October 27, 2022

#08-250: King Lear

Mad King Lear and his Fool

Note: Shakespeare's tragedy about a foolish old king who governs by whim, and ends in disaster.

Get Ready: What is the system for succession in your country? That is, how is power transferred from one national leader to another?

Of Shakespeare's Four Great Tragedies, King Lear is my second-favorite (after Hamlet). The other two are Macbeth and Othello.

The premise of the play is simple: the aged king wants to retire after dividing his kingdom between his three daughters. But first he, somewhat foolishly, declares a test: He will give the largest portion of his lands to the daughter who loves him most.

The eldest and second daughters, Goneril and Regan, are ambitious and flatter him, so he gives them substantial areas. But Cordelia, the youngest and most honest (and Lear's favorite) says simply that she loves him as much as a daughter should, and will save half her love for a future husband.

This enrages the old king, and he splits her share of the land between his two elder daughters, leaving Cordelia nothing.

The following scenes read like a soap opera, with people taking sides, Lear banishing anyone who supports Cordelia, and so on. But the King of France marries the girl despite her lack of property, and takes her off to France.

Goneril and Regan, who were supposed to take turns supporting Lear in his retirement, reveal their true natures and gradually reduce his allotments. At last, he leaves in a rage, with his Fool reminding him that it his own fault for making such a foolish decision. The old man rushes out into a storm, with only his Fool and the Earl of Kent to protect him.

After many more twists and turns and subplots, a French army lands in Britain to return Lear to the throne, but is defeated by the British under the sisters. Lear and Cordelia are captured and sent off along with secret orders that they are to be executed. But offstage, Lear kills the executioner; in one of the play's most poignant scenes, he re-enters carrying Cordelia's corpse in his arms.

In the end, an attempt is made to return Lear to his throne, but the trials he has been through are too much, and he dies of exhaustion. It is implied that either Albany (Goneril's honest husband, who was disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear) or Edgar, the "good" son of the Earl of Gloucester (an ally of King Lear), will become king.


In a subplot, Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, contend with Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, in an effort to consolidate the kingdom. Amid much intrigue and shifting alliances, their plans come to naught: Goneril fatally poisons Regan, and later commits suicide. (Cornwall has already been killed by an enraged servant after gouging out Gloucester's eyes.)

A second subplot has the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund plotting, through tricks and lies, to be rid of his father and his own elder (legitimate) brother Edgar so that he can be the Earl. He also collaborates with one sister and the other in his bid for power. In the end, the two (half-) brothers duel and Edgar wounds Edmund fatally.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. allotments
  2. ally
  3. banishing
  4. offstage
  5. poignant
  6. premise
  7. soap opera
  8. subplots
  9. substantial
  10. twists

  1. a supporter; a "friend"
  2. surprises in a story
  3. not in view of the audience
  4. sending away; exiling
  5. an emotional drama
  6. the basic idea behind something that's made
  7. amounts given out
  8. secondary stories related to the main one
  9. large
  10. affecting or moving the emotions

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for October 27, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. a; 3. d; 4. c; 5. j; 6. f; 7. e; 8. h; 9. i; 10. b