King Lear abbreviated

Lear was king in about 845 B.C. in the land known as Britain.  Britain must have then been an area that is about the same as present day Great Britain.  Although Lear was recognized as king, he was no longer young and was no longer as quick as he must at one time have been.  Lear has three daughters and two sons-in-law and for estate planning purposes has decided to divide his kingdom into three parts, saying “we have divided in three our kingdom.” His plan is to give one part to each daughter.  Giving his kingdom to his daughters turns out to be a terrible mistake.

We learn as the play begins that Lear has decided to test his daughters in a most unusual way, saying “Tell me, my daughters, which of you shall we say doth love us most.”  Goneril and Regan, the two older daughters, let him know that he means just about everything to them, Goneril, the oldest, saying “Sir, I love you beyond what can be valued, no less than life.”  Regan, the middle daughter, saying “I find my sister comes too short, for I find I am alone made happy in your dear Highness’ love.”  But Cordelia, his youngest and who Lear has called “our joy,” being surprisingly open and direct, says to her father “I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less” and “when I shall wed, that lord shall carry half my love with him.” (Daughter to Father, Act 1, Scene 1) An infuriated Lear lashes out at her, turning away from her, calling her “my sometime daughter,” saying “Hence and avoid my sight.”  He tells his two sons-in-law that “with my two daughters’ dowers digest the third. Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.”  The Earl of Kent, one of Shakespeare’s great guys, overplays his hand by questioning the king’s judgment. Lear finally says “Peace, Kent. Come not between the dragon and his wrath.”  Not backing off, Kent says things like “Kill thy physician, and thy fee bestow upon the foul disease” and “I’ll tell thee thou dost evil.” The king proceeds to banish him from Britain.  As Kent leaves, the king of France enters.  Lear tells the king of France “she’s there, and she is yours,” France’s king having been courting Cordelia.  A happy king of France says to Lear “Thy dowerless daughter, king, thrown to my chance, is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France.”  As Cordelia and the French king leave, Cordelia wishes her sisters well saying “the jewels of our father, with washed eyes Cordelia leaves you.”  Sweetheart Cordelia will not be heard from again until late in the play.

Sorting out the players in these plays is always a challenge; this being one of the more demanding. Goneril is married to Albany; Regan to Cornwall.  Shakespeare has given important roles to Edgar, Kent, Cordelia, Gloucester and Albany, and uses them to make his points, all of them having characteristics that reflect the best humanity has to offer.  But then some of the others in the play offer the worst. Shakespeare uses this play, probably more than others, to display severe comparisons between people, drawing written pictures of how kind and then how unkind people can be one to another. 

The Earl of Gloucester is old and has been a long time aide and friend of Lear’s. He has two sons, the younger being Edmund, insecure (it seems) because of his “base” or illegitimate birth.  Edmund deviously plans to turn his father against his older son Edgar, Edmund’s guileless, one-year older and vulnerable brother. (Deviousness, Act 1, Scene 2) Aside, Edmund tells us that it should be easy to take advantage of the two of them, his father being weak, innocent, and gullible and his brother being so noble.  Edmund lets his father see the letter he has forged, written as if it were from Edgar; a demented letter that falsely details Edgar’s purported plan to kill their father, and then of Edgar’s fabricated suggestion that the two of them split the inheritance from their father.  Seeing Edmund’s letter, appearing to be from Edgar, the too-accepting Gloucester immediately turns on Edgar, not questioning Edmund’s make-believe story. (Father to Son, Act 1, Scene 2)

Lear has now left himself homeless, having now divided his kingdom into two parts and given them to his two older daughters.  He decides that he and his entourage will for at least a while live with Goneril and her husband, the duke of Albany.  But Lear irritates his daughter soon after he arrives, she saying “by day and night he wrongs me.”  She asks “did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his Fool?” having learned from her steward Oswald that he had. (Anger, Act 1, Scene 3) We here learn the essence of the play when Goneril says “Idle old man that still would manage those authorities that he hath given away.”

The banished Earl of Kent, now disguised, boldly risking his life by not leaving the country, audaciously persuades Lear to hire him as a servant. (Pleading, Act 1, Scene 4) All the while Lear’s Fool is telling the king what a fool he is. (Insight, Act 1, Scene 4) Goneril soon tells her father that he is no longer welcome in her home and must leave, saying “here do you keep a hundred knights and squires, men so disordered, so debauched and bold, that this our court, infected with their manners, shows like a riotous inn.”  An irrational Lear cries out at Goneril “darkness and devils. Saddle my horses. Call my train together. I have another daughter who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable.  When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails she’ll flay thy wolvish face.”  Kent and the Fool join Lear and his knights as they leave for Regan’s estate; Regan being Goneril’s younger sister.  Separately, Goneril has had a conversation with Oswald and later calls him forward asking “have you writ that letter to my sister?”  He has.  Lear has the disguised Kent move on ahead of him asking him to “go you before to Regan with these letters.” Lear’s plan is to let her know that he and his entourage will soon arrive.  A loyal Kent responds “I will not sleep, my lord, till I have delivered your letter.” 

The trusting Edgar greets his not-to-be-trusted brother Edmund.  Edmund immediately tells him that their father is very angry with him. Separately, Edmund has been cozying up to Lear’s daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall.  Having been talked into a fictitious duel by Edmund, Edgar exits the stage when Edmund says “I hear my father coming” and “Fly, brother. Torches, torches!”  (Deviousness, Act 2, Scene 1)

A furious Gloucester, another old man losing his bearings, believing everything Edmund has been telling him, yells out “Let him fly far!  Not in this land shall he remain uncaught, and found.”  He tells everyone “that he which finds him (Edgar) shall deserve our thanks, bringing the murderous coward to the stake.”  But, ah ha, in dramatic fashion, Edgar soon returns to the play disguised as a madman-beggar, calling himself “Poor Tom.”  (Introspection, Act 2, Scene 3) We soon learn from Regan that “I have this present evening from my sister been well informed of them (her father Lear and his entourage), and with such cautions that if they come to stay at my house I’ll not be there.”

The disguised Kent and Oswald get into a sword fight at Gloucester’s castle. Cornwall, Regan’s husband, enters, stops the fight, and puts Kent in the stocks and exits. The next morning an angry Lear and his Fool find Kent confined to the stocks and free him. (Insight, Act 2, Scene 4) At that moment, Regan, her husband Cornwall and Gloucester enter.  Lear immediately says to his daughter “Beloved Regan, thy sister’s worthless.  O Regan, she hath tried sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture.”  Regan says to her father “O sir, you are old.  You should be ruled and led by the discretion of someone whose condition is better than yourself.  Say you have wrong her.”  Lear says “Ask her forgiveness?”  Regan says ‘Return you to my sister.”  Lear lets her know he’ll not return to Goneril’s, saying “Never, Regan.” Goneril soon enters saying “How have I offended?” (Anger, Act 2, Scene 4) Regan tells her father “You will return and stay with my sister, dismissing half your train, come then to me.”  But, infuriating her father further, Goneril says “What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five?” Regan then says “What need one?”  (Father to Daughter, Act 2, Scene 4) Unable to cope with the thought of this kind of severe downgrade, while accompanied by the Fool, Kent and Gloucester, Lear leaves Regan’s home “in high rage.”  The king is not only homeless but they have absolutely nowhere to go to protect themselves from the elements.  A serious storm develops; a very serious storm. Separately, the disguised good-guy Kent, recognizing the seriousness of the situation, sends the king’s ring with a Gentleman, instructing him to get the ring to Cordelia, a signal that will let her know that her father needs her help. (Request, Act 3, Scene 1) Lear irrationally cries-out “blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You oak-cleaving thunderbolts, singe my white head.”  Kent enters, encouraging Lear and his friends to seek shelter in a hovel, which they do, finding it occupied by a disguised Edgar, pretending to be the madman-beggar “Poor Tom.”  It’s been a long trip down for King Lear.

An unconscionable Edmund, learning from his father that the French have landed in Britain, falsely tells Cornwall that his father is not to be trusted, claiming he has been providing intelligence to the French.  Cornwall in turn tells him that he will be rewarded, and that his father will be punished.  

Back in the hovel, Edgar, reinforcing his madman-beggar image, enters into a fantasy dialog with Lear, a dialog that includes a mock trail, arraigning Goneril.  Edgar cringes at the king’s deterioration.  All the while the weather is just awful. (Introspection, Act 3, Scene 6)

At about this point Cornwall calls for Gloucester’s arrest, claiming he’s a traitor.  The king’s older daughters suggest Gloucester be severely punished.  Gloucester enters, he being on his way to Dover to seek help from Cordelia and the French king.  He is soon captured by Cornwall’s men. Cornwall has him bound to a chair and forces out his eyes.  A servant, distraught over the mistreatment of this old, gentle and loyal man, draws his sword, seriously wounding Cornwall. In turn, Regan stabs the servant in the back, killing him.  A now blind Gloucester learns that it was his son Edmund who had been claiming that he had been helping the French.

Eyeless Gloucester and an Old Man are on stage as Gloucester’s son Edgar enters.  Gloucester asks Edgar to lead him to the edge of the Cliffs at Dover, unaware that he is his son.  Edgar does.  Meanwhile, Goneril flirts with Edmund, giving him a kiss.  He exits as her husband Albany enters.  Albany and Goneril argue, he calling her “vile;” she calling him “milk-livered.”  They learn Cornwall has died as a result of the wound from the servant’s sword.  Good-guy Albany learns that Gloucester has lost his eyes.  Meanwhile, Cordelia, along with a Doctor and the Gentleman who delivered the ring, are now in Britain searching for her father.  Regan jealously senses Goneril’s interest in Edmund, believing that she, now being a widow, having just lost her husband Cornwall, is the more “convenient” to link up with him. Goneril, continuing to be upset with her husband, Albany, considering him too meek and mild, openly expresses her interest in the more flamboyant Edmund, further upsetting Regan.

Edgar has now led Gloucester near to the edge of the Cliffs at Dover, but not too near.  Wanting to fall over the cliffs and die, Gloucester kneels and falls harmlessly.  Now disguised as a peasant, Edgar calls him father, telling Gloucester it’s a miracle he survived the fall.  A disoriented Lear enters. (Inspiration, Act 4, Scene 6) Gloucester and Edgar become even more disheartened after listening to Lear, his mind about gone.  The Gentleman enters telling Lear that Cordelia is looking for him.  Lear runs off. Oswald enters, sees Gloucester and draws his sword.  Protecting his blind father, Edgar takes up a sword and duels with Oswald.  Oswald falls and dies.  Edgar finds a letter in Oswald’s pocket from Goneril to Edmund.  The always pleasant Cordelia finds and comforts her father. (Daughter to Father, Act 4, Scene 7) They learn Cornwall has died.  Separately, Regan shifts her anger from her sister to Edmund; upset as she is with the attention he’s paying to Goneril. (Introspection, Act 5, Scene 1) Edmund denies to her that he has any interest in her sister.  Continuing to be disguised as a peasant, Edgar enters and gives Albany the letter to Edmund from Goneril.  Lear and Cordelia are captured.  Edgar suggests his father move to a better location.  Gloucester responds, “No further.”  He soon dies. 

Edmund enters with Lear and Cordelia as his prisoners with plans to send them to prison.  Cordelia says “For thee, oppressed king, I am cast down.”  But looking forward to being with his daughter, Lear says “no, no, no.  Come, let’s away to prison.  We two alone will sing like birds in th’ cage.  So we’ll live, and sing and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news.” Edmund declares “Take them away.” (Father to Daughter, Act 5, Scene 3)  Edmund gives the Captain a note instructing him to make sure they don’t leave the prison alive.  Albany challenges Edmund to a duel.  Regan becomes sick and exits.  A still disguised Edgar enters and challenges his brother Edmund, drawing his sword.  They fight and Edmund falls, seriously wounded.  Goneril quietly exits.  Albany embraces Edgar. (Disclosure, Act 5, Scene 3) They learn Goneril had fatally poisoned Regan and has now fatally stabbed herself. A dying Edmund tells Edgar and Albany that he gave instructions that Cordelia be hanged. As he discards his disguise, Edgar says “I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund.  Edmund soon dies. A sadly confused Lear enters carrying Cordelia, now dead.  Kent cautions all, saying, “He hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.”  Lear soon dies.  Albany tells Kent and Edgar that they must be the successor rulers of the realm and “sustain the state.”  Shakespeare could have named this play: The good, the bad and the ugly.  But the “good guys” are real good.


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