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“King Lear” is not your usual Shakespeare’s tragedy. There are no betrayals, no sex and power games, no bunch of dead people in the and, and not one actor is acting mad at no point in the play.
No, just kidding!
It has all of that – and so much more.
Who Should Read “King Lear”? And Why?
“Hamlet” may be the most famous of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, but it seems that “King Lear” is the more lauded one. So much so that even one of Shakespeare’s greatest distractors, George Bernard Shaw, didn’t hesitate to write that “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”
So, the question isn’t who should read “King Lear” – but who shouldn’t?
And the answer is – no one.
(Boy, that’s so many negations we can’t even count them).
William Shakespeare Biography
William Shakespeare was an English playwright and poet, considered by many the foremost writer in the history of literature.
He was born on 23 April 1564 and died on the same day 52 years later – incidentally, the day Miguel de Cervantes died as well.
During his life, he wrote about 40 plays and 150 sonnets, all of which have been studied and restudied year in year out.
It’s difficult to choose which are his finest works. “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello,” and “King Lear” are grouped under the deserving title “the four great tragedies”; there is hardly a romantic story which hasn’t referenced “Romeo and Juliet” ever since it was originally written; and Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest” is justly considered a fitting farewell.
Shakespeare is considered “the father of the English language,” inventing more than 1700 words and using about 20,000 different words in his oeuvre.
Say that you’re a mighty king in ancient Britain and that you’re getting a bit old.
You’re also a bit sexist since you believe that if life had blessed you with a male heir – things would have been a lot different.
Anyway, all you have is three daughters and, quite probably, political turmoil once you die – if you don’t do something smart while you’re still on the planet.
So, do you:
a) Choose the most able one of your daughters, impart your knowledge to her and make her a future Queen, knowing full well that if she marries, she’ll choose wisely? (You know what we’re talking about: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…” kind of stuff)
b) Find your daughters the best husbands there are and give the kingdom to the one who deserves the most and seems like the best future king?
c) Divide your kingdom – thus, making it weaker – between your three daughters (married or single) based on their regal competence?
d) Divide your kingdom between your three daughters based on how much each of them loves you?
Of course you’re going to go with d!
Because this is pre-Christian Britain we’re talking about and because Queen Elizabeth I has just died in the real world and because, well, you’re Shakespeare the apple-polisher and you can get away with absolutely everything!
So, yes – that’s how King Lear decides how to divide his kingdom! By asking his daughters – Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia – how much they love him.
Don’t believe us?
His words – not ours:
Tell me, my daughters—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
Remember that episode of “The Office” when Michael Scott organizes Survivor-style “Beach Games” to decide his successor?
Well, Goneril and Regan are like Andy and Stanley, probably thinking something along the lines: “Oh, he is actually serious! It’s time for some I-love-you-more-than-words-can-say lying! After all, it will grant me a kingdom!”
Cordelia is something like – well nobody alive.
Believing that her love’s “more ponderous” than her tongue (that’s how they spoke back then, even when to themselves), she decides to say nothing.
And King Lear says:
Nothing will come of nothing.
In other words: even though you’re my youngest and, by far, favorite daughter, you will get nothing from me because this game was the perfect way to divvy up my kingdom!
Jokes aside, it seems that this game was an excellent way for Lear to unwittingly decide who loves his daughter best since the one who’ll marry her without land and a dowry surely loves something more than her… well, land and dowry.
And that someone is the King of France – which is where Cordelia is going now.
King Lear, on the other hand, is going somewhere else – La-La Land.
And we’re not talking about blockbuster Hollywood!
Which, by the way, is one place King Lear should visit since the best adaptations of the play are a Russian and a Japanese film.
The latter was directed by Akira Kurosawa under the title “Ran,” and, as you’ll see from this trailer, it’s an otherworldly masterpiece:
Back to King Lear.
If you didn’t get us, we just said that Lear has gone a bit insane.
Who would have thought that his plan would backfire, ha?
Well – it does, and it does big time!
Now that they have gotten parts of the kingdom, Goneril and Regan don’t respect him one bit – denying him even a proper welcome.
(Though, to be frank, Lear does have the demands of a modern pop-star.)
A lightbulb goes off in Lear’s head:
Maybe – he thinks – my daughters were lying to me?
Welcome to the real world, King Lear. It’s cold and bitter. And everybody’s a hypocrite!
So what does King Lear does at this point?
What every other mad person would do – strips off of his clothes and runs around a heath naked during an awe-inspiring thunderstorm.
The front seats are reserved for Kent, a disguised loyal nobleman of Lear, and Lear’s Fool – because you’ve got to have comic relief when things go this bad.
Since it is a play, Lear’s also babbling some things people find difficult to forget.
Such as, for example, this:
Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou similar man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practiced on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn’d against than sinning.
Let us sum that up for you: I may be mad as a March hare now, but I really think that I’ve done less bad to other people than other people have done to me!
If you know your Shakespeare well, you know that we’ve come to a point when we’re about to introduce the second plot of the play.
Because to Shakespeare, one plot was pretty much the same a race against James Corden and Owen Wilson is to Usain Bolt.
So, meanwhile –
Another guy named Gloucester – an old nobleman – is having family problems of his own.
Unlike Lear who has three daughters, this guy has two sons.
One of them, Edmund, is illegitimate (namely, born out of wedlock), and the other one, Edgar, is not.
So, who do you think will be the bad guy here?
Certainly not Edgar, ha?
Anyway, Edmund tricks Gloucester into believing that Edgar is trying to kill him.
Edgar has a lot of options to prove that he’s not (like, for example, telling him) but he chooses the least reasonable one: disguising himself as a naked mad beggar named “Poor Tom.”
And where does he go to?
Lear’s heath, of course – because that’s the only place where naked, mad noblemen go to when they want to be part of a Shakespeare’s tragedy.
And “King Lear” is certainly not one Gloucester would have wanted to be part of – had he known what was about to happen.
Unfortunately for him, he makes another mistake after confusing his legitimate son with a father-murderer based on no evidence whatsoever!
And that mistake is trying to help Lear against the orders of Regan and Goneril.
Regan and her husband Cornwall discover this and accuse him of treason.
You’d think that once they catch him, they’d have no problems killing him, but no – it’s much more gruesome than that.
Don’t watch that clip before reading the next sentence:
Yup – Gloucester has his eyes gouged out.
And he ends up wandering in the same vicinity as well. Led by none other than Poor Tom – aka his loving son – to Dover.
And the Strait of Dover isn’t the narrowest part of the Channel for nothing, right?
That was our not-that-very-imaginative way of saying that the French army is there. And that when you have a loving daughter in France, she’s bound to come and occupy your country at some point in the future.
This time – it’s for a good cause: Cordelia wants to save her father from her two evil sisters.
Meanwhile, the husband of one of them, Goneril’s Albany, realizes that Lear is not a bad guy after all. Which makes Goneril realize that Albany is not a good husband for her.
So, she plots with Edmund to kill him.
Wait – what?
Oh – yes: Edmund, the charmer that he is, has managed in the meantime to knock the socks off Goneril. And also, Regan.
While on the subject of that dysfunctional family – we didn’t tell you above why Edmund’s father is trying to get to Dover.
It’s actually pretty funny.
Namely, he’s trying to commit suicide.
Well, it’s not that funny, but, hey, – why does he need to go all over to Dover to do it? It’s not like committing suicide is a difficult thing to do.
We’ll tell you why:
Because Shakespeare needs everybody in Dover.
And now that that happens – may the obligatory bloodbath begin!
King Lear Epilogue
Gloucester survives (well, initially) since Edgar tricks him into thinking that he’s jumping from a cliff when he’s actually not.
(Playing tricks on the blind is not a nice thing to do, Edgar!)
However, Oswald (Goneril’s loyal steward) tries to do what Gloucester was just about to do himself. Fortunately, instead of Oswald killing Gloucester, Edgar kills Oswald.
And finds, in his pocket, a letter from Goneril to Edmund – about you-know-what (see above).
And Edgar suddenly realizes that his brother Edmund is a bad guy!
Really, Edgar? We needed about one verse to do that!
But, hey – we guess that being a fictional character, you haven’t had the opportunity to get to know to your Shakespeare as well as we have! So, don’t worry: we forgive you!
Just as Cordelia does in the case of her father – you know, even though she did nothing good to earn that.
Anyway – no time for the beauty of reuniting: there’s a war raging.
And Edmund (so, Edgar’s evil brother) somehow ends up leading the British army against Cordelia’s French troops.
We guess being the lover of both queens pays dividends!
Since it’s a tragedy, you already know that he is the one who wins in the end.
Both Cordelia and King Lear are captured and imprisoned.
You’d think, with Cordelia, that this is the worst thing imaginable, but, according to King Lear – not at all:
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Now that Lear and Cordelia are in prison, Regan and Goneril have just enough time to fight it out over which one of them will get Edmund.
Or – poison it out, since that’s exactly what Goneril does.
But, before Regan dies, Edmund dies too – killed by Edgar who finally reveals his true identity to his father.
Not a right moment to do that – since it results in a heart attack which kills Gloucester.
Goneril commits suicide because it’s not a Shakespeare’s tragedy unless everyone in it dies in the end, right?
Speaking of which –
Edmund’s last words (apart from a completely unnecessary apology) are the revelation that he has sent someone to kill Lear and Cordelia.
Will Edgar have enough time to save them?
Of course not – Edgar doesn’t even have time to think what to do when Lear enters carrying his dead daughter in his arms.
And uttering some words which get us everytime:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
Soon, King Lear’s gone forever as well.
His last words:
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there! O, o, o, o!
That’s King’s Lear last word.
Coupled with the revelation that another character – his Fool – is also dead.
So, basically, everybody is – apart from Albany and Edgar.
Well, probably not.
Judging by the last four verses in the play (hey, these even rhyme):
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.
Blame us for simplifying things if you like to, but we really feel that that’s just too little of a moral for such a long and bloody play.
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“King Lear PDF Quotes”Love is not love | When it is mingled with regards that stand | Aloof from the entire point. Click To Tweet How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child! Click To Tweet You are not worth the dust which the rude wind | Blows in your face Click To Tweet When we are born, we cry that we are come | To this great stage of fools. Click To Tweet Reason in madness! Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
In the later years of his life, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a famous “Critical Essay on Shakespeare,” which is mostly concerned with “King Lear.”
Because it is “one of Shakespeare’s most extolled dramas.”
And Tolstoy provides us with a wealth of quotations as evidence for this assessment.
Here are just two of them:
“There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed, which so much agitates our passions, and interests our curiosity,” says Dr. Johnson.
“‘King Lear’ may be recognized as the perfect model of the dramatic art of the whole world,” according to Shelley.
“Far from being the height of perfection, it is a very bad, carelessly composed production, which, if it could have been of interest to a certain public at a certain time, can not evoke among us anything but aversion and weariness.”
Wow – that’s a bit harsh there, Leo!
Of course, it’s not that bad. But we just wanted to inform you about the fantastic clash of the literary giants.
Many years later, a guy whom you may know (George Orwell) tried moderating the quarrel in a very famous essay titled “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool.”
“Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated.
Nevertheless, something, a kind of pattern, or perhaps only an atmosphere, survives the complications and the longueurs. Lear can be imagined as a puppet show, a mime, a ballet, a series of pictures. Part of its poetry, perhaps the most essential part, is inherent in the story and is dependent neither on any particular set of words nor on flesh-and-blood presentation.”
We share his opinion.
In a nutshell: as a realistic play, it’s not a very good one. But as a poetic drama – it’s quite possibly one of the very best ones ever written.