William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a play set in a Britain where Christianity did not make its mark yet, and the predominant belief was in Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. The ruler of the then kingdom of Britain was an ageing King Lear. He had reached the end of his reign due to age and had decided upon retirement, diving his kingdom into three portions. The king also seeks to avoid any kind of familial or political conflict on territory issues, and does not have any male heir. Hence, the candidates for the three portions are his three daughters - Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The first two sisters are married to the Duke of Albany and Cornwall respectively, while Cordelia has two suitors - the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. King Lear, before giving away his kingdom to his daughters, wants validation from them as to how much they love their father. The daughter that loves her father the most will be given the greatest portion of the kingdom.
Regan and Goneril are eloquent in their speech, but shrewd in their motives. They make hyperbolic statements to profess their filial affection, but in reality they do not have much of a place for their father in their hearts. Their youngest sister Cordelia, however, states that words are never enough to express how much she loves her father, and that she would do her part when duty calls. King Lear misunderstands her and is extremely displeased, to the point of disowning her from her share. He also refuses to give her any dowry for her marriage. The two suitors are immediately called upon, when the Duke of Burgundy refuses to marry Cordelia as her worth has decreased financially. However, the King of France believes that her true worth is in her virtue, hence he agrees to marry Cordelia without any dowry. Lear refuses to give them any blessing as they leave for France. King Lear’s courtier Kent is vocal about the injustice he has done to Cordelia and warns the king that he would regret doing this to his favorite daughter. In return, the king banishes him for disobedience.
In the first act and first scene, we see two other characters besides the ones mentioned - Gloucester and his illegitimate son Edmund. Gloucester mercilessly puts Edmund and his mother down, saying offensive things and undermining Edmund in his very presence before the royal family arrives. Edmund then starts plotting against Gloucester and his legitimate son, Edmund’s half-brother whose name is Edgar. As a part of this plot, Edmund creates and impression that it is Edgar who is scheming to kill his own father. Gloucester falls for this deception and Edgar flees, duisguising himself as a homeless beggar ‘Poor Tom’. Many parallels can be seen between the dysfunctional families of both Gloucester and King Lear in the play through this subplot.
After giving up his kingly duties, Lear divides his time between the estates of his two daughters. While at the Duke of Albany and Goneril’s estate, Lear has his jester or Fool, his servant Caius and a hundred rowdy knights. In fact, Caius happens to be the exiled yet still loyal Kent. Not only is Goneril fed up of entertaining these houseguests, she also fears that her father would take her estate from her with the help of the hundred knights. Hence, she tells her father to get rid of fifty of the knights to avoid being thrown out. King Lear becomes upset at his daughter’s ingratitude and proceeds to go to his other daughter Regan’s estate. He complains to Regan of her sister’s ingratitude at Gloucester’s home. Regan, in turn, is on Goneril’s side on the matter and the two sisters coax their father to get rid of seventy five of the knights.
At this point, a realization dawns upon Lear that he has indeed treated his most loyal and devoted daughter the most unfairly. In fact, Regan and Goneril have never had any filial affection or loyalty for him. Flustered, the former king leaves his daughter’s house and sets off on a journey. The daughters have no difficulty to turn him out. During a thunderstorm, Lear finds ‘Poor Tom’- the disguised Edgar in beggar’s clothes and speaks to him, realizing the curse of poverty. He realizes his inability to do more for the downtrodden of Britain and in a frenzy, takes off all his clothing.
In the meanwhile, Gloucester violates Regan and Goneril’s orders in order to help Lear. He offers him and his hundred knights shelter in a little hut at the outskirts of Gloucester’s palace. He also proposes that they flee to Dover and later join Cordelia. Cordelia and the King of France are preparing to declare war on the two cunning sisters and have come to help Lear. Upon his return to his palace, Gloucester is seized for being a traitor to Goneril and Regan. As punishment for offering assistance to Lear, the sisters render him blind by gouging out his eyes. Soon after, a loyal servant of Gloucester takes the life of Regan’s husband - the Duke of Cornwall for blinding Gloucester. Regan avenges her husband’s death by killing the servant soon after the incident.
Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund and Goneril begin to have an affair while he escorts her back to her own estate. Goneril gets the news of her sister’s husband passing away, and is possessive about Edmund as he might start an affair with his freshly widowed sister behind her back. While Edmund is busy with Goneril, Gloucester’s other son Edgar is aiding his father’s escape to Dover disguised as Poor Tom. The blind Gloucester does not know about the identity of Edgar. He is dismayed in his blind state and laments for his ungrateful son Edmund, finally deciding to commit suicide out of despair. Poor Tom plays a trick on his father to prevent his suicidal tendencies. He tricks Gloucester into believing that he has in fact jumped off a high cliff. However, he organizes the jump to take place on flat surface, that too over a short distance. After Gloucester jumps, Poor Tom declares the jump as a miracle and urges that it is a sign that Gloucester should not try to take his own life. Gloucester is convinced and regains confidence in himself thanks to his loyal son in disguise. King Lear and all his knights also arrive in Dover.
The plot intensifies as Goneril’s servant Oswald attempts to murder Gloucester, who is saved prompty by the loyal Edgar. Oswald is killed, and a letter from Goneril to her lover Edmund is found. The letter contains instructions for Edmund to kill the Duke of Albany so that the two lovers could ultimately be together. This letter retrieved from Oswald reveals Edmund’s true nature to Edgar.
Cordelia, the loving daughter of Lear, is finally reunited with her father in an emotional scene. Cordelia declares that she does not have any contrary feelings towards her father and that her love is unconditional. However, fortune does not favor the French forces of Cordelia, who lose the battle against the British army under the two sisters. Cordelia and Lear are captured for execution, which is ordered by the shrewd Edmund. Father and daughter are sent to prison.
While Cordelia and Lear are in captivity, the both Goneril and Regan are interested to have Edmund for themselves. They have a row over who gets Edmund as a lover. The Duke of Albany, the only sane character of the play at this point, demands that both Goneril and Edmund are taken into captivity because of treason, plotting to kill him and having an illegitimate relationship. Just as Edmund was being taken to jail, Edgar arrives at the scene and mortally wounds his evil brother. Goneril also poisons Regan and the latter meets her end.
The ever loyal Edgar finally reveals his true identity to Gloucester, who could not take the shock. His father Gloucester dies when the news is revealed to him. Goneril too commits suicide because of the commotion and guilt. Before dying, Edmund apologizes for resorting to evil ways. Unfortunately Edmund has also sent an assassin to kill both Lear and Cordelia. Edmund says that they should promptly act in order to stop the execution.
Cordelia, the only daughter loyal to her father till the end, meets a tragic end at the hands of the executioner sent by Edmund. In the final scene, a bereaved Lear enters with his deceased daughter in his arms and laments. He laments further when he learns about the fate of his family, and he soon dies of a broken heart due to all the events. The only ones left alive are Edgar and the Duke of Albany. However, the play ends with a sense of hopelessness and no true reason to have hope for the future. The dismal tragedy is a reflection of the breaking of the family unit, political strifes and the greatness of filial affection in both the main plot and the subplot.