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Henry Irving King Lear

King Lear

Summary of William Shakespeare's King Lear: King divides kingdom, snubs daughter, goes mad, there's a storm, and everyone dies.

Act I

King Lear begins as the Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund, to the Earl of Kent when 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. According to his instructions, 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, can say nothing. Her deep love for Lear cannot be voiced and, misunderstood, she is disowned and banished from the kingdom along with the Earl of Kent, who had taken her side against the King.

King Lear in China, Universal Shakespeare
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. The kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan and their suitors (the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, respectively), and it is arranged that Lear will live alternately 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 while she grows increasingly exasperated by the behaviour of Lear's hundred companions, who are upsetting life at Albany's castle. 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 to make his home, unannounced, 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.

Programme for King Lear, 1892
Programme for King Lear, 1892

Act III

Despairing of these daughters, and deeply regretting his rejection of 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 and 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 he helps 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. Cornwall is stabbed by a servant and dies in the act of blinding Gloucester, 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. Not recognised by his father, 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, and, with Kent's aid, Lear is rescued and re-united with Cordelia. Gloucester, now reunited with Edgar, dies quietly alone.

Sketch of King Lear, J. M. Wright
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; but 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. 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 Albany and Edgar are left to re-organise the kingdom and resolve the civil wars.

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