King Lear

Act I
Scene 1: Kent and Gloucester discuss Lear's planned division of the kingdom. Gloucester introduces Edmund as his bastard son. The court enters, Lear asks how much each daughter loves him; Goneril and Regan compete, Cordelia's "Nothing" disappoints. Lear is angry, he rejects Cordelia. Kent protests, is exiled. Burgundy will not take a dowerless bride, the King of France takes dowerless Cordelia as Queen. Goneril and Regan remark on the difficult character of old men, the need to do something.
Scene 2: Edmund's soliloquy: "Thou Nature art my goddess!" His plot, the false letter compromising Edgar with naive Gloucester. Edmund's cynical soliloquy.
Scene 3: Goneril with Oswald, begins the campaign against Lear.
Scene 4: Kent disguised joins Lear as his servant. Trips insolent Oswald. The Fool appears and blames Lear. Goneril blames Lear's 100 knights, wants to reduce their number, Lear's extreme reaction. Lear's decision to leave, his curse, his rage. Goneril writes to Regan, snubs her husband, Albany.
Scene 5: Lear with Fool: "O let me not be mad!"

Act II
Scene 1: Edmund and Curran mention conflict between Cornwall and Albany. Edmund organizes the discrediting of Edgar, Gloucester's anger. Regan and Cornwall arrive at Gloucester's house after hearing from Goneril that the king plans to stay with them.
Scene 2: Kent insults Oswald. Cornwall has him put in the stocks, despite Gloucester. Kent reads a letter from Cordelia, sleeps.
Scene 3: Edgar tells us of his plan to become Poor Tom.
Scene 4: Lear, finding Regan absent, arrives at Gloucester's home. Sees Kent in the stocks, grows angry. Signs of madness. Talks with Gloucester, who reports that Regan does not feel like seeing Lear. Regan comes down, Lear looks for her support, cursing Goneril. Goneril arrives, the two sisters join in reducing the number of knights: "What need one?" Lear rushes out into the storm.

Scene 1: Kent and Gentleman describe Lear's madness, announce the coming of Cordelia with the French army.
Scene 2: Lear and the Fool out in the storm, joined by Kent, the violent storm beating down.
Scene 3: Inside, trusting Gloucester tells Edmund of his secret cor- respondance with Cordelia. Edmund decides to use this to get his title and lands.
Scene 4: Lear, Kent, Fool in front of the hut, from which Edgar emerges as Poor Tom. Gloucester comes to help them.
Scene 5: Edmund tells Cornwall of his father's secret, action decided.
Scene 6: Lear and companions inside the hut, Gloucester returns to the house for food. Mock trial of Reagan and Goneril. Gloucester returns, sends them off to Dover to escape plot against Lear's life.
Scene 7: Gloucester arrested in his own home, Goneril and Regan insult him. Cornwall puts out one of his eyes; a servant protests, attacks and injures Cornwall, is killed by Regan, Cornwall puts out Gloucester's other eye. Gloucester thrown out.

Act IV
Scene 1: Edgar meets his blinded father, becomes his guide as Poor Tom still.
Scene 2: Goneril returns home, hears that Albany does not approve. Sends Edmund back with promises of love, quarrels with Albany. A messenger tells of Cornwall's death, and Gloucester's blinding. Albany is horrified.
Scene 3: Kent reports Cordelia's emotions on learning of events.
Scene 4: At Dover, Cordelia learns of Lear's approach, and of the British army's.
Scene 5: Regan suspects Goneril of wanting Edmund.
Scene 6: Gloucester and Edgar at Dover, Gloucester thinks he has survived after falling over a cliff, thanks to Edgar's trick. Edgar assumes a simpler identity. They meet Lear, quite mad, he and Gloucester engage in crazy dialogue before Lear runs off. Oswald tries to kill Gloucester, is killed by Edgar who finds Goneril's letter to Edmund.
Scene 7: The Restoration scene: Lear wakes up sane, he and Cordelia are reconciled.

Act V
Scene 1: Preparations for battle against the French, uniting the two sisters, Edmund and Albany. Edgar slips a letter to Albany. Edmund soliloquizes on his love problems.
Scene 2: Edgar and Gloucester see the battle lost.
Scene 3: Lear and Cordelia prisoners. Edmund arranges their deaths. Conflict with Albany, and between sisters. Albany charges Edmund with treason, the formal challenge is announced. Regan is sick. Edgar wounds Edmund in combat. Albany produces Goneril's letter, Edgar reveals his identity, tells of Gloucester's death. Regan's death and Goneril's suicide are announced. Bodies brought in. Kent arrives, asking where is Lear? Edmund tells of the plot, sends a message to save them, too late. Lear carries in Cordelia's body. Last moments, Lear dies.

Very popular in the study and classroom, King Lear was for a long time less popular on stage. From 1681 until the mid-19th century it was always acted in a version by Nahum Tate where there was no Fool, Edgar and Cordelia had love scenes, Cordelia did not die, and there was a happy ending! Bradley is famous for having said that Lear was not a good play, but he probably never saw the complete Shakespearean text acted. Some modern stage and TV productions have been very impressive, and the play has been related to the Theater of the Absurd.

In the earlier scenes, Shakespeare's play follows the traditional story found in Holinshed, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and partly in the earlier play King Leir. In the sources, there is no storm or madness, only poverty and pain until at last Lear arrives in France; there Cordelia welcomes him, helps him regain his crown, and he dies peacefully, leaving Cordelia as queen. Later the children of Goneril and Reagan attack, imprison Cordelia, and she finally kills herself (hangs herself according to Spenser) in despair. The setting is some time around 800 B.C. The madness of Lear, and his restoration to sanity, the sub-plot of Gloucester and his two sons, and the murder of Cordelia that provokes the death of Lear, are all invented by Shakespeare. The older story had no dramatic ending, only a strong initial situation of family and social conflict in Lear's surrender of his kingdom to unworthy people, and his rejection of the one faithful daughter.

In Holinshed's chronicle (Appendix 2 in Kenneth Muir's Arden edition) we find the historian commenting on "the unkindness, or (as I may say) the unnaturalness which he found in his two daughters." This is one of the play's fundamental themes. In Chapter 10 of the second Book of Sidney's New Arcadia Shakespeare found the story of the "Paphalgonian unkind King and his kind son," which Sidney offers as an example "of true natural goodness, as of wretched ungratefulness." Here is the entire Gloucester story: the father deceived by his bastard son into rejecting his true son, blinded, and led faithfully by the true son who prevents him leaping in despair from a high cliff. This chapter in Sidney begins with travellers forced to seek shelter in the midst of an exceptionally violent storm, and may well have suggested to Shakespeare the entire shape and the exalted tone of the play's ending by its tragic intensity and pathos.

It may be partly the influence of Sidney that explains why so much of this play is in prose, or in a poetic style so plain that it approaches prose. The style of King Lear is austere; there are no lyric passages or soliloquies, and the play has far more shouted exclamations than is normal in Shakespeare:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world!
Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man! (Act III.ii)

Beside his reading in Sidney, Shakespeare had recently been in contact with Florio's translation of the Essays of Montaigne, from which he learned quite a large stock of new words, found in his works for the first time in King Lear.

One of the most debated elements in all of Shakespeare's plots is the brutal death of Cordelia. In part the problem arises from sentimentality. Many try to explain her death as the result of some kind of tragic fault (harmarteia). Shakespeare's tragedies, though, are not based on a world-view in which death comes as retribution, while the innocent die peacefully or not at all.

King Lear is a play in which the choices of good or evil are plainly defined in each character, except for Lear whose royal and paternal nobility is combined with a foolish blindness to the facts of human nature. As in many of Shakespeare's plays, the errors of the foolish and misguided bring suffering and death to others who are innocent. Shakespeare is concerned with the mystery of discontinuity in human nature; how can children having the same parents be so utterly different in their moral natures? How is it possible for some to act in direct contradiction to the demands of Nature ("Kind")? As in many plays, from Richard III on, we find an initial victory of ruthless villains changing into self-destroying defeat near the end of the play, so that the good who survive have the last word in a purified world.