Key moments from King Lear and some significant facts about the play and its characters.

Production image of The Fool (Kathryn Hunter) and Greg Hicks (Lear)
Kathryn Hunter as The Fool and Greg Hicks as Lear. King Lear (2010), directed by David Farr.
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC Browse and license our images

Key Moments

Lear divides his kingdom (Act 1 Scene 1)
King Lear announces his intention to divide his kingdom into three and asks which of his daughters loves him most. He banishes Cordelia and splits his land between his other two daughters.

Edmund deceives Gloucester (Act 1 Scene 2)
In parallel to Lear's actions, Gloucester is deceived by his son Edmund and doubts the loyalty of his other son, Edgar.

Lear is cast out (Act 2 Scene 2)
Enraged by his daughters' refusal to allow him to keep 100 knights to attend him, Lear and his Fool depart into the stormy night alone.

'Poor Tom' (Act 3 Scene 4)
Lear, Kent and the Fool meet Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, on the heath and are persuaded to take secret refuge in Gloucester's home.

Gloucester is blinded (Act 3 Scene 5)
Gloucester is accused of treachery by Goneril and Regan for having sent Lear to Dover to meet Cordelia's army. His eyes are pulled out and he is thrown out of his home unattended. Cornwall is killed by one of his own servants.

Cordelia searches for her father (Act 4 Scene 3)
As they prepare for battle, Cordelia and her army hear news of the mad king and set out to find him.

Gloucester and Lear are rescued (Act 4 Scene 5)
Gloucester, led by Poor Tom, is saved from suicide by his son's trickery. They then meet Lear and are reconciled. Lear is found and helped by Cordelia's troops.

Lear and Cordelia are reunited (Act 4 Scene 6)
The king recovers his wits and is reconciled with Cordelia.

Edmund's plot (Act 5 Scene 1)
Edmund reveals that he has seduced both sisters and that he intends to kill both Lear and Cordelia if his side wins the battle.

The tragic ending (Act 5 Scene 3) 
Cordelia's army loses and both she and Lear are sent to prison. Edmond's plotting is exposed and he is killed by Edgar in a duel. Goneril kills herself after poisoning Regan. Cordelia is hanged on Edmund's instructions. Lear dies of grief when he learns that both Gloucester and the Fool are also dead.


  • Directors of King Lear have two versions of the text to work with: the Folio and the Quarto. In the Quarto, the final words of the play are given to Goneril's husband, the Duke of Albany, but the editors of the First Folio chose to have them spoken by Edgar.
  • Shakespeare drew on a number of sources to write King Lear, but every version except his ends happily.
  • Nahum Tate, who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1642, re-wrote a number of Shakespeare's plays to provide them with happy endings. In his 1681 version of King Lear, Cordelia survived to marry Edgar, caring for her elderly father until his death. This became the preferred version until Shakespeare's original was revived by 1838 with famous actor Charles McCready as Lear. McCready reintroduced the role of the Fool (cut by Tate as too frivolous) and played for the first time by a woman. The 2010 RSC production also has a woman, Kathryn Hunter, in this role (see photo).
  • King George III suffered bouts of insanity so all performances of any version of King Lear were banned from the stage during his reign from 1810 to 1820.
  • In Renaissance times, the King was considered to be a 'God on Earth' and it was only his Court Jester (or Fool) appointed both to amuse him and remind him of his humanity, who was allowed to speak plainly. In King Lear, it is up to the Fool to remind the King of the consequences of his actions.
  • King Lear contains more references to animals and the natural world than any other Shakespeare play.
  • Kent is given some ingenious insults to throw at Goneril's servant, Oswald - including 'Thou whoreson Zed, thou unnecessary letter!' and one of only two references to football in Shakespeare: 'Thou base football player.' (The other footballing reference comes in The Comedy of Errors.)
  • When asked for advice to playing Lear, the famous actor/manager Donald Wolfit is remembered for replying, 'Get a light Cordelia and keep an eye on the Fool.'
  • The youngest actor ever to play Lear in a professional production was Nonso Anozie, who was 23 when he took the title role in Declan Donnellen's production for the RSC in 2002.
  • In contrast, when Alvin Epstein played Lear for the Boston Actors' Theater in 2006, at 81 he was probably the actor closest in age to Lear himself.

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