Here is a more detailed look at what happens in each scene of King Lear, to help you look at the structure of the play and interrogate it. There were multiple different printed versions of King Lear and the differences between them are quite dramatic. Some scenes listed here may be different in the version you are using.

As you look at each act we’ve included some things to notice. These are important character developments, or key questions that an acting company might ask when they first go through the play together at the start of rehearsal. If you work through these as you go, they will help you to make sense of the play as well as starting to look at the text itself. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the play nearby!

  • Act 1

    Act 1 Scene 1

    The play opens with the Earl of Kent and Earl of Gloucester talking about King Lear’s plans for ‘the division of the kingdom’. Kent meets Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund and learns he is a year younger than Edgar, Gloucester’s ‘son by order of law’. The King and all his court arrive and King Lear announces his plan to ‘shake all cares and business from our state, / Conferring them on younger years’ and calls on his three daughters to express their love for him before he rewards them with a share of his kingdom. His two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, offer poetic speeches but his youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia refuses, declaring ‘I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less’. Lear is angry and disowns Cordelia, giving her share of the kingdom to her sisters’ husbands to divide between them. Kent, out of loyalty to both Lear and Cordelia, speaks up to tell Lear he is wrong, but Lear does not listen and banishes Kent from the kingdom.

    The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, rivals to marry Cordelia, are brought in and Lear tells them that she is ‘new adopted to our hate / covered with our curse and strangered with our oath’. Hearing what has happened, Burgundy is no longer interested in marrying her but France declares ‘Thy dowerless daughter, King, thrown to my chance, / Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France.’ After Lear and his court have left, Cordelia says goodbye to her sisters and leaves for France. Left alone, Goneril and Regan discuss their father’s ‘poor judgement’ and ‘unconstant starts’.

    What do we Learn?

    • The Earl of Gloucester has two sons. Edgar is older and legitimate and Edmund is a year younger and is illegitimate.
    • King Lear gives up his political power and lands, with his sons-in-law ruling as regents, but he keeps the title of ‘king’.
    • Lear gives his older daughters Goneril and Regan half his kingdom each to rule with their husbands and surprises everyone by disinheriting and disowning his youngest daughter Cordelia.
    • The Earl of Kent is banished from the kingdom for publicly questioning Lear.

    Act 1 Scene 2

    Edmund speaks to the audience about his ‘bastardy’, asking ‘Wherefore should I / Stand in the plague of custom’. He resents the fact that he is treated differently to his brother and declares ‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’. He has forged a letter from Edgar that he hopes will make his ‘invention thrive’. Gloucester arrives and believes that Edmund is trying to hide the letter from him. Gloucester insists on reading the letter and finds a plot suggesting that Edmund work with Edgar to get rid of their father and share his wealth. Edmund tells his father ‘It is his hand, my lord, but I hope his heart is not in the contents.’ This helps to convince Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against him and that ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us’. When Gloucester has gone, Edmund makes fun of his father’s superstition, telling the audience ‘we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity.’

    Edgar then arrives and Edmund tells him that their father is very angry with him. Edgar believes ‘Some villain hath done me wrong’. When he is gone, Edmund turns once more to the audience to laugh at his ‘credulous father, and a brother noble, / Whose nature is so far from doing harms / That he suspects none’.

    What do we Learn?

    • Edmund believes he should have the same rights and inheritance as his legitimate and older half-brother Edgar.
    • Gloucester believes Edmund’s story that his older son Edgar is plotting against him.
    • Edgar believes that his father is angry with him and that his brother Edmund is trying to help him.

    Act 1 Scene 3

    King Lear, his hundred knights and their squires are all staying with Goneril. She complains to her servant Oswald about her father and his ‘riotous’ companions, saying ‘By day and night he wrongs me’. She tells Oswald to ‘Put on what weary negligence you please’ when called on to serve Lear and says her sister is also not prepared to tolerate them.

    What do we Learn?

    • As he announced he would, Lear and his hundred knights are staying with Goneril before moving on to stay with Regan.
    • Goneril is unhappy with her father’s behaviour and instructs her servants not to obey Lear’s orders.

    Act 1 Scene 4

    The Earl of Kent tells the audience that he has disguised himself in order to return and serve King Lear. He introduces himself to Lear as ‘A very honest-hearted fellow.’ Lear is impressed and tells him ‘Follow me, thou shalt serve me: if I like thee no worse after dinner.’ When Oswald does not behave as Lear expects him to, Kent helps Lear to punish Oswald and Lear thanks him. Lear’s Fool then arrives and offers Kent his coxcomb ‘for taking one’s part that’s out of favour’. Through his word play and songs, the Fool suggests that Lear has been a fool to give his kingdom away, saying ‘thou hast pared thy wit o’both sides and left nothing i’th’middle.’

    Goneril enters and complains to Lear about his ‘all licensed fool’ and his ‘insolent retinue’ who do ‘hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be endured riots.’ She asks him ‘a little to disquantify your train’. He grows angry and curses her, saying ‘Into her womb convey sterility’, and hopes that if she does have a child it teaches her ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child.’ He sets off to stay with Regan, believing she will be ‘kind and comfortable’. When Lear has gone, Goneril calls Oswald and sends him with a letter to Regan.

    What do we Learn?

    • Kent has defied his banishment to return in disguise and serve King Lear.
    • Goneril has insulted her father, telling him that she will not put up with his riotous knights in her household.
    • Lear has cursed his oldest daughter and set off with his followers to stay with Regan.

    Act 1 Scene 5

    Lear sends his new servant, the disguised Kent, on ahead to take letters to Regan and let her know he is coming to stay. Kent promises ‘I will not sleep, my lord, till I have delivered your letter.’ Lear is left with his Fool who tells him that a snail has a shell ‘to put’s head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case.’ Lear confesses ‘I did her wrong’ and worries that he may be going ‘mad’.

    What do we Learn?

    • Kent has been sent to tell Regan that Lear is on his way.
    • Lear is beginning to question his actions and his sanity.

    Things to Notice in Act 1

    • Take note of how we are introduced to Lear’s family and Gloucester’s family. How do both men treat their children and what do we learn about the events leading up to the play? What has happened to each of their children and why? Make notes on the facts we discover about each character and the inferences you can make about them from suggestions in the text, looking at their actions in these early scenes.

    • Notice the ways in which Cordelia, Goneril and Regan each react to their father’s demands in Scene 1, looking at the claims they make in their speeches. Are you surprised by the way Goneril then treats her father in Scene 3? Does Lear deserve this treatment and are her demands/reactions unfair? Is there any truth in the claims the Fool makes in Scene 4 when he tells Lear his actions were foolish?

    • Note the loyalties of the characters around Lear. Both Kent and Cordelia are banished and sent away by Lear at the start of Act 1, even though they are arguably his most loyal followers. How does Kent react to his dismissal and why do you think this is?

    • Act 1 is important because it introduces us to all the characters - the two families of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester. How would you describe the relationships in each of these families? What differences can you see between Lear’s three daughters, and between Gloucester’s two sons and which lines best suggest these differences?

  • Act 2

    Act 2 Scene 1

    Edmund learns from a servant that Regan and Cornwall are on their way to Gloucester’s house and that there are rumours of ‘likely wars toward ’twixt the dukes of Cornwall and Albany.’ Edmund hopes Cornwall’s arrival will help his plans. He calls for his brother Edgar who has been in hiding and advises him to ‘fly this place’. He sees their father Gloucester approaching and tells Edgar ‘pardon me / In cunning I must draw my sword upon you’. As Edgar runs off, Edmund gives himself a wound to make his story about Edgar’s treachery more convincing. He then tells his father that Edgar tried to ‘Persuade me to the murder of your lordship’. Gloucester is convinced that Edgar is a ‘murderous caitiff’.

    Regan and her husband arrive and sympathise with Gloucester over Edgar’s betrayal. Cornwall tells Edmund ‘For you, Edmund, / Whose virtue and obedience doth this instant / So much commend itself, you shall be ours’. Regan tells Gloucester they are visiting him for ‘needful counsel’ on dealing with the news received from her father and her sister.

    What do we Learn?

    • Edmund has convinced his father, his brother and the Duke of Cornwall that he is trustworthy.
    • Regan and Cornwall have left their own home to stay at Gloucester’s house after receiving the news from Goneril and from Lear about their fall out.

    Act 2 Scene 2

    Oswald has arrived at Gloucester’s house and meets Kent, still disguised as ‘Caius’. Oswald does not recognise him as a follower of Lear and the two men argue. Kent hurls insults and draws his sword against Oswald for bringing ‘letters against the king’ and taking ‘vanity the puppet’s part against the royalty of her father’.

    Regan, Cornwall, Gloucester and Edmund arrive and stop the fight but Kent refuses to back down saying ‘anger hath a privilege’. Cornwall calls for the stocks to punish Kent who appeals to Regan saying ‘Why, madam, if I were your father’s dog / You should not use me so’. Gloucester speaks up that ‘The king his master needs must take it ill’ but Regan and Cornwall are unconcerned. Left alone, Kent shows the audience a letter he has received from Cordelia ‘Who hath most fortunately been informed / Of my obscured course’.

    Edgar tells the audience that he plans to disguise himself as a ‘Bedlam beggar’ called ‘Poor Tom’ and run away.

    Lear then arrives and wakes up Kent who is still sleeping in the stocks. Lear is shocked at Kent’s treatment, complaining ’tis worse than murder / To do upon respect such violent outrage’. He is further outraged when Gloucester tells him that Regan and Cornwall will not see him. They finally appear and Lear complains to Regan that Goneril ‘hath tied / Sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here’. Regan tells her father to return to Goneril and ‘Say you have wronged her’. When Goneril herself arrives, Regan takes her hand and together they tell Lear they will look after him in their homes, but not his knights. Goneril asks ‘What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five, / To follow in a house where twice so many / Have a command to tend you?’ Lear calls his daughters ‘unnatural hags’ and walks away from the castle as a storm is brewing.

    What do we Learn?

    • Lear has followed Regan to Gloucester’s house after leaving Goneril.
    • Lear expects Regan to be sympathetic to his complaints about Goneril.
    • Regan and Goneril are united against allowing their father to continue with the conditions he set up for them to inherit the kingdom.

    Things to Notice in Act 2

    • Notice the importance of letters in this play. Track who sends letters to whom as you work through the play, noting what the letters are about. How important are the letters and the messengers who carry them?

    • Look closely at Scene 2, where Goneril’s trusted messenger Oswald and Lear’s trusted messenger ‘Caius’ (Kent) come into conflict. What impression do you get of each of these men and what is important to them? Which lines help you to form your impression?

    • In Act 2, we see the development of the main plot and the sub-plot - Goneril and Regan unite together against their father and Edmund successfully turns his father against his half-brother Edgar. How would you describe the similarities and differences between these two plots? Why do you think Shakespeare might have included both storylines? What connects Gloucester and Lear?

  • Act 3

    Act 3 Scene 1

    Kent is looking for the king and a gentleman tells him that Lear is ‘Contending with the fretful elements’, accompanied by ‘None but the fool’. Kent tells the gentleman of difficulty ‘’twixt Albany and Cornwall’ and that spies in their courts are reporting back to Cordelia’s husband the King of France. Kent sends the gentleman with a ring to find Cordelia.

    What do we Learn?

    • Lear is alone on the heath in the middle of a storm with only the Fool for company.
    • Kent has told the gentleman that Cordelia is receiving news in France from spies about her sisters and events in Britain.

    Act 3 Scene 2

    Lear shouts at the stormy skies ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks!’ The Fool tries to calm him down but Lear continues to complain to the elements that they are taking his daughters’ side ‘gainst a head / So old and white as this’. Kent finds them and persuades Lear to head towards the shelter of ‘a hovel’ and the king finally agrees, showing sympathy for the Fool, ‘Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee.’

    What do we Learn?

    • Except for the Fool, Lear’s followers all let him walk out into the storm.
    • Kent has persuaded Lear to follow him to shelter.

    Act 3 Scene 3

    Gloucester confides in Edmund his concerns about how Regan, Goneril and Cornwall have forbidden him to help Lear. He tells Edmund of a letter locked in his closet that is ‘dangerous to be spoken’ and that ‘there is part of a power already footed’ to revenge ‘these injuries the king now bears’. As soon as Gloucester leaves, Edmund tells the audience that he will immediately report all of this to Cornwall.

    What do we Learn?

    • Regan and Cornwall have taken over Gloucester’s house and forbidden him from helping Lear.
    • Gloucester has told Edmund he has letters about French troops landing in England and that he will help the king despite the threat to his life.
    • Edmund plans to sabotage any plan Gloucester has to help the king and the French army who are on their way.

    Act 3 Scene 4

    Kent has led Lear to the hovel and urges him to go in. Before he enters, Lear thinks about the ‘Poor naked wretches’ in his kingdom who have no shelter and confesses ‘I have ta’en / Too little care of this’. Just then the Fool comes back out of the hovel, scared of ‘a spirit’ inside it called ‘Poor Tom’. Edgar emerges disguised as Poor Tom, behaving and speaking like a ‘Bedlam beggar’. Lear is intrigued by Poor Tom and considers how ‘unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal’. He begins to take off his own clothes to be more like ‘Poor Tom’. At this moment, Gloucester finds them. He tells Lear ‘my duty cannot suffer / T’obey in all your daughters’ hard commands’ and says he will take them to where ‘both fire and food is ready.’ Lear agrees to follow but not without his ‘Noble philosopher’ ‘Poor Tom’.

    What do we Learn?

    • Lear begins to consider how the poor subjects in his kingdom might feel, not having the luxuries of life that he has had.
    • Edgar has taken on the life of a ‘Bedlam beggar’ as he said he would.
    • Lear has agreed to trust Gloucester and go with him to a place of safety.

    Act 3 Scene 5

    Edmund tells Cornwall what his father told him and shows Cornwall Gloucester’s letter which ‘approves him an intelligent party to the advantages of France’ and therefore a traitor to his own country. Cornwall praises his action, telling him ‘it hath made thee Earl of Gloucester.’

    What do we Learn?

    • Edmund has betrayed his father’s confidence by stealing his letters from France and showing them to Cornwall.
    • Cornwall has declared Gloucester a traitor for conspiring with France and not telling Regan or Goneril of their plans.

    Act 3 Scene 6

    Gloucester brings Lear, Kent, ‘Poor Tom’ and the Fool to a place of shelter near his house. Lear continues to complain about how his daughters have treated him, and sets up a mock trial of Regan and Goneril. Kent eventually persuades him to rest but then Gloucester returns and tells Kent they must leave immediately and ‘drive toward Dover, friend, where thou shalt meet / Both welcome and protection.’ The Fool speaks his last lines in the play.

    What do we Learn?

    • Lear has become exhausted and confused.
    • Kent and Gloucester remain loyal to their king and help him despite the threats to their own lives.
    • Lear’s life is in danger if he does not go immediately to join Cordelia and the French forces at Dover.

    Act 3 Scene 7

    Regan and Goneril are angry to hear of Gloucester’s betrayal, Regan says ‘Hang him instantly’ and Goneril adds ‘Pluck out his eyes.’ Oswald arrives with news that Lear and ‘Some five- or six-and-thirty of his knights’ have gone toward Dover, where they boast / To have well-arme`d friends.’ Goneril sets off back to her house, accompanied by Edmund, while Cornwall sends servants to bring in ‘the traitor Gloucester’.

    Gloucester is brought in and protests ‘Good my friends, consider you are my guests / Do me no foul play, friends’ but he is tied to a chair and interrogated. He tells Regan he has sent Lear to Dover ‘because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes’. In response, Cornwall gouges out one of Gloucester’s eyes but before he can take out the other eye a servant calls ‘Hold your hand, my lord’. Cornwall fights with the servant and kills him then returns to pluck out Gloucester’s remaining eye, saying ‘Out vile jelly’. Gloucester calls out for Edmund but Regan tells him it was Edmund ‘That made the overture of thy treasons to us’.

    Gloucester finally realises he has trusted the wrong son. Cornwall has been hurt in the fight with his servant. Regan orders the remaining servants to ‘Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell / His way to Dover’ and then helps her bleeding husband.

    What do we Learn?

    • Goneril, accompanied by Edmund, has gone back to her husband Albany to organise their armies against the French invasion.
    • Cornwall, encouraged by Regan, has gouged out both of Gloucester’s eyes as punishment for his treason.
    • One of Cornwall’s servants tried to stop Cornwall hurting Gloucester. Cornwall has killed the servant but is mortally injured himself.

    Things to Notice in Act 3

    • Notice the role of letters, messages, secrets and rumours in this play. Does what the audience knows for sure shift between the beginning and end of Act 3? What about each of the characters? How does this compare to Act 2 and how has it changed?

    • Notice how news of invading forces from France is built up through this act. Consider how the international conflict between France and Britain might affect an audience’s understanding of the domestic story of Lear’s dysfunctional family.

    • Notice Lear’s journey into ‘madness’ in this act. Explore his language at the beginning of Act 3 and the end and what this suggests about his mental state.

    • In Act 3, the main plot and the sub plot link together – the action all moves to Gloucester’s house by the end of the act and Edmund’s betrayal is revealed. Both Lear and Gloucester go through terrible physical and mental pain as they realise they have put their trust in the wrong children. Consider the similarities and differences between their situations and how they respond. Which man do you feel greater sympathy for and why?

  • Act 4

    Act 4 Scene 1

    Still disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, Edgar comes across his blinded father being led away from his house by an old man who lived on Gloucester’s land and is horrified to see his father in this state. He hears Gloucester tell the old man ‘I have no way and therefore want no eyes / I stumbled when I saw’, and confessing that he was unfair to his son Edgar. On hearing that ‘Poor Tom’ is there, Gloucester asks the ‘naked fellow’ to lead him to the cliffs at Dover. The old man is not convinced this is a good idea but Gloucester tells him ‘Tis the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind.’

    What do we Learn?

    • Gloucester has realised that he did not always see clearly when he had his eyes. He now knows he was wrong to mistrust Edgar and shows more compassion for 'Poor Tom' and others like him.
    • Edgar, disguised as 'Poor Tom', has taken on the job of leading the blinded Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover.

    Act 4 Scene 2

    Goneril arrives home with Edmund and Oswald tells her that Albany is behaving oddly and smiled at the news of the French invasion. Goneril sends Edmund back to Cornwall but kisses him first and tells him ‘To thee a woman’s services are due’. Albany says the sisters’ treatment of Lear makes them ‘Tigers, not daughters’. Goneril calls her husband ‘Milk-livered man’ and ‘a moral fool’ and they continue to argue until a messenger arrives with news that Cornwall has died from the wound he got fighting his servant. Albany is shocked to hear what Cornwall did to Gloucester and that it was Edmund who betrayed his father. Goneril is concerned that Regan will make a move on Edmund now she is a widow. After Goneril has left, Albany declares ‘Gloucester, I live / To thank thee for the love thou showed’st the king / And to revenge thine eyes.’

    What do we Learn?

    • Edmund is on his way back to Regan, who is now a widow.
    • Albany is horrified at how his wife and her sister have treated King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester.

    Act 4 Scene 3

    Kent talks to a gentleman in Dover about the letters he sent to Cordelia about her father. The gentleman tells him that Cordelia was very emotional reading the letters so that her ‘tears and smiles’ were like ‘Sunshine and rain at once’. Kent tells the gentleman that Lear is nearby but that ‘burning shame / Detains him from Cordelia’.

    What do we Learn?

    • The King of France has returned home and left Cordelia and his army under the leadership of a general.
    • Cordelia has been told all that has happened to her father since she left.
    • Lear feels very guilty for how he treated Cordelia.
    • The ‘British powers’ are now also marching towards Dover and war is imminent.

    Act 4 Scene 4

    Cordelia is concerned about her father who has been seen ‘As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud’ and wearing a crown of ‘furrow weeds’. She sends people to ‘Search every acre in the high-grown field / And bring him to our eye’. A messenger comes in to tell her ‘The British powers are marching hitherward’ and she gets ready for battle saying ‘O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about’.

    What do we Learn?

    • Cordelia has brought an army from France to support her father, against her sisters.
    • Lear is somewhere in Dover, still acting erratically.

    Act 4 Scene 5

    Regan talks about the impending battle with Oswald who has just brought messages to her from Goneril. She tries to get him to reveal what is in the messages he carries from Goneril to Edmund, saying ‘I know you are of her bosom’ but Oswald remains loyal to Goneril and tells Regan ‘My lady charged my duty in this business.’ Regan gives him her own message to take to Edmund and tells him that if he meets ‘that blind traitor’ Gloucester, ‘Preferment falls on him that cuts him off.’

    What do we Learn?

    • Regan believes it was a mistake to let Gloucester live and thinks Edmund has set out to find and kill his father.
    • Regan hopes to marry Edmund and suspects her sister wants Edmund herself.
    • Oswald is loyal to Goneril and is now carrying messages from both sisters to Edmund.

    Act 4 Scene 6

    Edgar has led his blinded father to Dover, still pretending to be ‘Poor Tom’ although Gloucester recognises that his guide’s ‘voice is altered’. Despite Gloucester also recognising that ‘the ground is even’, Edgar convinces him that they are at the top of a high cliff from which ‘The fishermen that walk upon the beach /Appear like mice’. Gloucester sends his guide away with ‘another purse’.

    When Gloucester falls forward, believing he is throwing himself from the cliff top, Edgar confesses that his plan may ‘may rob / The treasury of life’ and rushes to his father to check if he is still alive. He now pretends to be a passer by on the beach who saw the old man fall and declares ‘Thy life’s a miracle’. Gloucester agrees to ‘bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself /‘Enough, enough’ and die.’

    At that moment King Lear joins them, behaving very oddly and ranting about his daughters. Gloucester recognises the king’s voice. Lear comments on Gloucester’s lack of eyes and tells him ‘A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. / Look with thine ears’.

    Lear finally admits, ‘I know thee well enough: thy name is Gloucester’ before running off, chased by three gentlemen sent to calm him down and take him to Cordelia. Edgar learns from one of the gentleman that the opposing army are ‘Near and on speedy foot’.

    Edgar tells Gloucester he is ‘A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows’ and begins to lead him to shelter when Oswald appears, ready to kill Gloucester. Edgar defends Gloucester and kills Oswald who dies believing Edgar is a ‘bold peasant’. He gives Edgar his purse and tells him to ‘bury my body / And give the letters which thou find’st about me / To Edmund, Earl of Gloucester’.

    Edgar reads aloud the letter from Goneril to Edmund which asks Edmund to take one of the ‘many opportunities’ he will have to kill Albany so that he can marry Goneril. Edgar disposes of Oswald’s body and then leads his father away.

    What do we Learn?

    • Gloucester wants to die by falling from the cliff top.
    • Edgar hopes to cure his father of his despair by pretending he has been saved from certain death by the will of the gods.
    • Lear is still behaving strangely.
    • Goneril wants her husband dead so that she can marry Edmund.

    Act 4 Scene 7

    Cordelia asks Kent ‘how shall I live and work / To match thy goodness?’ and he asks her not to reveal his identity until he is ready. A doctor tells Cordelia that the king ‘sleeps still’ and asks if they can wake him. Lear is brought in and Cordelia kisses him, judging her sisters by saying ‘Had you not been their father, these white flakes / Did challenge pity of them.’ Lear is confused when he wakes up but seems more calm and rational. He calls himself ‘a very foolish fond old man.’ He recognises Cordelia and tells her ‘your sisters / Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: / You have some cause, they have not.’ The doctor reassures Cordelia saying, ‘Be comforted, good madam: the great rage, / You see, is killed in him.’

    What do we Learn?

    • Kent has been reunited with Cordelia.
    • Lear is safely in Cordelia’s court and is beginning to recover.

    Things to Notice in Act 4

    • Notice the relationship building between Goneril and Edmund. What qualities does Goneril admire in Edmund compared to her husband Albany?

    • Notice Edgar’s forgiveness of his father’s actions towards him and his desire to help his father. Why do you think Edgar keeps his identity secret from his father throughout this act? Why do you think Shakespeare includes scene 5/6 where Gloucester believes he has fallen from the cliff top?

    • In Act 4, the two old men Lear and Gloucester are reunited with the children who most care about them. Review the lines where each talk about their children and consider what these lines suggest about what they have learned on their journeys in this play. How do you think the audience might be feeling by the end of Act 4 and what might they be expecting to happen next?

  • Act 5

    Act 5 Scene 1

    Edmund has command of Regan’s troops now that Cornwall is dead. Regan questions him about his relationship with her sister and Edmund insists his only love for Goneril is ‘In honoured love.’ Goneril and Albany arrive and Goneril convinces everyone to ‘Combine together gainst the enemy, / For these domestic and particular broils / Are not the question here.’ As the others leave, Edgar stops Albany and gives him a letter, saying ‘If you have victory, let the trumpet sound’ and ‘a champion’ will step forward to prove the truth of the letter. In a soliloquy, Edmund then tells the audience that he has sworn his love to both Goneril and Regan and asks ‘Which of them shall I take?’ He also says that he intends to stop the pardon which Albany intends to give to Lear and Cordelia for siding with the French.

    What do we Learn?

    • Regan and Goneril both love Edmund but suspect that there might also be something going on between Edmund and the other sister.
    • Albany has a letter from Edgar revealing the truth about Edmund.
    • Edmund intends to stop Albany pardoning Lear and Cordelia if the British win the battle.

    Act 5 Scene 2

    As the battle rages, Edgar lets Gloucester rest. He soon returns with the news that ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en’. Gloucester wants to stay where he is, saying ‘a man may rot even here’, but Edgar leads him away.

    What do we Learn?

    • The French forces have been defeated.
    • Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner.

    Act 5 Scene 3

    Edmund calls for his officers to lock up Lear and Cordelia. She tells her father ‘We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst’ and he tells her they will live together in prison ‘As if we were God’s spies’ hearing ‘poor rogues / Talk of court news’. Edmund secretly sends his captain after them with a note to ensure that they are both put to death, telling the captain ‘to be tender-minded / Does not become a sword.’

    Albany enters followed by Regan and Goneril who argue over Edmund’s position. Regan announces her intention to make Edmund her ‘lord and master’. Regan also begins to feel very ill and Goneril admits to the audience she has poisoned her sister.

    Albany has Edmund arrested for ‘capital treason’, and calls Goneril a ‘gilded serpent’ for her betrayal in promising to marry Edmund if he kills her husband. A trumpet sounds and Edgar steps forward, in armour which hides his face. Edgar publicly accuses Edmund of being a traitor. Edmund and Edgar fight and Edmund is defeated. Edmund admits ‘What you have charged me with, that have I done, / And more, much more’.

    Edgar reveals who he is really is and how he disguised himself as 'Poor Tom' and looked after his blinded father. Edgar describes how he finally told his father everything and ‘asked his blessing’ to fight this duel with Edmund but that ‘’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief’ Gloucester’s heart ‘Burst smilingly’ and he died. Listening to this as he dies, Edmund says ‘This speech of yours hath moved me, / And shall perchance do good’ but they are interrupted by a gentleman who runs on with a bloody knife taken from Goneril’s heart and tells Albany that Goneril died after confessing that ‘her sister / By her is poisoned’.

    Kent arrives dressed as himself again. Albany order the bodies to be brought in and Edmund says ‘Yet Edmund was beloved: / The one the other poisoned for my sake / And after slew herself.’ Edmund then confesses that the Captain ‘hath commission from thy wife and me / To hang Cordelia in the prison’ and Albany quickly dispatches men to try and save her.

    Lear then enters carrying the dead body of Cordelia, crying ‘Howl, howl, howl’. Kent tries to tell Lear who he is and that his older daughters ‘have fordone themselves, / And desperately are dead’, but Albany tells him that Lear ‘knows not what he says, and vain is it / That we present us to him.’ Lear dies and Kent wonders how ‘he hath endured so long’.

    Albany and Edgar are left with a kingdom to rule and to consider how they can ‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’.

    What do we Learn?

    • Goneril poisons Regan to stop her marrying Edmund.
    • Edgar kills Edmund in a duel.
    • Gloucester dies during the final battle, after Edgar reveals who he is and what has happened.
    • Goneril dies from a stab wound to her heart, self-inflicted because she poisoned her own sister.
    • Cordelia hangs on Edmund’s orders, although he tried to reverse the order at the last minute.
    • Lear carries in the body of Cordelia, his dead daughter. He then dies himself.

    Things to Notice in Act 5

    • Notice how few lines Goneril and Regan are given in this last act to help the audience understand their motivations. Why do you think both are so determined to marry Edmund? What do you think of how Shakespeare kills them off and how their fates are shared with the audience?

    • Notice the language of honour used between Edmund and Edgar. What do their words and actions before and after the duel suggest to you about their characters?

    • Take note of the final speeches of the play, as the fate of the kingdom is left to Albany, Edgar and Kent. This is where some of the early printed versions of King Lear are quite different. Who do you think takes charge and what is Shakespeare saying about the kingdom and its future?

    • Act 5 is important because it reveals the fate of the kingdom and the central characters – here we learn of the deaths of all the main characters except for Kent, Albany and Edgar. The story of King Lear was fairly well known to Shakespeare’s audiences, but with a happier ending. Why do you think Shakespeare chooses to kill off Cordelia in this way? What effect does her death have?