King Lear

Key Characters


O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!

Act 1, Scene 5

King Lear is the King of Britain, and more than eighty years old (“Fourscore and upward”, Act 4, Scene 7). He decides to surrender his power to his daughters so that he can enjoy the final years of his life. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to flatter him with a declaration of love, Lear becomes enraged and disowns her, giving her share of the inheritance to her sisters, Goneril and Regan. The Duke of Kent condemns Lear’s behaviour, saying it is “hideous rashness” and calling Lear “mad” (Act 1 Scene 1). However, Lear, far from backing down, banishes Kent for his interference. Goneril and Regan privately express their concern at Lear’s erratic behaviour. Goneril says he is “full of changes” (Act 1 Scene 1) and Regan says “’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (Act 1, Scene 1). Their conversation suggests that Lear has always lacked self-awareness, but that his unpredictability and mood swings are worsening with age.

When Lear goes to stay with Goneril, her steward reports that Lear has struck one of her servants. Goneril complains of her father’s behaviour, saying, “Every hour / He flashes into one gross crime or other / That sets us all at odds” (Act 1 Scene 3). Goneril accuses Lear and his attendant knights of being debauched and disordered, while Lear calls Goneril “a thankless child” (Act 1 Scene 4) and begins to weep at her treatment of him. In this scene, the audience is left to decide whether Goneril is exaggerating, or whether Lear’s behaviour is in fact aggressive and unruly.

When Lear arrives to see Regan and is treated with a similar dismissiveness by her, he descends into a grief-fuelled madness and runs away into a storm. Lear’s dialogue throughout the rest of the play becomes increasingly incoherent and disjointed. When he meets Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, Lear starts to remove his own clothing in an imitation of Edgar’s nakedness. Later, he enters, “As mad as the vexed sea” (Act 4 Scene 4), wearing a crown of weeds and wildflowers.

Lear’s faculties are restored to him when he is finally reunited with his daughter Cordelia. Lear asks for her forgiveness and expresses joy at their reunion. He dies holding the body of Cordelia in his arms.


Old fools are babes again and must be used / With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abused.

Act 1, Scene 3

Goneril is Lear’s eldest daughter and the wife of the Duke of Albany. At the beginning of the play, she professes a deep love for Lear, saying; “I love you more than words can yield the matter.” (Act 1, Scene 1). After receiving half her father’s kingdom, she and Regan discuss their fear that Lear’s emotional instability could have a detrimental effect on them. Goneril ends the scene with the foreboding line “we must do something, and i’the heat.” (Act 1, Scene 1). When Lear and his men arrive at her home, she tells her steward to treat them poorly, and commands Lear to reduce the number of his attendants. When Lear departs in a rage to visit Regan, Goneril writes to her sister, asking for support, “I’ll write straight to my sister / To hold the very course.” (Act 1, Scene 3), before leaving to see Regan herself. When she arrives, she and Regan present a united front, holding hands and demanding that Lear both apologise and dismiss half his knights. When Lear runs, grief-stricken, into the storm, Goneril refuses to go after him, saying instead, “My lord, entreat him by no means to stay” (Act 2, Scene 2).

Goneril has an adulterous relationship with Edmund and conspires with him to kill her husband. Her capacity for cruelty becomes clear when she tells Cornwall to “Pluck out [Gloucester’s] his eyes” (Act 3, Scene 7). Goneril vies with her sister for the affections of Edmund, and in the final scene she secretly poisons her sister Regan, causing her death. When her relationship with Edmund is exposed by Edgar’s reading of her intercepted letter, she flees the stage and commits suicide.

Goneril is often seen as one of the main antagonists of the play. In the early scenes, she begins by professing love for her father, and in her early interactions with him, her behaviour and requests can be read as (at least partly) reasonable. However, as the play progresses, she becomes more openly manipulative and cruel; she is the first to suggest that Cornwall pluck out Gloucester’s eyes, and she asks Edmund in a letter to kill her husband Albany so that they can be married. The murder of her sister Regan is her final act before she herself commits suicide.

As with Regan, there is room for debate over the causes of Goneril’s violent and cruel behaviours. The audience is given little insight into Lear’s character and actions prior to the events of the play, and we are left to make up our own minds as to why the two sisters treat him with such hostility. Are they simply scheming and power-hungry villains; are their behaviours a response to past mistreatment; or is it a complex mix of both?


He hath ever but slenderly known himself.

Act 1, Scene 1

Regan is Lear's second daughter and wife to the Duke of Cornwall. When asked to profess her love for Lear she tells him that her love is as extreme as Goneril’s, only Goneril “comes too short: that I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys.” (Act 1, Scene 1). Like Goneril, Regan’s affectionate behaviour quickly dissipates, and she eventually treats her father with open hostility. When Lear arrives to visit her, complaining of Goneril’s treatment of him and seeking a more welcoming refuge, Regan at first refuses to see him. At his insistence, she enters and tells him to return to Goneril and apologise to her. When Lear runs from Gloucester’s home, Regan refuses to go after him, instead telling Gloucester to “Shut up your doors” (Act 2, Scene 2).

Regan participates in her husband Cornwall’s violent questioning of Gloucester in Act 3, Scene 7. She plucks at Gloucester’s beard, encourages the servants to bind him “hard” (Act 3, Scene 7), and kills a servant who tries to intervene.

Regan expresses a desire to marry Edmund after her husband Cornwall dies. She is jealous of her sister, whom she suspects of having an affair with Edmund. In the final scene, she and Goneril vie openly for his affections. Soon after, Regan is led offstage, having begun to feel unwell. A servant returns and reports that she has died after having been poisoned by her sister Goneril.

Regan, along with Goneril, is often seen as one of the main antagonists of the play. She undermines her initial expressions of love for her father by refusing to allow him to stay with her, and by showing indifference and coldness in the face of his grief.

As with Goneril, there is room for debate over the causes of Regan’s violent and cruel behaviours. The audience is given little insight into Lear’s character and actions prior to the events of the play, and we are left to make up our own minds as to why the two sisters treat him with such hostility. Are they simply scheming and power-hungry villains; are their behaviours a response to past mistreatment; or is it a complex mix of both?


I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less.

Act 1, Scene 1

Cordelia is Lear’s youngest daughter, and at the start of the play he describes her as his “joy” (Act 1, Scene 1). Cordelia loves her father but cannot (or refuses to) express her love in the flowery language that her sisters use. She says, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” (act 1, Scene 1), before telling her father that:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you and most honour you.

Act 1, Scene 1

The restrained nature of Cordelia’s words sends Lear into a rage, and he immediately banishes and disinherits her. Upon learning that she is without a dowry, one of Cordelia’s suitors, the Duke of Burgundy, immediately rejects her. However, her other suitor, the King of France, expresses his love and respect for her, and accepts her as his wife.

Cordelia disappears from the action until Act 4, when she reappears with the French army, who have been mobilised to revenge the harm done to Lear. A gentleman tells the Duke of Kent that when Cordelia heard about her father’s treatment, she struggled to control her emotions, before giving in to grief and running from the room. He says, “clamour mastered her; then away she started, / To deal with grief alone” (Act 4, Scene 3). Cordelia sends a gentleman to seek Lear, and when he is brought in, she weeps, kisses him, and forgives him wholeheartedly, saying that she has “no cause” to do him wrong (Act 4, Scene 7). In the final scene of the play, she expresses sadness at her father’s misfortunes, before being led off and hanged. Her body is brought back on by Lear, who dies soon after.

Cordelia’s behaviour is in stark contrast to that of her sisters’. She shows a capacity to forgive, act with mercy, and maintain patience and strength in the face of misfortune. However, the prudence of her actions at the opening of the play is open to discussion. Her muted expression of love can be interpreted as a sign of her integrity and virtue, or as an unnecessarily pedantic and literal response to Lear’s request for affection. Shakespeare does not offer a clear, single answer, and there is evidence in the text to support both interpretations.


Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.

Act 1, Scene 5

The Fool is Lear’s companion throughout most of the play. His relationship with Lear is characterised by a scathing and satirical honesty. When he is introduced in Act 1, Scene 4, he is quick to make a joke at Lear’s expense about how he has divided the kingdom; “If I gave them all my living, I'ld keep my coxcombs / myself. There's mine; beg another of thy daughters.” In the same scene, he implies that the King is a fool. When Lear asks if that is indeed what he is implying, the Fool responds, “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that / thou wast born with.” (Act 1, Scene 4). The Fool’s humour ranges from physical comedy, song, riddles, rhymes or proverbs and sexual innuendo. It also contains nonsense, but the Fool’s jokes often provide some insight into Lear’s situation. After the storm on the heath the Fool disappears from the play before Cordelia’s return. For this reason some scholars believe that the same actor originally played both Cordelia and the Fool.


You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face.

Act 4, Scene 2

The Duke of Albany is Goneril's husband. He witnesses his wife’s expression of love for Lear at the start of the play but does not see her treatment of Lear when he comes to visit them. In the middle of Lear’s rage-filled diatribe against Goneril, Albany enters and expresses his surprise and ignorance, saying “I am guiltless, as I am ignorant / Of what hath moved you.” (Act 1, Scene 4). Once he becomes aware of the situation, he remains passive and takes no steps to intervene, seeming ambivalent in his response to Goneril’s ruthless behaviour. However, over the course of the play, Albany becomes increasingly incensed by his wife’s actions. In Act 4, Scene 2, Albany enters and says, “You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face”, before describing Goneril in visceral terms, calling her “vile”, a “fiend”, and her and Regan “Tigers, not daughters” (Act 4, Scene 2). In return, Goneril criticises Albany for his cowardice and calls him “milk-livered” (Act 4, Scene 2).

Despite his anger at his wife’s actions, Albany agrees to lead an army in defence of the kingdom against the French. However, he stresses that he does not want to harm Lear or Cordelia. When Edgar makes him aware of the plot between Goneril and Edmund to murder him, Albany arrests the lovers for treason, calling his wife a “gilded serpent” (Act 5, Scene 3). Albany is one of the few nobles to survive the play.


I will have my revenge ere I depart this house.

Act 3, Scene 5

The Duke of Cornwall is Regan's husband. He joins his wife in mistreating Lear, telling Gloucester to lock the doors of his house when Lear flees into the storm. Cornwall initially professes himself to be an ally to Gloucester, calling him his “noble friend” (Act 2, Scene 1). However, when Gloucester expresses a desire to help Lear, he takes control of Gloucester’s house and refuses to let him speak to Lear. When he finds out that Gloucester has helped Lear escape to Dover, Cornwall brings him in, has him bound to a chair, and gouges out both his eyes. Cornwall is briefly interrupted in the torture by a servant, who attempts to stop him, and wounds him in the process. Although Cornwall persists in torturing Gloucester, he eventually dies from the wounds inflicted on him by the servant.


I have no way, and therefore want no eyes / I stumbled when I saw.

Act 4, Scene 1

Gloucester is the father of Edgar and Edmund. Edmund is introduced at the beginning of the play as his illegitimate younger son. Gloucester confesses that Edmund’s mother conceived him “ere she had a husband for her bed” (Act 1, Scene 1). Despite his illicit origins, Gloucester openly acknowledges Edmund as his son and shows affection for him.

Edmund deceives Gloucester, pretending that Edgar wants to kill him. Gloucester immediately falls for the deception and calls Edgar “ abominable villain” (Act 1, Scene 2).

In Act 2, Scene 1, Gloucester falls for another of Edmund’s deceptions. Edmund deliberately wounds himself, pretending that Edgar has tried to kill him. Gloucester immediately believes Edmund and claims he will make Edmund his heir: “of my land / Loyal and natural boy, I'll work the means / To make thee capable” (Act 2, Scene 1).

Gloucester is horrified by the way Lear’s daughters treat him, and secretly helps him to find food and shelter, before arranging for him to flee to Dover. Once his actions are discovered by Regan and Cornwall, he is brought in and violently questioned by them. They pluck at his beard, and eventually gauge out both of his eyes. Cast out of the palace, he comes across a disguised Edgar. He asks Edgar to take him to a cliff in Dover, so that he can throw himself off it. Feeling hopeless, he expresses the nihilistic belief that men are to the gods as flies to wanton boys. (Act 4, Scene 1). Edgar tricks Gloucester into thinking he has miraculously survived his fall from the ‘cliff’ (which is actually a flat piece of land), and this prompts Gloucester to be more accepting of his circumstances.

In the final scene, Edgar enters and reports that Gloucester has died from a combination of joy and grief after being reunited with his innocent son. Edgar says,

. . . [H]is flawed heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support,
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly...

Act 5, Scene 3

Gloucester’s journey through the play bears similarities to Lear’s. Like Lear, he is blind to the deception of his children, and his trust in Edmund leads to his downfall. Gloucester shows a desire to treat Lear fairly, and Cornwall’s order to leave Lear to the mercy of the storm. Although Edmund’s betrayal leads to despair, he experiences a renewal of joy before his death when he is reunited with his innocent son Edgar.


I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. / My master calls me; I must not say no.

Act 5, Scene 3

Kent is a noble at Lear’s court, of the same rank as Gloucester. He is banished after he protests against Lear’s treatment of Cordelia. Throughout the play, Kent demonstrates honesty and loyalty in his behaviour to Lear. When Lear banishes him, he disguises himself as a servant called Caius, and re-enters Lear’s employ. Kent shows contempt for Goneril’s steward Oswald, calling him “the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I / will beat into clamorous whining” (Act 1, Scene 4). He picks a fight with Oswald in Act 1, Scene 4, and as punishment, Cornwall places him in the stocks. At the close of the play, Albany asks Kent to lead the kingdom with Edgar, but he responds, “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no” (Act 5, Scene 3). In this line, he implies that he is soon going to die.

Kent is notable for his loyalty to Lear, refusing to abandon him even after he is banished. Kent consistently offers Lear encouragement and support, even when he has been betrayed by almost everyone else.


Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound.

Act 1, Scene 2

Edmund is Gloucester's younger, illegitimate son. Edmund expresses anger because his status as a ‘bastard’ means he cannot inherit his father’s lands or titles. He determines that if he cannot “have land by birth”, he will “have land by wit”. (Act 1, Scene 2). Edmund spends the early portion of the play convincing Gloucester that Edgar plans to kill him, after which his father appoints him heir to all his land. Edmund then pursues romantic relationships with both Goneril and Regan. When France is defeated, and Cordelia and Lear are taken prisoner, Edmund and secretly orders their execution. He duels with a disguised Edgar and is fatally wounded. Before his death he admits his guilt to a multitude of offences. In a last attempt to redeem himself, he sends an order to repeal the death sentence upon Cordelia and Lear; “Quickly send / Be brief in it, to the castle; for my writ / Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.” (Act 5, Scene 3). He is too late, as Cordelia has already been hanged. Edmund is taken offstage, before a captain re-enters and reveals that he has died.


We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Act 5, Scene 3

Edgar is the legitimate and eldest son of the Earl of Gloucester. He is heir to Gloucester’s lands and titles. After his half-brother Edmund accuses him wrongfully of plotting against his father, Edgar escapes a manhunt ordered by Gloucester by disguising himself as “Poor Tom”, saying that he is “bethought / To take the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury.” (Act 2, Scene 3). He meets and converses with Lear on the heath. Lear is sympathetic to Edgar and offers him friendship.

Edgar later helps his blinded father Gloucester escape to Dover. Much like Cordelia, Edgar holds no ill will for his father and is quick to offer his support; “Give me thy arm / Poor Tom shall lead thee.” (Act 4, Scene 1). When met on the heath by Oswald who is about to kill Gloucester, Edgar intercedes and fights to protect him; “Ch'ill pick your teeth, zir: come; no matter vor / your foins.” (Act 4, Scene 6). Once slain, Edgar takes a letter from Oswald’s body. The letter is from Goneril, telling Edmund to kill Albany. He bears the letter to Albany, which ultimately leads to the arrest of Edmund. Whilst still disguised, he challenges Edmund to a fight, telling him to “Draw thy sword / That, if my speech offend a noble heart / Thy arm may do thee justice: here is mine.” (Act 5, Scene 3). He wins the fight and fatally wounds Edmund. At the end of the play, it is implied that he will rule the kingdom, although he does not explicitly accept the role of King.


That eyeless head of thine was first fram'd flesh / To raise my fortunes.

Act 4, Scene 6

Oswald is Goneril’s servant, described as "a serviceable villain" (Act 4, Scene 6). He is discourteous to Lear and takes advantage of the new regime of Goneril and Regan to advance his own career. His self-interest and proud nature are contrasted with Kent’s loyalty, particularly in the scene where a disguised Kent beats and abuses Oswald for his lack of respect for Lear. After losing the fight and crying desperately for help, Oswald, too proud to admit his defeat, describes Kent as “This ancient ruffian, sir, whose life I have spared / at suit of his gray beard.” (Act 4, Scene 6). Oswald attempts to murder Gloucester at Goneril’s request. He sees the deed as a means by which to “raise my fortunes.” (Act 4, Scene 6). Instead of killing Gloucester, however, Oswald is killed by Edgar.

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