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Shakespeare's King Lear: A Summary of All Four Acts

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/20/2012

Many struggle with Shakespeare. Even those who don't struggle with Shakespeare, struggle with King Lear. That's why I created this summary. You're welcome.

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    Act I

    This summary of Act I provides enough background information to prevent you from looking stupid during your next class discussion.

    Scene 1: We learn the following: (1) King Lear is about to divide his kingdom; (2) Gloucester has a bastard son named Edmund, whom he loves; (3) Lear intends to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and spend his remaining days visiting his children; (3) Goneril and Regan use flattery to obtain their share of the kingdom; (4) Cordelia speaks the truth, that she loves Lear as well as a daughter should; (5) Lear disowns Cordelia and gives her share of the kingdom to the older sisters; (6) The Duke of Burgundy withdraws his marriage proposal to Cordelia; (7) The King of France, impressed by Cordelia's honesty, offers to marry her; (7) Goneril and Regan scheme to rid themselves of their father.

    Scene 2: The scene switches as act 2 begins with a soliloquy by Edmund on the unfairness of being a bastard. He concocts a scheme to remove Edgar, his half brother, from his inheritance. Edmund reads a letter expressing Edgar's desire to kill his father, Gloucester. It's a fake. Edmund then warns Edgar that Gloucester is angry and should be avoided.

    Scene 3: Lear spends the first part of his retirement at Goneril's castle. Goneril finds the king's presence a nuisance and orders her servants to treat the king and his knights rudely.

    Scene 4: Kent, previously a loyal servant to Lear who was fired for speaking up for Cordelia, appears at Goneril's castle in disguise. He is hired by the king. Goneril's servants treat Lear rudely. Kent trips Oswald. The fool arrives and insults Lear through puns and other humorous devices. Goneril arrives and informs Lear that his knights will have to go. Lear leaves in anger, incorrectly believing that Regan will be kinder.

    Scene 5: Lear sends Kent to Gloucester. Lear departs for Regan's as the fool ridicules him and suggests Regan's treatment will be no better.

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    Act II

    The plotting sisters 

    Scene 1: Cornwall and Edmund arrive at Gloucester's castle. They believe Edmund's lie about Edgar. Regan believes Lear's knights have put Edgar up to killing Gloucester.

    Scene 2: Kent, in disguise, attacks Oswald, Goneril's main servant, outside of Gloucester's castle. Kent is thrown in the stocks. Gloucester protests to no avail. Kent discovers that Cordelia, in France, is concocting a plan to help things in England.

    Scene 3:Edgar enters. Fearing detection and capture, he disguises himself as Poor Tom, a beggar wandering the countryside.

    Scene 4 - Lear arrives and is shocked to discover Kent, in disguise, in the stocks. He is outraged and wishes to speak with Regan and Cornwall regarding the poor treatment of his servant. The two refuse to speak with Lear, claiming illness. When Regan finally appears, Lear reports Goneril's rudeness. Regan defends Goneril and accuses Lear of being a doddering old fool and that he should apologize to Goneril. Regan refuses to give Lear shelter. Goneril arrives and the two demand that Lear give up half his knights if he wishes to stay. Goneril and Regan then refuse to allow him any servants. Lear curses his daughters and wanders outside where a storm is brewing. The two daughters ignore Gloucester's plea to let Lear back in. The daughters bar all entrance to the castle.

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    Quick Analysis of Acts 1 and 2

    Lear banishes Cordelia 

    It's difficult to tell exactly what kind of king and father Lear was before the play begins. There's evidence that he had an ill temper and perhaps let the stresses of the job get to him as shown by his wanting to abdicate the throne and his frequent bouts of anger. Regan and Goneril plot immediately to rid the old man of his power, indicating that their relationship with their father was obviously strained but the old man had no idea.

    Lear demonstrates poor judgment throughout. He willingly gives up a responsibility and duty that wasn't his to relinquish. He also disowns the only daughter worthy of governing and his most trusted servant. Cordelia's honesty makes her a bad politician and is no match for her sisters' cunning and her father's foolishness.

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    Act III, Scenes 1-3

    Impress your friends and neighbors with your knowledge of King Lear. Plot your next 'A' with this quick review.

    Scene 1: The storm rages. Kent seeks Lear and finds one of his knights. The knight informs Kent that Lear is near. Kent, still in disguise, gives the knight a message to take to Cordelia. He give the knight his ring to prove to Cordelia who has sent it.

    Scene 2: Lear and the fool wander in the storm. The irrational King discusses many topics, always returning to the wickedness of his two daughters. Kent finds them and the three find a crude shelter for the evening.

    Scene 3: Gloucester informs Edmund that he fears for King Lear's safety but when he offers to rescue him, Regan and Cornwall forbid it and took over the castle. Gloucester informs Edmund that he has heard news of conflict between Albany and Cornwall and that he must align himself with Lear. He asks Edmund to distract Regan and Cornwall while he searches for the King. Edmund betrays Gloucester immediately, hoping to receive all of Gloucester's possessions after hi treachery is discovered.

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    Scenes 4-7

    Scene 4: Lear refuses to enter the hovel, being too distracted by anguish to let the storm affect him. He laments that he did not do more to help the poor and homeless as king. The fool enters and then runs out immediately, claiming there is a spirit. The spirit is Edgar disguised as Poor Tom. Poor Tom claims he's being chased by the devil. An increasingly insane Lear inquires whether Tom's daughters have driven him to his current state. Lear tears off his clothes out of sympathy for the unclothed Edgar. Gloucester enters the hovel and convinces Lear to return with him to the castle. Lear insists on bringing the disguised Edgar with him.

    Scene 5: Edmund betrays Gloucester and shows Cornwall a letter demonstrating Gloucester's treason. Cornwall vows revenge and Edmund is made Earl of Gloucester.

    Scene 6: Gloucester, Lear, Kent, and the Fool take shelter as Gloucester searches for food. He overhears a plot to kill the king. Gloucester tells Kent to take Lear to Dover.

    Scene 7: Cornwall sends his servant to arrest Gloucester. He sends Goneril with a note to the Duke of Albany. He sends Edmund so he won't have to witness the grisly execution of his father. Gloucester is captured. Cornwall removes Gloucester's eye and stomps on it as Regan calls for his other eye to be removed. Gloucester's servant steps in and wounds Cornwall. Regan kills the servant. An enraged Cornwall removes the other eye. Gloucester calls for Edmund's help. Regan informs Gloucester that it is Edmund who has betrayed him. Gloucester is ordered to smell his way to Dover.

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    Act IV

    Scene 1: Edgar, in disguise, sees his blinded father being led by a servant. Gloucester yearns to be with his son, Edgar. Edgar does not reveal himself. Gloucester requests to be led to the cliffs at Dover.

    Scene 2: Edmund and Goneril arrive outside of Goneril's palace. Goneril discovers that her husband, the Duke of Albany, is displeased with his wife's actions. Goneril sends a message to Cornwall to raise more troops in their battle against the French. She kisses Edmund. Albany expresses his displeasure with Goneril (and he doesn't even know about the kissing incident). Cornwall dies from his stab wound. Goneril fears that Regan will pursue Edmund now that her husband is dead. Albany vows revenge on Edmund for betraying his father.

    Scene 3: Kent, in disguise, arrives at Dover. Cordelia, the Queen of France, is in charge of the army. Kent learns of Cordelia's extreme disappointment over the treatment of her father. Lear has arrived in Dover but is ashamed of his treatment of Cordelia and does not seek her. The armies of Cornwall and Albany are on the march.

    Scene 4: Cordelia orders 100 soldiers to find her father, who happens to be hiding in the weeds singing madly. The armies of Cornwall and Albany approach. Cordelia readies her troops for battle.

    Scene 5: At Gloucester's castle, Regan suspects Goneril's adultery with Edmund and proclaims that she will have Edmund. She offers a reward to Oswald if he can find and kill Gloucester.

    Scene 6: Edgar, in disguise, leads Gloucester, telling him they have arrived at the Cliffs of Dover. Gloucester prays for forgiveness and intends to kill himself. He falls to the ground. Edgar, now a gentleman, wakes Gloucester up and informs him that he survived his fall from the cliffs and that the gods desire him to live. Lear, wandering madly, recognizes Gloucester and forgives him for his adultery. He speaks nonsensically. Cordelia's men arrive. Lear runs away. They chase him. Oswald arrives and attempts to kill Gloucester. Edgar kills Oswald. Oswald gives Edgar letters. The letter contains Goneril's encouragement for Edgar to kill Albany so the two can be together.

    Scene 7: Cordelia speaks with Kent in the French camp. Lear is brought in. He barely recognizes Cordelia. Cordelia forgives her father. Edmund is now leading Cornwall's troops.

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    Act V

    Lear and the Fool 

    Scene 1: Jealous Regan quizzes Edmund about Goneril. Goneril and Albany enter with troops. Albany vows to fight alongside Edmund's troops to repel the foreign invasion. Goneril and Regan fight over Edmund. Edgar approaches Albany and gives him the letter outlining the plot against Albany's life. Edmund returns. Everyone leaves. Edmund informs the audience that he has sworn his love to both Regan and Goneril. He will let the situation resolve itself. He vows no mercy to Lear or Cordelia.

    Scene 2: Edgar, in disguise leads Gloucester to a tree to rest. Edgar fights on the side of the French. Edgar returns and informs Gloucester that Lear and Cordelia have been captured. He leads Gloucester away.

    Scene 3: Edmund leads in Lear and Cordelia. He orders a captain to take them away. Albany enters and rebukes Edmund for sending Lear and Cordelia away. Regan claims that she is to marry Edmund. Goneril objects. An argument ensues. Regan feels sick. Albany intervenes, arrests Edmund, and challenges him to a duel. Edgar appears and accuses Edmund of treason. Edgar wounds Edmund. Goneril runs away. Edgar reveals his identity and informs the others that his father is dead. Goneril poisons Regan and commits suicide. Kent enters to ask the whereabouts of Lear and Cordelia. Edmund informs them that they have been sent away to be hanged. Lear enters carrying Cordelia's body. A messenger reports that Edmund has died. Lear dies over Cordelia's body. Albany restores Kent and Edgar to their rightful position. Kent refuses and Edgar accepts. They all live happily ever after.

King Lear Study Guide

Don't be blinded by stupidity on your nest test. Read this study guide an inherit the kingdom of A students.
  1. Shakespeare's King Lear: A Summary of All Four Acts
  2. Important Quotes From Shakespeare's King Lear
  3. Major Themes in King Lear
  4. King Lear Character Analysis
  5. Imagery in Shakespeare's King Lear