The play opens in Lear's castle. After a time, there is a shift in the
setting to Gloucester Castle and later to the castles of Regan and
Goneril. The play rotates between the latter three castles until the
Third Act when Shakespeare switches the setting to a storm raging
outside. The dramatic significance of the storm scene is symbolic
of the inner storm within Lear. The play's last act occurs primarily
in the French and British camps at Dover.
King Lear - the ruler of pre-Christian Britain. He is a man of
stubborn will and imperious temper. Lear acts like a despot, filled
with anger and pride. Though he is generous, open-handed and
unsuspicious, his extraordinary misjudgment leads to his downfall.
Ultimately he is redeemed, but at a huge price.
Goneril and Regan - the elder daughters of King Lear. They are
inherently cruel, cold, selfish and callous. Their hypocrisy and
cunning differentiate them from their sister, Cordelia. They
manage to gain complete control of the kingdom and have Cordelia
cast off for her apparent impudence. Goneril is more aggressive
and strong-willed than Regan; Regan is more spiteful, but less
forceful than Goneril. Wicked, venomous and destructive, the two
sisters are the personification of evil.
The Earl of Gloucester - a Duke in Lear's kingdom. Although he
is bit pompous and vain, he is a simple, good-natured man. His
main characteristic is his gullibility. Similar to Lear, he lacks
shrewdness and perception. The blinded and betrayed Gloucester
undergoes a moral and spiritual awakening and draws courage
from Lear's terrible sufferings. The gift of self-knowledge leads
him to peace and resignation.
The Earl of Kent - an Earl in Lear's kingdom. Shrewd and
courteous, he possesses a dry sense of humor. Kent is intensely
loyal to Lear and deeply attached to Cordelia. When Lear banishes
him, he accepts his punishment with dignity. He returns in the
guise of an indigent, for he is a devoted, vigilant servant who
intends to lead his master away from danger.
The Fool - a jester in the court of Lear. The Fool not only relieves
the tragic tension of the drama, but also underscores the sadness of
the king's situation, for he plays the part of Lear's conscience. He is
loyal to the King, but unafraid to speak his mind.
Edmund - the illegitimate son of Gloucester. He is an outcast
because of his background. Edmund uses his sharp intelligence to
take his revenge on a world that considers him inferior. As a result,
he becomes an irredeemable and ruthless villain. His laudable
qualities are his clarity of thinking, his objective detachment, and
his strategic skill.
Cordelia - the youngest daughter of King Lear who loves her
father deeply. Within her is a strong will that makes her stubbornly
cling to what she considers the truth. During the play, she is forced
into exile. She accepts her destiny without complaint since her own
integrity is strong. Her main characteristics are her love for truth
and her sense of duty.
Edgar - the legitimate elder son of the Duke of Gloucester. He
plays the part of the philosopher in the play. With a clear vision of
the problems of life, his own attitude is one based on patience and
courage. Edgar's greatest trait is his ability to feel sympathy and
Oswald - the steward of Goneril. He plays an important role in all
of Goneril's schemes. Lacking scruples, he does not hesitate to take
advantage of anything to gain favor. His loyalty to his mistress is
his only redeeming trait.
The Duke of Burgundy - one of Cordelia's suitors. Burgundy
wants to wed her for her dowry and is unable to value Cordelia for
herself. He proves himself to be base and ungallant.
The King of France - Cordelia's other suitor. He is a gallant and
romantic man, and his understanding of Cordelia allows him to
correctly assess her true worth.
Albany - the inoffensive and peace-loving husband of Goneril.
Too weak for Goneril's aggressive nature, he pretends to be
ignorant of his wife's machinations. Goneril has only contempt for
him. Later, he shows a resolute strength of character as he takes
charge of the tumultuous events in the play.
Cornwall - Regan's husband. He is a violent and vindictive man
who takes pleasure in humiliating Lear and blinding Gloucester.
CONFLICT OF THE BASIC PLOT
On the most basic level, the plot centers on King Lear, who allows
himself to be overcome by his evil daughters, Goneril and Regan.
Protagonist: The protagonist and central figure of the play is King
Lear, a stubborn and proud man. Because of his lack of good
judgment, Lear loses his power and is humiliated by two of his
daughters, whom he had trusted.
Antagonist: Lear's antagonist is himself. His pride, stubbornness
and lack of judgement allow Goneril and Regan, his two greedy
and ambitious elder daughters, to manipulate their father and cast
Climax: The climax occurs when Lear recognizes his lack of
power and his inability to rule as king. Outside the castle during a
fierce storm, he attempts to call down a curse on his two faithless
daughters. He is unsuccessful because he lacks power to carry out
his threats and slips into insanity.
Outcome: The play ends in tragedy. Lear allows himself to be
destroyed by Goneril and Regan. Although Lear has come to a
deeper understanding of humanity, he is driven to death, and all
three of his daughters perish as well.
On a larger level, the play is really a tale of good versus evil.
Protagonist: The symbolic protagonist of the play is the force of
good, seen in characteristics such as love, kindness, respect, purity,
helpfulness, truthfulness, humility, forgiveness and nobility and
represented by Cordelia, Edgar, Lear (later in the play), and
Gloucester (later in the play).
Antagonist: Throughout the play the forces of evil, such as pride,
greed, deceit, disrespect, jealousy and chaos, fight against the
forces of good and are seen in a variety of characters, including
Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Lear (early in the play), and Gloucester
(early in the play).
Climax: The climax occurs in the final scene of the play when the
forces of evil overcome the forces of good. Because of Edmund,
Goneril and Regan, most of the good characters (Cordelia, Lear,
and Gloucester) are defeated and die.
Outcome: The symbolic plot is clearly a tragedy, for the key
forces of good have been overcome. Fortunately, however, the evil
characters are also all destroyed with the deaths of Regan, Goneril,
and Edmund. As a result, there is a hope at the end of the play. The
worthy Edgar has been made the new ruler of England, which
indicates that good will ultimately triumph, and order will be
restored to the kingdom.
Lear, the father of three daughters, is a powerful king in pre-
Christian Britain. Believing that he is getting old, Lear wants to
pass the responsibilities of his government to his three daughters
and their spouses. Goneril is married to the Duke of Albany; Regan
is married to the Duke of Cornwall; and Cordelia, the youngest and
Lear's favorite, is being courted by the King of France and the
Duke of Burgundy. Lear envisions himself spending the remainder
of his life visiting each of them in turn.
Lear's intention is to divide his kingdom into three parts, each to be
ruled by one of the daughters. Before dividing his kingdom and
giving it to his three girls, Lear, at a public ceremony, asks his
daughters how much they love him. Goneril and Regan are adept at
flattery and easily convince their father of their limitless love for
him; they even claim their love for him leaves no room for them to
love their husbands. Lear is pleased by their devotion. Cordelia
says that she loves Lear as her father and as the ruler of the
country, but she honestly says that she will love her husband too.
Her unembellished answer angers Lear. Judging Cornelia to be
impudent, he disinherits and disowns her. As a result, the kingdom
is divided into two parts, instead of three. The Earl of Kent, who
understands the purity of Cordelia's filial love, tries to persuade
Lear to reconsider his decision; Lear flies into a rage at the
suggestion and banishes Kent from Britain. He later returns in the
disguise of a menial servant in order to protect the king. Without a
dowry, Cornelia is no longer pursued by the Duke of Burgundy.
She marries the King of France, who realizes her true worth, and
becomes the Queen of France.
Another scene of disinheritance occurs at Gloucester Castle.
Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, plots to
oust Edgar, his half-brother, from his position as heir to the Earl's
fortune. He shows Gloucester a false letter stating that Edgar wants
to kill his father. Edmund then persuades Edgar to flee from the
castle. In his absence, Gloucester declares Edgar to be an outlaw
and makes Edmund the heir to his title and property.
Having granted his land and power to Goneril and Regan, Lear
begins to make his visits to them. During his first stay at the castle
of Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, Lear is made to
feel unwelcome. Goneril believes her father's temperament is
unpleasant and his knights irritating. She directs her steward,
Oswald, to pick a quarrel with Lear's knights; she will then use the
incident to deprive her father of his men, disempowering him.
Goneril succeeds in upbraiding her father about the behavior of his
knights. She refuses to pay for the maintenance of one hundred of
them and reduces the number to fifty. A disgusted Lear curses her
and leaves with his remaining knights.
Lear heads for the castle of Regan and her husband, the Duke of
Cornwall. Goneril has sent her sister a message to tell her about the
quarrel with Lear and his impending visit to her. Regan and her
husband ride to the castle of the Duke of Gloucester to avoid
receiving her father. Not finding Regan at her castle, Lear sends
Kent to Gloucester to announce the imminent arrival of the king.
Outside the castle walls, Kent meets Goneril's steward, Oswald.
The two of them quarrel, creating a racket. Cornwall, Regan, and
Gloucester rush out and are unable to understand Kent's outrageous
behavior. Cornwall orders Kent to be put in stocks.
Lear arrives and is shocked to find his messenger treated in such an
insulting manner. An argument between Regan and Lear follows.
Just then Goneril and her husband arrive. Goneril's complicity with
Regan is apparent. The two sisters work in tandem to humiliate
their father and deprive him of his remaining knights. A tormented
Lear now regrets his treatment of Cordelia. He rushes out into a
stormy night, with Kent and the Fool following him. Anguished by
the treatment he has received from his elder daughters and helpless
in the fury of the storm, Lear loses his grip on sanity. His
companions lead him to the shelter of a hovel, only to find it
occupied. Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, is hiding from his father's
anger over his supposed betrayal.
Meanwhile, Gloucester learns of Lear's pathetic condition and
plans to seek his whereabouts. He confides in Edmund his
intention to aid Lear and then departs. Gloucester finds the King in
the hovel and takes him to a farmhouse, along with Poor Tom,
Kent, and the Fool. He then goes to find some food. In the
farmhouse, Lear attempts to rectify the wrongs he has suffered by
bringing Goneril and Regan to trial.
In his absence, Edmund betrays his father to Cornwall and Regan.
As a result, Gloucester is arrested and then cruelly blinded by
Cornwall. In turn, Cornwall is mortally wounded by his servant.
When rumors abound that the French Army is arriving on the
shores of Dover, Regan abandons the blind Gloucester, saying he
can "smell his way to Dover." Now that Regan is widowed, she
becomes interested in Edmund; he is even made general of Regan's
forces. Ironically, Goneril also desires to wed Edmund who has
declared his love for her. She plots to have her husband, Albany,
killed in battle so that she can be with Edmund.
Kent leads a raving Lear to Cordelia's camp in Dover. Under his
youngest daughter's care, the King recovers his senses. Since
matters at home require the presence of the King of France,
Cordelia's husband departs. Cordelia takes over since the French
army in England is leaderless. Albany declares that he does not
want to fight against Cordelia. His only purposes will be to repel a
French invasion and to restore Lear to his throne. The French army
is easily routed, and Lear and Cordelia are captured by Edmund,
who imprisons them and secretly orders their death.
Edgar encounters his blinded father being guided by an old man
and leads him to safety. After killing Oswald, Edgar gives
Goneril's love letter addressed to Edmund to Albany. When
Albany reads Goneril's letter, he resolves to punish her. Regan then
announces her engagement to Edmund, but Albany accuses
Edmund and Goneril of treason. Edmund accepts the duel offered
him to redeem his honor. He is fatally wounded by the challenger,
who is Edgar in disguise. A dying Edmund confesses that he
ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. The bodies of Goneril and
Regan are brought in. Regan poisoned Goneril, for she thought her
sister was a rival for Edmund's love; Goneril then stabbed herself
to escape shame. Soon after, Lear comes in with the dead Cordelia
in his arms. She had been executed as per Edmund's orders.
Edmund's confession had been too late to save her. A broken-
hearted Lear dies over the body of his youngest daughter.
The main theme of the play is filial ingratitude, shown primarily by
the attitudes of Goneril and Regan. The play revolves around the
helplessness of King Lear after he gives his kingdom to these two
elder daughters. They are ungrateful to their father and treat him
cruelly, stripping him of all his power and dignity. Their
ingratitude is contrasted with the compassion and love shown by
Cordelia, his youngest daughter; ironically, King Lear had
disinherited her for telling the truth.
Within this theme of filial ingratitude, the theme of good vs. evil is
clearly depicted. The two older daughters are the personification of
evil. They destroy their father, cause the death of Cordelia and
even perish themselves because of their greedy and evil ways. In
contrast, Cordelia is the personification of goodness. Even though
she is rejected by her father, she continues to love him and tries to
help him. Because of her goodness, Lear sees the error of his
judgement, but it comes too late to save himself or his daughters.
One of the minor themes; the tragic disrespect of authority and age,
is closely related to the major theme of filial ingratitude. Goneril
and Regan clearly show and voice their disrespect to their father,
the King of the country. Edmund also disrespects his father and
treats him poorly. The rude behavior of these characters is seen
throughout the play
Another minor theme is the pain of misjudgment. Both Lear and
Gloucester misjudge their offspring, giving favors to the wrong
children. Cordelia and Edgar, the children whom they reject as
worthless, are really representatives of all that is good and loyal in
the world. Before they realize their errors, both fathers undergo
great personal suffering. In spite of the treatment they receive, both
Cordelia and Edgar stand by their fathers and forgive them for the
injustices they have suffered.
The mood of the play is tragic and bleak. Although the drama
opens in celebration, King Lear manages to quickly destroy the
festivities because of his foolishness and rage. The dark
atmosphere that he creates through his behavior in the beginning
scene worsens as the plot develops. By the middle of the play Lear
has lost touch with reality; appropriately, a raging storm outside
reflects the storm in Lear's own mind. Through the bleakness of
the mood in the early acts of the play, Shakespeare prepares the
audience (and the reader) for the horrendous scenes of tragedy that
occur at the end of the play.
William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist
and finest poet the world has ever known. No other writer's plays
and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many
countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major
reasons for Shakespeare's popularity is the variety of rich
characters that he successfully creates, from drunkards and paid
murderers to princes and kings and from inane fools and court
jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly
to life upon the stage and, as they speak their beautiful verse or
prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities,
traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very
realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide
variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this
knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of
royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.
In Shakespeare's time, few biographies were written, and none of
the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important
enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his
works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his
own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years
after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years
later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare's life are
unknown. It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in
England, sometime in early 1564, for his Baptism is recorded on
April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with
William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly
prosperous glove maker and trader who owned several houses in
Stratford and became the town's mayor when Shakespeare was a
boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied in the local
grammar school and hunted and played sports in the open fields
behind his home.
The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that
the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26,
on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth
to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith,
were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in
London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing
his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London
theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during
this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike
his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his
good reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career,
Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first
as Lord Chamberlain's Men and then as the King's Company. It is
also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this acting
organization, which became the most prosperous group in London,
and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical
In 1954, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform
before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property
in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known
as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, he bought ten percent
of the stock in the Globe Theatre, where his plays were produced.
In 1608, he and his colleagues also purchased The Blackfriars
Theatre, where they began to hold productions during the winter,
returning to the Globe during the summer months. Throughout the
rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes,
and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling
his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or
collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.
Shakespeare's most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the
period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as
Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet.
During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with
approximately two plays annually. After 1608, it appears he went
into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating
only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried
before the altar in the Stratford Church, where his body still lies
today. Many literary students and visitors make a pilgrimage to
this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still
recognized after 400 years as the world's greatest poet and
Theater in Shakespeare's day:
Drama was the prime means of public entertainment during
Shakespeare's time. Travelling actors went around the countryside
and could be hired by those who wanted their services. London
was growing as a trade center and merchants arrived from many
lands. Also, the Tudor monarchy preferred to stay in the capital.
These twin factors helped the companies of actors to prosper. They
acted regularly before audiences at places that became established
as centers for actors. Theater-houses like the Globe, the Curtain
and the Fortune were built. Shakespeare's company owned the
Globe, which was patronized by the Lord Chamberlain and hence,
The Globe was an open-air theater. Plays were staged in the
afternoons (there was no artificial lighting). The stage jutted out
into the audience, the majority of which stood on the ground
around the stage. They were called the groundlings. Other
spectators paid higher prices to sit in the galleries.
There were three openings at the back of the stage-- one in the
center and one on each side--hidden by a thick curtain. The stage-
floor often had one or more trap-doors useful for the speedy
disappearance or re-appearance of characters, especially ghosts.
Above the stage was a balcony, usually used for love scenes. There
was no stage scenery though props were widely used. Black stage
hangings were used for tragic plays and colorful curtains were used
for comedies or light plays. Actors on the Shakespearean stage
were often youths. Boys with high-pitched voices were trained
from early years to take women's parts, women not being allowed
on the stage.
Sources of the Play:
It is known that "King Lear" was presented before British Royalty
at Whitehall Castle on December 26th, St. Stephen's Night, during
the Christmas holidays. The year of the presentation is not certain.
It is believed that the play was originally written and first produced
between the years 1603 and 1605. That would mean King Lear was
written between Othello and Macbeth and came during a period
when Shakespeare was writing his greatest plays.
The play's main plot is based on a popular old tale that was widely
disseminated during the Middle Ages. Although many versions of
the story exist, the main plot always involves a king who exiles his
faithful daughter and bestows gifts upon his unworthy sons and/or
daughters. In the end, the exiled, faithful daughter always selflessly
comes to the aid of her cruel father, the king.
"Historia Regum Britanniae," written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is
the first known publication of this story. Afterwards, other versions
appeared in "The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates,"
published by John Higgins in 1574, and in "Chronicles," published
by Holinshed in 1587. A play entitled "The True Chronicle History
of King Lear" was written in 1594 and published in 1605; although
based on the same story, it is marked by strong Christian piety and
ends quite differently, for Cordelia is spared and King Lear is
reinstated to the throne.
The subplot of the play that involves the Earl of Gloucester was
probably drawn from "Arcadia," published in 1590 by Sir Philip
Sydney. In Book II, Chapter 10, the old Prince of Paphlagonia is
victimized and blinded by his illegitimate son. The illegitimate son
is defeated by the legitimate son, who gains the throne and reigns