Intro: Although this play begins like the old fairy tale of someone who must pass a test, solve a puzzle or answer a question, to win reward such as a fair lady or a kingdom, before it is over its actions will pose fundamental human questions such as: "What does it really mean to be human? What are we really like as human beings, what kinds of good and evil are we really capable of?"

Act I

Scene 1: The Earls of Gloucester and Kent, two nobles in the court of King Lear, speculate about which of his son-in-laws, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, the aged King seems to favor in his plans to resign his kingship and divide his lands among his three daughters, Goneril, the wife of Albany; Regan, wife of Cornwall; and Cordelia, the king's favorite daughter, whose hand in marriage is sought by two people, the King of France, and the Duke of Burgundy. Bragging about the "good sport at his making," Gloucester introduces Kent to his younger son Edmund, who was born out of wedlock. Edmund graciously meets Kent.

Old King Lear enters, accompanied by his three daughters and two son-in-laws. Announcing that he has decided to divide his kingdom into three parts, Lear promises to give the largest share of his kingdom to the daughter who will profess that she loves him the most. Goneril professes her love in flattering terms and receives her portion of the land; then Regan, trying to outdo her sister, does the same and receives her portion. When Lear turns to Cordelia, his youngest and favorite daughter, asking "What can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters?" her response is, "Nothing, my lord. When Lear responds that "nothing will come of nothing," she argues that she honors Lear as her father but says that whomever she weds will have to receive half of her love.

The old King angrily disowns his daughter, even over the protests of the faithful Earl of Kent, who chides Lear for his blindness and is exiled for his bluntness. Then, sending for his daughter's two suitors, Lear informs them of his decision to cut Cordelia off without any dowery; the Duke of Burgundy withdraws himself from the suit, while the King of France accepts Cordelia's hand in spite of her circumstances. Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia sarcastically bid each other goodbye, and Regan and Goneril agree to talk further about how they can cooperate in managing their stubborn old father.

How must Edmund be feeling as he stands and listens to his father brag about his bastard conception?

Why might the love test in actuality be just a game rather than a serious attempt to see which daughter really loves King Lear the most?

How are Goneril and Regan characterized in this scene?

Do you think that Cordelia's refusal to unduly flatter her father is cruel and insensitive or a necessary bluntness, betokening love for the old man?

When Cordelia parts from her two sisters, what does she mean when she says, "I know what you are"?

What do Goneril and Regan mean when they comment at the end of this scene that their father is a person who "hath ever but slenderly known himself?

Two important motifs (little themes), "nothing" and "sight/blindness," are introduced in this scene; watch their development as you read the rest of the play.

Scene 2: At the Earl of Gloucester's castle, Edmund, his bastard son, confides to us in a soliloquy that he, dedicated as he is to natural law rather than custom, plans to dishonor his older brother Edgar and inherit the lands that he (Edmund) deserves. When the Earl of Gloucester enters, Edmund pretends to be hiding a letter from his brother, a letter that he has counterfeited; demanding to see the letter, Gloucester reads it, and immediately assumes from its contents that his son Edgar is conspiring to kill him in order to inherit. Edmund promises his father that he will spy on his brother to discover more about his plans. When Gloucester leaves, Edmund makes fun of his father, who blames his misfortune on the stars rather than accepting responsibility for his own fate. Then when Edgar enters, Edmund informs him that their father is raging against him, but promises to help reconcile the two. As Edgar leaves, Edmund gloats over the success of his plans.

How does this scene, involving once again parents and their children, parallel the first one in is central action?

Edmund and his father Gloucester hold two opposite views of nature; Gloucester believes that there is a natural order to everything, while his son Edmund believes more skeptically that there is no natural order; everyone should do as he pleases and get what he can; which view do you agree with?

Scene 3: Several months have now passed. King Lear has spent this time staying with Goneril, but she is growing tired of the way that her father is taking advantage of her hospitality. She instructs her servant Oswald to so ignore her father and his retainers that the whole issue of Lear's staying a month with each daughter can be brought to a head.

What exactly does Goneril mean when she accuses her father of being an "idle old man/ That still would manage those authorities/ That he hath given away"?

Is Goneril's impatience with the actions of her father justified?

Scene 4: Disguised as a poor serving man, Kent joins Lear's service. When Oswald fails to show respect for Lear, Kent trips him up and pushes him out. Lear's fool proceeds to use riddles, songs, and puns to remind his master of how he made the wrong choice when he exiled the loyal Cordelia and settled his lands on his two lying and spiteful daughters. Goneril and Lear argue about how many retainers Lear should be allowed to keep in her house; in spite of her husband Albany's attempts to intercede, Lear angrily leaves to stay with his other daughter, Regan, who is staying at the Earl of Gloucester's castle.

Why does Kent return in disguise to be with the King?

How does Oswald, Goneril's servant, follow her instructions to neglectful in serving the King?

What are at least three of the hints the Fool gives to Lear that he has foolishly rewarded his ungrateful daughters and exiled the daughter who truly loves him?

Scene 5: Lear sends Kent ahead with letters to acquaint his daughter of his impending arrival. The fool continues to remind the old King of how stupid he was to honor the disloyal daughters and exile the loyal, loving one.

Act II

Scene 1: Curan, one of his father's servants, informs Edmund of the rumors of growing tension between the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany. When Edgar enters, Edmund advises him to flee, saying that he will pretend to have fought with Edgar in order to fool their father. Gloucester is taken-in completely, and promises to leave his lands to Edmund. Cornwall and Regan, both of whom profess to having suspected Edgar of consorting with Lear's wild retainers, are friendly to Edmund.

Is Gloucester too quickly taken in by his son's Edmund's tricks? Is he too quick to agree to shift the inheritance from Edgar to Edmund?

Scene 2: Kent and Oswald, Goneril's impertinent servant, meet on the heath, and Kent starts a fight with Oswald because of the latter's insults to King Lear a few days earlier. Regan and Cornwall break up the fight, and not liking Kent's plain-spoken ways, and Cornwall has him placed in the stocks. Kent sits alone in the stocks, waiting for morning to come.

How are Regan and Cornwall, particularly Cornwall, portrayed in this scene?

Why would they be so quick to throw into the stocks Kent, knowing that it would be highly insulting to do this to the King's servant?

As Kent sits by himself in the stocks in the early morning, he muses to himself that "Nothing almost sees miracles,/ But misery." What does he mean?

Scene 3: Meanwhile, Edgar decides to disguise himself as a poor crazy beggar in order to elude his pursuers by stripping his clothes off, begriming his body, and scarring himself.

Edgar's disguise as a wandering beggar is one of the few examples of explicit social criticism in Shakespeare, since it reminds us of the scores of beggars and insane people who wandered the English countryside, shunned and uncared for;

How does Edmund's "actualize" the motif of "nothing" in the play?

Scene 4: Lear is angered that his servant Kent has been put in the stocks and that his daughter Regan and son-in-law Cornwall are ignoring his presence. Regan finally appears and implores her father to be more patient and temperate in his demands; Goneril then appears and the two daughters gradually suggest that the old king be stripped of all his knights. Almost crazed in his outrage, Lear wanders out into the storm; Regan and Cornwall close the castle gates, leaving Lear to his sufferings.

Throughout this scene, Lear seems to become more and more angry, almost losing control of himself; is the old King going crazy; if so, why?

When they attempt to convince their father to give up all his knights, are Regan and Goneril being reasonable?

What does Lear mean when he responds to Goneril's question of why he needs even five knights by saying:

O! reason not the need; our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous:

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man's life as cheap as beast's.

What do you think of how Regan and Cornwall treat King Lear at the end of this scene?


Scene 1: Kent and one of Lear's knights (Gentleman) talk; the Gentleman tells Kent of Lear's sufferings in the storm. Kent apprises the gentleman of the growing division between the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall and of the fact that a French force has come in response to these conditions. Kent sends the gentleman to meet the French and tell them of Lear's unnatural treatment.

How does the gentleman in this scene describe the effects of the storm on the old King?

Scene 2: Lear rages at the storm, seeming to confuse the very cruelty of the elements with that of his daughters. Lear allows Kent to take him to a shelter, making sure that his fool comes along.

In what way does the storm that Lear is exposed to mirror his own inward emotions?

King Lear's exposure to the storm marks the beginning of his transformation from a self-centered, blind old man, who only attended to his own wishes and sufferings, to someone who begins to be aware of how others feel and suffer;

What indication do you have of a beginning of a change in the King in lines where he refers to the people who escape justice (51-58?

What does Lear say to his fool immediately after this that may indicate some awareness of the sufferings of others?

Scene 3: Trusting his son Edmund, Gloucester makes the mistake of telling him about the tension between Albany and Cornwall and of the landing of the French forces. Edmund immediately resolves to warn the Duke of Cornwall.

Scene 4: Kent tries to get Lear to take shelter from the storm, but the old king refuses, sending his fool inside instead. Lear encounters Edgar disguised as a madman, and reminded of his own lowly circumstances, begins to tear off his own clothes. Gloucester comes with the news that Lear's "seek his death," and he helps Lear into the shelter.

What does Lear's admonition to the Fool to "get thee in" and his lines about the "poor naked wretches" (28) indicate about his transformation?

How does Edgar's own condition mirror Lear"s? What does the fact that Lear tears off all his clothes signify?

Scene 5: Hearing from Edmund that Gloucester is supporting King Lear against him, Cornwall resolves to take revenge on Gloucester.

Scene 6: In the hovel where Lear has gone (now identified as a farmhouse near the castle), Lear becomes so deranged that he thinks that he is trying his daughters for their infidelity. Edgar sympathizes with the old man.

In this scene, King Lear, appointing Edgar and the Fool as judges, puts his daughters on trial; has the old King gone entirely insane?

As Edgar watches the old King being taken away, he says, "He childed as I father'd!" What does he mean?

Scene 7: In order to punish Gloucester for his loyalty to the king, Cornwall and Regan pluck out his eyes. One of their servants is so horrified that he stabs Cornwall, who dies.

How might it be said that we have arrived at the dark center of this play in the previous scene and in this one?

What does the horror of Gloucester's blinding indicate about man's nature; why is it ironic that Gloucester's is blinded?

Act IV

Scene 1: Meeting his now blind father being led by an old man, Edgar, pretending to speak like a beggar man, takes over, and following Gloucester's wishes, begins to lead him to the cliffs of Dover.

What does Gloucester mean when he says in this scene: " I stumbled when I saw"?

What does Edgar mean when he says: "The world is not/ So long as we can say "This is the worst'"?

What does Gloucester mean when he says: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' Gods; / They kill us for their sport." In your opinion, is this true?

Scene 2: Having become convinced that her husband is a "milk-livered man," Goneril offers herself to Edmund. Albany excoriates her for being such an unfaithful daughter. A messenger enters with the news that Cornwall has been killed in the scuffle with his servant; Goneril worries that now that she is a widow, Regan will steal Edmund from her.

What horrifies Albany about the actions of his wife?

Scene 3: Because the King of France has had to return to his country temporarily, Cordelia heads the French forces. When she learned of her father's condition, says the Gentleman who took her the message from Kent, she was moved to tears.

Scene 4: Cordelia has found her father decked out in weeds and flowers, "as mad as the vexed sea." Her doctor promises that the old king's health can be restored.

Scene 5: Talking with Goneril's servant Oswald, Regan reveals that she and Edmund have exchanged vows of affection.

Scene 6: Taking his father to the supposed cliffs of Dover, Edgar watches as the old man tries to commit suicide; when Gloucester awakens on the ground, Edgar pretends that he has been saved by a miracle. Dressed in wildflowers, Lear enters, complaining of all the evil that exists in the world. He and Gloucester, who both realize what blind old men they have been, commiserate with each other. Lear runs off, chased by Cordelia's soldiers. Oswald enters, tries to kill Gloucester, but is attacked by Edgar and killed. Edgar finds the letter Oswald was taking from Goneril to Edmund, which plotted against her husband Albany's life.

How does what happens to Gloucester at the Cliffs of Dover actualize the motif of "nothing" in this play?

Even though his father looks foolish lying on the ground, Edgar says, "Thy life's a miracle." What does he mean?

Why would Shakespeare go to the trouble of describing in a stage direction that King Lear enters, "Fantiastically dressed with wild flowers." What might such attire signify about what has happened to Lear?

As Lear and Gloucester talk together, Lear says that his hand "smells of mortality," while Gloucester says, "I see it feelingly." What do they mean by these statements?

Scene 7: Lear awakens in the presence of his daughter, and, cured of his madness, admits that he has been "a very foolish fond old man."

What does Lear mean when he says, on awakening in the presence of his daughter, "I am a very foolish fond old man"?

Act V

Scene 1: Goneril and Regan struggle with each other for Edmund's affections; disguised, Edgar offers his future services to Albany, who, with Edmund, heads the English troops.

Scene 2: The English and French forces fight, and King Lear and Cordelia are captured.

In the midst of the battle, in which Cordelia's forces are losing, Edgar says: "Men must endure/ Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/ Ripeness is all." What does Edgar mean and how might this statement serve as the philosophy or theme of this play?

Scene 3: Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned by Edmund, who instructs his captain to kill them. Albany arrests Edmund, charging him with treason; Regan dies, poisoned by Goneril. In disguise, Edgar challenges Edmund and kills him in the ensuing fight; Edmund confesses his misdeeds, but too late to save Cordelia. We learn that Gloucester is dead and that Cordelia has been killed before she can be saved. Entering with his daughter's body in his arms, King Lear dies as he looks upon her face.

Just before he dies, King Lear tells those gathered to "look on her, look, her lips": Does this mean that he dies in exultation, thinking that his daughter breathing? If so, is he still a blind, gullible man?