English Advanced: King Lear
Table of Contents
Shakespeare’s a big fan of dysfunctional family environments, whether it’s:
- Uncle stabbing Oedipus complexes.
- Star-crossed renditions of West side story.
- Or spousal conflicts ending in murder.
There’s nothing more common in a Shakespeare play than family members knifing each other while delivering stirring monologues regarding said knifing.
And of all Shakespeare’s plays, one rises above the rest is a shining example of the most dysfunctional family of all time!
A terrible father and an even worst judge of character, he takes home the gold regarding awful family members.
With this in mind, I present to you the Tragedy of King Lear.
- The story begins with the first of our many dysfunctional family environments, the House of Gloucester.
- Gloucester introduces Kent, a loyal retainer of King Lear to his illegitimate son, Edmund.
- Discussing how his legitimate son Edgar is way better than Edmund in basically every way!
- But he loves Edmund anyway, despite his inferiority.
(So this is off to a fantastic start already…)
- We cut away to King Lear himself who has decided to retire.
Educated readers at home may be aware of the fact that kings do not ordinarily retire and there is in fact, no protocols regarding this, so King Lear is basically winging it!
- He’s decided to split his kingdom into three parts to be divided among his three daughters.
- The largest share will be given to the one he thinks loves him the most! And the smallest to the least.
- This way he’ll still be the king but without all of that tedious ruling business.
- So King Lear calls on each of his daughters to tell him how much they love him.
- The eldest, Goneril, is like “Man, Dad I just love you like so much!. You have like no idea!” and Lear’s like “Wow you must love me so much! Here, sweetie, you get the biggest share~”
- So his second daughter, Regan’s like “Oh snap Daddy, I love you just as much as Goneril over there!”
- And Lear is all “Oh, then you get the second biggest part of my land!”
- So then it’s his youngest daughter Cordelia’s turn and Cordelia is like “Oh, sorry Dad, but I don’t have anything to say, ‘cuz you know, I can’t put my love for you into words.”
- So King Lear (either due to low blood sugar or growing senility) decides that this means she doesn’t love him at all!
- He gets pissed and disinherits her then and there, splitting the last share of land between Regan and Goneril.
- Fortunately for Cordelia, her suitor, the King of France decides right then to marry her (Despite the fact that she has no dowry) and the two of them waltz off to France together~
- Also, Lear exiles Kent because the poor guy speaks up for Cordelia. (More on him later.)
- Regan and Goneril share a little conspiratorial conversation in which it is revealed that neither of them actually love their father!
- And (surprise surprise) they think he’s a doddering old fool.
(Which to be fair, they’re totally right about.)
- Over to Edmund!
Remember that guy? Gloucester’s illegitimate son?
- Anyway, Edmund’s decided to sabotage the relationship between Edgar and their father, Gloucester, so he can become the favourite son!
- Luckily for him, Edgar and Gloucester are both very gullible dudes and he manages to convince Gloucester that Edgar was plotting to overthrow him and steal his lands!
(More on them later)
- King Lear has decided to alternate every month between staying with Goneril and staying with Regan.
- So he goes to Goneril’s place with an entourage of a hundred knights.
- Unfortunately since he’s the king (technically) he acts like he owns the place!
- Which pisses Goneril off.
- She and her husband Albany decide that if he continues to be such an issue they’ll have to kick him out.
- Kent (that dude who Lear banished) returns!
- Disguised and going by the name, Caius!
- For some reason, he wants to serve Lear again.
(Yeah, I don’t get it either. Dude’s a jerk)
- Anyway, Lear accepts “Caius” into his service
- So Kent is back in the game!
- “And that was much rejoicing.” (yay!)
- King Lear notices that he doesn’t seem to be getting any respect from the servants.
- Which both pisses him off and confuses him.
- After all, he’s the king!
- But his court jester mockingly explains to him that since he’s not a real king anymore, of course, he’s getting no respect!
- This totally unexpected turn of events catches King Lear totally by surprise.
Since, he’s an idiot remember?
- When Goneril orders him to stop acting like he owns the place he angrily storms out, resolving to go to Regan’s place instead.
Since of course, she’s bound to treat him better than her sister. insert eye roll
- He sends Kent (Caius) to deliver a “Your sister was mean to me!” message to Regan, who at this point is staying with her husband, Cornwall at Gloucester’s home, helpfully merging the two disparate plot threads into one convenient MESS!
Meanwhile at Casa Gloucester…
- Edmund convinces his brother, Edgar that their father hates him, and that he should run away from home.
- Edgar helpfully obliges, whereupon Edmund stabs himself in the arm and tells his father that Edgar did it!
- Gloucester is now totally convinced that Edgar was the bad guy and promptly gives Edmund the lands and titles that belong to his legitimate brother.
- Kent arrives at Casa Gloucester, along with a messenger from Goneril.
- Kent gets into a fight with the other messenger and Regan promptly puts him in the stocks.
- When King Lear then shows up. he’s unbelievably pissed that Regan disrespected him by imprisoning his messenger, at which point Regan flat-out calls him old and senile and tells him that she won’t house him unless he gets rid of his entire knightly entourage and stops acting like he owns the place.
- Goneril shows up immediately thereafter and basically tells him the same thing.
- Lear’s enraged by the lack of respect and throws a fit.
- Then he storms out into a thunderstorm, followed by Kent and his Jester.
- King Lear at this point starts going insane and rambling.
(Get used to it, because he’s going to stay that way for the entire rest of the play.)
- Goneril and Regan convinced Gloucester to lock the doors so that King Lear won’t break in in the middle of the night, although Gloucester points out there’s no shelter for miles around.
In conclusion, Regan and Goneril are terrible terrible people! :D
- Gloucester is a little put off by the mistreatment of poor King Lear and has decided to take the King’s side in the matter
- To that aim, he secretly requested aid from the King of France and dealing with the Dukes Albany and Cornwall (Goneril and Regan’s husbands)
- Of course, he confides in Edmund who instantly decides to betray him to the Dukes in order to win Gloucester’s lands!
Lear’s Company run into Edgar!
Remember that guy? Gloucester’s illegitimate son?
- Yeah, so Edgar’s disguised as a madman.
- Gloucester comes out to find them and offer them room in his castle.
- Back at the aforementioned castle, Edmund has betrayed his father to Cornwall.
- Gloucester takes the King and crew to a farmhouse at the castle, and King Lear and the fool have a little craziness party while Gloucester returns to his castle, where he promptly overhears of a plot to have King Lear killed!
- Rather than allow that to happen, he sends them off towards Dover so the King will be safe with the incoming French army.
- Gloucester is brought before the evil league of Evil, Where we learn that the French army he called for has already landed …somehow.
(I don’t even know how he contacted them so quickly)
(I’m pretty sure they didn’t have wi-fi out in the heath.)
- Anyway, Cordelia is with them!
Remember her? (I don’t!)
- Regan and Cornwall interrogate Gloucester and learned that Lear is heading to Dover. Then they blind him!
(What a bunch of jerks!)
- One of Cornwall’s servants has a crtlisis of conscience and attacks Cornwall in an attempt to protect Gloucester, and winds up getting killed for his troubles. (Although he does manage to fatally wound Cornwall in the process. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.)
- Gloucester gets kicked out onto the heath where he runs into his son, Edgar, although he doesn’t realise Edgar’s true identity and Edgar is not about to tell him.
- Gloucester asks him to lead him to a cliff that he can jump off of and the two wander off together.
Over to Goneril!
- Goneril flirts with Edmund.
Because all girls want bad boys.
- Albany says he’s horrified by how Goneril and Regan treated Kent and the King
- When they learned from Regan’s messenger that Gloucester has been blinded and kicked out of his own home, Albany is even more horrified and disowned/divorces Goneril on the spot.
- Goneril sends her servant Oswald to deliver a letter to her new secret crush, Edmund.
- At the same time it turns out that Regan wants to marry Edmund, now that her own husband, Cornwall, is dead.
Back to Gloucester and Edgar…
- Gloucester thinks he’s leading him to a cliff, but Edgar has no intention of letting his father die.
- So instead, he’s convinced him that the flat plane they’re on is a very steep cliff
- Gloucester “falls” and Edgar then convinces him that he was miraculously saved.
- Gloucester regains his will live somehow, and all seems well.
- Then crazy King Lear enters!
- Lear rants for a while and is gone just crazy enough that he kind of makes sense.
- Then some people from the French army show up to take King Lear to Cordelia.
- But because he’s crazy, he runs off instead and the poor soldiers have to chase after him, leaving Edgar and Gloucester alone.
- Oh, and then Oswald shows up!
Remember him? (I don’t!)
- Oswald recognises Gloucester and tries to kill him.
- Unfortunately for Oswald, Edgar’s a surprisingly good fighter and Oswald gets killed instead
- Edgar reads the letters he was carrying and learns that Goneril was going to ask Edmund to kill Albany, so she’d be free to marry him.
Back at the British Army Camp…
- Regan and Goneril both flirt with Edmund.
- Edgar shows up, disguised as a peasant.
- Edgar goes to talk to Albany and gives him Goneril’s letter, telling Edmund to kill him.
- Then Edgar runs off!
- Edmund meanwhile, contemplates his wacky love triangle problem.
- The armies fight! The French lose, and Cordelia and Lear are captured by the British.
- Edmund secretly orders the guard to execute them both for no apparent reason.
- Regan and Goneril are still fighting over which one gets Edmund.
- But then PLOT TWIST!
- Albany accuses Edmund of treason and challenges him to trial by combat.
- At the same time Regan gets sick which as it turns out is because Goneril’s straight-up poisoned her!
(Wow… This is one messed-up family)
- A mysterious masked knight that conveniently arrives to answer the call for trial by combat.
- And it’s Edgar!
- The brothers fight and Edmund loses.
- Albany confronts Goneril with the letter calling for his death and Goneril runs off in shame, then kills herself off screen.
- Regan dies (poisoned)
- And by the way, Gloucester apparently died of joy when he figured out who Edgar was.
- Edmund tries to make amends by sending Edgar to halt the execution of Lear and Cordelia.
- But the death train has no brakes, and Edgar arrives too late.
- King Lear shows up carrying Cordelia, who is very very dead, then immediately drops dead from all the craziness.
- Oh, and Edmund dies too, I guess.
- The events of the play raise an obvious question for the chracters: is there a natural right and wrong, or is the world fundamentally indifferent to humans?
- The idea of natural justice is discussed by various characters:
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport,” (Gloucester, 4:1:37-38)
“The gods are just,” (Edgar, 5:3:169)
Authority and Chaos
- King Lear explores family dynamics, as well as political chaos
- As the king, Lear’s actions at the start of the play impact not only his own family, but all of Britain
- As a result, the chaos and cruelty experienced within the family are assumed to be present throughout the kingdom
- As Goneril and Regan indulge in their appetite for power, followed by Edmund, the kingdom experiences the detrimental impact of Lear’s decision, and the social hierarchy that Lear intially represents is destroyed
- The failure of authority in the face of chaos can also be seen during Lear’s wanderings on the heath during the storm
- Witnessing the powwer of nature, Lear realises that he is just as insignificant to the world as everyone else
- This realisation represents a major character shift, as he reprioritises his values, becoming humble and caring
- Lear hopes that his newfound self-understanding will enable him to confront the chaos he is experiencing in the political world