Study Guide

King Lear

King Lear Summary

A long time ago, in ancient, pre-Christian Britain, King Lear decides it's time to retire—he's getting old and he's just not feeling as spry as he once was. Besides, Lear wants to avoid any family or political conflict that might arise after his death (There's no male heir to inherit the throne when Lear dies and he doesn't want anyone duking it out over who gets to be king after he's gone.) 

So, Lear decides it would be best to split up his kingdom between his three daughters—Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan. But first, Lear wants to play a little game called "Who can say she loves Daddy the most?" in order to determine which daughter will get the biggest piece of land. Because that's fair.

Goneril and Regan slobber all over themselves professing how much they love Papa Lear (they don't really, by the way), but Cordelia (Lear's favorite and also the nicest of the bunch) refuses to play, insisting that words and language are insufficient to express the love she feels for her father. Lear takes this the wrong way and disowns Cordelia—he also refuses to give Cordelia a dowry for marriage, so she runs off and elopes with the King of France, who realizes that Cordelia's loving and kind. 

Lear ends up divvying the kingdom in two between the wicked Goneril (who is married to the Duke of Albany) and the mean and nasty Regan (married to the Duke of Cornwall), announcing that he'll be splitting his time between Goneril's house and Regan's pad. When Kent (Lear's main man) warns Lear that he's making a huge mistake, Lear banishes Kent for being sassy.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare develops the play's sub-plot, which involves a guy named Gloucester, who's in the habit of running around town calling his illegitimate son, Edmund, a "bastard" (Jon Snow-style) and cracking dirty jokes about Edmund's unmarried mom. (Did we mention that Gloucester says all of this in front of Edmund?) It's no big surprise when Edmund begins to scheme against his dad and his half-brother Edgar, who is Gloucester's "legitimate" son. ("Legitimate" just means Edgar's mom is married to his dad, Gloucester). 

The scheming Edmund manages to trick everyone into believing that Edgar (who is really a nice guy) is plotting to kill Gloucester. Fearing for his life, Edgar runs away and disguises himself as "Poor Tom," a homeless beggar. (Gee, there seems to be some serious family drama up in this play. Notice any parallels between Lear's dysfunctional family and that of Gloucester?)

Lear, now effectively retired, spends his time with his daughter Goneril and her husband, Albany. Lear also brings along his Fool (Lear's personal, stand-up comedian), a new servant ("Caius," who is actually the loyal Kent in disguise), and 100 rowdy knights. Goneril is soon fed up with entertaining all these people (Lear's a lousy houseguest and Goneril is just plain mean), so she tells Lear to get rid of 50 of his knights or she'll boot her father (and his 100 rowdy knights) to the curb. She points out that her palace is a home, not a tavern or a brothel. (Psst. Goneril's really afraid that Lear will decide he wants all his land – and power – back from her and her sister and that he might use his 100 rowdy knights to take it by force.)

Lear's pretty ticked off, so he says "Hmph" and runs over to Regan's house (with his hundred rowdy knights in tow). Goneril's not at home (she's at Gloucester's palace, trying to avoid her dad), so Lear goes to Gloucester's pad and complains to Regan that Goneril is an ungrateful brat. Regan's not having any of Lear's whining, so she and Goneril gang up on Papa Lear, demanding that Lear should now get rid of seventy-five of his hundred rowdy knights. (Notice we keep bringing up Lear and his knights? Since Lear's given up all his land, the knights are pretty much his only source of power.)

At this point, a lightbulb goes off in Lear's head—he realizes that Goneril and Regan don't love him as much as they said they did back when Lear staged his silly love test. In fact, Goneril and Regan don't love him at all. What does Lear do in response? Why, he runs out into a storm and wanders around on the heath, of course. (Goneril and Regan essentially say, "Ha!" and lock the door behind him.)

Out on the heath during a violent thunderstorm, Lear runs into "Poor Tom" (Edgar disguised as a naked and mad beggar) and, after a little chat, Lear realizes that being homeless (and naked) really stinks. He also realizes that 1) he should have done more about Britain's homeless population when he was king and 2) all men (kings and beggars alike) are totally vulnerable in this world—"man is no more / but such a poor, bare, forked animal," he famously muses (3.4.1014-315). 

Then Lear takes off all his clothes. (Did we mention that, despite Lear's new social insights, the aging king is also going insane out on the heath?)

Gloucester, meanwhile, decides to help Lear (despite Goneril and Regan's orders) and gives Lear and his posse some shelter in a little shack just outside Gloucester's palace. Gloucester says they should all run off to Dover, and join Cordelia, who is hanging out with her new husband and her new French army friends. (Turns out, Cordelia and the King of France are preparing for a little war against Goneril and Regan.) When Gloucester goes back to his palace, he's apprehended for being a traitor. 

Regan and Cornwall pluck out Gloucester's eyeballs as punishment for helping out Lear, and then one of Gloucester's loyal servants kills Cornwall for blinding his master. In response, Regan kills the servant. (Try to keep track of the rising body count—it's an important part of the genre of Shakespearean Tragedy.)

Meanwhile, Edmund escorts Goneril back to her own palace and the two begin a torrid affair along the way. When Goneril and Edmund find out the Duke of Cornwall (Regan's husband) is dead, Goneril immediately begins to worry… that her newly widowed and now-available sister might hook up with her (Goneril's) secret lover Edmund!

Somehow or another, the blinded Gloucester ends up traveling to Dover in the care of "Poor Tom," who is really his good son, Edgar. (Gloucester is clueless about Poor Tom's true identity. We guess you could say that Gloucester is blind in more ways than one—hey-o!) Gloucester, despairing over his missing eyes and his rotten, good for nothing son, Edmund, decides to attempt suicide. Poor Tom/Edgar says he'll help but ends up tricking Gloucester into thinking he's jumped off a cliff ledge, when really he's just leapt a very small distance onto flat ground. "It's a miracle!" Poor Tom/Edgar offers, clearly indicating this is a sign Gloucester should stop trying to commit suicide.

Now that everyone is in Dover, some seriously violent action goes down. Oswald (Goneril's manservant) tries to kill Gloucester, but Edgar intervenes and kills Oswald. Before he dies, Oswald gives up the letter he's carrying, which was en route from Goneril to Edmund, asking him to kill her husband (Albany) so they can be together. Edgar realizes his brother, Edmund, is a rat.

Finally, after a lot of fussing, Lear reunites with his loving daughter Cordelia (who says she doesn't hate Lear, even though he totally disowned her). Soon after, Cordelia's French forces lose the battle against Regan and Goneril's British army and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund takes this opportunity to secretly order their executions.

(Remember that rising body count we asked you to keep track of? Well, now would be a good time to put on your rain slicker because things are about to get extra bloody.)

While Lear and Cordelia sit in prison, Regan and Goneril scuffle with each other over who gets the oh-so dreamy (and oh-so evil) Edmund. In a rage, Albany demands that Edmund and Goneril get arrested for treason—i.e., having an affair and planning to kill him. Before Edmund can be taken to jail, Edgar shows up and stabs his evil brother in the guts. Then Regan dies, having been poisoned by Goneril. 

Edgar reveals his true identity to his father Gloucester, who is surprised, has a heart attack, and promptly dies. Goneril commits suicide because, well, everyone else is dead. Before Edmund (who has been stabbed) dies, he says he's sorry for being so bad and reveals that he's sent someone to kill Cordelia and Lear—if they want to do something about it, they had better act quickly.

Alas, it's too late for Cordelia, who has already been hanged by Edmund's executioners. Lear enters with his dead daughter in his arms. When Lear realizes what has become of his family, he dies of a broken heart. Albany and Edgar are the only ones left to govern the kingdom, but Shakespeare leaves us with a sense that there's really no hope for the future.

What? You want more? Go to "What's Up With the Ending?" for our take on all this. Go on. Get out of here. All the characters are deader than disco over here.

  • Act 1, Scene 1

    • Two lords, Gloucester and Kent, are at King Lear's palace in Britain, talking about Lear's plan to divide the kingdom.
    • The men speculate as to why King Lear has decided to give the same amount of territory to both of his sons-in-law, even though everyone knows he likes one of them better.
    • However, he's not going to base his decision on how much he values his sons-in-law, which means it's going to be a tough race (the men are otherwise well-matched).
    • Gloucester introduces Kent to his illegitimate son, Edmund. Embarrassed, Gloucester cracks some jokes about his affair with Edmund's mother, who was apparently quite fun, but a little too fertile for everyone's good.
    • Gloucester asks Kent "Do you smell a fault?", which is a reference to his sinful affair with Edmund's mother and also a dirty pun—"fault" is slang for female genitals so, basically, Gloucester is insulting his son and his son's mother. (And yes, Edmund is standing right there the entire time.)
    • Gloucester says he has an older son who happens to be legitimate (born to married parents), but that he doesn't love him any more than he loves Edmund. 
    • Gloucester adds that Edmund has been hidden away for nine years, and that he will soon be going away again.
    • Then King Lear enters and makes a formal announcement of his plan to divide the kingdom between his three daughters and their husbands.
    • (Uh oh. Anyone who's seen the play Henry IV Part 1 and remembers the rebels' plans to divide Britain into three territories knows that this is a big no-no. Plus, King James I (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) who attended one of the first performances of Lear, was trying to unite England and Scotland under his rule when he was crowned King of England in 1603, so the very idea of the division of Britain would have been troubling to Shakespeare's contemporaries.)
    • Lear says he'll still officially be king, meaning he'll retain all of his power and revenues but he just doesn't want to do any of the work anymore. Further, dividing up the kingdom now will avoid any nasty disputes after his death. (Yeah right. So he thinks.)
    • There's another matter Lear means to clear up, too: the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are at his court right now, competing for Cordelia (Lear's youngest and unmarried daughter). He plans to hand her over in marriage to one of these men today, but, first things first…
    • Lear's all set to carve up the kingdom, leaving his children to manage his affairs and his wealth.
    • But here's the catch: Lear wants his daughters to say how much they love him. He says he'll give the most to the daughter who says she loves him most.
    • Lear's eldest, Goneril makes a ridiculous and flattering speech about how she loves her father as much as life itself.
    • Regan, the second daughter, declares Goneril is a good kid, but actually Regan is the one who loves her father more than life, so there. She declares his love is the only thing that gives her happiness (as in, Lear's the apple of her eye, the cream in her coffee, and he's richer than her husband, the Duke of Cornwall).
    • Cordelia, Lear's youngest and favorite daughter, listens to her sisters' empty speeches and thinks this love contest is stupid. Words of love are no substitute for actually feeling love, and her love is richer than her ability to flatter.
    • So when Cordelia's turn comes, she refuses to play Lear's game. He asks her, "What can you say to draw a third [of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters? Speak." She replies, "Nothing."
    • Lear can't believe what he's hearing. "Nothing will come of nothing," he tells her. "Speak again." (In other words, you'll get absolutely nothing from me unless you speak up, kiddo.)
    • Brain Snack: "Nothing can come of nothing" is a variation on the famous phrase "ex nihilo nihil fit" – that's Latin for "from nothing, nothing comes," which is an ancient Greek philosophical and scientific expression. It's the opposite of the biblical notion that God created the world (which is a whole lot of something) out of nothing (Genesis 1.1).
    • Cordelia has made up her mind. She loves her father, and says she loves him according to her bond to him (which is actually a pretty big deal), but she's not going to make a big insincere public speech about it. She says "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth," meaning her words are never sufficient enough to express her love for Lear.
    • When Lear warns Cordelia that she'd better say something or she won't get her piece of the kingdom, Cordelia lashes out at the premises of the game. "Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / they love you all?" she asks pointedly.
    • Cordelia promises that when she marries, half her love will be reserved for her husband; she won't claim that all her love belongs to her father.
    • Lear is furious. It seems to him that his favorite child has betrayed him, and he says if she loves truth so much, truth can be her dowry, as she'll not be getting any piece of this kingdom pie.
    • Lear then swears by Heaven and Hell that he is casting Cordelia out. She is no longer part of his family, and he thinks of her as fondly as he thinks of the kind of people who eat their children.
    • Everyone is shocked. Kent, one of Lear's trusted advisers, tries to intervene on behalf of Cordelia but Lear orders both Cordelia and Kent "out of [his] sight." 
    • Kent responds by saying "See better, Lear." (Yep, that's a significant part of the play's infamous "blindness" motif, which you can read more about in "Symbols.")
    • Lear admits Cordelia was his favorite and that he planned to spend his old age with her—he was banking on her "kind nursery," which means that he was hoping Cordelia would play the role of mommy or nursemaid to him as he grew older. (Gosh, Lear's really serious when he says he wants to retire.)
    • Lear gives his crown to Cornwall and Albany (Regan's and Goneril's husbands, respectively) and announces that he'll spend months alternating between his other two daughters' houses, accompanied by 100 knights.
    • Lear divides Cordelia's part of the kingdom between her sisters.
    • Kent can't handle this tomfoolery, and he tells Lear he's acting rashly. Kent reasonably contends that Cordelia's honesty means more than the other girls' flattery.
    • The two argue for some time, and Kent declares that, although he has spent his whole life devoted to Lear, he can't abide by this madness. Kent declares Lear is up to evil.
    • Lear, even more enraged, gives Kent six days to leave the country, on pain of death.
    • Kent valiantly takes his leave, declaring he's headed to freedom instead of banishment.
    • Kent bids Cordelia good luck, and again praises her for her honest words. He also says he hopes Goneril and Regan's big speeches amount to more than big fat lies. Kent exits.
    • Lear makes sure his rejection of Cordelia is complete by calling in her two suitors: the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. Lear informs them that Cordelia is no longer his daughter, and that she therefore has no money or property to her name—much less a piece of the kingdom.
    • "Still want her?" Lear asks.
    • Burgundy says no thanks. He can't possibly make a decision about marriage under these circumstances—you know, circumstances that don't include a dowry. 
    • The King of France, on the other hand, marvels at how quickly Lear turned from loving to hating Cordelia. He says she must've done something pretty awful to deserve such censure, and yet, knowing what he knows of Cordelia, he's having a hard time believing that.
    • Cordelia proclaims her only wrong is what she lacks, which is a flattering tongue.
    • France decides to marry her, saying Cordelia's behavior has only increased his respect for her.
    • Lear says something like "Fine, take her," informing Cordelia that he hopes to never see her face again.
    • Lear exits.
    • Cordelia offers a tense goodbye to her sisters. She's basically says, "I know how awful you are, but I won't say it," which, of course, says how awful they are. Cordelia claims her sisters don't really love their father as they stated.
    • Regan and Goneril tell Cordelia that instead of telling them what to do, she should be focused on pleasing her husband, who's marrying her out of pity. They think she deserves to be disowned for being disobedient
    • Cordelia wishes her sisters well, declares time will reveal them to be schemers.
    • Left on their own, Regan and Goneril discuss what they should do about their silly old father, besides trash talk him.
    • They say he was never the most rational and stable guy to begin with, and old age is only making his condition worse – Lear, they say, is going senile. There's no other explanation for why he would banish his favorite daughter and one of his best friends (Kent) on a whim.
    • They worry about what he might do next and decide they need to come up with some kind of plan for dealing with him, since it seems that Lear will only continue to act like a tantrum-throwing baby as he gets older and more "infirm."
  • Act 1, Scene 2

    • Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, delivers a soliloquy (a long speech revealing his inner thoughts). He complains to the audience about the way society treats younger brothers and "illegitimate" children. ("Illegitimate" is just a rude way to say that a child is born out of wedlock. Remember, Gloucester told us in act one, scene one that he's not married to Edmund's mom but, he sure had a good time with her.)
    • Edmund argues that he's just as smart, attractive, and talented as his father's eldest and legitimate son, Edgar.
    • But because of a technicality of birth, Edgar will get property and an important position and he, Edmund, will get nothing.
    • We interrupt this program for a history snack: Edmund's beef about the way society treats younger brothers is a reference to primogeniture, the system by which eldest sons inherit all their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc. 
    • In other words, younger brothers (and all daughters) get shafted. As you can guess, this system tends to create a whole lot of family drama. The same system would have applied to Lear's family if Lear had a son to inherit the crown by lineal succession. Since the king doesn't have a son, he's decided to divvy up the kingdom between his daughters and sons-in-law, as we know. Now, back to our program:
    • Edmund also insists that, since his parents had such an awesome and "lusty" time in bed when he was conceived, he's far more superior to any person legitimately conceived in a "stale tired bed."
    • One way or another, Edmund is going to get his brother's land, and we doubt that he's interested in a time share.
    • Edmund also points out that Gloucester loves him as much as he loves Edgar (but that's not saying much), which seems like evidence that society shouldn't make such a big deal about the difference between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" offspring. Finally, Edmund calls on the gods to "stand up for bastards!" (You know nothing, Jon Snow.)
    • (Helpful Hint: If you're getting "Edmund" and "Edgar" confused already, here's a tip: Think "G" for good—Edgar is the good brother, and "M" for "malice"—Edmund is the malicious one.)
    • When Gloucester (Edmund and Edgar's father) comes in, Edmund puts his plan into action. Acting intentionally nervous, he very conspicuously puts away a letter he's supposedly been reading.
    • When his father asks him what it is, Edmund acts flustered. He hints that the contents of the letter, which is from his brother, are pretty bad and will probably offend Gloucester. Edmund suggests his brother sent the letter as a test.
    • Gloucester takes the bait and demands to see what the big deal is.
    • The letter—supposedly from brother Edgar—suggests that the brothers conspire to kill their father. In the letter, "Edgar" claims that obedience to one's elders is a total drag and highly overrated. Plus, by the time Gloucester dies and Edgar (the eldest brother) gets his inheritance, he'll be too old to enjoy it. But, if Edmund (the younger brother) were to help Edgar get rid of their old man, they could both split the profits.
    • Gloucester, naturally, is shocked and outraged. He asks Edmund how he came upon the letter, and whether this is really Edgar's handwriting.
    • Edmund, who's beginning to look a lot like an evil genius, says someone threw it in his bedroom window.
    • It just breaks his heart to have to tell his beloved father that the handwriting is definitely Edgar's.
    • Edmund then goes on to say that while Edgar never specifically planned a "let's murder-our-father" meeting, he's always running around saying he can't wait for Gloucester to kick the bucket.
    • Gloucester immediately declares Edgar to be an "unnatural" villain. Edmund, pretending to be the virtuous younger brother, says Gloucester shouldn't jump to any hasty conclusions. Perhaps Edgar wrote this letter to test Edmund's love for their father?
    • Edmund then promises he can provide his father with some kind of resolution: that very evening, he'll have a conversation with Edgar on which Gloucester can spy. Edmund will talk to Edgar of the business, and Gloucester can form his own conclusion.
    • While Gloucester is clearly confused and upset by the suggestion that his son Edgar, whom he loves dearly, is a bad guy, he's still up to hearing the proof.
    • Gloucester then laments that the recent solar and lunar eclipses in Britain are portentous, predicting failed loves, civil wars, treason, mutinies, divided brothers, and even the breaking of bonds between father and son (which is conveniently relevant). As further evidence that something really awful is going to happen, Gloucester points out that Lear has recently had a falling out with his child, Cordelia.
    • We interrupt this program for another tasty history snack: when Gloucester says the "late eclipses of the sun and moon" are a bad omen, Shakespeare may have had in mind the actual eclipses that were seen in London in October and September of 1605 (about a year before the play's first recorded performance). Just thought you'd like to know, especially since some literary critics point to this as evidence that Shakespeare could not have written King Lear before 1605.
    • Gloucester worries that they've already seen the best days of their lives, and that only disorder and grief will come with the future.
    • Gloucester fusses about this mess, reminds Edmund that it's now up to him to sort out Edgar.
    • He also wonders at the rash banishment of Kent. (All of these issues seem aligned to the prediction of madness and strife.)
    • After Gloucester exits, Edmund takes time to snicker gleefully about the fact that people are often ready to blame their own failings and circumstances on the stars and their fates, as if they couldn't help being as villainous as they are.
    • Edmund, who we see is pretty dang self-aware, knows that even if he'd been born during the best zodiacal circumstances, he'd still be a rotten guy.
    • Then Edgar walks in, a prime opportunity for Part Two of Edmund's plan: Edmund makes a little speech about the horoscope promising death and division that will impact both states and families.
    • After Edgar teases about how silly horoscopes are, Edmund convinces Edgar that his father is angry at him, and that he should lie low for a while.
    • Edgar suggests that his father could only think badly of him because some villain has done him wrong, and Edmund agrees that's probably the case, though he stops short of saying, "A-ha! That villain is me!"
    • Edmund lays it on thick about how Edgar should worry about his enemies, even suggesting Edgar shouldn't go out without a weapon. Edmund also provides a plan, saying if Edgar goes back to his place, he'll drop by and fetch him to speak to their father when the time is right.
    • Edgar leaves, convinced that Edmund has his best interests in mind. Like his father, Edgar is a gullible guy.
    • Edmund, alone, crows over how lucky he is to have a brother and father so good that they won't suspect his treachery, simply because they couldn't fathom it. This will make his evil deeds easy. Edmund declares he's sure to get Gloucester's land, if not by rightful inheritance, then by his own wits.
  • Act 1, Scene 3

    • A brief recap: Lear had planned to spend his retirement with Cordelia. Obviously, that's not happening any more. So now he's spending alternate months with his remaining two daughters.
    • Things are not going well at Goneril's castle. Lear's a lousy houseguest—he continues to act like he's in charge (even though he gave up his kingly title). Also, Oswald tells Goneril that Lear smacked one of her servants upside the head because the servant was rude to Lear's Fool (Lear's personal comedian).
    • Not to mention Lear's entourage—a group of a hundred knights that the King brings everywhere—is a rowdy bunch. (Hmm. If Lear was serious about retirement, why the heck does he need an entourage of knights?) Goneril is fed up with all of their antics.
    • She tells Oswald, her personal assistant, to be rude to Lear in order to spark a confrontation. This way, they can air everything out. Goneril also announces that Regan and she share the same distaste for their father, so she's safe if Lear goes to Regan for help.
    • Goneril announces that old men are like babies again, and can therefore be manipulated easily.
    • Goneril reiterates her plan to be rude to dad so she can have a stern talk with him.
  • Act 1, Scene 4

    • Kent, the loyal advisor Lear exiled back in Scene 1, enters Goneril's castle disguised as a down-and-out peasant, "Caius." He speaks in a strange accent so no one recognizes his voice.
    • Kent lives to take care of Lear, and he's determined to do it even if Lear has treated him terribly.
    • Lear enters with his rowdy entourage and orders one of his attendants to hurry up and fix his dinner. (Gee, we have no idea why Goneril's been complaining about her father. He sounds like the perfect houseguest.)
    • Kent—who now goes by the alias "Caius"—convinces Lear with a bit of banter that he's a good guy and should be allowed to join Lear's entourage.
    • Lear sends Oswald, Goneril's steward, to go find his daughter.
    • The King abruptly calls Oswald back, but Oswald ignores him. The insolence!
    • A knight then enters and reports that Goneril says she isn't well.
    • Lear is miffed that Goneril and Oswald have blown him off and the knight confirms that everyone in Goneril's castle seems to be being kind of rude and cold lately.
    • The knight believes Lear isn't being given his due as the King, not by any of the castle servants, and definitely not by Goneril or her husband, the Duke of Albany. Lear reveals he was thinking along these lines already, but had dismissed it as his own imaginings.
    • Lear asks for his Fool again, whom he says he hasn't seen in two days. The knight reports the Fool hasn't been the same since Cordelia left for France. Although Lear has noticed this also, he doesn't want to talk about it.
    • When Oswald comes back, Lear, still smarting from being ignored, demands that Oswald tell him just who he thinks he's talking to. "My lady's father," Oswald replies. This is not an acceptable answer, as Lear is still the King, which, to Lear, is a more important label than "parent."
    • Lear is livid. He may have given up his title, but he still thinks he should be treated like the most important person in the room.
    • Lear and Kent proceed to rough up Oswald—Lear smacks him and then Kent trips him up and calls Oswald a "football player," which is British lingo for "soccer player," a game that was low-class in Shakespeare's day.
    • The Fool—Lear's own personal comedian—comes in and starts making jokes. The Fool doesn't hold back—at all. (He's literally got a license to say whatever he wants and, despite being called a "Fool," he's incredibly wise.)
    • The Fool jumps right into mocking Lear for giving away his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, and for leaving his one good daughter, Cordelia, out of the mix.
    • According to the Fool, this was a bad idea that Lear can't really be punished for—except in mocking, and the Fool is taking care of that quite well.
    • He suggests that Lear's pitiful position now is his own fault—after all, he made his daughters into his mother, basically handing them a stick and pulling his pants down for a spanking.
    • The Fool has a lot more fun at Lear's expense, calling him a fool and making clear that he values Cordelia above Goneril and Regan, who are bad seeds.
    • The Fool laments that there's no need for fools when wise men are foolish. Nobody else could get away with saying stuff like this to Lear except the Fool.
    • Goneril comes in to scold Lear for letting his entourage get out of control. She claims his hundred knights are always loud and riotous, and that with the way he's been behaving lately, she worries he's actually encouraging this bad behavior.
    • History Snack: King James I of England (the guy on the throne when Shakespeare wrote King Lear) was notorious for creating hundreds of knights during times of peace, which was quite the scandal. G.P.V. Akrigg notes that "during his first six weeks in England he created at least 237 knights […] By the end of his first year the new king had created 838 new knights" (Jacobean Pageant, 233). Is it possible that King Lear's hundred rowdy knights is Shakespeare's way of making a reference to James' practice of knighting men indiscriminately?
    • She threatens her father, suggesting that the state's obligations to the public good might require that Lear be punished for enabling this bad behavior.
    • Lear is shocked that his daughter has the nerve, the audacity, indeed, the gall to tell him what to do, and to threaten him. She clearly doesn't remember who she is—and what she owes him.
    • "Are you our daughter?" Lear asks. FYI: Lear uses what's called the "Royal We," which means he refers to himself in the plural (we, our, etc.) instead of the singular (me, my, etc.).
    • Things escalate further, and Goneril declares her house has lately rivaled a tavern or a brothel, as Lear's knights are so drunk and rowdy.
    • Goneril insists the situation requires immediate attention, and that Lear's entourage should be reduced significantly, either by Lear's command or hers. The only part of the entourage Goneril will allow to remain by Lear should be like him: quiet old people.
    • Infuriated, Lear declares Goneril to be a "degenerate bastard" and announces he still has one daughter left (given that he's banished Cordelia.)
    • As Lear demands that his horses be prepared and his entourage gathered to leave, Goneril continues to act rudely toward her father.
    • Her husband, Albany, comes in during the middle of the fight, curious about what is going on. Lear calls Goneril a liar—he refuses to believe that any of his entourage misbehaved in any way.
    • Importantly, Lear also admits that, when compared to Goneril's bad behavior, Cordelia's small fault is put in perspective.
    • He realizes his decision to banish Cordelia was contrary to his very nature (and implicitly, his love for Cordelia), and blames his head for letting foolishness in at the same time judgment went out.
    • Finally, Lear calls upon the gods to make Goneril barren as punishment for the way she treated him.
    • If not, he yells, he hopes she'll have a mean and nasty daughter who will treat her like garbage and cause nothing but misery for Goneril.
    • Anyway, Lear hopes that Goneril "may feel / how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / to have a thankless child."
    • Lear storms out, storms back in, and yells some more, especially because Goneril has dismissed fifty members of his entourage. Lear tells Goneril that everyone at Regan's house will treat him like a king, not just like someone's elderly relative.
    • Then he finally exits, for real this time, leaving Goneril's husband confused about the fight, which he missed.
    • Goneril turns to her husband and says, "Can you believe him?" But when he tries to answer she shushes him. She's just spotted the Fool and she wants to be sure to send him away, too. 
    • After getting rid of the Fool, Goneril says they have to do something about her father. He can't be wandering around with a hundred soldiers ready to act on his next senile whim. 
    • Albany thinks she might be exaggerating a bit, but Goneril says she'd rather be safe than sorry. 
    • Goneril sends Oswald off with a message to Regan, her sister, informing her about the fight. It seems she is plotting.
    • She says her sister is on her side, and she's got to make sure Regan doesn't take care of Lear when Goneril herself has turned him out, because this would make Goneril look bad.
    • Goneril instructs Oswald to explain her reasoning while delivering the letter, and to feel free to add any juicy bits he thinks will keep Regan on their side.
    • Goneril then tells her husband she's not upset with him for suggesting that she treat her father with more kindness, but she thinks he's being naive. 
    • Albany says he can't be sure—maybe she sees more than he does. But he knows that often when people try to make a situation better they wind up making it worse. 
    • Goneril basically says, "Now, now, honey," and dismisses him, which he seems okay with. 
  • Act 1, Scene 5

    • Lear tells the disguised Kent to deliver a letter to Regan informing her that he's about to show up at her place. (Yep, that makes two letters that are en route to Regan.)
    • The Fool cracks some bizarre jokes, mostly about the wild ingratitude of Goneril and the fact that Lear's hope of escaping to Regan's loving arms is stupid, because Regan is likely as bad as Goneril.
    • Lear half-listens to him, but he can't get his mind off his one good daughter, Cordelia, who he seems to remember all of a sudden.
    • "I did her wrong," Lear admits quietly.
    • The Fool continues with the jokes. His most pointed wisecrack is that Lear should be beaten for being old before his time. Lear is all, "Huh?", and the Fool points out that men should be wise before they get old. Translation: Lear has been acting like a foolish old man, not a wise old man.
    • Lear is afraid he's getting senile and says, "O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad," which is a really subtle hint from Shakespeare that just maybe, Lear might be driven to madness.
  • Act 2, Scene 1

    • Back at Gloucester's house, Edmund's scheming is coming along nicely. He hears that Regan and her husband, Cornwall, will be paying an unexpected visit to his father (Gloucester) and decides to factor that into his plans.
    • Also, Edmund hears from Curan, a courtier, that there are rumors flying around about a dispute between Cornwall (Regan's husband) and Albany (Goneril's husband).
    • Edgar comes in, totally bewildered by his situation. Apparently he's about to be arrested for plotting against his father, a crime which is news to him.
    • Edmund tells Edgar he had better flee for his life, since his father's men are coming for him.
    • Furthermore, Edmund asks him whether he hasn't said nasty things about the Duke of Cornwall regarding his dispute with the Duke of Albany.
    • Edmund says that Cornwall is on his way to Gloucester's castle (where they are), which should worry Edgar, though Edgar says he hasn't been bad-mouthing anybody.
    • Edmund announces he hears Gloucester coming, and Edmund suggests he and Edgar pretend to fight so that no one suspects that Edmund has been helping his brother. They fake sword fight for a bit, and then Edgar scurries off.
    • As his father's guards come in looking for Edgar, now the "bad son," Edmund, cuts himself so it will look like Edgar hurt him.
    • Gloucester enters, on the hunt for Edgar, and Edmund tells him a dramatic story about how he heroically fought off his wicked brother. Gloucester says something like, "Which way did he go?" and Edmund replies with something like, "Look at my wound!" and Gloucester returns, "Great, but which way did he go?"
    • Gloucester announces that he has put a price on Edgar's head; he adds that with Cornwall's authority, he'll reward anyone that turns Edgar in and punish anyone that protects and hides him. Thus Edgar is made into one of Britain's Most Wanted Criminals.
    • Edmund covers all his bases here. He reports the following: Edgar said that Edmund's illegitimate status would make him the less credible brother.
    • Basically, Edmund is setting it up so that any story Edgar could possibly tell in his defense will immediately be suspect.
    • Meanwhile, Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrive at Gloucester's house. They have already heard the news about Edgar's "treachery." Cornwall praises Edmund for his loyalty to his father, which is ironic.
    • Regan then weighs in on the whole Edgar-trying-to-murder-his-father affair.
    • Regan tells us the reason she's fled to Gloucester's house is that she's received word that Lear, her own father, is on his way to stay at her house—with all of his knights, of course.
    • Regan recounts Goneril's information that the knights are a regular pack of miscreants, and she doesn't want to be at her house to welcome them in (even if it means her father is out on the mean streets of Britain for a night).
    • Regan is convinced that the knights, in all their wickedness, have put Edgar up to the task of murdering Gloucester, as it's known Edgar used to keep company with Lear's entourage.
    • Regan reveals to Gloucester that she's also caught in the middle of a tricky political/family squabble. Regan has received opposing letters from her father and her sister, both providing alternate accounts of their fight.
    • If Regan lets Lear stay with her, that means she's on his side. If she tells him he can't stay, that means she's on Goneril's side.
    • The solution? Regan chooses not to choose: if she's not in her own home, she can't invite Lear to stay there, nor can she turn him away. It's a pretty clever short-term plan, except the homeless father part.
    • Regan appeals to Gloucester for helpful advice in settling the dispute between her father and sister. She needs some counsel immediately, as her messengers are waiting to send word back from Regan to Goneril and to Lear.
    • Obviously, it's pretty poor manners to show up at someone's doorstep in the middle of the night, but Regan and Cornwall are more powerful than Gloucester, so Gloucester has no choice but to welcome them into his home.
  • Act 2, Scene 2

    • The disguised Kent (Lear's messenger), and the steward, Oswald (Goneril's messenger), both show up at Gloucester's house at the same time. Kent, still angry at Oswald for insulting Lear, tries to pick a fight with Oswald.
    • Oswald, not exactly the fighting kind, shrieks for help and Edmund rushes in.
    • Edmund is followed by Cornwall, Regan, and Gloucester. Cornwall, the most powerful man in the room, demands to know what's going on.
    • Oswald blames the whole thing on Kent/Caius, who can provide only one excuse for starting a fight with Oswald: he found Oswald's face displeasing.
    • Kent answers Cornwall's questions rudely, without sucking up to him. Cornwall, not at all impressed, orders that Kent/Caius be put in the stocks.
    • Gloucester protests this punishment, since Kent/Caius is a representative of King Lear, and thus he should have diplomatic immunity. It would be a direct insult to Lear to put his messenger in the stocks.
    • Regan argues that it would be a direct insult to her sister, Goneril, to not punish the man who attacked Goneril's messenger. The power struggle between Lear and Goneril is clear, and Regan sides with her sister.
    • She orders that Kent be put in the stocks and left there overnight.
    • Gloucester stays behind once everyone has left to apologize to Kent (whom he does not recognize as his old friend and colleague). Gloucester offers to talk to Cornwall on Kent's behalf, but Kent says he doesn't mind the stocks because he's a tough guy.
    • Kent cheerfully tells Gloucester to take it easy and have a pleasant night.
    • Kent, once a powerful lord, is now left alone to endure a humiliating punishment in the cold. He settles down for the night, or actually, prepares to sit awkwardly for the night.
    • Kent comforts himself by reading a letter from Cordelia, who is keeping herself informed about her sisters' treatment of their father.
    • Kent closes the scene by saying, "Fortune, good night; smile once more, turn thy wheel."
    • Brain Snack: Fortune (or Dame Fortuna, goddess of fortune and fate) is often portrayed as a fickle goddess. With the spin of a wheel, Fortune can raise men up to great heights or cast them down at any moment. (Lear, of course, was once at the height of his powers but is now at the very bottom of the "wheel.")
  • Act 2, Scene 3

    • Meanwhile, Fortune has not been kind to Edgar, who has survived the manhunt by hiding in a tree.
    • Desperate to escape, he decides to disguise himself as "Poor Tom," an inmate of Bedlam hospital and the kind of guy who roams about the country "roaring" like a madman, driving sharp objects into the flesh of his arms, and begging for charity from his cruel and abusive countrymen.
    • History Snack: By the time Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Bedlam (a.k.a. Bethlehem Hospital) was an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital.
    • Edgar strips himself down to the skin with only a "blanket" to cover his naughty bits, ties his hair in knots, and smears his face with mud so that he cannot be recognized. He ends by saying at least people will pity him as Tom. As Edgar, he's nothing.
  • Act 2, Scene 4

    • Lear and his entourage arrived at Regan's to find her and Cornwall gone. As they wander around the town, Lear finds Kent (whom Lear still thinks is Caius) in the stocks. 
    • He's shocked when Kent says it was Regan and Cornwall who put him there. Lear can't believe they would respect him so little as to punish his messenger and representative.
    • Lear finally asks Kent how this all came to pass. Kent explains he went to the house of Regan and Cornwall bringing the message of Lear's imminent arrival. Once Kent got there, he tried to deliver the news, but was interrupted by Goneril's messenger, who had just arrived.
    • Regan and Cornwall read Goneril's messages first, and then immediately called up their house servants, got on their horses, and ordered Kent to follow them.
    • They all acted rather coldly towards Kent, and once he arrived at Gloucester's house and saw Oswald, he realized that Goneril's message had turned Regan and Cornwall against him.
    • Because of this, the mere sight of Oswald put Kent into a passion, which is why he, Kent, challenged him to a fight, which made Oswald cry out, which raised a ruckus and provided Regan and Cornwall an excuse to lock up Lear's messenger and ignore his message.
    • Lear is furious and says something rather odd: "O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow, thy elements below."
    • Translation: Lear refers to his sorrow and outrage as "hysteria" (a.k.a. "the mother," a.k.a. "hysterica passio"), a disease that was thought to afflict women. What the heck's that mean? Let's turn to one of our favorite scholars, shall we? 
    • In an article called "The Absent Mother in King Lear," literary critic Coppélia Kahn explains that "From ancient times through the nineteenth century, women suffering variously from choking, feelings of suffocation, partial paralysis, convulsions similar to those of epilepsy, aphasia, numbness, and lethargy were said to be ill of hysteria, caused by a wandering womb." 
    • In other words, Lear compares himself to a woman whose uterus is "wandering" around inside her body. Want to know why? Check out "Quotes" for "Gender"... but then come right back.
    • After a rather dramatic reaction to Regan's behavior, Lear decides he will go inside and talk to Regan and Cornwall right away to straighten everything out. He leaves Kent with the Fool and one of Lear's gentlemen.
    • Kent notices that most of the members of Lear's entourage have disappeared.
    • The Fool explains that the knights could sense that the Lear ship was sinking, so they bailed out. Only those too foolish to put their own wellbeing first have stuck around with the aging King.
    • A fuming Lear reenters with Gloucester. Apparently Regan and Cornwall refuse to talk to Lear, coming up with a bunch of weak excuses about being too tired and sick to talk.
    • Lear, who is not used to being turned down, demands that Gloucester bring him a better answer from Regan and Cornwall.
    • As Gloucester presses on that Cornwall has a tendency to be stubborn, Lear hesitates—perhaps the Duke really is sick, and in that case, his absence is justified. Lear knows better than anyone that when a person is ill, they don't always behave rationally.
    • But, when Lear looks back at Caius (who is actually Kent), he flies into a passion again.
    • This audacious action of imprisoning Lear's messenger convinces him that sickness is only an excuse; clearly there's something deeper going on against him with Cornwall and Regan.
    • Threatening to knock down Regan and Cornwall's door if they do not come out, Lear sends Gloucester back inside to fetch them.
    • Regan and Cornwall emerge at last. They release Kent from the stocks without further discussion.
    • When Regan says she's glad to see her father, Lear says something like "You better be, otherwise, you're not my daughter and I'll just have to assume your mom had an affair with the mailman."
    • Lear then complains to Regan about Goneril. He's so swept up in anger with that ungrateful she-devil that, at least at first, he doesn't fly off the handle about Regan's behavior.
    • Regan suggests that Lear is an old and feeble man and ought to go back to Goneril for nurturing.
    • Lear refuses, declaring he's not about to apologize to her, especially for being old. In fact, he hopes Goneril gets hit in the face with lightning.
    • Lear then turns to praising Regan in a grand style, as presumably his newfound hatred for Goneril has put things into perspective.
    • Lear prattles that surely Regan understands the concept of duty to one's father.
    • A trumpet sounds: Goneril has arrived at Gloucester's house. The stage is set for the big confrontation.
    • When Goneril enters, Regan takes her by the hand. The battle lines are drawn.
    • Regan pressures Lear to reduce the number of knights in his entourage and to go back to Goneril's house.
    • What ensues is a spat over the logistics of Lear's unwelcome stay with either daughter: Regan urges Lear to return to Goneril's house with fifty of his knights.
    • Fat chance, says Lear, which prompts Goneril to say, "At your choice, sir."
    • Lear goes off on Goneril, insisting that she's more like a "disease that's in [his] flesh" than a daughter (his "flesh and blood"). Goneril, he insists, is "a boil, a plague-sore," a nasty little "carbuncle" and so on. (In other words, Goneril, whose name sounds a lot like "gonorrhea," is kind of like a venereal disease.)
    • Even though we've already heard that Lear's knight numbers may have dwindled of their own accord, Lear says he and his one hundred knights will go ahead and stay with Regan.
    • Not so fast, says Regan; she thinks twenty-five knights is plenty. (The numbers clash is a bit of poetic justice, as Lear once asked his daughters to quantify his love for him, and now they're bickering over the quantity of men Lear keeps about him, which is a reflection of his power diminishing.)
    • The girls complain that it's a lot of people to have in one house, that it's hard to keep so many men under a roof where there are two in command (one being the master of the house, and the other being Lear).
    • Finally, the sisters say that Lear doesn't need anyone in his command, as their servants will tend to him.
    • Lear is incredulous that his daughters would strip him of everything and points out that even the lowliest of beggars have a little something more than the bare minimum.
    • He declares them to be unnatural hags, and promises to do something to them that's so bad he hasn't even thought it up yet. FYI: This line is sort of famous for being the official battle cry of parents who are so angry at their kids that they can hardly speak or decide what to do. (You may have heard something like this after you crashed the family minivan into the garage door after taking the mom-mobile for a little spin without your parents' permission.) So, it's worth repeating here: "I will do such things—/ What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be/ The terrors of the earth!"
    • Thunder rumbles ominously behind Lear's promise of revenge.
    • Lear says he knows his daughters expect him to cry, but he won't. His heart would have to break into a thousand pieces before he'd let himself weep. Of course, he does call out, "O Fool, I shall go mad!" as he rushes off into the storm. (Might be a better idea to just sit down and have a good cry, buddy.)
    • Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril chat about the weather, paying no mind to their father running in a fit out into the storm as a self-proclaimed madman.
    • Gloucester follows Lear and then returns, reporting that the King has ordered a horse and seems to be planning on running away, although who knows where he's going.
    • Gloucester is worried; the night's brewing thunderstorm is not nice weather to be running away in, and there's no cover for miles.
    • Lear's children refuse to go after him. Regan and Goneril agree that Lear needs to learn his lesson, even if he does get hit in the face by lightning.
    • Then, to make matters worse, Cornwall orders Gloucester to shut his doors so that Lear can't come back inside even if he wants to.
    • She claims to be concerned that the men who have gone with Lear might influence him into further craziness—he might be swayed to do something awful to Gloucester's house and his daughters.
    • Cornwall repeats this order about locking the door, and Gloucester, shocked, is forced to obey.
  • Act 3, Scene 1

    • Kent, still disguised as Caius, meets up with the Gentleman, who informs him that the King is still running about in a night so dreadful that even lions and bears have taken to their dens.
    • The gentleman says that only the Fool accompanies the King on his mad journey, trying to stave off Lear's madness with friendly jokes.
    • Kent then gives the gentleman a political update: tension between Regan's husband (Cornwall) and Goneril's husband (Albany) may result in a civil war, though they're keeping it hush-hush.
    • Aside from possibly having a war, both Albany and Cornwall may be united in one activity: plotting against the life of Lear, their father-in-law.
    • This has all been discovered by spies placed strategically in their houses as servants, and France (which has likely sent the spies) is even now preparing to make a move against these divided houses.
    • Kent then reveals he's actually a gentleman himself, meaning that he's of noble breeding, and not just a random guy. But he doesn't go so far as to reveal that he's Kent.
    • Kent asks the Gentleman to be a messenger for him. He instructs him to go to Dover (where Cordelia is) and report of Lear's recent ill-treatment.
    • He then gives the Gentleman his purse so the messenger will be inspired to actually do the job at hand.
    • He also gives the Gentleman a ring to deliver to Cordelia along with the message. The ring will let Cordelia know who the message is from, and then she can tell the Gentleman who he's been dealing with. 
    • As they part, Kent says, "I'll go this way, and you go that way. Let me know if you find the King—I'll do the same." 
  • Act 3, Scene 2

    • This scene opens with an iconic image: Lear, a white-haired man, stands on a heath in the middle of a thunderstorm yelling at the sky. "Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!"
    • The Fool begs Lear to go back to his daughters for shelter, but the King refuses; he would rather face the relentless elements than his ungrateful children. He never gave the weather his kingdom, so he can't fault nature for mistreating him. His kids on the other hand...
    • Kent shows up, still disguised, and tells Lear he has to find shelter.
    • Lear keeps yelling into to the wind. He calls for the storm to reveal all the crimes people have committed, kind of like the way strong winds strip away tree limbs and soil. He wants the storm to uncover everyone who's been unvirtuous, and he says if that happens it will be clear that he's been more of a victim here than a perpetrator. (He says: "I am a man more sinned against than sinning.")
    • Finally, Kent manages to maneuver him towards a hovel that will provide some shelter against the rain. He says that while Lear rests in the hovel, he'll go back and demand shelter from Lear's daughters again—even though they're so hard-headed they wouldn't even answer the door last time he knocked. 
    • "My wits begin to turn," Lear mutters. But he has enough clarity of mind left to comfort his shivering Fool. Lear says, "Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that's sorry yet for thee."
    • The Fool sings a little ditty (which sounds a whole lot like the song Feste sings at the end of Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, btw) and Lear and Kent seek shelter.
    • The Fool delivers a witty speech predicting that Britain will "come to great confusion" when priests are corrupt, beer-makers water down their beverages, when pickpockets stop preying on large crowds, and when "bawds and whores" build churches. In other words, these things happen all the time so, Britain has already fallen into decay. Get it? 
    • The Fool also predicts that, in the future, Merlin (the legendary wizard in King Arthur's court), will make this very same prophecy. (Note: Lear is set in ancient, pre-Christian Britain, long before King Arthur's reign in the sixth century, so Shakespeare's making a little joke about time here.)
    • Brain Snack: The Fool's "prophesy" is a parody (spoof) of "Merlin's Prophesy," a poem that was falsely attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer in George Puttenham's famous book called The Arte of English Poesie (1589). In other words, Shakespeare's giving a literary shout-out here.
  • Act 3, Scene 3

    • Back at Gloucester's castle, Gloucester unloads his heart to his evil-genius son, Edmund.
    • Gloucester is in a bad mood. He's upset about how unnaturally Lear's own daughters deal with the old King, and even more upset that they've taken over his house.
    • The sisters have instructed Gloucester not to mention Lear in their presence, on pain of "perpetual displeasure.
    • Gloucester then tells Edmund that he has received a politically explosive letter informing him that tension is rising between Albany and Cornwall and there are even worse things happening. He doesn't say what those things are, but tells Edmund he's locked the letter in his closet.
    • He adds that the mistreatment of Lear will be avenged—someone's already mobilized to be sure of that. 
    • In the meantime, Gloucester can't bear to obey Cornwall's orders—he's going to go find Lear and bring him relief with all this good news, even though helping Lear is grounds for serious punishment (death). He tells Edmund to cover for him with Cornwall and to be careful, because there is a lot of strange stuff going on.
    • Edmund, being Edmund, intends to betray his father to Cornwall instead. He'll tell him where his father is going and he'll make sure Cornwall sees that letter, too. 
    • That will bring Edmund one step closer to taking over his father's wealth and position.Bwahahahhahaha!
  • Act 3, Scene 4

    • Out on a heath in the storm, Kent tries to maneuver Lear and the Fool into a little cave he's found, where they can have shelter.
    • But Lear says he doesn't want to go inside—the violent storm is nothing compared to the "tempest" (storm) in Lear's own mind. Lear laments that his children are such ingrates but decides that it's best not to go there—dwelling on Goneril and Regan will make him go mad.
    • Lear orders his Fool and Kent to seek shelter and then, delivers a speech about the plight of homelessness, which he now experiences first hand. Lear realizes he has not done enough for disadvantaged people, and swears he will try to assist them more in the future.
    • The Fool, who has by now entered the hovel, emerges with a shriek. He has found the hovel already occupied by the strange figure of Poor Tom (actually, Edgar in disguise).
    • Edgar has sunk ever deeply into the role: he begs and wheedles, sings songs, complains about the cold, and generally acts like a madman.
    • In the presence of Poor Tom's pretend madness, Lear begins to lose his grip on sanity.
    • He blames Poor Tom's naked misery on Poor Tom's "children."
    • "He hath no daughters, sir," Kent clarifies, trying to soothe Lear. "Death, traitor!" Lear replies. "Nothing could have subdued nature / to such lowness but his unkind daughters."
    • (Clearly, Lear is projecting his relationship with Goneril and Regan onto "Poor Tom.")
    • Staring at Poor Tom's nearly naked and shivering body, Lear begins to philosophize.
    • Still full of his pity for the poor, Lear asks, "Is man no more than this? Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art," he says to Edgar.
    • Having concluded that clothing and social conventions are artificial additions to man's natural state, Lear starts taking off his own clothes.
    • We interrupt this program for a brain snack: When Ian McKellen got naked as King Lear in the 2007 Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear, he caused quite a commotion, leading some journalists to joke about the wizard's wand. (McKellen played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies.)
    • The Fool tries to stop Lear, declaring that while he has a hot heart, the rest of his body is still rather cold, and at risk of exposure...in more than one sense of the word.
    • Gloucester enters the scene and is greeted by a strange speech from his own son, Edgar.
    • Still, Gloucester doesn't recognize Edgar in the disguise of Poor Tom, and instead seems worried about the king hanging out with beggars. "What, hath your grace no better company?" he asks.
    • Gloucester informs us that he's come, against instructions and in spite of great threats, to bring Lear in from the storm and provide him with food and fire. Lear cannot be moved, even by the promise of a hot meal.
    • Lear talks with Poor Tom, calling him a philosopher.
    • Gloucester says Lear has reason to be driven to madness, since his own daughters want him dead. If only they'd listened to Kent! (Remember, Kent is disguised as Caius, so Gloucester doesn't know he's actually talking to his banished buddy.) 
    • Gloucester says he can relate to the King's pain, as he recently lost his dearly beloved son (that would be Edgar, who was framed by the evil-genius Edmund to look like he had plotted against Gloucester's life, and who is now prattling on about how to kill mice while disguised as a madman). 
    • Gloucester says his grief is making him crazy, but he tries again to call the King inside.
    • Gloucester finally convinces Lear to come out of the elements, but Lear will only go if he can take his fellow naked crazy man with him.
  • Act 3, Scene 5

    • Meanwhile, back at Gloucester's castle, Edmund's evil plan is progressing nicely. Cue the evil smirk and hand-rubbing gesture.
    • He has told Cornwall about his father's forbidden allegiance to Lear and has also showed Cornwall the incriminating, anti-Cornwall letter. (Remember the letter Gloucester showed Edmund back in Act 3, Scene 3?)
    • Edmund humbly suggests that he's made a great sacrifice by placing his loyalty to Cornwall above his filial duty (to his father, Gloucester).
    • Cornwall concludes that it now seems like Edgar's "plot" to kill his father was kind of just, what with Gloucester being such wicked guy and all.
    • Edmund holds up the incriminating letter and says something like: "It's just so awful that I have to tell on my own father, who is clearly a spy and informant for France."
    • Cornwall says that whether the letter is true or false doesn't matter. Edmund has shown great loyalty, so he's going to be the new Earl of Gloucester either way.
    • Cornwall sends Edmund off to find Gloucester and bring him back for punishment.
    • Edmund hopes that when he finds his father, the man will be comforting Lear, because then Gloucester will be doubly implicated for crimes.
  • Act 3, Scene 6

    • We're back with that rebel Gloucester, who's led Lear, the disguised Kent, the disguised Edgar, and the Fool to a little building outside of his castle to get them all out of the storm.
    • Lear asks the philosophizing Edgar—who is still pretending to be the mad Poor Tom—a bunch of questions.
    • The Fool interjects occasionally, revealing that things must be really bad when the only person who makes sense in the conversation is the guy whose profession (as a licensed fool) dictates that his speech doesn't make any sense at all.
    • Kent tries to get Lear to lie down, but Lear says he has to see his daughters' trial first. Yep, his sanity continues to spiral downward. He imagines his daughters are in the room, and he demands that Poor Tom (a.k.a. Edgar), Kent, and the Fool act as judges in a mock trial where he can charge his daughters with their crimes.
    • Lear gets so worked up—and so obviously not in his right mind—that even Edgar is jolted from his role-playing to feel pity.
    • Kent finally convinces Lear to lie down and get some sleep when Gloucester comes back again with bad news. There's definitely a plot against Lear's life, though Gloucester notably doesn't mention who's plotting.
    • Kent has to wake up Lear immediately and get him into a cart that can take him to safety in Dover, where Cordelia is. They have no time to waste, because if the plotters find Lear, his life and the life of anyone who helps him will be in danger.
    • Kent, Lear, the Fool, and Gloucester exit with the intention of getting Lear to safety... if not sanity.
    • Edgar leaves after them, filled with pity for Lear, whose pathetic situation makes Edgar feel better about his own.
    • Edgar admits that there's no greater suffering than mental illness.
    • Edgar also ponders that his life will be okay just as soon as the truth comes out that he's been plotted against and wrongfully condemned.
  • Act 3, Scene 7

    • Back at Gloucester's castle, Oswald reports to Cornwall that Gloucester has helped Lear and the Fool escape to Dover. He's apprehended Gloucester at the gate of his own castle.
    • Cornwall, Regan, Goneril, and Edmund plan how they will punish Gloucester. Regan suggests they hang him instantly, while Goneril suggests they pluck out his eyes.
    • Cornwall tells Edmund to escort Goneril back to her own castle (while Cornwall stays at Gloucester's castle). Cornwall explains that having Edmund in the castle while he tortures Edmund's father would be kind of inappropriate.
    • But before Edmund and Goneril leave, Oswald (Goneril's steward) comes in with the report that Lear is headed towards Dover, courtesy of Gloucester.
    • As Cornwall's servants drag Gloucester into the room, Gloucester protests that Cornwall and Regan are his guests, and this isn't a very gracious way for guests to act. Huh. You think?
    • Still, Regan and Cornwall haven't exactly been to charm school. They order the servants to tie him up. Then they berate Gloucester as a traitor, pull out some of his beard hairs, and demand to know where he sent King Lear.
    • Gloucester gets defiant. He attacks Regan and Cornwall for their immoral treatment of Lear. "I shall see / The winged vengeance overtake such children," Gloucester warns them.
    • "See't thou shalt never," Cornwall says coldly (but wittily!) before ripping out one of Gloucester's eyeballs.
    • Regan eagerly tells Cornwall to take out the other eye, too, but before he can do so, one of Cornwall's servants decides to rebel. He tells Cornwall he cannot watch him commit such an atrocity.
    • Cornwall's pretty upset about this, so he quickly draws his sword for a fight. The servant wounds Cornwall, but Regan stabs the servant in the back and kills him. Cornwall, panting, takes out Gloucester's other eye, calling it "vile jelly." Not the kind of "jelly" they put in delicious donuts.
    • Gloucester, now completely blind, calls upon his son Edmund for help. Regan informs him that it was Edmund who turned him in.
    • Gloucester has the epiphany that Edmund is a traitor, and has likely been a traitor from the start. More importantly, Gloucester realizes that Edgar must have been innocent.
    • Regan orders that Gloucester be put outside and abandoned to fend for himself. After a servant leads Gloucester out into the elements, Regan and Cornwall—about to collapse from his wound—stumble out as well.
    • The servants left in the room are shocked at what they have just witnessed. They decide they have to help the blind Gloucester.
  • Act 4, Scene 1

    • Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, lurks outside in the cold. He comforts himself with the knowledge that, since he's hit rock bottom, at least things can't get any worse.
    • Then, of course, Edgar sees his father stumble out of the castle bleeding from his eye sockets. Oops. Things just got worse.
    • Gloucester speaks bitterly. An old man who has been a tenant on Gloucester's property has been trying to help him, though Gloucester declares he doesn't need help for his blindness—he was actually more blind (couldn't see the truth about his children) when his eyeballs were intact.
    • Edgar listens in agony as Gloucester laments the loss of his good son, Edgar. Gloucester declares if he could only touch his boy again, it would be as good as having eyes.
    • The old man, who has been helping Gloucester, introduces father and son, who is still disguised as "Poor Tom," the beggar from Bedlam. (Why doesn't Edgar speak up and say "Hey! I'm your estranged yet loyal son, Edgar!"?)
    • Brain Snack: Shakespeare borrowed the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund plot from Phillip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. In Book 2, Chapter 10 of the 1590 edition, the story's heroes encounter a blind king who is accompanied by his loyal son. It turns out that the loyal son has recently forgiven the king despite the fact that his father plotted to have him killed after the king's other kid (a treacherous and illegitimate son) stole his father's kingdom and poked out the old man's eyeballs.
    • Now, back to Lear. Gloucester recalls seeing this fellow ("Poor Tom") in last night's storm and briefly thinking of his son, whom he still hated at the time. Gloucester admits he's since learned he was wrong about Edgar, and sadly declares, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport." In other words, Gloucester blames the gods for what's happened to him, not himself. And, in Gloucester's version, the "gods" are jerks.
    • Gloucester bids the old man to leave him into Poor Tom's care, and also to bring Poor Tom some clothes, because even madmen shouldn't be naked.
    • Though even the old man thinks this is a bad idea, as Poor Tom is also mad, Gloucester reveals a sense of humor by remarking, "'Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind."
    • Left alone with his father, Edgar still does not reveal his identity. For some reason, he keeps up his Poor Tom charade, talking nonsense to his father.
    • Gloucester asks Poor Tom to lead him to the edge of a cliff in Dover so Gloucester can jump off and end his misery (never a good idea).
    • Also, in case anyone wasn't clear that Gloucester plans to kill himself by jumping off a cliff, Gloucester makes explicit that Poor Tom won't have to lead him back. This is a one-way ticket.
    • Edgar agrees to take his father to his death. Or at least to Dover.
  • Act 4, Scene 2

    • Meanwhile, Shakespeare gives us a peek at what the evil spawn are up to…
    • Edmund, ever the gentleman, escorts Goneril to her castle and Goneril says something like "Gee, I wonder where my husband is."
    • Before Edmund can make out with Goneril on her doorstep, Oswald, Goneril's trusty steward, enters and says that Albany (the husband) is inside the castle and he's defected from "Team Bad Guy." Albany's pleased as punch that the French army has landed in Britain to mop the floor with Lear's good for nothing children.
    • Goneril, hearing about her traitor husband, declares Albany a coward and is unable to go through with the final points of her plan.
    • Goneril promises Edmund that he'll hear from her soon, and they share a lingering kiss good-bye. Clearly, the trip from Gloucester's castle to Goneril's was long enough to jumpstart an affair.
    • Goneril speaks in pretty clear terms—knowing that Edmund is now the new Earl of Gloucester, he seems to have become a lot more attractive. Her husband's cowardice (read: morality) is less attractive than the power she could attain through villainy.
    • As soon as Edmund leaves, Goneril's husband, Albany, comes in and chews her out for the way she has been treating her father. She waves him off for being preachy, and he declares that wisdom and goodness seem "vile" to those who are "vile." (Translation: Goneril is vile.)
    • Goneril glosses over the whole discussion by saying Albany is wasting time moralizing while the kingdom is in danger of invasion.
    • He rails on for a while, accusing Goneril of being a "fiend" disguised in a woman's body. He says he'd hit her, if his manhood didn't stop him from hitting a woman (or rather, a fiend that looks like a woman).
    • Goneril sneers at the idea of Albany's "manhood."
    • A messenger interrupts the domestic brawl with the news that Cornwall, Regan's husband, is dead. The wound he got from his rebellious servant during Gloucester's blinding was fatal.
    • Husband and wife react to the news in different ways. Albany is horrified that Gloucester has been treated so brutally, but he thinks Cornwall's death is a sign that justice will prevail.
    • Goneril is torn. On the one hand, Cornwall's death will make Edmund even more powerful. On the other hand she's horrified that Edmund will be alone with her recently widowed—and thus available—sister.
    • Albany is curious about where on earth Edmund was while Gloucester was being mistreated (and why he didn't stop it). Albany finds out how deep the treachery runs when he learns that Edmund is a) the guy who tattled on his father, and b) the guy that took Goneril back home, thus making it easier for his father's torturers to do their thing.
    • Albany is full of praise for Gloucester's loyalty to the King and declares he'll get revenge on behalf of Gloucester.
  • Act 4, Scene 3

    • Kent, still in disguise and seemingly enjoying it, meets again with the messenger that was sent to Cordelia, but this time near the French camp at Dover.
    • Kent wants all the details about how Cordelia reacted to his news, and the messenger reports that her nobility kept her from rage.
    • It was rather clear, he says, that she was between patience and sorrow as she read of her sisters' wickedness and her father's suffering.
    • The messenger declares that if everyone could look as good as Cordelia did while she wept for her father, then sorrow would be the new fashion.
    • Further, Kent reveals that though Lear's in town near Cordelia, he refuses to see her.
    • Not because he's stubborn, but because he's really ashamed himself. His shame (and his pride, implicitly) consume him so much that he can't bring himself to see his only good daughter.
    • Besides all of this family drama, we also learn that Albany and Cornwall both have military elements afoot.
    • Kent says he'll drop the gentleman messenger off at Lear's place, and in the meantime go take care of some secret business.
  • Act 4, Scene 4

    • We learn from Cordelia that Lear has run off from his caretakers and was last spotted in a wheat field, covered over with all sorts of plants.
    • Cordelia sends a century (literally, a hundred soldiers) to find him, and confers with a doctor to figure out if there's any way to cure Lear's madness. The doctor promises a long sleep will do the trick (but as we know in Shakespeare, sleep is a hair's breadth from death, so this doesn't bode too well).
    • Cordelia prays for her father's recovery.
    • Cordelia explains that she has brought an army from France in furtherance of her father's wishes, and not because she wants power for herself. "Not blown ambition doth our arms incite / but love, dear love, and our aged father's right" she says.
    • A messenger then abruptly informs Cordelia that her sisters' British troops are marching towards the French army. Sibling rivalry is about to be played out through full scale civil war.
  • Act 4, Scene 5

    • At Gloucester's castle, Oswald has arrived to deliver Goneril's letter to Edmund. Regan tries to wheedle information out of him and learns that Albany's troops are on the move, seemingly at Goneril's insistence. Mostly, though, she's curious about the letter her sister has written to Edmund. She wants to know what it's about, but Oswald says he doesn't know. 
    • Regan tells Oswald that Edmund isn't there. She thinks he's gone after his pop, Gloucester, to finish him off—and to figure out how big the enemy army is. She tries to get Oswald to stay the night instead of going after Edmund, and then she tries to get him to just show her the letter. Please? She'll be his best friend...
    • Oswald hesitates, and Regan says fine. She knows what's what. It's pretty obvious Goneril doesn't love her husband, and Regan noticed her flirting with Edmund before. She presses Oswald to confirm her theory, but he stalls. 
    • Regan tells Oswald to listen up if he knows what's good for him. First off, Regan and Edmund have already talked and they agree it makes much more sense for Edmund to marry Regan—not Goneril. Second, she also has a note for Edmund that she wants Oswald to deliver. Third, when Oswald sees Goneril again, he should tell her to wise up and use her head next time instead of trying to go around her sister. 
    • Finally, Regan informs him that there's a reward for killing Gloucester. Oswald says he's eager to kill Gloucester to prove his loyalty. 
  • Act 4, Scene 6

    • Edgar has thought of a sneaky way to deal with Gloucester's plan to commit suicide by jumping off the cliffs of Dover: he'll take advantage of the poor man's blindness.
    • He tells blind Gloucester that they are hiking up the cliffs of Dover, as he requested. In reality, however, the father and son are walking across a level surface. "Methinks the ground is even," Gloucester says uncertainly. No, it's "horribly steep," Edgar reassures him.
    • Edgar stops and tells Gloucester they're at the edge of the cliff and then describes the view of the sea below in vivid and completely false detail.
    • Gloucester pays off his son—who he thinks is a homeless madman—and tells him to go away.
    • When he thinks he is alone, Gloucester calls on the gods to witness his misery, pleads for blessings on Edgar, and leaps—about two feet—only to fall flat on his face.
    • Edgar hurries over, worried that his father might have died from the shock of the fall, even though he only plummeted about two feet.
    • Gloucester is alive, and can't tell if he's actually fallen off a cliff or not. Edgar puts on a different accent (pretending to be a different man) and tells Gloucester that he saw him fall from the top of the massive cliff—and somehow survive. "Thy life's a miracle!" Edgar tells him.
    • Edgar wants Gloucester to believe that the gods themselves preserved him so that he'll stop considering suicide. This new guy-at-bottom-of-cliff (Edgar) asks after what manner of creature led Gloucester to the cliff's edge, and then describes a monstrous creature that could only have been a demon. Thus he concludes that Poor Tom must have been a devil trying to lead Gloucester astray. (We can't decide if Edgar's behavior is loving and loyal or completely sadistic. What do you think?)
    • Gloucester promises to trust in the gods and not try to take his life again, because it's a sin.
    • Now Lear, still totally nuts, wanders in. Instead of a crown, he's wearing a wreath of weeds and wildflowers. (Yep, that's symbolic of Lear's mental deterioration alright, so check out "Symbols" if you're interested in our take on this.)
    • Lear keeps up a constant patter of talk—some of it totally crazy, some of it bitter and insightful.
    • As well as trying to feed a mouse a piece of cheese, he demands a password from Edgar. When Edgar exclaims "Sweet marjoram," which is kind of like "Holy cow," Lear says, "That's it!" 
    • Lear rants about power and its abuses. Now that he's no longer in charge, Lear realizes that his authority was just image and spin—none of it was real.
    • Gloucester recognizes Lear's voice and asks if it's the King he hears. Lear answers him with a rant about sex and how there should be more of it in the world, especially considering that Gloucester's son Edmund, conceived out of wedlock, proved much kinder than Lear's daughters, who were conceived legitimately. (He's a little behind on his facts, but hey—he's mad, what do you expect?) He goes on to say that women often appear virtuous, but from the waist down they do the Devil's work. 
    • Gloucester asks Lear if he recognizes him and Lear says his eyes are familiar. (Ouch.) He then addresses Gloucester as Cupid, who was often presented as blind. Edgar and Gloucester are both horrified at Lear's transformation, and Edgar says he wouldn't believe Lear had gotten this bad if he weren't witnessing it for himself.
    • Edgar can barely cope with what he's seeing. Only weeks ago, Lear and his father were powerful, successful men who led the kingdom.
    • Now Gloucester is sitting on the ground with blood trickling from his empty eye sockets, and Lear, his white hair topped with weeds, doesn't even recognize his old colleague.
    • Edgar says he wouldn't believe this scene if he heard of it, but now that he sees it, "it is, and [his] heart breaks at it."
    • Lear rants that justice is a sham. He says there's no real difference between the thief and the judge who sentences him, or between the prostitute and the officer who whips a prostitute's back for her crimes, when really he'd like to commit those crimes with her.
    • Then he tells Gloucester, "Get the glass eyes / and like a scurvy politician seem / To see the things thou dost not."
    • Gloucester starts sobbing helplessly as he listens to Lear's babbling.
    • Seeing Gloucester's grief seems to bring Lear back to his senses. "If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes," he says. "I know thee well enough—thy name is Gloucester."
    • For a moment, Lear's madness lifts him to the level of pure philosophy. "Thou must be patient," he tells Gloucester. "When we are born we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools."
    • What he's saying here is first, that of course he recognizes Gloucester, and second, that it's natural to cry when you see the world for the first time, like a newborn. (The idea is that babies cry when they're born, and men cry again later when they realize the truth of the world.) 
    • Then Lear slips back to crazy town, telling Gloucester he likes his hat ("good block,") and that if Lear made horseshoes for his horses out of the same felt used in Gloucester's hat, he'd be able to sneak up on his sons-in-law and kill them. 
    • A Gentleman arrives and tells one of his attendants to take hold of Lear. They say they've come from his daughter, but it's not immediately clear which one.
    • Lear seems to calmly accept that he is a prisoner—but then dashes away like a five-year-old, calling back to the soldiers something along the lines of "You'll have to catch me first!"
    • The soldiers, who turn out to be sent by Cordelia, chase after the crazy old man.
    • Edgar and Gloucester are alone again until Oswald shows up, determined to kill Gloucester and get his reward. 
    • Edgar steps between Oswald and Gloucester and puts on an intense peasant's accent so that Oswald won't recognize him. When Oswald tries to attack Gloucester, Edgar fights him off and kills him. As Oswald dies, he asks Edgar to deliver the letters he's carrying to Edmund.
    • Edgar looks at the letter, though he feels a little sneaky about doing it. Turns out it's a letter from Goneril to Edmund, asking Edmund to kill her husband so they can be together. This is the first time Edgar realizes that his brother is actually a bad guy.
    • Edgar, thinking the letter might come in handy, takes it with him and promises to escort Gloucester to a friend's place.
  • Act 4, Scene 7

    • Cordelia enters, talking with Kent. She tells him it's time for him to take off his "Caius" disguise, but Kent says he's not ready to become himself again—he's got a plan and he doesn't want Cordelia to reveal his true identity.
    • The doctor who has been tending Lear tells Cordelia that her father is ready to be woken up. They put on music for him, and Cordelia kisses her father and talks about how his other daughters have abused him. When he finally begins to wake, Cordelia asks him how he feels.
    • When Lear opens his eyes, he assumes he is in the afterworld and surrounded by spirits. Slowly, he gets his bearings and recognizes Cordelia.
    • The father and daughter are together for the first time since Lear unfairly banished her. Both of them need forgiveness from each other, but perhaps one more so than the other.
    • When Cordelia kneels before him, he tries to kneel to her. "If you have poison for me, I will drink it," he tells her. "I know you do not love me, for your sisters / have, as I remember, done me wrong. / You have some cause, they have not." "No cause, no cause," Cordelia reassures him.
    • They exit to continue this touching reunion scene offstage.
    • Kent and the Gentleman stay behind to share intel. They confirm that Cornwall is dead, and Edmund now leads his troops as the Earl of Gloucester. There are also rumors that Edgar is with the Earl of Kent in Germany.
  • Act 5, Scene 1

    • At the British battle camp near Dover, Edmund and Regan are engaged in what seems to be a heated conversation.
    • Regan keeps asking Edmund if he's done "it" with Goneril. Edmund swears on his honor that he has never done anything with Goneril. (Which is interesting considering that the man has no honor.)
    • Just as Regan orders Edmund to stay out of Goneril's bed, Goneril and her husband, Albany, abruptly enter.
    • The showdown between Cordelia's French troops and the British troops led by Albany, Regan, and Goneril is about to begin.
    • Albany notes that while the French troops are joined by Lear and many others with justifiable grievances against the state, Albany must still keep his country as a priority. As France is invading his land, he has to fight for it, even if he doesn't like his allies and he believes in the cause of his enemies.
    • Goneril suggests that they should get over their little domestic squabbles for some greater good.
    • She then continues her own personal domestic squabble with Regan over Edmund. Quietly fighting over the louse, the two sisters exit with him, neither trusting the other to be alone with Edmund.
    • As the others start to go, the disguised Edgar approaches Albany, who tells his frenemies he'll catch up to them. Edgar gives Albany the letter he took from Oswald, demands Albany read it before the battle, and runs off without ever revealing his true identity.
    • Edmund comes back to give Albany an update about the battle preparations.
    • When Albany leaves, Edmund is left alone to gloat over his successes. "To both these sisters have I sworn my love… Which of them shall I take? / Both? One? Or neither?" he asks himself. He'll have to choose after the battle, he decides—or after Goneril kills her husband so she can be with him.
    • Edmund decides that if they manage to capture Lear and Cordelia, he'll have to make sure that Albany doesn't pardon them and restore them to power. Edmund wants them out of the way so that he can take control of the kingdom.
  • Act 5, Scene 2

    • Edgar still hasn't told his father who he really is. But he has decided to fight in the battle on the side of Lear and Cordelia.
    • He stashes Gloucester beside a tree and tells him to hang out until the battle is over. Then he runs offstage.
    • Edgar runs back onstage and informs his father that Lear and Cordelia have lost the battle. (What? You were expecting something else from Shakespeare's greatest tragedy? Now would be a good time to prepare yourself, because it gets a whole lot worse.)
    • Predictably enough, Gloucester starts talking about suicide once more. Edgar tells him to buck up and leads him offstage.
  • Act 5, Scene 3

    • Edmund, who has succeeded in capturing Lear and Cordelia, orders his guards to take them away until he figures out what he's going to do with them.
    • All defiance, Cordelia demands to be taken before her wretched sisters. "No, no, no, no, let's away to prison," Lear tells her. In a moving (albeit delusional and slightly inappropriate) speech, Lear says, "We two alone will sing like birds i'the'cage... we'll live / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh / At gilded butterflies."
    • Lear tells Cordelia that he is no longer interested in politics and court manipulation. In prison, he tells his daughter, the two of them will watch and laugh as different political factions engage in an endless struggle for dominance. Power doesn't matter to him anymore, he says; what he cares about is being with his beloved daughter.
    • Edmund orders that the prisoners be taken away. He then writes his captain an order on a piece of paper and tells him that he will be promoted if he executes Lear and Cordelia.
    • Albany, Regan, and Goneril enter for a victory conference. They all praise Edmund for his bravery in battle—he's clearly the one responsible for their triumph.
    • Albany asks Edmund to hand over Lear and Cordelia, but Edmund distracts him from the issue, saying that Lear looked so pathetic that he had to send him away because the British troops might have felt sorry for him and rebelled.
    • Edmund says also that now's not the most appropriate time to pass down judgment on Lear and Cordelia, seeing as how so many people are bleeding from battle wounds and counting up their dead friends.
    • Albany tells Edmund that they're not equals in this war—Edgar is his subordinate, but Regan disagrees. This exchange sets off a tiff between the sisters over the evil yet oh-so scrumptious Edmund. Regan, who mentions that she isn't feeling so great, basically claims Edmund as her future husband, and she and Goneril scuffle about it—in veiled terms, since Goneril's husband is standing right there.
    • When Goneril gets upset by the idea that Regan plans to "enjoy" (sleep with) Edmund, Albany tells her that it's not her place to object. She's not in charge, and—ahem—she's married, so she shouldn't be getting competitive over this shmuck.
    • Edmund tells Albany to butt out, and Albany reminds him that he's only some illegitimate son of a lord.
    • Regan tells Edmund to fight Albany on her behalf, but before Edmund can respond, Albany plays his trump card: he arrests both Edmund and Goneril for treason. Ah-ha! He reveals he knows they've been plotting against his life so they can get married. Albany orders that the trumpet sound three times—if nobody comes to challenge Edmund, then Albany will just have to challenge Edmund to a duel himself.
    • Meanwhile, Regan's still belly-aching about how she's not feeling so hot. Goneril snickers and reveals to the audience that she's poisoned her sister.
    • Edgar rushes in dramatically at the third trumpet call, and, still in disguise, challenges Edmund to a duel.
    • In the midst of all this drama, Regan has to be escorted back to her tent. Goneril watches happily as her sister—her evil plan to poison her sister and secure marriage to Edmund seems to be working.
    • In the duel, Edgar stabs Edmund in the guts. 
    • Albany tells Edgar not to kill Edmund—if he dies, Albany won't be able to throw him in prison. Goneril is freaking out because Edmund is hurt, and when Albany tries to confront her about her plot to murder him, she runs offstage.
    • Edmund, mortally wounded, admits that he's guilty of the charges. He wants to know the identity of the man who killed him. Edgar finally reveals himself ("Edmund, I am your brother") and tells his story. He explains that roughly half an hour ago, when he finally told Gloucester he was his son, Gloucester had a heart attack from a mixture of shock and joy. (Gosh, the body count just keeps rising.)
    • "This speech of yours hath moved me, / and shall perchance do good" Edmund says.
    • Then a man runs onstage screaming and holding a bloody knife. Someone has died.
    • The knife-wielding man reveals that Goneril confessed to poisoning her sister and then stabbed herself. Edmund admits that he was promised to both sisters. Now that all of them are dead or dying, Edmund says, "All three / Now marry in an instant." In other words, the two sisters are dead and Edmund's not far behind.
    • The soldiers bring out the dead bodies of Regan and Goneril, just so we can really visualize the whole thing.
    • Kent walks in and asks everybody where Lear and Cordelia are. Uh-oh, says Albany. We totally forgot about Lear and Cordelia!
    • Looking at the corpses of Regan and Goneril, Edmund says proudly, "Yet Edmund was beloved."
    • But then Edmund (who's not quite dead yet) decides to do something good for a change. He suddenly confesses that he ordered his captain to have Lear and Cordelia killed. If Albany sends someone lickety-split to stop the Captain, maybe they can save Cordelia from being hanged.
    • Edgar dashes off to intervene, and everyone else onstage waits tensely to find out if he is too late. "The gods defend her," Albany prays.
    • The answer to Albany's prayer is the sound of Lear howling. The old King staggers onstage with his daughter in his arms. Cordelia is dead.
    • Lear keeps asking for some way to check if Cordelia is still breathing—a mirror to look for the mist of her breath, or a feather that might move when she exhales.
    • But really, Lear knows that it's too late. "A plague upon you murderers, traitors all," he curses. "I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever."
    • Kent tries to comfort Lear, and reveals himself as Lear's guardian in disguise. But Lear brushes him off—he is too preoccupied with the death of his daughter to understand what Kent is trying to say.
    • After sacrificing everything to help the King, Kent doesn't even get the satisfaction of Lear recognizing his devotion.
    • Meanwhile, a Gentleman enters and announces that Edmund is dead. Whatever, says Albany, who tries to address the political situation. He tells Lear that he can be king again, but no one is listening to him.
    • Lear still holds his daughter's corpse in his arms. "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?" he asks. "O thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never."
    • What happens next in King Lear is a bit tricky because there are two different versions of the play (three if you count the "conflated" text, which shmooshes the two versions together into one big, long play). In the First Folio edition (the collected works of Shakespeare published in 1623), Lear dies thinking that Cordelia is dead and Albany gets to speak the final lines of the play.
    • In the First Quarto edition of Lear (printed in 1608), Edgar (not Albany) delivers the final lines and Lear dies believing that Cordelia is alive. Here's what goes down in this version:
    • As Lear attends to Cordelia's body, he thinks she's still breathing—"Do you see this? Look on her: look, her lips / Look there, look there!" he says, and dies.
    • With Lear dead, the kingdom needs a ruler. Albany suggests that Kent and Edgar share the throne and help England to heal.
    • Kent refuses, saying ambiguously that he's got to follow his master, hinting that he'll go with Lear on his journey into death.
    • Then Edgar says "The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most. We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long." In other words, Edgar says we're all going to get old and die. In the meantime, we should all be honest and say what's in our hearts instead of running around lying all the time.