KING LEAR: Introduction

I thought I could help you at first by discussing the structure of King Lear, the manner in which Shakespeare designs the plot.


In a VERY brief plot summary, the play is about an elderly king of England, Lear, who decides to retire and to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughers. He proposes a “love challenge,” giving to the three daughters sections of the kingdom based upon how well each can tell him that they love him. Cordelia, who loves him most, cannot bring herself to be part of the game, and Lear, therefore, banishes her. The kingdom is thus divided between the two remaining daughters, Goneril and Regan. Quickly, both of these daughters use their father’s retirement as an opportunity to destroy him, and to take ALL power from his hands. By Act II, they drive Lear from both his kingdom and his home, which results in Lear’s divestiture of kingly power and his insanity. In the end, he reunites with the banished Cordelia, and they mount a failed effort to take back the kingdom, which results in their imprisonment. The enemy hangs Cordelia, which drives Lear to literally die from despair.


One of the greatest harm that classes on Shakespeare, particularly high school classes, do to the play, I believe, is to treat it as one that has a double plot, in which the King Lear plot is the major one, and the plot of Gloucester and his two sons is the minor plot, serving to mirror the themes of the major one. In fact, one of the challenging aspects of this play is that BOTH plots have equal significance. The original title page to the first publication of the play was, “The Tragedy of King Lear AND Edgar, son of the Duke of Gloucester.”

Edgar--pretending to be Tom o'Bedlam--seeing his maimed father for the first time.

At the same time as the plot of King Lear and his daughters runs the plot of the Duke of Gloucester (a friend and advisor to Lear) and his sons. Gloucester has two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Edgar is his “legitimate” son, and is thus the heir-apparent to his father’s title and land; but Edmund is a bastard, born out of wedlock. He is, therefore, “illigitimate,” and has no title or inheritence coming to him. Throughout the play, Edmund schemes behind everyone’s back to de-legitimize the good Edgar. Gloucester falls for Edmund’s scheming, and very early in the play (like Lear to Cordelia), he banishes Edgar from the kingdom upon the threat of death. The second plot follows Edgar’s journey in diguise as a madman, Tom o’Bedlam as he tries to make his way back into the kingdom and to set things right. By the end of the play, he triumphs in his various disguises, and become the king of England.

The double plot forms an axis of experience. The play is about a KING (King Lear) who learns to become a MAN, and a MAN (Edgar) who learns to become a KING.

The original title page to King Lear in Folio.


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