Theatre / King Lear
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.

A tragedy by William Shakespeare, though the story is older than that, first found in the Historia Regum Britanniae (the tragic ending isn't, though).

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. 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 flips his lid once more 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, Macbeth, 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.
  • Anthropic Principle: The play has been criticized for the implausibility of a king divesting himself of his kingdom without any contingency plan to support his own status. That, however, is the necessary condition for the whole rest of the story to develop.
  • 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: Lear despite being canonically in his eighties kills the executioner who was holding him and his daughter when he executed Cordelia.
  • Bastard Bastard: Edmund gets a lengthy soliloquy on why his bastard status causes him to be treated as a lesser man than his brother Edgar. Unlike most examples, his noble father the Earl of Gloucester acknowledges and loves Edmund, but that's not good enough—he wants to be the heir, and he'll do what it takes to make it happen.
  • Battle Butler: The disguised Earl of Kent becomes this to Lear.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Fool. After a silly prophetic speech:
    Fool: This prophecy Merlin shall make; I live before his time.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • The entire play does this to Lear: from a haughty king to a broken man who ends up having a Death by Despair.
    • Gloucester. Observe how his behaviour changes after he becomes blind.
  • 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. Some productions have Lear, while mad, accidentally killing him.
    • Since he is a comic character, The Fool's disappearance may very well indicate the play's shift to the subsequent tragedies that befall Cornwall and his servant, Oswald, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cordelia, and King Lear.
  • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Goneril stabs herself offstage after Edmund gets fatally wounded by Edgar.
    • At the end, Kent implies that he intends to joins Lear after the latter dies.
  • Eviler Than Thou: Edmund's ruthless pragmatism generally gets the better of Regan and Goneril's more personal vendettas. They even end up falling in love with him, allowing him to manipulate them.
  • Eye Scream: After learning that Gloucester is still loyal to Lear, Cornwall has him arrested and his eyes put out.
    Cornwall: Out, vile jelly!
  • Fairy Tale: The challenge to say how much they love him is straight out "Love Like Salt" fairy tales, such as "Cap o' Rushes". In the tales, however, the girls say something the father misinterprets; Cordelia's flat denial is new.
  • Fake Assisted Suicide: The blinded Duke of Gloucester asks a mad beggar (actually his son Edgar in disguise) to lead him to the cliffs of Dover so he can jump to his death. Edgar leads him across level land, claiming it is the clifftop; after Gloucester has harmlessly "jumped," Edgar assumes another persona and tells Gloucester that he has been spared miraculously and that the person who led him to the cliff appeared to be an evil spirit.
  • Flowery Insults: In Act II, Scene 2 Kent insults Oswald as "Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!"
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: 'Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill,' ''I cannot conceive you' (though it is a bit more like verbal irony in I.1.11)
    Kent: I cannot conceive you.
    Gloucester: Sir, this young fellow's mother could.
  • Gold Digger: Cordelia has a suitor who drops his suit when her father disinherits her.
  • 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 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.
  • The Jester: The Fool, of course
  • Kill 'em All: This play has one heck of a body count. But it's a Shakespearian tragedy, so it was to be expected.
  • Lady of War: Affairs in France force Cordelia's husband to remain 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.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Goneril poisons her sister Regan to have Edmund for herself.
  • 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.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The Fool. Despite being, well, a Fool, he is one of the wisest characters of the play.
  • 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."
  • Sanity Slippage: Lear. His Break the Haughty breaks his sanity too.
  • 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.
  • Sibling Triangle: Edmund seduces Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan. When Goneril finds out her rival is her sister, she poisons her drink.
  • 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.
  • Symbolic Mutilation: Gloucester. There are numerous references to eyes and him in the text. He can't see the truth about his sons Edgar and Edmund, due to Edmund though he is quite gullible. Eventually he gets his eyes torn out.
  • 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.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Cordelia, the most kind and virtuous character in the story, ends up being executed, mostly to make a point about how fleeting happiness is and how unjust the world can be at times.
  • 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. The reigning explanation is that the Fool shared an actor with Cordelia, as he disappears right around the time she reenters the narrative. Different productions handle this in different manners, e.g.
    1. Playing it straight, sticking to the script and offering no explanation.
    2. 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.
    3. 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?"
  • Xanatos Gambit: Most of Edmund's scheming involves letting two people (his father and his brother, Goneril and Regan) destroy each other while remaining in the trust of both of them.

The 1681 rewrite provides examples of: