This is another gory play, but is also considered one of Shakespeare’s finest. The play tells the story of an aged King, with three daughters. Realising he is going to die, he decides to share out his kingdom to the princesses (Cordelia, Goneril and Regan), so as to avoid any in-fighting when he’s gone.
A noble sentiment (as it were), but unfortunately his actions bring about the very consequences he was trying to avoid, but worse. This is a bleak play, with lots of violence and suffering, and a distinct lack of hope.
It is pre-Christian Britain. Lear is an old man, and wants to retire. Knowing his daughters as he does, or thinks he does, he wants to avoid the kingdom tearing itself apart. However, he first wants them to prove how much they love him.
While Regan and Goneril go way over the top in professing their love, Cordelia takes a different tack, telling him that there are not enough words to express her feelings for him. Cue the first mistake by Lear, and probably the most fatal. Lear completely misreads Cordelia’s intention, and cuts her out of the will. She now has no dowry either, but happily she meets and elopes with the King of France (probably Gaul back then, in pre-Christian times…), who recognises her good and true qualities. By the way, Goneril is married to the Duke of Albany, and Regan to the Duke of Cornwall.
The two remaining daughters get the kingdom evenly split between them, but there are T’s & C’s. He wants to be able to spend half his time with both daughters, and be accompanied by a personal guard of 100 knights, to be lodged and fully taken care of at the expense of the daughters. Lear also has two close companions, his Fool, and Kent, who is his senior advisor. Kent advises against the actions that Lear is taking, and is dismissed – Lear’s second big mistake.
A subplot now arises, between a Lord called Gloucester, and his two sons. One is “legitimate’, named Edgar. The other is “illegitimate’ or a “bastard”, named Edmund. Gloucester gets extremely disrespectful about Edmund’s mother, so Edmund devises revenge against his father Gloucester, and Edgar, his half-brother. Whispering poison into ears, he convinces everyone that Edgar is planning to kill Gloucester, so Edgar has to flee for his life. He disguises himself as a poor, homeless beggar called Poor Tom.
Lear is now at Goneril’s who, having gotten her cut of the kingdom, begins to show her true mean self, and complains about the rowdiness of Lear’s guard, and their treating her home like a brothel. She wants them reduced by half, to which proposal Lear is less than warm. He utters his famous “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” line about Goneril.
He decamps to Regan’s place, but Regan too finds her dad has outlived his fiscal usefulness to her, and sides with Goneril, but now declaring he must get rid of 75 of his guard. Given these knights are effectively his only defence, he is very reluctant to give them up, and slowly he begins to realise that these two girls are utterly false in their devotions to him, and basically lied to get their hands on his kingdom.
At this point, Lear begins to lose his mind, and he wanders out onto the heath in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. The two sisters show absolutely no remorse, and are glad to shut the door behind him.
Alone on the desolate heath, the frail ex-king meets Poor Tom. He decides his lot is a squalid one, and that every man is vulnerable in this world “A poor, bare, forked animal”. Upon uttering these words, he begins to strip himself of all clothing.
Gloucester happens along, and decides to help out the bedraggled duo. He has no idea who Poor Tom actually is, but is aware of Lear, and ignoring the instructions given by the wicked sisters, helps him. He directs them to Dover, and the daughter that actually did love him, Cordelia. She and her husband are assembling an invading army on the coast.
Things begin to get bloody from here on out, so we know we are coming to the climax of the play!
Gloucester reaps a terrible reward for his charity, in that the sisters have his eyes gouged out for treachery. His servant kills Regan’s husband [Duke of Cornwall] for this outrage, and is himself butchered by Regan.
Goneril is heading back to her own palace, accompanied by her now-lover Edmund, when they hear of Cornwall’s demise. She becomes instantly insecure about her own position, as she fears a possible alliance between Edmund and her now-single and powerful sister.
All roads now lead to Dover, for Gloucester is being taken there by Poor Tom. Gloucester attempts suicide along the way, but Poor Tom tricks him into thinking he’s jumped off a massive cliff, whereas in reality it is just a ledge. Gloucester thinks “It’s a miracle”, so stops attempting to kill himself.
In as short a time as possible, the White Cliffs of Dover are to be metaphorically splattered with gore. Goneril’s servant attempts to kill Gloucester, but Poor Tom/Edgar protects his father and kills the servant instead. He takes a letter from the dying man, in which Goneril entreats Edmund to kill Albany (her husband) so that they can rule their kingdom together.
Lear and Cordelia are re-united, amid many protestations of mutual love. Unfortunately, this scene is short-lived, as Cordelia’s army are soundly beaten by the combined English forces, who then take the ex-king and his daughter prisoner. Edmund secretly orders their execution, and they are taken off to their cells.
Regan and Goneril fight over Edmund. Albany discovers Goneril and Edmund are lovers, and are plotting to kill him. He demands they be arrested for treason, but Edgar arrives, confronts Edmund, and fatally stabs his half-brother. Regan collapses, having been previously poisoned by her sister Goneril, and dies.
Edgar now drops his disguise, and reveals himself to Gloucester as his lost son, whereupon Gloucester promptly drops dead of surprise (most likely a heart attack). Goneril comforts the dying Edmund, then she herself commits suicide. With his dying breath, Edmund attempts to make amends for his evil life. He confesses to his crimes, then urges Edgar and Albany to stop the executions of Lear and Cordelia which he ordered earlier.
It is too late. In the famous final scene, a numb Lear enters carrying the corpse of his hanged daughter. When he comes to his senses, and realises what has happened to his family, he too collapses, and dies of a broken heart. The last men standing are Edgar and Albany, but it is a distinctly joyless and bleak future into which they are looking.
Lear: He begins as the most powerful person in the play, but ends a lonely, desolate and mad shambles of a human. He is guilty of gross stupidity, and of more than a touch of arrogance, in how he treats people and makes decisions. His decisions and actions literally causes civil war. Ultimately, he realises the transience of life, and how vulnerable Man is, and this I think overwhelms him and breaks his heart.
Cordelia: The youngest of the sisters, she is the only one who really loves Lear. She is full of compassion, most clearly shown in the reconciliation with her father. Her nobility and strength of character and overall fine qualities as a human shine through, which is why the King of France gets betrothed to her even though she is dowry-less.
Regan: The middle child, as mean and nasty as her older sister. She is manipulative and deceitful, self-interested, and capable of extreme cruelty. She does have some of Cordelia’s humanity, for example when her husband is wounded, but overall a real bloodthirsty villain.
Goneril: The oldest of the three girls, she is a mistress of deceit, and shows no real redeeming features throughout the play. She flatters and deceives her father, whom she ultimately plans to betray and murder. She cheats on her husband, whom she also wants killed. She is also slightly conflicted: ruthless throughout the play in pursuit of power, she then would risk and lose all over a romantic entanglement.
Gloucester: Politically naïve and somewhat foolish, he however does grow throughout the play, from the cad who laughed at the fun he had with Edmund’s mother, to the reflective and thoughtful man who wants to look after the poor by the end. You could say he sees clearer after he was blinded.
Edmund: Opportunistic, with a real chip on his shoulder, he seeks power to avenge himself for his bad start in life. He orders the death of Lear and Cordelia, and uses his charm and other skills to advance himself, brooking no opposition. He does repent somewhat at the end, but for me it is too little, too late to redeem himself.
Edgar: The legitimate heir to Gloucester, he is a compassionate and quietly heroic figure. He is a classic stoic, willing and able to withstand the turmoil and vicissitudes of life. He forgives his father, and does him honour and reverence, like a good son should.
Power: The tragic events are set in motion, by the lust of the older sisters for power. Lear is also reluctant to let go fully, which is a subtle reason for having his one hundred knights. The desire for power “blinds” the characters to what they are becoming, and ultimately it destroys them all.
Family: As dysfunctional as they come, this one. However, all the families here are fractured. There are strong parallels to be drawn between the failure of family, and the disruption to the State. There is also a lack of a mother figure in each of these broken families.
Fragments of the play were over-dubbed by John Lennon into the Beatles song “I Am The Walrus”
From 1691 until 1823, when audiences saw King Lear, they were actually watching a version heavily edited in 1691 by Irish-born Nathum Tate – he eliminated some characters, and gave Cordelia a much happier ending. The original play was considered too brutal. The original was restored in 1823, and post-WWII audiences were less sensitive to all that killing, and the play became and remained intensely popular ever since.
George Bernard Shaw wrote that “No man will write ever a better tragedy than Lear”. Over to you so, ladies!
Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”
“More sinned against than sinning”
“The worst is not, So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’.”
“Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest.”
“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”