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.