Navigating the Complexities of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’

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Updated: Sep 13, 2023
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“King Lear, by William Shakespeare is a confusing and convoluted tragedy about a king with three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, who doesn’t like the truth when he here’s it. Because it Is written in 17 century English, (it felt like I was trying to read Gaelic for the first time) it is extremely difficult to read. After trudging through the book my strongest feeling regarding the entire book is that someone should seriously consider a modern English format for those of us who feel like we now know what dyslexics go through.

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For anyone not interested in a career in English lit I strongly advise skipping king Lear if at all possible!

In the opening scene of act 1, The duke of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son Edmond, to the Duke of Kent, the Kings trusted aid. This will create a second storyline throughout the play that manages to weave in and out with the main storyline.

King Lear, the king of England, has called his daughters and their husbands or, in the case of Cordelia, potential husbands to a meeting where he announces that he is ready to retire and is planning to divide his kingdom into 3 parcels of land. He instructs his daughters to tell him how much they love him so that he can decide who gets which area. The first two daughters blow smoke and sing his praises, laying it on as thick as they possibly can. The third simply tells him that she loves him as any daughter should, no more no less. His ego hurt, king Lear gets pissed and disinherits the third daughter. His trusted aid Kent tries to talk some sense into him and defend the Cordelia and gets banished from England for his trouble. The King then tells the other two that he will split his time living with each of them half of time each year. He will bring with him a guard detail of 100 which the daughters will also have to support. You know immediately that the third daughter has gotten the better deal.

Cordelia has had 2 suitors, the duke of burgundy and the King of France, during the time leading up to this meeting and both have proposed to her. King Lear asks The duke of burgundy if he will still marry Cordelia now that he knows she has been disinherited. The duke backs out because he was more interested in money and power than in her. The king of France however is impressed by her honesty and still Wants to marry her with or without her dowry. After king Lear leave the area the two older girls Goneril and Reagan reveal in private that they really think their father is a foolish old man and that their declarations of love were fake.

Because he’s illegitimate, Edmond will inherit nothing, however he feels that he is just as entitled as Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar. Edmond resents the Dukes legitimate son Edgar and decides to get rid of him so he fakes a letter, supposedly from Edgar to Edward, that says Edgar is planning to steal the dukes estate. He’s a very good actor, pretending to try and hide the letter as his father enters the room. Of course The Duke of Gloucester demands to see it and is furious after reading it. and orders Edgar to be brought to him. In his conniving, Edward convinces Edgar to run away instead, making him look guilty. Edgar, disguised as poor Tom, fakes a mental illness and travels around dressed as a beggar in order to convince people he’s crazy.

King Lear is now at Gonerils home. The earl of Kent has disguised himself as a commoner and offers his services to Lear. After a few questions Lear accepts his aid. Lear and his 100 men are making things impossible for Goneril and the duke of Albany. His men are boisterous and rowdy, and a huge disruption to her home. Goneril tries to get the king to make them calm down and behave but King Lear gets extremely angry and tells her he will go to her sister Regans house instead. Goneril sends her servant, Oswald, with a letter to Regan warning Her that her father is coming and asking that Regan back her up in getting rid of the rowdy group of men. Regan doesn’t want him at her house either so, before the king arrives she and the duke of Cornwall Leave and go to the Duke of Gloucester’s home. The King demands that the staff tell him where Regan has gone and once they have, He send a message with Kent to tell them he’s on his way. Kent and Oswald arrive at the Duke of Glouchester’s at the same time and a fight ensues. The duke of Cornwall places Kent in stocks and leave him there overnight.

The next morning king Lear arrives and is furious when he sees Kent in stocks. He demands his release. Once inside, Reagan starts demanding that he returned to Gonerils home because she is not prepared for him yet. Goneril arrives and another argument happens. The king refuses to return to Gonerils so Reagan tells him he can stay at her home but he can only bring 25 of his men. He tells both women what he thinks and he, Kent, Gloucester and the fool leave the room. A hard storm is going on outside, and Lear decides to leave with the fool.

Edmond has spoken to his father, Gloucester, who, trusting his son, has confided that he has received a letter saying that France is planning to invade. As soon as Gloucester leaves to look for King Lear, Edmond goes the the duke of Cornwall and gives him the letter. Cornwall orders his men to capture Gloucester, calling him a traitor. Cornwall gives the letter to Goneril ordering her to take it to her husband, the duke of Albany. He orders Edmond to accompany her so that he won’t have to see what happens to his father.

Kent goes off into the storm to find king Lear and stumbled across a gentleman who has seen The king. after giving the gentleman a purse with a ring that the gentleman is to give to Cordelia for his identity, he continues his search. First Kent finds Lear, then Edgar joins their group. Gloucester is finally able to find all of them and helps them to find shelter. He urges Kent to take the king to Dover where Cornelia is located. Kent, Lear and the fool leave but Edgar stays behind.

Gloucester is caught and returned to his home where Cornwall and Regan wait. He is tied to a chair and Cornwall gouges out his eye. A servant tries to defend Gloucester and stabs Cornwall, fatally wounding him. Regan then loses all control and stabs the servant, then Cornwall tells her to gouge out Gloucester’s other eye, which she does.

Gloucester leaves with an old servant leading him. During the same time France with the aid of Cordelia has invaded England. Word reaches Reagan and the duke of Cornwall and they demand that Gloucester tell them everything he knows. When he refuses to sell out the king they blind him and cast him out into the storm. Kent has gotten Lear to Dover but Lear refuses to see Cordelia because of his shame at the way he treated her. Cordelia orders her men to go and find Lear.

Edgar meets up with a blind Gloucester and his servant. After Gloucester hears how Edgar is dressed he orders his servant to go and get him some clothes. Gloucester asks Edgar to take him to the cliffs of Dover and Edgar agrees to guide him. Gloucester plans to commit suicide at the cliffs.

When Goneril arrives at her home her husband conveys a worry for the king. THis angers Goneril and she sees her husband as a coward. After much haranguing Albany agrees to send troops to fight the French. Goneril and Regan have by now both fallen in love with Edmond. Goneril sends a letter to Edmond, concerned that now that Cornwall has died Regan will want Edmond for herself. Regan finds out about the letter and tries to stop delivery. Regan tries to get Oswald to help her in her plan to marry Edmond and ask to help dissuade Goneril from chasing Edmond.

Edgar calms Gloucester by tricking him into believing that he will help with his suicide. Instead he makes him think he is standing on the edge of the cliff and when Gloucester “jumps” he faints. Edgar changes clothes again and dressed like a peasant convinces Gloucester that he survived the fall. Lear, who has run away from Cordelia in shame, finds Gloucester and Edgar before a search party of Cordelia’s finds them. Once Lear has left, Oswald finds Gloucester and tries to kill him. Instead, Edgar kills Oswald and finds the letter written by Goneril to Edmond. The letter plots to kill the duke of Albany.

Cordelias men eventually find the king and after a lot of turmoil get him to Cordelia. She manages to get him to come around and recognize her. Lear is still confused but not quite so mad. Albany and edmunds armies have met up to join forces against the French. Regan and Goneril ride with them. Both women seem to be more worried about being the winner of Edmonds affections than they do about defeating the French.

Edgar, in disguise, goes to Albany and gives him the letter they found on Oswald. He promises Albany that he will bring a champion forward to prove the truth of the letter. As soon as Edgar leave, Edmund enters to say that he French are within sight. After the battle the French have lost and Cordelia and king Lear have been taken prisoner. Edgar is still taking care of Gloucester.

Lear and Cordelia are taken to prison, where Edmond has ordered they be murdered. Albany has now read the letter and confronts Goneril and Edmond, accusing him of high treason. Regan, looking on, is now feeling sick and getting worse. She is taken to Albany’s tent. A trumpet sounds signaling Edgar to come forward and prove his charges. He appears in full armour and challenges his brother. Edgar challenges, “what’s he that speaks for Edmond, Earl of Gloucester.” (Pg 245) to which Edmond answered, (Himself. What safety thou to him?) after the (trial by combat, pg 234) Edward falls, fatally stabbed. Edmond reveals his true identity and Edmond confesses to his crimes as Goneril leaves. Edgar tells Albany the story of his troubles and tells how Gloucester died, his heart giving out.

A gentleman enters with a bloody knife and informs the duke that both Regan and Goneril are dead, Regan by Gonerils poison and Goneril by her own knife. They bring the bodies as the duke instructed. Kent arrives and asks about the king. Edmond remembers that he instructed his man to murder them and tells them to hurry to save them.

Before anyone can get there King Lear enters carrying Cordelia’s body in his arms. He is told that his other daughters are dead as well and he places Cordelia’s body with theirs. Kent reveals himself to Lear and tells him that he has s raved him the whole time. Lear forgives Kent. Edmond is announced dead and Lear let’s everyone know that his fool has been hanged. Lear then dies. The Duke of Albany requests that Kent and Edgar rule in Lear’s place but Kent declines. The country ends up being ruled by the duke of Albany and Edgar, duke of Gloucester.Of all of the main characters king Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Edmond, duke of Cornwall, Earl of Gloucester, and Oswald are all dead. This story has got to be the basis of today’s soap operas!”

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Navigating the Complexities of Shakespeare's 'King Lear'. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from