King Lear: by Shakespeare - Summary

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      King Lear, a tragedy is a by William Shakespeare, The text of the First Folio edition (1623) is more authoritative than that of the 1608 Quarto. In writing the play, Shakespeare turned to various sources, including Holinshed’s Chronicles and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

      The aged British King decides to share his kingdom between his three daughters and spend his remaining years as a regular guest at their courts. The plan goes awry when his youngest and favorite daughter refuses to earn her share by joining her sisters in exaggerated public declarations of love for her father. The angry King divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, his elder daughters, and Cordelia is accepted, without dowry, as wife to the King of France. She leaves the country. Lear finds Goneril’s grudging hospitality an outrage and leaves for Regan’s castle. But Regan puts even greater restrictions on his entertainment. The incredulous King first rants against his cruel daughters and then runs out, accompanied by his Fool and guided by the loyal Duke of Kent, to risk the hardships of the heath rather than accept terms from his daughters. Tried beyond his strength, he goes mad, and, in his madness, encounters his own unprotected humanity.

      When Goneril, Regan and Regan’s husband the Duke of Cornwall hear that a French army has landed, and that Lear is being taken to Dover to be reunited with Cordelia, they torture and blind the Duke of Gloucester, whose pity for the King has led him to assist his escape to Dover. Lear finds Cordelia at Dover and is restored to sanity; but the French lose the battle and Cordelia and Lear are captured. The Duke of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, powerful because he is the lover of both Regan and Goneril, gives orders that they should be put to death. Edmund is defeated in single combat by his legitimate brother, Edgar. His dying confession comes too late to save Cordelia, and Lear brings onstage the corpse of his hanged daughter. He dies asserting that Cordelia is still alive.

      The formal achievement of the play is extraordinary. Lear’s tragedy is paralleled by that of the Duke of Gloucester, who trusts the wrong son, Edmund, and rejects the right one, Edgar. It is Edgar who guides his blinded father towards the release of death and who avenges him by killing Edmund. The two tragedies touch each other throughout the play, most memorably in the grotesque meeting, near Dover, of the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester. It is Edgar who, with Goneril’s husband the Duke of Albany, cames the hopes of a better future at the end of the play.

      King Lear can be read in various ways — as a theological drama, as a philosophical one, as a supreme example of Shakespeare’s intuitive egalitarianism or even as a melodrama lifted towards tragedy only by its superb poetry. It is the most titanic of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

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