Last Modification Monday July 14, 2003 15:05  
A Brief Summary of King Lear - I, II, III, IV

by Jeremy Bandini ©1999-2003

Part I

The play opens with King Lear deciding how to retire his throne. He decides to divide his land up among his three daughters. Whichever daughter can lavish him with the most praise and prove they love him most, will get the best land. Regan and Goneril are the first to profess their love to their father. Lear is gratified and grants each a healthy portion of land. He saves the last, but best portion of land for his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia. Cordelia, unfortunately, is unwilling to lie to her father. She will not allow herself to behave in the way her sisters did. She simply states that she loves Lear as much as any daughter should, no more, no less. The furious Lear attempts to persuade Cordelia to reconsider her answer, but after unsuccessfully doing so, rashly decides to bestow no land on her and essentially banishes her from his site. One of Cordelia's suitors, The Duke of Burgundy, loses all interest in the powerless daughter. The King of France recognizes Cordelia's virtues and takes her even without any land. The loyal Kent attempts to change Lear's mind with blunt honesty, but is banished for contradicting Lear's proclamation. Lear is going to live with his eldest daughters, yet still keep the title "King." Secretly, Goneril and Regan conspire to not allow Lear to exert his title over anything.

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester suffers a similar lapse in judgement. He is easily deceived by his bastard son, Edmund. Edmund draws up a phony letter that implicates the good son, Edgar, in a conspiracy to kill his father. Then, he "accidentally" allows Gloucester to see it. Edmund furthers his evil intentions by lying to Edgar, stating that Gloucester is angry, and advising him to run away. This effectively pits the two against each other and earns Edmund a promotion by his father. Edgar flees into the woods and takes the disguise of a madman named Poor Tom.

Proving his valiant worth, even though he was wronged by Lear, Kent returns in disguise and asks to be Lear's servant. Lear accepts him unknowing of his true identity. It is clear at this point in the play that Lear expects to be treated as a King even though he has no power to back the title. The court jester, aptly named The Fool, appears and provides a scathing commentary on Lear's situation. Lear recognizes what he says, but since he is the jester, The Fool is not punished for his comments.

Part II

Around this time, Goneril's steward Oswald passes through. In this scene he blatantly disrespects Lear. Kent corrects Oswald and eventually strikes him. This sends Oswald off in anger to search for Goneril. This is the first open defiance of Lear's authority.

In a confrontation with her father, Goneril completely disrespects Lear as both a king and a father. She reprimands Lear for having rowdy knights and suggests he might reduce their numbers. The furious Lear calls his knights together and scolds his eldest daughter. He sends Kent to alert Regan of the problem and to let her know of his approaching arrival. Lear thinks his other daughter truly loves him and that Goneril will regret this transgression once Regan has knowledge of the event.

Elsewhere, The Duke of Cornwall and Regan arrive at Gloucester's castle. They praise Edmund for helping his father and identifying Edgar as a villain. Cornwall gives Edmund a noble position under him for his deeds.

Kent arrives, harshly criticizes Oswald, and tries to kill him. Cornwall and Regan place Kent in the stocks for accusing Oswald of evil deeds. When Lear finally arrives he is incredulous to find that his man has been placed in the stocks. Lear learns who put Kent there and boldly demands Gloucester to fetch Regan so that he may have a word with her. Regan purposefully denies Lear an audience and after a great delay she arrives. The two get into an argument during which Regan lets Lear know she will not take him in unless he reduce the quantity of his knights. She also demands that he apologize to Goneril for disrespecting her. In a cruel turn of events, Goneril shows up and embraces her sister. The two have made it known that Lear will have no authority for the duration of his life. Lear angrily sets off into a brewing storm, followed loyally by Kent and The Fool.

Part III

Lear makes a vivid speech about his current situation and begins to show signs of losing his sanity. Lear, The Fool, and Kent come upon   Edgar disguised as an insane beggar named Poor Tom. Tom's deranged babble seems to compliment Lear's downward spiral of sanity.  Gloucester leaves the castle (defying Regan) and locates Lear. Lear's old friend persuades him to take shelter in a barn from the wicked elements of the storm.

Edmund displays his vile disregard for his father by letting The Duke of Cornwall see a fabricated letter implicating Gloucester in a plot to conspire with France to attack Britain Cornwall's land. Cornwall intends to reward Edmund for his loyalty, and severely punish Gloucester upon his return.

Sheltered from the storm in the barn, Lear's madness reaches a new peak. He creates a fictional courtroom in which The Fool and Poor Tom are judges. Lear charges Regan and Goneril for their crimes. Lear goes to sleep with persuasion by Kent. Gloucester returns from fetching supplies and informs everyone that Lear's life is in danger. Regan and Goneril, he says, intend to kill their father. Gloucester sends Lear to Dover, because he believes he will be safe there.

Gloucester then thinks he should return to his castle. Upon arriving, however, he is met with accusations. The French had landed and Cornwall says Gloucester is a traitor. Regan excitedly states they should pluck Gloucester's eyes out. Ironically, one of Cornwall's own servants pulls his sword to defend the Earl. During the ensuing battle the servant manages to mortally wound Cornwall, but is himself killed by Regan. In a grizzly scene, Cornwall gouges Gloucester's eyes out and Regan sends him outside the castle to wander until he dies. Cornwall, assisted by Regan, exits bleeding profusely.

Part IV

Gloucester wanders restlessly, trying to find the cliffs at Dover to commit suicide. Edgar comes upon him and listens to his sad tale of misjudging his son. Gloucester does not know who he has met, only that this person will help him to commit suicide. Edgar continues to conceal his identity and even tricks Gloucester into thinking he has survived his suicide attempt.

Cordelia, who is apparently in town via her husband's invasion of England, discovers Lear. She takes him into her care, and when Lear awakes, he believes he has benefited from a miracle. This is a touching scene where Lear attempts to regain his sanity.

The Duke of Albany, being a good man, learns of what has happened and vehemently condemns Goneril. This leaves Goneril free to lust after her new love, Edmund. With Cornwall's death, Edmund is appointed to the head of British forces. Of course, since her husband has died, Regan competes with her sister for Edmund's love.

Due to his honor and loyalty to Britain, Albany helps Edmund in the fight against France. When France loses, Cordelia and Lear are taken prisoner by Edmund. They are secretly sentenced to death. The two sisters continue their betrayal and turn on each other. Regan is poisoned by Goneril. When her disgusting intentions are made known, Goneril commits suicide.

Edgar allows Gloucester to know his true identity and his father dies of a broken heart. Edgar then informs The Duke of Albany of Edmund's grievous acts and he is arrested for his crimes. Next, Edgar formally challenges Edmund to a duel. Edmund loses and is mortally wounded. At this point, Edmund undergoes a transition and become remorseful before his death. He tells of his order to execute Lear and Cordelia. He is too late. Cordelia is executed and Lear dies trying to revive her.

This summary is in no way comprehensive. It is likely that, while I tried my best not to, I may have overlooked some important points in the play. Please e-mail me if you feel I have forgotten something.

Table of Contents for the full text of King Lear compiled by MIT

Characters, setting, etc...

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Act 4

Act 5

Entire play as one page.

Original Content on this site is copyright Jeremy Bandini 1998-2003. Site Design by NMD