The Tragedy of King Lear highlights the king’s grave mistake in honoring flattery over true dedication, exiling his youngest daughter and raising his other two daughters to power, ultimately resulting in all of their deaths.
King Lear is wavering in his old age, and wishes to give up his throne so that he can retire. He demands that each of his three daughters tell him how much she loves him so that he can divide up his inheritance to them. His two oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him with empty words, but his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to participate in the charade, insisting that she believes in deeds over speech. The king disinherits her and sends her off to be married to the King of France. Lear also banishes the Earl of Kent for defending Cordelia. Meanwhile, Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, is plotting to turn his father against his legitimate son Edgar, so that he can inherit Gloucester’s properties.
Goneril and Regan mistreat their father while Kent returns in disguise to keep an eye on the king. Edmund stages a fake fight with Edgar and convinces his father that Edgar wants to kill the earl. Goneril and Regan solidify their alliance by demanding that the king get rid of all of his knights. King Lear gallops off into the stormy night in rage and grief.
The King of France declares war against England, and Gloucester rides out to find King Lear. Edmund betrays his father to the sisters. Gloucester finds Lear, Kent, and Edgar disguised as a beggar named Tom, and smuggles them into Dover. Gloucester is arrested by Cornwall’s men, and Cornwall gouges his eyes out. Cornwall is killed by a servant.
Goneril and Edmund begin an affair, but Goneril worries that now that Regan’s husband Cornwall is dead, she will try to go after Edmund. King Lear is nursed back to health by Cordelia. Edmund captures King Lear and Cordelia, and orders Cordelia to be killed in her cell. Albany challenges Edmund to fight, and Edgar fights him, disguised behind armor. He reveals himself after the fight and tells everyone that his father is dead. Edmund kills himself shortly after finding out that Goneril poisoned Regan and then stabbed herself. Lear kills the man hanging Cordelia, but not in time, and he dies from grief. Albany surrenders to Kent and Edgar.
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Date Published: 1606
Major Themes: Foolishness and manipulation; morality and nobility; greed; redemption
Famous Quote: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”