King Lear | Play Synopsis and Character List

King Lear

Written by on | Shakespeare
Play Ranking9.0

Information on Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear. Written between 1605 and 1606 this is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Below is a play synopsis, character list and the best King Lear monologues. This play is rated no. 2 on the StageMilk list of best Shakespeare plays. Get engrossed in our King Lear information page:

King Lear Synopsis

Wishing to retire from power, old King Lear decides to share his kingdom amongst his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. He intends to live out his years living in rotation with his three daughters. He decides to divide the kingdom according to which daughter loves him the most. Goneril and Regan, aware of the game, lavishly praise their father and are rewarded accordingly. Cordelia, unable to blandish her father gives her honest opinion of him. Affronted, Lear punishes her with disinheritance. Kent, the king’s loyal servant, stands up for Cordelia and tries to appease the rash King. He is banished. The Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, both of whom have asked for Cordelia’s hand in marriage must now decide whether they will still marry her. The King of France, impressed by her honesty, marries Cordelia and they leave for France; Burgundy was less impressed.

Edmund, the bastard son of Cornwell, resents his legitimate brother Edgar and is plotting to take his land. He tricks his father with a fabricated letter that states Edgar’s intentions to steal the family estate.

Lear arrives at the palace of Goneril‘s husband, Albany, with his promised retinue of 100 knights. However, Goneril, now with her new power, decides to reduce his retinue to 50 knights. Lear leaves, disgusted at his ungrateful daughters actions. He then makes his way to the palace for that of Cornwall, Regan’s husband. Kent has re-emerged as Caius and is taken on as servant by Lear.

Edmund pretends to be attacked by his brother and tells Gloucester he is next. Edgar is subsequently banished. However, Edgar decides he will disguise himself as “Poor Tom”, a lunatic beggar, so as to remain close to his father’s castle. Meanwhile Regan and her husband, Cornwall, arrive at Gloucester’s castle to tell him of Lear and Goneril’s falling out. The disguised Kent ‘Caius’ also arrives and is put in the stocks by Oswald, Goneril’s servant. Lear arrives to find his servant chained and an unwelcoming Regan, who is denying to see him unless he yields and apologises for his wrong doings towards Goneril. Regan tells him he must lower his retinue to 25 knights. Goneril arrives and Lear, infuriated, decides he will live with her instead, as she at least will allow him his 50 knights. She, however, questions her father’s need to have a retinue at all. This is the final straw and the enraged Learleaves the castle cursing his daughters.

Lear finds himself in a harsh storm. Teetering on the brink of madness he comes across “Poor Tom”. Kent arrives and leads them to shelter. Edmund, meanwhile, has betrayed his father to the sisters by showing them a letter from Gloucester to the King of France asking for help to restore Lear’s power. Gloucester, betrayed by his son, is arrested and interrogated by Cornwall and Regan. Cornwall plucks out his eyes and throws him out into the storm. So overcome with rage at this unjustly punishment, Regan’s servant kills Cornwall. The two sisters then begin desiring the deceitful Edmund.

Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, meets his now blind father, Gloucester. Gloucester, not recognising him, is lead to the cliffs of Dover. Albany, Goneril’s husband, becomes aware of his wife’s mistreatment of Lear and her malevolent ways and denounces her. Albany leads the English army to fight the French: who have arrived. Kent is still leading Lear toward the French army in Dover. Edgar leads his father to a cliff and tricks him, telling him he survived a large fall. Oswald arrives and attempts to kill Gloucester, however, and is killed by Edgar. Edgar uncovers letters from Goneril to Edmund with instruction to murder Albany.

Lear finally arrives in Dover and is reunited with Cordelia. He begs forgiveness and begins to return to health. The English win the war and Edmund secretly gives orders for Lear and Cordelia to be executed. Albany, who has now received the letters from Edgar, declares Edmund a traitor. Regan has by this time fallen ill, possibly poisoned by Goneril. Edmund is arrested and then confronted by Edgar, who challenges him to a duel and mortally wounds him. Albany confronts Goneril with the letters and in shame she leaves and kills herself. Edgar reports also of his father’s death. Edmund, near his death, repents and tries to call off Lear and Cordelia’s execution, but it is too late. Cordelia arrives dead in Lear’s arms. Lear, lost entirely to grief and madness, dies soon after. Albany offers the crown to Kent, who has by this time revealed himself, however Kent is unable to rule, overcome by what has happened. Albany and Edgar are left to rule.

King Lear Characters

King Lear: King of Britain
Goneril: Lear’s eldest daughter
Regan: Lear’s second daughter of
Cordelia: Lear’s youngest daughter
Duke of Cornwall: Regan’s Husband
Duke of Albany: Goneril’s Husband
Earl of Gloucester
Edgar: Gloucester’s elder son
Edmund:  Gloucester’s younger bastard son
Old man: Gloucester’s tenant
Curan: a follower of Gloucester
Oswald: Goneril’s servant
Earl of Kent: later disguised as Caius
Fool: attendant of Lear
King of France: Cordelia’s suitor and later Husband
Duke of Burgundy: a suitor to Cordelia 

King Lear Monologues

King Lear Monologues

King Lear (Act 1 Scene 2)

Edmund: Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness, bastardy? Base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word-,’legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper:
Now gods, stand up for bastards!

King Lear (Act 2 Scene 3)

Edgar: I heard myself proclaimed,
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free, no place
That guard and most unusual vigilance
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may scape
I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury in contempt of man
Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots
And with presented nakedness outface
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod, poor Tom,
That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.

King Lear (Act 3 Scene 2)

King Lear: Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters;
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
You owe me no subscription. Why then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O ho! ’tis foul.

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is Stage Milk's core writer. He is a trained, Sydney based actor who writes the majority of our acting information.

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