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Free Study Guide-King Lear by William Shakespeare-Free Online Book Notes
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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS

SETTING

The play opens in Lear's castle. After a time, there is a shift in the setting to Gloucester Castle and later to the castles of Regan and Goneril. The play rotates between the latter three castles until the Third Act when Shakespeare switches the setting to a storm raging outside. The dramatic significance of the storm scene is symbolic of the inner storm within Lear. The play's last act occurs primarily in the French and British camps at Dover.

LIST OF CHARACTERS

Major Characters

King Lear

The ruler of pre-Christian Britain. He is a man of stubborn will and imperious temper. Lear acts like a despot, filled with anger and pride. Though he is generous, open-handed and unsuspicious, his extraordinary misjudgment leads to his downfall. Ultimately he is redeemed, but at a huge price.

Goneril and Regan

The elder daughters of King Lear. They are inherently cruel, cold, selfish and callous. Their hypocrisy and cunning differentiate them from their sister, Cordelia. They manage to gain complete control of the kingdom and have Cordelia cast off for her apparent impudence. Goneril is more aggressive and strong-willed than Regan; Regan is more spiteful, but less forceful than Goneril. Wicked, venomous and destructive, the two sisters are the personification of evil.

The Earl of Gloucester

A Duke in Lear's kingdom. Although he is bit pompous and vain, he is a simple, good-natured man. His main characteristic is his gullibility. Similar to Lear, he lacks shrewdness and perception. The blinded and betrayed Gloucester undergoes a moral and spiritual awakening and draws courage from Lear's terrible sufferings. The gift of self-knowledge leads him to peace and resignation.


The Earl of Kent

An Earl in Lear's kingdom. Shrewd and courteous, he possesses a dry sense of humor. Kent is intensely loyal to Lear and deeply attached to Cordelia. When Lear banishes him, he accepts his punishment with dignity. He returns in the guise of an indigent, for he is a devoted, vigilant servant who intends to lead his master away from danger.

The Fool

A jester in the court of Lear. The Fool not only relieves the tragic tension of the drama, but also underscores the sadness of the king's situation, for he plays the part of Lear's conscience. He is loyal to the King, but unafraid to speak his mind.

Edmund

The illegitimate son of Gloucester. He is an outcast because of his background. Edmund uses his sharp intelligence to take his revenge on a world that considers him inferior. As a result, he becomes an irredeemable and ruthless villain. His laudable qualities are his clarity of thinking, his objective detachment, and his strategic skill.

Cordelia

The youngest daughter of King Lear who loves her father deeply. Within her is a strong will that makes her stubbornly cling to what she considers the truth. During the play, she is forced into exile. She accepts her destiny without complaint since her own integrity is strong. Her main characteristics are her love for truth and her sense of duty.

Edgar

The legitimate elder son of the Duke of Gloucester. He plays the part of the philosopher in the play. With a clear vision of the problems of life, his own attitude is one based on patience and courage. Edgar's greatest trait is his ability to feel sympathy and offer love.

Minor Characters

Oswald

The steward of Goneril. He plays an important role in all of Goneril's schemes. Lacking scruples, he does not hesitate to take advantage of anything to gain favor. His loyalty to his mistress is his only redeeming trait.

The Duke of Burgundy

One of Cordelia's suitors. Burgundy wants to wed her for her dowry and is unable to value Cordelia for herself. He proves himself to be base and ungallant.

The King of France

Cordelia's other suitor. He is a gallant and romantic man, and his understanding of Cordelia allows him to correctly assess her true worth.

Albany

The inoffensive and peace-loving husband of Goneril. Too weak for Goneril's aggressive nature, he pretends to be ignorant of his wife's machinations. Goneril has only contempt for him. Later, he shows a resolute strength of character as he takes charge of the tumultuous events in the play.

Cornwall

Regan's husband. He is a violent and vindictive man who takes pleasure in humiliating Lear and blinding Gloucester.

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