Here is a brief plot summary of King Lear:

The Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund, to the Earl of Kent at court. Lear, King of Britain, enters. Now that he is old Lear has decided to abdicate, retire, and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Each will receive a portion of the kingdom according to how much they love him. Goneril, Duchess of Albany, the oldest, and Regan, Duchess of Cornwall, the second, both speak eloquently and receive their portion but Cordelia, the youngest, can say nothing. Her declaration that she loves him according to a daughter’s duty to a father enrages him and she is disowned.

One of Cordelia’s suitors, the Duke of Burgundy, rejects her once she is dowerless but the King of France understands her declaration and takes her as his wife, while the Earl of Kent is banished for taking Cordelia’s part against the King. The kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan. Lear tells them that he intends to live alternately with each of them.

Meanwhile, Edmund is determined to be recognised as a rightful son of Gloucester and persuades his father that his legitimate brother, Edgar, is plotting against Gloucester’s life, using a deceitful device. Edmund warns Edgar that his life is in danger. Edgar flees and disguises himself as a beggar. Goneril becomes increasingly exasperated by the behaviour of Lear’s hundred followers, who are disturbing life at Albany’s castle. Kent has returned in disguise and gains a place as a servant to Lear, supporting the King against Goneril’s ambitious servant, Oswald. Lear eventually curses Goneril and leaves to move in with Regan.

Edmund acts as a messenger between the sisters and is courted by each in turn. He persuades Cornwall that Gloucester is an enemy because, through loyalty to his King, Gloucester assists Lear and his devoted companion, the Fool, when they are turned away by Regan and told to return to Goneril’s household. Despairing of his daughters and regretting his rejection of Cordelia, Lear goes out into the wilderness during a fierce storm. He goes mad. Gloucester takes them into a hut for shelter and seeks the aid of Kent to get them away to the coast, where Cordelia has landed with a French army to fight for her father against her sisters and their husbands.

Edgar, pretending to be mad, has also taken refuge in the shelter and the Fool, the mad king and the beggar are companions until Edgar finds his father wandering and in pain. Gloucester has been blinded by Regan and Cornwall for his traitorous act in helping Lear. Cornwall has been killed by a servant after blinding Gloucester but Regan continues to rule with Edmund’s help. Not recognised by his father, Edgar leads him to the coast and helps him, during the journey, to come to an acceptance of his life. Gloucester meets the mad Lear on Dover beach, near Cordelia’s camp and, with Kent’s aid, Lear is rescued and re-united with Cordelia. Gloucester, although reconciled with Edgar, dies alone.

The French forces are defeated by Albany’s army led by Edmund, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Goneril has poisoned Regan in jealous rivalry for Edmund’s attention but Edgar, disguised now as a loyal knight, challenges Edmund to a duel and wounds him mortally. Seeing no way out, Goneril kills herself. The dying Edmund confesses his crimes, but it is too late to save Cordelia from the hangman. Lear’s heart breaks as he carries the body of his beloved daughter in his arms, and Albany and Edgar are left to re-organise the kingdom.

 

See King Lear translated to modern English >>

See summaries of Shakespeare’s other plays >>

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