King Lear Plot Summary
The main plot deals with the head of the royal family, King Lear of Britain. Lear has three daughters: Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. The oldest, Goneril, is married to the Duke of Albany. The middle child, Regan, is married to the Duke of Cornwall. Cordelia, the youngest, has two potential suitors, the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. The Fool is a major character in the head family, serving as the king's foremost right-hand man.
Within the plot, another story weaves its way. It is headed by the Earl of Gloucester, a member of Lear's court. Gloucester has two sons: the elder, legitimate son, Edgar, and the younger, illegitimate son, Edmund.
The plot opens at King Lear's retirement. Lear has decided to give up the throne and divide his kingdom among his daughters. Before allotting the portions of the kingdom, Lear asks each of his daughters to profess her love for him in the best way she knows how. Doing so will guarantee each girl her portion of the entitlement. While Goneril and Regan delve into expressions of adoration for their father, Cordelia remains speechless, saying that words cannot express her love.
Lear becomes enraged by what he considers his favorite daughter's lack of attachment and affection. With that, Lear cuts Cordelia off, deciding she will receive none of the entitlement. Her share is divided between the other two girls, who receive almost the entirety of the royal court. The only thing Lear keeps for himself is a retinue of 100 knights who will take him back and forth between the two girls for visits.
After Cordelia loses her portion of the kingdom, her suitors are called in to propose. Burgundy is rejected but the King of France woos her well enough to earn her hand.
Meanwhile, at Gloucester's castle. Edmund decides he will not let his illegitimate birth prevent him from earning his father's estate. He conjures a plan of his own to convince Gloucester that Edgar is covertly planning to kill Gloucester himself, in order to more quickly procure the estate while he's at a young age. Edmund tells Edgar that their father is after him, having heard falsely that Edgar committed some heinous crime. With that, Edgar flees.
At the same time, Lear decides that he can't stand living with his two daughters. They treat him cruelly and it enrages him. He screams at them and curses them, running out into a violent storm, which his two daughters do nothing to prevent. There, he is joined by Kent, the Fool, and eventually by Edgar, who disguises himself as a mad beggar to avoid his father's (Gloucester) falsely-placed anger.
Gloucester tries to help Lear escape the storm and find his senses, but Edmund betrays his father and manages to get Cornwall and Regan to punish the earl. The punishment Gloucester must endure is wretched. His eyes are gouged out and he is sent into the storm. A still disguised Edgar discovers his blinded father and leads him to Dover, where he joins Lear, who has gone even more mad.
The news that her sisters have stripped their father of his men and chased him out of town reaches Cordelia. Her husband, the King of France, sends invading troops into France to help reinstate Lear's rights as king. In Dover, Cordelia finds her father and gives him all the loving attention he needs. She contributes wholly to the restoration of his sanity.
In the meantime, Edmund is slated to take his father's estate. Knowing that much, Goneril and Regan develop interest in him, and the interest grows increasingly competitive. Yet before they can hammer out a winner in their fight for love, the battle for the throne must be fought. The French lose, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner.
Edmund secretly commissions Lear and Cordelia's deaths. Yet once Albany enters and discovers this, he accuses Edmund of treason for plotting against him with Goneril at his side. Edmund is given an opportunity to defend himself in a fair duel. Edgar, in a new, armed disguise, appears at this point to challenge his brother in the duel. Edgar fatally wounds his brother, leaving Edmund to confess to all of his crimes. Shortly, a servant enters and reveals that Goneril has poisoned her sister Regan and then proceeded to kill herself. Edmund discloses that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia.
Lear enters with the dead Cordelia cradled in his arms. He weeps, enfeebled by the death of his most loving daughter--he refuses to believe she is gone, even as he himself dies.
Albany, winner of the battle, hands the country over to Kent and Edgar. Kent, worn out by all of the tragedy, refuses the offer. Edgar is left then as the new king, charged with the task of restoring order to Britain.