King Lear: Everything You Need to Know in 5 Minutes

A side profile of Robert Menzies can be seen


We’ve done the research, so you can bluff your way through. Here’s a quickfire guide to the wild, wicked world of King Lear. Compiled by Andy McLean.

Speed Read

The story of King Lear in five simple steps

1. Splitting a kingdom (and a family): Retiring as ruler of Britain, King Lear splits his kingdom between his two elder daughters Goneril and Regan after they flatter him – but he disowns his youngest (and favourite) daughter Cordelia after she refuses to fawn over him. Banished from Britain, Cordelia weds the King of France.

2. Daddy issues: Lear and his entourage intend to live in the homes of Goneril and Regan but the two daughters have other ideas. After a vicious argument, Lear is left to fend for himself outdoors amidst a wild storm with only his loyal Fool for company. From here, Lear’s descent is rapid: he loses his temper, his way, and his mind.

3. Oh brother: Meanwhile, another family feud is brewing in the Earl of Gloucester’s household. His illegitimate son Edmund tricks the Earl into thinking his legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. In fear for his own life, Edgar flees and disguises himself as a lunatic beggar called Poor Tom.

4. Eye of the storm: When the Earl of Gloucester tries to help Lear; Goneril and Regan accuse Gloucester of treason, have his eyes plucked out, and cast him out into the storm. Gloucester soon staggers into the path of his son Edgar (still pretending to be Poor Tom), as well as Lear and Lear’s Fool.

5. The bitter end: The French army invades Britain, finds a humbled Lear, and reconciles him with Cordelia. Goneril and Regan compete for the affections of Edmund until Goneril’s jealousy gets the better of her – she fatally poisons her sister, then takes her own life. Edgar kills Edmund, but not before Edmund reveals Cordelia has been captured and executed. Lear dies of a broken heart.

Families, friends and foes

Meet the characters in the play

King Lear Long-time ruler of Britain. Royal family patriarch. Has cooked up a half-baked plan to relinquish power and hand over to the next generation. Also: indulged, impulsive, and irritable.

Cordelia Lear’s youngest daughter is devoted to him but refuses to pander to his whims. Cordelia tells it like is.

Goneril Lear’s eldest daughter is sycophantic to his face but disparaging behind his back. She lusts for power and for Edmund (see below) – and she’ll go to any lengths to get what she wants.

Regan Lear’s second daughter shares all her sister’s worst traits and secret lusts – putting the two of them on an inevitable collision course.

Duke of Albany Goneril’s husband is a man of conscience who gradually summons the courage to stand up to her. Blissfully unaware of his wife’s desire for Edmund.

Duke of Cornwall Regan’s husband is domineering, ambitious and cruel (and those are his best qualities). He also has a vindictive streak. He, too, is blissfully unaware of his wife’s desire for Edmund.

Oswald Right-hand man to Goneril. Lies, deception, violence – it’s all in a day’s work for Oswald.

Earl of Kent Lear’s trusted supporter, Kent is brave, outspoken, and loyal. Even after he is banished, Kent disguises himself as a peasant named Caius to protect Lear from his enemies.

Earl of Gloucester Gloucester is a steadfast supporter of King Lear and loving father of adult sons Edgar and Edmund. Quietly courageous but easily led astray.

Edgar The legitimate son of Gloucester, Edgar is principled and devoted to his father. For most of the play, he disguises himself as a vagabond named Poor Tom.

Edmund The conniving bastard son of Gloucester revels in anarchy. Routinely ingratiates himself to others then betrays them. Gleefully plays his father off against his brother; and plays Goneril off against Regan – all with dreadful consequences.

Fool Lear’s licensed “fool” is whip-smart, unswervingly loyal, and unafraid of speaking truth to power.

Big picture, tiny details

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most radical plays and is revered for its exploration of human nature on many levels.

On the one hand, this epic story poses the biggest questions humans can ask: Is there a God? If so, is that God merciful or malicious? How fragile is the line between social order and chaos? What happens when ageing autocrats lose their grip on power? What are the consequences when leaders abuse their authority by rewarding flatterers and punishing dissenters? From religion to politics to the meaning of life, Shakespeare wrestles with all these issues and more.

On the other hand, King Lear explores the minutiae of family relationships in all their messy glory. The families in this play are riddled with contradictions – from affection and alliances to psychological cruelty and succession disputes. Family members seek to compare love through words (e.g. Goneril and Regan’s public displays of affection) or quantify love through numbers (e.g. the number of knights the daughters permit their father to have).

Despite their lofty status, the families in this play are driven by animalistic urges like jealousy, lust, and greed. As Albany puts it:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.

Gradually, Lear discovers that his own genes are beyond his control. He is undermined by his ageing body and mind, as well as by his offspring. Nature humbles Lear and makes him realise his flaws and frailties.

Quote, Unquote

King Lear is a goldmine of sparkling lines. Here are three famous quotes and some reflections from actors who have uttered them:

Go thrust him out at gates and let him smell
His way to Dover

Judy Dench (in her book Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent): “There’s no end to [Regan’s] vindictiveness. She says and does some appalling things – asks for Gloucester to be hanged, yanks him by the beard, urges her husband to pluck out his other eye – she really sticks the boot in. But her behaviour is the consequence of her life up until now … there’s a whole host of antagonisms and tensions.”

O, I have taken too little care of this.

John Bell (in his book On Shakespeare): “[Lear’s] pain finds relief in the violence of the storm – he exults in it and starts to come to his senses. He suddenly realises that the hungry and homeless are constantly exposed to these forces of nature.”

Lear: Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Fool: Lear’s shadow.

Oliver Ford Davies (in his book Shakespeare’s Fathers and Daughters): “The key to Lear, in the first two acts at least, seems to me his lack of self-knowledge… This lack of self-awareness makes him in a sense unknowable, which for actors is both perplexing and liberating, giving rise to a huge spectrum of interpretation… is he now a shadow of his former self? Lear’s journey, baffled and blind about himself as he is, is to come to terms with this.”

Five fast facts

1. Acting royalty: The role of King Lear is highly prized among actors. Overseas, Lears have included Anthony Hopkins, Brian Cox and Glenda Jackson. In Australia, Lears have included Evelyn Krape, Tom E Lewis and John Bell (in fact, Bell performed the role in three separate productions down the years).

2. Back to the future: In 1984, a young actor named Robert Menzies starred as Edgar in a Nimrod Theatre production of King Lear. Forty years later, in Bell Shakespeare’s 2024 production, Robert returns to the play, this time in the title role.

3. Happily ever after? Shakespeare borrowed the King Lear story from a history book and a pre-existing play, but he cleverly twisted the plot in many places. The anguish at the end of Shakespeare’s version was so confronting that it was rewritten by Nahum Tate in 1681 and that adaptation – with a happy ending – held stage for 170 years. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Shakespeare’s version became popular again.

4. King Leer: It wasn’t the ending, but the leery language that saw King Lear revised by Thomas Bowdler. In 1815, critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge also complained the play was too crude: “Shakespeare’s words are too indecent to be translated… his gentlefolk’s talk is full of coarse allusions such as nowadays you could hear only in the meanest taverns.” So, for a while there, a G-rated version took hold.

5. British is best? Notably, this play is about Britain, not England. While Elizabeth II was Queen of England, the word “England” appeared 224 times in Shakespeare’s plays. The word “Britain” didn’t appear in any of his scripts until the Scottish King James I took the English throne in 1603. By the time Shakespeare completed King Lear in 1606, the Union Jack flag was flown for the first time and James was campaigning hard to unite the British Isles.

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