increasingly exasperated by the behaviour of Lear's hundred companions who are upsetting her life at Albany's castle, and she criticises her father. 

Kent has returned from exile in disguise and wins a place as a servant to Lear. Kent accompanies Lear when, in a rage against her criticisms, he curses Goneril and leaves. Lear goes, unannounced, to live with Regan and Cornwall who, it turns out, have gone out to visit Gloucester. When Lear arrives at Gloucester's house to find Regan, she spurns him and his followers, namely his devoted companion, the Fool.

The programme cover shows the blasted heath, bare twisted trees boulders, ditches and standing stones. A scroll in the bottom left corner gives the place (Lyceum) and star (Irving) and date (November 10, 1892).
Programme for King Lear, 1892


Despairing for his daughters, and deeply regretting rejecting Cordelia, Lear goes mad at the height of a great storm. He and the Fool run wild on the heath until Gloucester takes them into a hut for shelter. He then seeks the aid of Kent to get them away to the coast, where Cordelia has landed with a French army to fight for her father against her sisters and their husbands. Gloucester then leaves and returns home. 

Jesters do oft prove prophets

— King Lear, Act 5 Scene 3

Meanwhile, Edmund is employed as a messenger between the sisters and is courted by each in turn. He persuades Cornwall that Gloucester (his father) is an enemy because he has been in touch with France and helped Lear and when they are turned away by Regan. As punishment for Gloucester's seeming betrayal, Cornwall and Regan pluck out his eyes and abandon him. During the act of blinding Gloucester, a servant stabs Cornwall, who dies. But Regan continues to rule with Edmund's help. 

Act IV

Out in the storm, Lear finds shelter where Edgar has also taken refuge, still disguised as the beggar. The Fool, the mad king, and the disguised "insane" beggar become unlikely companions before they are separated. Edgar finds Gloucester wandering the heath alone and in agony. Since his father is blind, Edgar leads the despairing man to the coast and helps him along the journey to come to an acceptance of his life. Gloucester later meets the mad Lear on Dover beach, near Cordelia's camp. With Kent's aid, Lear is rescued and re-united with Cordelia. Gloucester, now reunited with Edgar, dies quietly alone.

On the left is an end of a hovel; a hunched "poor Tom", scantily clad, leads Lear (a red gown blowing open over a white smock), the fool (in yellow, facing Lear but looking over his shoulder at Tom) and (behind them) the head and shoulders of Kent.
Sketch of King Lear, J. M. Wright

Act V

The French forces are overcome by Albany's army led by Edmund, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Goneril has already poisoned Regan in their jealous rivalry over Edmund's attention. Edgar, disguised now as a loyal knight, challenges Edmund to a duel and wounds him mortally. Seeing no way out, Goneril kills herself, and the dying Edmund confesses his misdeeds and releases Cordelia. However, it is too late to save Cordelia from the hangman. Lear's heart breaks as he carries the body of his beloved youngest daughter in his arms, and he dies. Albany and Edgar are left to re-organise the kingdom and resolve the civil wars.

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