Once upon a time, there was a king with three daughters... and it all goes downhill from there.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.
by William Shakespeare
, though the story is older than that, first found in the Historia Regum Britanniae
(the tragic ending isn't
Lear, the elderly king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom into three parts to give to his eldest daughters, Regan, Cordelia, Goneril. But before he officially seals the deal, he keens that the largest share will go to the daughter who loves him best. Much butt-kissing ensues; all except from the youngest, Cordelia, who is too honest by half. Despite being Lear's favorite and having the most love for her father, Cordy's flattery doesn't pass muster, and the senile King banishes her — along with own close friend the Earl of Kent, who speaks in her defense. Cordelia's share is divvied up between her elder sisters and Lear announces his retirement, though he insists on keeping one hundred knights, the respect and title of a king, and free room and board at his daughters' homes.
It doesn't take long before Lear wears out his welcome. His daughters, resentful and wary from the outset, quickly tire of the knights causing a ruckus, not to mention the lavish expense of keeping them on staff. Lear is once again outraged and, rather than compromising with his daughters, he stubbornly denounces them. When Goneril and Regan double down by refusing to take in his knights, Lear, too, refuses their shelter, and is caught out in a thunderstorm while both his followers and his sanity desert him. He is left with only his Fool and the disguised Earl of Kent to care for him.
A closely-related subplot follows another family, that of the Earl of Gloucester, another of Lear's close friends. His younger son, the illegitimate Edmund, tricks Gloucester into thinking his legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. Gloucester is duped, and Edgar goes on the run, disguising himself as a homeless madman to escape capture. Edgar falls in with his godfather Lear, while Edmund, resentful of the world who judges him simply because he was born a bastard, decides to show everyone what a bastard he can be
and seduces not just one but both
of Lear's elder daughters. With a few deft moves, he goes from inheriting nothing to being potentially the most powerful man in Britain
And then the kingdom is attacked by Cordelia's new hubby, the King of France
... hilarity does NOT ensue.King Lear
is an extremely powerful play, and for quite some time was unpopular with critics and audiences because it made what was once a traditional Happily Ever After Fairy Tale
ending massively depressing instead. Honest children are punished while villains prosper, the good characters suffer through madness and despair and are forced to extreme measures merely to survive, a king is forced to face his own sins, and one character is tortured brutally on-stage. The kingdom is left a shattered mess, and, if done right, so is the audience. The ending is so depressing that it was fully rewritten in 1681, so Cordelia survives and marries Edgar
; the revision was more popular than the original for over than a hundred years. After World War II and the horrors people saw in it, the original story of Lear made a comeback. Today, it is considered one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, along with Hamlet
, and Othello
The play has been adapted several times for the screen, but no adaptation is more famous than the one that moves it to Japan
, changes the daughters into sons
, and adds a whole bunch of other stuff, Ran
It's also been adapted into literature, such as Jane Smiley's 1991 novel A Thousand Acres
, itself adapted into a movie. A reimagining of the story from the perspective
of the Fool was written by Christopher Moore
- Abdicate the Throne: Lear's decision to abdicate his throne kicks the entire plot off.
- Ambition Is Evil: Edmund, Regan and Goneril all have high ambitions, making them the main Antagonists.
- Anachronism Stew: King Lear is a legendary Brythonic monarch said to have reigned sometime before 400 BC. All the terminology used in the play however is either contemporary to Shakespeare's time or only a few centuries before that. Lampshaded by the Fool, who, after parodying Merlin's Prophecy, notes that Merlin hasn't been born yet.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: Subverted, as the Earl of Kent is disguised as a servant when he kicks Oswald around.
- Badass Bystander: In Act 3 Scene 7 one of Cornwall's servants defies and fatally wounds him, trying to save Gloucester.
- Badass Grandpa / Papa Wolf: Lear despite being canonically in his eighties kills the executioner who was holding him and his daughter when he executed Cordelia.
- Beardness Protection Program: Kent shaves off his distinctive beard when he disguises himself as a servant. Some adaptations and productions will have him go even further and give himself a haircut too. Edgar doesn't really do this later in the play, only disguising himself with rags and dirt on his face.
- Blondes Are Evil:
- Many adaptations will portray Goneril and Regan as blondes and have Cordelia as brunette. A planned 2010 film adaptation would have had blondes Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts playing Goneril and Regan while brunette Keira Knightley would have been Cordelia.
- Inverted with the Ian McKellen RSC version where Regan and Goneril are brunettes and Cordelia is blonde.
- Body Motifs: The play is littered with references to eyes. These explore the nature of truth and our understanding of it - Lear is blind to the love of the only daughter who actually cares for him, Gloucester loses his sight for his loyalty to the crown, while Kent and Edgar must disguise themselves to aid it.
- Break the Cutie: Poor Cordelia, who is disowned, spurned by a suitor then when she reunites with her father is later captured and executed.
- Butt Monkey: Poor, poor Oswald. In almost every appearance he is abused either verbally, physically, or both.
- Cain and Abel: Subverted. Since he was born out of wedlock, Edmund is Edgar's half-brother. However, this doesn't stop Edmund trying to do away with and discredit Edgar in the pursuit for his father's title. Edgar finishes Edmund off in the final act, the religious Aesop being that the true child will always triumph over the bastard.
- The Caligula: Lear, although he doesn't really begin to lose it until after he's been forced out of what little power he's still hanging onto.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: This trope is shared between Edmund, Regan and Goneril. Edmund tries to play the two off against one another, while they both sexually pursue him in order to harness his raw ambition for their own benefit. Their interactions become increasingly more fractured towards the end of the play as the three Chessmasters try to outdo one another.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: The Fool vanishes from the play between Acts and his whereabouts are never accounted for. Many speculate that the character probably was meant to have died and that the scene explicitly stating or depicting this was lost. His final line about "Going to bed at noon," has been interpreted as foreshadowing his demise. Another theory is that the Fool and Cordelia may have been depicted by the same actor in the original production, necessitating the disappearance of one when the other reenters the play.
- Death by Adaptation: Lear and Cordelia. In all of Shakespeare's literary and historical sources, they survive the conflict and return to power, leaving Lear to die a natural death and pass the throne to Cordelia. (Eventually, she is imprisoned and Driven to Suicide, but not until long after the play's events are over.)
- Deliberate Injury Gambit: Edmund cutting himself to frame Edgar for assaulting him. "I have seen drunkards do more than this in sport."
- Despair Event Horizon: Lear crosses this twice; first on the heath, after realising his daughters have turned on him, and upon realising his folly in giving them all of his authority. The second time is when he staggers in during the final scene, carrying Cordelia's lifeless corpse. Both instances lead to madness, and the second to Death by Despair.
- Downer Ending: Almost every named character is dead, and it's heavily implied that one of the handful of survivors plans to kill himself shortly.
- Heel Face Door Slam: Edmund uses his last breath to repeal his death sentence upon Cordelia. Naturally, it's too late.
- Hope Spot: Lear eventually reunites with Cordelia and obtains her forgiveness.
- Hurricane of Euphemisms: Kent's got a mean tongue.
Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
Earl of Kent: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deny the least syllable of thy addition.
- Indy Ploy: Edgar doesn't even know who's really behind the plot against him at first, but he manages to disguise himself, help his friends, uncover the real plot and foil Edmund with little more than the the clothes on his back - and at one point, he loses those, too.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Edmund calls out the blatantly unfair way society treats bastard children, the foolishness of those who blindly trust in fate or luck, and the tendency of people to blame their troubles on anyone but their own actions.
- Lady of War: Affairs in France force Cordelia's husband to remind behind when the French army comes to Lear's aid, and even though a conversation mentions the man assigned to lead in his absence, Cordelia is the only one shown to be in charge.
- Love Hurts: Pretty much all the conflicts from this play spawn from love that is not understood, expressed, or requited.
- Manipulative Bastard: Quite literally in the case of Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Throughout the play, he uses just about every character he meets in order to heighten his own power, no matter what the cost.
- Master of Disguise: The Earl of Kent disguises himself as a servant after being banished by King Lear, and Edgar disguises himself as a madman after he is declared an outlaw by his father. Both of them are able to fool close friends and family (and each other) though it's quite possible the Fool sees through Kent's.
- My God, What Have I Done?: In his brief moments of clarity, Lear regrets all the problems he has caused for the other characters.
- Nominal Importance: Subverted with the nameless servant who, outraged at Cornwall's blinding of Gloucester, mortally wounds him. Even if he is quickly killed in turn by Regan.
- Promoted to Love Interest: Edgar/Cordelia in the 1681 rewrite (Cordelia's original husband, the King of France, naturally doesn't exist in this version).
- Pyrrhic Victory: The defeat of the villain seems worthless when contrasted with how many good people have died.
- Sacred Hospitality: Lampshaded by Gloucester before Cornwall gouges out his eyes. "I am your host:/ With robbers' hands my hospitable favours/ You should not ruffle thus."
- Self-Made Orphan: Edmund doesn't actually kill his father, but he's totally complacent as even worse things are done to him. This makes Edmund very much an Evil Prince.
- Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: The storm scene is the archetypal example — thunder, lightning and all. Because of Lear's rather unwound state, however, he alternates between cursing nature, asking nature to smite Goneril and Regan, and thanking nature for not being as inhumanely cruel as Goneril and Regan.
- Spanner in the Works: If Edgar had been caught and killed, or just remained in hiding, Edmund would have become ruler of at least half, if not all, of England. Instead, Edgar accidentally stumbled upon his blinded father Gloucester, who he then saved from Goneril's henchman Oswald. And Oswald just happened to be carrying a letter that implicates Edmund and Goneril in a scheme, giving Edgar a chance to challenge Edmund in public.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: Poor Cordelia, disowned by her father and rejected by her shallow suitor from Burgundy. Then the King of France falls for her and values her more than any material dowry.
- Took a Level in Badass:
- Edgar begins the story a naive, loyal, dutiful son and brother, and is even frequently interpreted by modern productions to be a bit of a bookworm. However, when Edmund makes a fugitive of him, not only does Edgar set out to save his father and godfather (Lear), but he kills Oswald in combat, nurses his father's wounds and tricks him out of suicidal depression, uncovers his brother's treachery, and defeats said brother, fatally wounding him. Edmund might be a Chessmaster, but Edgar isn't bad at thinking on his feet.
- The Duke of Albany, who is described as "mild" and "milk-livered" but turns out to be one of the only characters willing to stand up to Regan or Goneril.
- Villain's Dying Grace: A complete My God, What Have I Done? moment from Edmund as he dies allows the King to be rescued. However, they were too late to save Cordelia.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: In one of the oldest and most famous examples of this trope, The Fool abruptly disappears from the play between Acts 3 and 4. Different productions handle this in different manners, e.g.
- Playing it straight, sticking to the script and offering no explanation.
- Offering some vague clue, enabling the production to stay true to the script but also offering the audience a degree of closure; for example, in The Movie adaptation starring Ian Holm, the Fool is shown having trouble breathing in the scene just after the thunderstorm, suggesting hypothermia. This, coupled with the fact that the actor playing the Fool is obviously well into his sixties, implies that the Fool has died between acts.
- Being blatant about it: the recent Royal Shakespeare Company run with Ian McKellen had an execution scene that served to explain his disappearance and emphasise the growing cruelty of England under Regan and Goneril. The Fool's Famous Last Words were made into his "Merlin prophecy" in Act 3 Scene 2, making for some fun thoughts of terror.(Lear does say, "And my poor fool is hanged," in the final scene, but it's not clear exactly what this means.)
- The Fool's final appearance is often given some symbolic overtone. In addition to the example already given, the Drury Lane Theatre's 2005 production had the Fool tap Tom O'Bedlam/Edgar on the shoulder as he walked off the stage for the last time, passing O'Bedlam his Jester's baton. O'Bedlam was left staring at the baton in his hands with a confused look on his face, then he spouted some inane gibberish and followed the rest of the cast. From that point on, every time O'Bedlam appeared on stage (until he reveals himself as Edgar at the end), he carried the baton with him. Many interpret The Fool's disappearance as being due to his redundancy as comic relief and holy fool once O'Bedlam appears - note that the Fool has few lines in his final scenes, starting from when Tom O'Bedlam is first introduced - and this "passing of the baton" acknowledged that.
- In the parody version "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth" by Richard Nathan, the play ends with the Fool bounding back onstage and saying, "Hey, everyone, I'm back! Did I miss anything?"