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Free Study Guide-King Lear by William Shakespeare-Free Online Book Notes
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SHORT PLOT/SCENE SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Lear, the father of three daughters, is a powerful king in pre- Christian Britain. Believing that he is getting old, Lear wants to pass the responsibilities of his government to his three daughters and their spouses. Goneril is married to the Duke of Albany; Regan is married to the Duke of Cornwall; and Cordelia, the youngest and Lear's favorite, is being courted by the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. Lear envisions himself spending the remainder of his life visiting each of them in turn.

Lear's intention is to divide his kingdom into three parts, each to be ruled by one of the daughters. Before dividing his kingdom and giving it to his three girls, Lear, at a public ceremony, asks his daughters how much they love him. Goneril and Regan are adept at flattery and easily convince their father of their limitless love for him; they even claim their love for him leaves no room for them to love their husbands. Lear is pleased by their devotion. Cordelia says that she loves Lear as her father and as the ruler of the country, but she honestly says that she will love her husband too. Her unembellished answer angers Lear. Judging Cornelia to be impudent, he disinherits and disowns her. As a result, the kingdom is divided into two parts, instead of three. The Earl of Kent, who understands the purity of Cordelia's filial love, tries to persuade Lear to reconsider his decision; Lear flies into a rage at the suggestion and banishes Kent from Britain. He later returns in the disguise of a menial servant in order to protect the king. Without a dowry, Cornelia is no longer pursued by the Duke of Burgundy. She marries the King of France, who realizes her true worth, and becomes the Queen of France.

Another scene of disinheritance occurs at Gloucester Castle. Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, plots to oust Edgar, his half-brother, from his position as heir to the Earl's fortune. He shows Gloucester a false letter stating that Edgar wants to kill his father. Edmund then persuades Edgar to flee from the castle. In his absence, Gloucester declares Edgar to be an outlaw and makes Edmund the heir to his title and property.


Having granted his land and power to Goneril and Regan, Lear begins to make his visits to them. During his first stay at the castle of Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, Lear is made to feel unwelcome. Goneril believes her father's temperament is unpleasant and his knights irritating. She directs her steward, Oswald, to pick a quarrel with Lear's knights; she will then use the incident to deprive her father of his men, disempowering him. Goneril succeeds in upbraiding her father about the behavior of his knights. She refuses to pay for the maintenance of one hundred of them and reduces the number to fifty. A disgusted Lear curses her and leaves with his remaining knights.

Lear heads for the castle of Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. Goneril has sent her sister a message to tell her about the quarrel with Lear and his impending visit to her. Regan and her husband ride to the castle of the Duke of Gloucester to avoid receiving her father. Not finding Regan at her castle, Lear sends Kent to Gloucester to announce the imminent arrival of the king. Outside the castle walls, Kent meets Goneril's steward, Oswald. The two of them quarrel, creating a racket. Cornwall, Regan, and Gloucester rush out and are unable to understand Kent's outrageous behavior. Cornwall orders Kent to be put in stocks.

Lear arrives and is shocked to find his messenger treated in such an insulting manner. An argument between Regan and Lear follows. Just then Goneril and her husband arrive. Goneril's complicity with Regan is apparent. The two sisters work in tandem to humiliate their father and deprive him of his remaining knights. A tormented Lear now regrets his treatment of Cordelia. He rushes out into a stormy night, with Kent and the Fool following him. Anguished by the treatment he has received from his elder daughters and helpless in the fury of the storm, Lear loses his grip on sanity. His companions lead him to the shelter of a hovel, only to find it occupied. Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, is hiding from his father's anger over his supposed betrayal.

Meanwhile, Gloucester learns of Lear's pathetic condition and plans to seek his whereabouts. He confides in Edmund his intention to aid Lear and then departs. Gloucester finds the King in the hovel and takes him to a farmhouse, along with Poor Tom, Kent, and the Fool. He then goes to find some food. In the farmhouse, Lear attempts to rectify the wrongs he has suffered by bringing Goneril and Regan to trial.

In his absence, Edmund betrays his father to Cornwall and Regan. As a result, Gloucester is arrested and then cruelly blinded by Cornwall. In turn, Cornwall is mortally wounded by his servant. When rumors abound that the French Army is arriving on the shores of Dover, Regan abandons the blind Gloucester, saying he can "smell his way to Dover." Now that Regan is widowed, she becomes interested in Edmund; he is even made general of Regan's forces. Ironically, Goneril also desires to wed Edmund who has declared his love for her. She plots to have her husband, Albany, killed in battle so that she can be with Edmund.

Kent leads a raving Lear to Cordelia's camp in Dover. Under his youngest daughter's care, the King recovers his senses. Since matters at home require the presence of the King of France, Cordelia's husband departs. Cordelia takes over since the French army in England is leaderless. Albany declares that he does not want to fight against Cordelia. His only purposes will be to repel a French invasion and to restore Lear to his throne. The French army is easily routed, and Lear and Cordelia are captured by Edmund, who imprisons them and secretly orders their death.

Edgar encounters his blinded father being guided by an old man and leads him to safety. After killing Oswald, Edgar gives Goneril's love letter addressed to Edmund to Albany. When Albany reads Goneril's letter, he resolves to punish her. Regan then announces her engagement to Edmund, but Albany accuses Edmund and Goneril of treason. Edmund accepts the duel offered him to redeem his honor. He is fatally wounded by the challenger, who is Edgar in disguise. A dying Edmund confesses that he ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. The bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought in. Regan poisoned Goneril, for she thought her sister was a rival for Edmund's love; Goneril then stabbed herself to escape shame. Soon after, Lear comes in with the dead Cordelia in his arms. She had been executed as per Edmund's orders. Edmund's confession had been too late to save her. A broken- hearted Lear dies over the body of his youngest daughter.

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Free Study Guide-King Lear by William Shakespeare-Free Online Synopsis
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