King Lear is the aging king of Great Britain who foolishly decides to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. The two oldest flatter the king, and the youngest, who loves the King most, tells the truth. As a consequence, the youngest is disowned and her inheritance is given to the other two. Regan and Goneril immediately plot to remove all of Lear’s power.
We can surmise the following about the King: (1) He has a temper and he loses it several times throughout the play; (2) He loves flattery and expects his daughters to flatter him in order to receive their share of the kingdom; it’s Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him that causes his anger; (3) He is used to having things his way; what other reason would there be for the King to expect to give up all his power and still expect to have all his power?
Despite these negative character traits, flaws that lead to his tragic fall, Lear also creates fierce loyalty in those around him: (1) Kent, whom Lear banishes, follows Lear throughout England in disguise in order to serve him; (2) Gloucester risks his life by seeking the king during the raging storm; (3) Cordelia forgives her father despite his harsh treatment of her. Why?
It’s possible that Lear suffers from mental illness even before the ill treatment by his two older daughters, mental illness that comes to the forefront as the play continues.
Lear’s Family and Associates
Cordelia – Although she appears very little during the play, Cordelia plays an important role. Her refusal to lie to her father leads to her banishment and the ensuing tragedy. Despite her virtue, one could argue that Cordelia’s refusal to flatter the king does a great amount of harm. Would not the ends have justified the means, especially when considering the apparent mental illness of her father?
Goneril – Goneril, the wife of Albany and oldest daughter of Lear, flatters the king, seeks an adulterous affair with Edmund, and wrests control of her husband’s army. Goneril plots for power immediately after Lear grants her half the kingdom.
Regan – Regan, the wife of Cornwall and middle daughter of Lear, isn’t much better than her older sister. Her calling for the removal of Gloucester’s other eye as he’s being tortured sums up
Kent – Kent defends Cordelia and is henceforth banished from the King’s presence. He remains loyal, however, and, in disguise, follows the king and serves him. The fact that the king does not recognize Kent in disguise lends credence to the insanity theory. Despite his willingness to serve and help the king, Kent displays many of the traits that lead to Lear’s downfall, including anger and hot headedness.
The Fool – The role of the fool in King Lear includes the following: (1) The fool adds humor to an otherwise depressing drama; (2) The fool provides sage advice in the form of puns and double meanings, often insulting the king.
Other Major Characters
Gloucester – The first thing we learn about Gloucester is that he has a bastard son and is an adulterer. He displays many of the weaknesses of Lear insomuch that he grossly misjudges the intent of his children, trusting Edmund and banishing Edgar. Despite his obvious weakness, Gloucester acts bravely in his efforts to save the king, an act which leads to his blindness.
Edgar – Gloucester’s legitimate son whom Gloucester suspects is trying to kill him. Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom after being evicted from his house. He eventually avenges his brother’s treason.
Edmund – Edmund feels slighted on account of his bastard status. He wreaks havoc and destruction through his many devious plots, which include framing his brother and declaring his love to both Goneril and Regan.
Albany – Goneril’s husband realizes too late the treachery of his wife and sister-in-law.
Cornwall – Cornwall works with his wife and sister-in-law to remove King Lear’s power. He is fatally stabbed by one of Gloucester’s servants after he pokes out Gloucester’s eye and stamps on it.
Osgood – Goneril’s chief servant who assists his mistress in carrying out her devious schemes.
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This post is part of the series: King Lear Study Guide
- Shakespeare's King Lear: A Summary of All Four Acts
- Important Quotes From Shakespeare's King Lear
- Major Themes in King Lear
- King Lear Character Analysis
- Imagery in Shakespeare's King Lear