Background of King Lear

King Lear was written between 1603 and 1606, and is considered to be Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. The main plot was drawn from an old chronicle play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters, supplemented by treatments of that story in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Spenser's The Faerie Queen, and perhaps others. The subplot of Gloucester and his two sons comes from Sir Philip Sidney's popular romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Shakespeare also makes considerable use of Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603) for Edgar's language of demonic possession as Poor Tom and the mock exorcism he works to cure the blinded Gloucester's despair.

The play was performed December 26, 1606, for King James, as part of the court's Christmastide celebrations, as well as on the public stage at the Globe. Recoiling from the bleakness of the play's tragic vision, Naham Tate revised it in 1681, providing interpolated love scenes between Edgar and Cordelia and a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive: his version held the stage for a century and a half. Dr. Samuel Johnson and the Romantic poets testified to the original play's greatness--Shelley terming it "the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry existing in the world"--but they also began a critical tradition that judged the work too large and sublime for the stage. Lear has, however, proved notably successful in the modern theatre, accustomed to nonrealistic stage techniques and Samuel Beckett's apocalyptic dramas as well as to the contemporary horrors of concentration camp and Gulag. - Norton, 888

Summary of King Lear


This tragedy play tells of the downfall of King Lear and the death of his daughter Cordelia. The play begins with the old Lear, deciding to retire, plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.. With his daughters and men gathered around him, Lear asks his daughters, "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" (Act I, Scene 1. 43). Both Goneril and Regan reply with flattering words of love which satisfied their old father, in turn he gave each of them a third of his kingdom. Cordelia, Lear's favorite daughter, answers with words from her heart, saying that she loves him as much as he loved her and as she should. However, Lear sees her words as disrespectful and demands Cordelia to reply again like how her sisters did, with flattering words. Coredilia knowing the wickedness of her sisters intent, refuses to flatter her father with false words of love. Lear in disappointment and anger, banishes Cordelia from his kingdom, leaving her to marry the King of France, who was willing to marry her even though she had no lands. Kent, Lear's loyal servant, when he tries to defend the young princess and convince Lear of her love for him, Lear angrily also banishes him. The king decided to keep one hundred of his men and keeps the title of King, and live a month at a time at the houses of his two daughters, but passes all the powers onto his two son-in-laws, Albany and Cornwall. Goneril and Regan sees this as their chance to overthrow their old father, who is now powerless without his lands.

Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester at this point also takes advantage of powerless King Lear and his father and vows to take the lands of his father from Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son. Edmund tricks into believing that Edgar plans to kill him by showing him a letter that he forged. Gloucester is enraged, and commands Edmund to find this "abhorred villain!" (Act I Scn 2. 66). Edmund then continues to play his part as the loving son and brother, warns Edgar that Gloucester is looking for him for some reason and is extremely angry at him.

King Lear who is staying at Goneril's house with his hundred men is treated rudely by Goneril's steward Oswald. Goneril had told her servants to treat the king and his men with disrespect and rudely, causing Lear to be enraged and confused about the behavior of his daughter's men. Kent, who has returned disguised as a servant, gives Oswald a lesson on respect. The fool through rhymes and riddles tells the King of his foolishness for banishing Cordelia and giving away his power. Goneril tells Lear that his men are turning her house into a pig sty and that he should get rid off some of his men, Lear upon hearing this, angrily storms out of Goneril's house and heads for Regan's house. Lear is now fearing for his sanity and starts to realize the mistake he made for banishing Cordelia.


At Gloucester's house, the evil Edmund pretending to help Edgar tells him to runaway. Gloucester in turn seeing Edgar running away is more convinced that Edgar did write the letter. Gloucester then decides to give all his lands to Edmund. Regan and Cornwall then arrives at Gloucester's house and takes over. Kent arrives with a letter from Lear and at meets Oswald, who has come with a letter from Goneril for Regan. Kent knowing that Oswald unloyal to the King verbally and then physically attacks him. Cornwall breaks up the fight and hearing that Kent is a servant of Lear, puts him in stocks (by doing this he is showing disrespect for Lear). Finally Lear arrives hoping to be able to find comfort in Regan. However, at first, Regan and Cornwall refuses to even see Lear, which enraged Lear and when he saw his servant, Kent in stocks, he was furious. On top of all this, Goneril arrives and Regan treats her with love, showing Lear that they both are in unison. The two sisters then try to talk Lear into releasing all his men, Lear on the brink of madness, storms out of the house into the raging storm. The two daughters and Cornwall are extremely happy and commands Gloucester to lock the doors.


In the raging storm, which is reflecting his rage, Lear finally realizes what he had done by giving away all his lands and banishing Cordelia. At this point, Lear also realizes how he failed as a King and a human, how he had ignored other people's feelings and needs. He is slowing becoming insane. Kent had send a men to go to Dover and get Cordelia to help Lear regain his kingdom. He then with the fool convince Lear to seek shelter in a cave, this is where they meet crazy Tom, Edgar disguised as a mad man. Gloucester, who had went to look for Lear, convinces the mad Lear to stay at his farmhouse. Gloucester then tells Edmund of his the French troops coming to help Lear, not knowing that Edmund will betray him and his King. Edmund in turn tells Cornwall of Gloucester's dealings with the French troops, Cornwall then seeks out Gloucester the traitor and rewards Edmund.

Lear is now mad and pretends that his two evil daughters are on trail for betraying him. Gloucester arrives and tells Kent, the Fool, and Lear that Cornwall is after them and to runaway. Cornwall and Regan captures Gloucester and punishes him by deciding to pluck out his eyes. However, one of Gloucester's servant tries to protect his lord, and fights Cornwall, seriously injuring Cornwall. Regan with a dagger stabs the servant in the back and kills him. Cornwall injured, with his bare fingers, plucks out Gloucester's eyeballs, "Out, vile jelly? Where is thy luster now?" (Act 3. scn 6. 83-84).


Blind Gloucester led by a servant heads for Dover, on their way they meet crazy Edgar. Gloucester, still not realizing that it is his son, asks Edgar to lead him to a cliff in Dover to kill himself. Back at Albany's house, Albany realizing his wife's evil intentions decides not to fight the French troops. Gonerils then turns to Edmund, whom she had fallen in love with and asks him to fight for her. Edmund who is still plotting to take over the kingdom, promises his love and service to Goneril. A servant then arrives telling Goneril and Albany of Cornwall's death and Gloucester's blindness.

Regan's love for Edmund is revealed and she tells Oswald, that she plans to marry Edmund since her husband is dead and that her sister has no chance. She also tells Oswald that if he finds Gloucester, she will reward him.

Edgar leads his blind father to a flat land, telling the blind man that it is the cliff, and when the blind Gloucester falls, Edgar pretends to be another person and tells Gloucester that he amazingly survived the fall from the cliff. Then the two meet Lear dressed in wild flowers and talking to himself. While Gloucester is talking to Lear, servants of Cordelia comes and takes Lear to meet Cordelia and informs Edgar of the advancing French troops. Alone, Oswald comes upon the blind Gloucester and Edgar, and tries to kill Gloucester. However, Edgar defends his father and kills Oswald. From Oswald's purse, Edgar finds the letter Goneril has written for Edmund, telling of her plot to kill Albany. Edgar then realizes his brother's evil plot and goes with his father to find Albany.

Back at Dover, Kent rejoins Cordelia and they both await for Lear to awake from his madness. When Lear awakes, thinking that he is in hell, upon seeing Cordelia he tells her that he is willing to accept any punishment from her. However, Cordelia recants her love for her father and Lear begs his daughter for his foolishness.


Goneril and Regan both are fighting for Edmund, he then tries to decide which of the two sisters should he take, a decision that he has difficulty making. Edmund also plots to kill Lear and Cordelia after the battle. Edgar enters the scene giving Albany the letter and returns to Gloucester. The battle then begins,and Lear and Cordelia has lost. The two are captured by Edmund and sent to prison, who instructs a captain to kill them. Albany enters the scene charging Edmund with treason. Edgar then arrives disguised and fights Edmund, fatally wounding him and reveals himself as Edmund lies dying. Regan who was poisoned by Goneril dies, and Goneril kill herself after the fall of Edmund. Edmund reveals that he had plotted to kill Lear and Cordelia and urges Edgar, Kent and Albany to go save them before it is too late. However, is is too late for Cordelia has died, and Lear enters carrying his dead daughter. Lear in grief over Cordelia's death dies and then the kingdom was left for Edgar.

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