Lear, the aging king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom evenly among his three daughters. First, however, he puts his daughters through a test, asking each to tell him how much she loves him. Goneril and Regan, Lear’s older daughters, give their father flattering answers. But Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and favorite daughter, remains silent, saying that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father. Lear flies into a rage and disowns Cordelia. The king of France, who has courted Cordelia, says that he still wants to marry her even without her land, and she accompanies him to France without her father’s blessing.
Lear quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Goneril and Regan swiftly begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still holds. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes insane. He flees his daughters’ houses to wander on a heath during a great thunderstorm, accompanied by his Fool and by Kent, a loyal nobleman in disguise.
Meanwhile, an elderly nobleman named Gloucester also experiences family problems. His illegitimate son, Edmund, tricks him into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, is trying to kill him. Fleeing the manhunt that his father has set for him, Edgar disguises himself as a crazy beggar and calls himself “Poor Tom.” Like Lear, he heads out onto the heath.
When the loyal Gloucester realizes that Lear’s daughters have turned against their father, he decides to help Lear in spite of the danger. Regan and her husband, Cornwall, discover him helping Lear, accuse him of treason, blind him, and turn him out to wander the countryside. He ends up being led by his disguised son, Edgar, toward the city of Dover, where Lear has also been brought.
In Dover, a French army lands as part of an invasion led by Cordelia in an effort to save her father. Edmund apparently becomes romantically entangled with both Regan and Goneril, whose husband, Albany, is increasingly sympathetic to Lear’s cause. Goneril and Edmund conspire to kill Albany.
The despairing Gloucester tries to commit suicide, but Edgar saves him by pulling the strange trick of leading him off an imaginary cliff. Meanwhile, the English troops reach Dover, and the English, led by Edmund, defeat the Cordelia-led French. Lear and Cordelia are captured. In the climactic scene, Edgar duels with and kills Edmund; we learn of the death of Gloucester; Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy over Edmund and then kills herself when her treachery is revealed to Albany; Edmund’s betrayal of Cordelia leads to her needless execution in prison; and Lear finally dies out of grief at Cordelia’s passing. Albany, Edgar, and the elderly Kent are left to take care of the country under a cloud of sorrow and regret.
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King Lear by William Shakespeare is a tragic tale involving personal transformation, filial conflict, and loss. The story is majorly based on the king who foolishly sidelines his only truly devoted daughter then realizes the true nature of his other two daughters when it is too late. The major subplot includes the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund, who among his plans is to discredit Edgar, his brother as well as betray his father.
Here, Shakespeare asserts that human nature is either entirely evil or entirely good.
An example of one of the entirely evil characters in the play is Edmund. Edmund's betrayal of his father and brother shows this. Edmund has devised a plan to discredit his brother Edgar in the eyes of their father, Gloucester. Edmund is quite aware of his evil nature and revels in it as seen in the story. "Edmund. This is the best foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an imposed obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. ... I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing." Act I, scene ii, and lines 127-137, 143-145. It is clear from this that Edmund recognizes his own evil nature and further decides to use it to his advantage. Edmund later transforms from entirely evil to entirely good
An example of the entirely good characters is Cordelia. Lear makes his daughters compete for their inheritance by judging which one of them can proclaim their love for him in the best possible fashion. Cordelia notices that she cannot show her love to her father using just words. "Cordelia. [Aside] What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent." Act 1, scene 1, lines 63-64. Cordelia's nature is so pure such that she cannot engage in even in a deception so forgivable just to satisfy an old king's vanity and pride. "Cordelia. [Aside] Then poor Cordelia! And not so, since I am sure my love's More ponderous than my tongue. "Act 1, Scene 1, lines 78-80. Cordelia clearly loves her father but realizes that her honesty will not be enough to show her love for him. Her nature is extremely good to allow even the slightest deviation from her morals.
Through the king, Shakespeare attempts to illustrate the influence of the outside world as well as our own inner desires. The king’s desire was to be shown love and for this he alienated his one daughter that loved him for the other two who only put up an act. This can also be seen in Edmund who due to his desires decides to misrepresent his brother in the eyes of his father.
Shakespeare, W., Raffel, B., & Bloom, H. (2007). King Lear. New Haven: Yale University Press.