King Lear is set in the court of an aging British monarch. Shakespeare probably wrote it in around 1604, sandwiched between two other great tragedies, Othello and Macbeth.
Having reached the age of 80, the widowed King Lear calls his nobles together to announce his intention to pass on the cares and responsibility of monarchy to his three daughters, with whom he means to live on a rota basis. His eldest, Goneril, is married to the Duke of Albany and his middle child, Regan, is married to the Duke of Cornwall. At the court are the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, both hoping to marry Lear's youngest (and favourite) daughter Cordelia.
Before dividing his kingdom, however, Lear challenges his daughters to prove which of them loves him best. His two elder daughters play along, making passionate speeches about the depth of their love for him, but his youngest, horrified by their excesses, refuses to say anything. Her unwillingness to exaggerate her feelings enrages Lear and he banishes her forever. He divides his country between his elder daughters and their husbands.
On learning that Cordelia will no longer inherit anything from Lear, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his proposal of marriage. She leaves with the King of France who loves her more now that she has proved her honesty. When Lear's rash behaviour is challenged by his most faithful servant, the Earl of Kent, he is banished too, but returns in disguise to serve his old master in secret, calling himself Caius.
In a similar misunderstanding, the Earl of Gloucester is misled by his scheming illegitimate son, Edmund, into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, wishes to murder him in order to inherit his title and lands. Edgar escapes his father's anger by running away and disguising himself as a mad beggar called 'Poor Tom'.
Lear soon discovers that, by passing his authority to his daughters, he has damaged his relationship with them so much that he is refused a home with either of them. He finds himself banished into a storm with only his Fool (a jester) and the disguised Kent for company. As he descends into madness he learns the error of his ways.
Gloucester's support for the displaced King angers Goneril and Regan and he too finds himself cast out and defenceless and in the care of Poor Tom, whom he still believes to be a beggar rather than his own son. As both Lear and Gloucester learn the true nature of their children, their hopes rest with Cordelia, newly returned to Britain in charge of a French army.
Stop reading now if you don't want to know how it ends...
As Cordelia's army prepares to meet that led by her sisters and their husbands, she is reconciled with Lear, who begs her forgiveness. Gloucester's attempt at suicide is foiled by Poor Tom, and he too is reunited with Lear.
The enemy armies are disrupted as Goneril and Regan compete for Edmund's love. He however is driven only by his ambition. A servant of Regan's husband (Cornwall) is so shocked that Regan and Cornwall have blinded Gloucester by gouging out his eyes that he kills his master. Goneril believes that now her sister's husband is dead, Regan intends to marry Edmund so she poisons her and plots to kill her own husband.
The sisters' army still manages to defeat that of Cordelia. Both Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned by Edmund, who plans that Cordelia should be hanged in prison. Edgar, still in disguise, accuses Edmund of treachery and challenges him to a duel. Edmund is fatally wounded, but with his dying breath sends a messenger to save Cordelia's life. On hearing of his death, Goneril kills herself.
Tragically, the messenger arrives too late and Lear enters carrying Cordelia's dead body. As he mourns the death of his daughter, Lear also learns that Gloucester has died and that the Fool has been hanged. The agony of loss upon loss breaks Lear's heart and he too dies. As the loyal Kent leaves to commit suicide, it is left to Edgar to speak the moving lines that end this great tragedy.
Written by Kath Bradley MPhil (Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham). Kath has worked for the RSC in a variety of roles since 2005.
Photo by Manuel Harlan shows Greg Hicks as Lear and Geoffrey Freshwater as Gloucester in the RSC's 2010 production of King Lear © RSC