This tragic play centers on a complicated plot and subplot,
develops many complex characters, and explores a mass of intense
emotions. In spite of the complexity of the plot, everything in the
play is directed towards the battle of good versus evil. Although
Shakespeare seems to indicate in the play that evil is inherent in
most human-beings, it becomes a powerfully destructive force in
those who allow the evil to dominate their lives, as seen in Regan,
Goneril, Edmund; in the end they are destroyed, dying in pain and
misery. Other characters such as Lear and Gloucester make grave
errors in life and suffer for them; but they do not allow evil to rule
them. Instead, the play becomes their quest for spiritual
redemption. In the end, both of them are allowed to beg
forgiveness from the children they have wronged and die a
peaceful death. Finally, there are other characters, such as Edgar
and Albany, who come into evil and fight against it, clearly
redeeming themselves through their noble actions. The one pure
character in the play is Cordelia, who unfortunately has an
untimely death due to the evil Edmund, who tries to redeem
himself too late.
Both the main plot, centering on King Lear, and the subplot,
centering on Gloucester, are developed in a classic manner. In the
beginning, the play introduces the two worlds of Lear and
Gloucester, showing their positions in life, their relations with their
families and with one another, and their basic characters. It is
clearly intentional that the worlds of both Lear and Gloucester are
very similar. They are both secure about the power that they wield,
but lack the wisdom to see their children for what they were.
During the course of the play, the blindness to the truth that they
both possess will be fatal for them.
The rising action begins in the first act as Shakespeare deals with
both inner (psychological) conflict and external (physical) conflict.
Lear misjudges his children, giving the kingdom to Regan and
Goneril and banishing Cordelia. In a similar manner, Gloucester
misjudges Edmund and Edgar, gives his estate to Edmund and
banishes Edgar. As a result of their error in judgement, both men
suffer greatly. Lear is treated unmercifully by both of his
daughters, who refuse to welcome him in their homes and who
strip him of his army, his dignity, and his power. In a similar
manner, Edmund abuses and tortures Gloucester.
The climax occurs when Lear is driven to insanity by the cruelty of
his daughters, and his emotional rage is symbolized by the violent
storm that surrounds him. The storm, in turn, becomes a symbol of
the universe that has become disordered and chaotic in the hands
of power-hungry people, such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan. In
a similar manner, Gloucester is physically blinded by the cruelty of
his son. The darkness in which he must live is symbolic of man's
ignorant and misguided existence.
The falling action centers on the search of Lear and Gloucester for
redemption. Both men accept the wrong that they have done, come
to a new compassion for humanity, and are allowed to again meet
the children they have banished and be forgiven. As a result, they
both die with some measure of peace. Unfortunately, their errors in
judgement lead to a totally tragic conclusion. Cordelia, Regan,
Goneril and Edmund are all dead. Of all the children of Gloucester
and Lear, only Edgar is left to bring order out of the chaos.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare masterfully intertwines King
Lear's plot with Gloucester's subplot. Every mistake that the King
makes and every misery that he must endure is soon echoed by
In the end, both protagonists are able to redeem themselves to
some degree by acknowledging their grave errors and accepting
the forgiveness of the generous Cordelia and Edgar. The plot and
the subplot also work together to develop the main themes of the
play, especially good vs. evil.