They kill us for their sport."
Lear, the elderly king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom into three parts to give to his daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. 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 his 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, the disguised Earl of Kent, Edgar, and Gloucester (after he's ousted from his estate) 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. See also Shakespeare Unwrapped, an Irish Edutainment show that dramatizes the play with a Younger and Hipper cast.
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.
Lastly, a single line from this play had inspired Robert Browning to write a poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. That poem had in turn become the inspiration for The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.
- Abdicate the Throne: Lear's decision to abdicate his throne kicks the entire plot off.
- Accent Relapse: When Edgar is in disguise as 'Poor Tom', he momentarily slips out of his faked accent. Gloucester even remarks that for a moment he spoke more eloquently than normal.
- Acquitted Too Late: Edmund sends someone to pardon Lear and Cordelia's execution on his deathbed, but he's too late and Cordelia is hanged.
- Adaptation Name Change: Lear's eldest daughter was Gonorilla according to record. It's changed to Goneril. The youngest daughter was also Cordeilla, as opposed to Cordelia.
- Adapted Out: Lear's grandsons by Goneril and Regan and their husbands.
- Alas, Poor Villain:
- Edmund repents on his deathbed, lamenting that he was born inherently evil, because he was illegitimate.
- A lot of productions will portray Cornwall's death sadly, if his and Regan's marriage is shown to be a happy one. It does mark the start of Anyone Can Die.
- 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.
- Shakespeare was no stranger to anachronism, but this play takes it Up to Eleven. The legendary King Leir of Britain is supposed to have lived around the 8th century BC. At that time, there was no "King of France", "Duke of Cornwall", "Duke of Albany", "Earl of Gloucester" or "Earl of Kent". Nor, for example, was there a St Mary Bethlehem (Bedlam) Hospital, from which Edgar takes his madman's identity. One of the most egregious anachronisms is when Kent professes "to eat no fish", implying that he is declaring himself to be a Protestant and not a Catholic - centuries before even the most rudimentary Christianity existed.
- 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.
- Anti-Villain: The Duke of Albany. From his point of view, all he is doing is defending England from an invasion of France. He knows damn well that Edmund is an untrustworthy bastard and that neither his wife nor sister-in-law are much better, but he feels forced to work with them by circumstance in case the French are here to conquer, which pits him against Cordelia and Lear. This changes near the end when he discovers Goneril's letter intended for Edmund which is an attempted plot on Albany's life, which leads Albany to arrest Edmund and Goneril.
- Arc Number: Three:
- Lear has three daughters.
- There are three in Gloucester's family - himself, Edgar and Edmund.
- Characters frequently travel in groups of three - Lear, Kent and the Fool; Cornwall, Regan and Goneril.
- There are three survivors by the end.
- Author Avatar: The Fool does not exist in the other versions besides Shakespeare's. Like many of Shakespeare's other such characters he's the Only Sane Man, provides a lot of social commentary and is able to call his master out without being punished.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: Subverted, as the Earl of Kent is disguised as a servant when he kicks Oswald around.
- Awful Wedded Life: Goneril and Albany, with Goneril getting involved in a relationship with Edmund, while she sees Albany as rather mild-mannered and honest, in contrast to Goneril poisoning her sister Regan, and even writes letters to Edmund encouraging him to kill Albany. By the time Albany steps in to prevent Edmund's counter-claims to Goneril, he arrests his wife and Edmund as co-conspirators.
- 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 half-brother Edgar. Unlike most examples, his noble father the Earl of Gloucester acknowledges and loves Edmund, but that's not good enoughhe 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. Oswald to a slightly lesser extent, as he actively tries to kill Gloucester when he's found with Edgar.
- Battle Couple: Regan and Cornwall blind Gloucester together.
- 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.
- Betrayal by Offspring: Lear wrongly believes Cordelia to have done this. Regan and Goneril actually do as does Edmund to his father, Gloucester.
- Better to Die than Be Killed: Goneril kills herself once she's exposed for her crimes, knowing execution is probably the only route for her, after poisoning Regan.
- Big Bad: Edmund of Gloucester; a significant portion of Edmund's subplot involves him being involved in a love triangle between Goneril and Regan, with Edmund turning against his own father, attempting (and failing) to kill Goneril's husband Albany, and ultimately seizing Lear and Cordelia and sending them off to the dungeon, only to meet his demise at the hand of Edgar his half-brother, who is disguised as a mysterious knight.
- Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The Laurence Olivier TV movie - Cordelia (blonde), Regan (brunette) and Goneril (redhead).
- Blood Knight: Cornwall needs very little persuasion to torture Gloucester.
- 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.
- Brave Scot: Double subverted with Albany - which is what Scotland used to be called, implying the character to be Scottish - who is at first weak and submissive. But then he stands up to everyone and is one of the few characters left alive by the end.
- Break the Cutie:
- Poor Cordelia, who is disowned, spurned by a suitor then when she reunites with her father is later captured and executed.
- Edgar too - an innocent, seemingly good-hearted young man who gets manipulated by his brother, must hide out in the wilderness and discover his father with his eyes gouged out.
- 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:
"You stubborn ancient knave, you reverent braggart. We'll teach you."
- 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.
- The final scene is a big one for Goneril. Her affair with Edmund is exposed, Albany finally stands up to her, she's reduced to poisoning her own sister and her lover is killed in front of her.
- Cornwall thinks he's doing this to Kent-disguised-as-Caius. He's just caught what he thinks is a servant fighting, who then mouths off to a Duke.
- Butt-Monkey: Poor, poor Oswald. In almost every appearance he is abused either verbally, physically, or both.
- Old Gloucester, when Edmund steals his property and Cornwall gouges his eyes out.
- Kent, who is put in the stocks by Cornwall and Regan for beating up Oswald.
- Caged Bird Metaphor: Lear uses this simile before he and Cordelia are to be jailed:Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
- 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.
- If you count Goneril and Regan as one entity then they fit when pitted against Cordelia. They are the two evil sisters who become the play's main antagonists, while Cordelia is the Morality Pet whose absence causes things to fall out of control.
- 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.
- Canon Foreigner: In relation to the source material by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Earl of Gloucester, his sons Edgar and Edmund, and the Earl of Kent were neither present in the Historia Regum Britanniae nor had any specific analogues.
- Cast Speciation: Goneril and Regan are both the two evil sisters who plot against their father. In order to differentiate them, Regan is The Sociopath who is far more outwardly violent. She's also noted to be the The Corrupter who inspires wickedness in others. Goneril meanwhile is far more Machiavellian in her actions and is a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing to Lear for most of the play.
- The Chessmaster:
- Goneril plays off her father's ego in order to get one third of the kingdom, manipulates him into disbanding a good portion of his knights and enrages him so much that he runs off to be someone else's problem. She also poisons her sister when it becomes clear that the two won't be in cahoots much longer.
- Regan is able to inspire large amounts of cruelty in others, leading to Gloucester getting his eyes gouged out and Lear being driven out into the storm. She's outwitted by Goneril in the end however.
- Edmund is the ultimate chessmaster, convincing his father that Edgar is plotting against him. He also pits Goneril and Regan against each other and effectively has control of everyone by the final act.
- 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 after Act 3, Scene 6, 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. A line in the fifth act from Lear says "my poor fool is hanged", but the "f" is lowercase - leading to doubt as to whether The Fool was hanged offscreen.
- After taking Cordelia as his wife, the king of France is mentioned, but never seen again after Act I, Scene I.
- "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: The entire tragedy is set in motion by Lear's completely avoidable decision to disown Cordelia and give the kingdom to Regan and Goneril. He realizes as early as scene 4 that this was a terrible mistake, but by then it's too late.
- Darker and Edgier: compared to the legend it was based on. Not only did Shakespeare alter the ending so that Lear and Cordelia both die, he also introduced the subplot of Gloucester and his sons, which contributes further to the darker tone.
- 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.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Oswald, who gets beaten up by Kent when he is sent by Goneril with letters for Regan:Cornwall: Why, what was the offense you gave him?
Oswald: I never gave him any.
It pleased the King his master very late
To strike at me, upon his misconstruction,
When he, conjunct, and flattering his displeasure,
Tripped me behind, being down, insulted, railed,
And put upon him such a deal of man
That worthied him, got praises of the King
For him attempting who was self-subdued,
And in the fleshment of his dread exploit,
Drew on me here again.
- 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.
- The Dragon: Cornwall, who helps Edmund take over his father's estate and oversees the torture session where old Gloucester has his eyes plucked out.
- Dragon Ascendant: Oswald, after Cornwall's death in Act IV, who attempts to kill old Gloucester, only to meet his demise at the hands of Edgar, who is disguised as a rustic peasant.
- Dramatic Irony: Gloucester speaks in shock about the behaviour of Lear's own daughters towards him - not realising that Edmund is plotting against him too.
- 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.
- Gloucester intends to jump off a cliff, but Edgar prevents this.
- Dying for Symbolism:
- Oswald dying at Edgar's hands marks the true loss of whatever innocence he had left. It's after this that Edgar also Took a Level in Badass.
- Earlier the death of Cornwall symbolises the kingdom starting to collapse under the power struggle. It's only after this that Edmund pits the two sisters against each other, and Cordelia leads the French army to battle.
- Empathic Environment: A storm hits as the kingdom starts to unravel. The storm scene is the first time that Lear truly suffers Sanity Slippage.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Regan and Cornwall, the two nastiest characters, also appear to have a pretty happy marriage.
- Even Evil Has Standards: One of Cornwall's servants finds the gouging of Old Gloucester's eyes excesively brutal:Servant: Hold your hand, my lord! I have served you ever since I was a child, but better service have I never done you than to bid you hold.
Regan: How now, you dog?
Servant: If you did wear a beard upon your chin, I'd shake it on this quarrel.
Regan: What do you mean?
Cornwall: My villain! [Cornwall fights a sword duel with his servant]
Servant: Nay then, come on, and take the chance of anger.
Regan: Give me thy sword! A peasant stand up thus? [Regan slays the servant]
Servant: O, I am slain! [The servant 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!
- Face/Heel Double-Turn: In the first act of the play, Lear is set up as the unsympathetic one, while Goneril and Regan appear to be more sympathetic. Then the two sisters' evil deeds come to the forefront, and Lear is treated in such a way that Break the Haughty is in full play.
- Failed Attempt at Drama: When Albany first stands up to Goneril - "you are not worth the dust which the wind blows in your face" - she just finds it funny, given his meek disposition.
- Fairy Tale Motifs: 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 Earl 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.
- A Father to His Men: When Lear exiles Cordelia, Kent attempts to appease Lear by declaring his steadfast loyalty to him:Kent: Royal Lear, whom I have ever honored as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed,
As my patron thought on in my prayers...
- Flowery Insults: In Act II, Scene 2 Kent insults Oswald as "Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!"
- Foil: Oswald to Kent. Kent is a loyal servant who has his master's best interests at heart. Oswald is basically a slime-ball who flatters insincerely to get what he wants.
- Foreshadowing: It's common to put in some hints of Goneril's attraction to Edmund in the eye gouging scene, as their next scene together reveals their affair.
- Four Is Death: The first scene of the fourth act confirms the first Character Death.
- French Jerk: Averted. The King of France is by far the more decent of Cordelia's suitors and proves a good and loyal husband to her. Although if you want to get technical, Burgundy is a region of France too - and he refuses to marry Cordelia when she's disinherited.
- Funetik Aksent: Edgar, disguised as a peasant, when he duels with Oswald:Oswald: Wherefore, bold peasant, darest thou support a published traitor? Hence, lest that the infection of his fortune take like hold on thee! Let go his arm!
Edgar: Chillnote not let go zir, without vurther 'casion.
Oswald: Let go, slave, or thou diest!
Edgar: Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor volk pass. An chud ha' been zwaggered out of my life, 'twould not ha' been zo long as 'tis by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th' old man, keep out, che vor ye, or I'se try whether your costard or my ballow be the harder. Chill be plain with you.
Oswald: Out, dunghill!
Edgar: Chill pick your teeth, zir. Come, no matter vor your foins.
- Gender Flip: The Fool has sometimes been played by a woman, notably Linda Kerr Scott in a 1990 production.
- The 2018 Chichester Festival Theatre production (Ian McKellen's second time playing Lear) cast actress Sinead Cusack as Countess (instead of Earl) of Kent.
- Get Out!: After Kent has a heated argument with Lear:Kent: My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies, nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.
Lear: Out of my sight!
- Lear also dismisses Cordelia without a cent or acre to her name when her profession of love is not as elaborate as that of her elder sisters.
- 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.
- Good Is Dumb: Edgar is the saintly, legitimate child of Gloucester. Thus he's easy for Edmund to manipulate and wrap around his little finger.
- Exaggerated in the "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" parody, where Edgar is depicted by a ventriloquist's dummy resembling Mortimer Snerd with Edmund portrayed by a dummy styled like Charlie McCarthy.
- Hair-Contrast Duo: It's not uncommon for productions to cast actresses with the same hair colour to play Goneril and Regan, and a contrasting colour for Cordelia. A planned film in the late 2000s would have had the evil sisters played by blondes Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts while brunette Keira Knightley would have played Cordelia.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: Edmund uses his last breath to repeal his death sentence upon Cordelia. Naturally, it's too late.
- Henpecked Husband: The Duke of Albany is rather mild-mannered compared to his evil wife Goneril, and goes along with her plans out of fear. He eventually can't stand it and pulls a HeelFace Turn.
- Honor Before Reason: Rather than stroking her father's ego, Cordelia refuses to take part in the love test. Of course as her father's favourite she may have thought he'd appreciate her honesty.
- Hope Spot: Lear eventually reunites with Cordelia and obtains her forgiveness.
Lear: I know when one is dead and when one lives.
- At the end, after Edmund has been vanquished, Lear still hopes (in vain) that Cordelia might be alive:
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.
Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
Albany: Fall and cease.
Lear: This feather stirs, she lives. If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows that ever I have felt.
- Inadequate Inheritor:
- The play opens with Lear dividing the kingdom amongst his daughters based on their professions of love, which proves to be a mistake when the actions of Goneril and Regan betray their words, and Cordelia goes out to seek Lear and nurse him from insanity to health.
- The elder Gloucester's naivety leads him to hastily believe Edmund's forged letter, which wrongfully portrays Edgar as scheming against his father, and Gloucester foolishly makes Edmund the chief heir.
- 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.
- Informed Attribute: It's said that the two sisters' husbands - Albany and Cornwall - dislike each other. They share no scenes together - apart from the first where they don't interact - and this never factors into the plot.
- The Ingenue: Cordelia is a classic example, in contrast to her two scheming sisters. Notably Regan and Goneril have a sexual aspect to them (as they both have affairs with Edmund), whereas Cordelia's marriage is depicted as a loving one. She does however prove to be Silk Hiding Steel.
- Irony: As part of his Break the Haughty, Lear expresses sympathy for a poor homeless beggar. Said beggar is actually a prince in disguise.
- 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. His jokes and clowning often has a pretty scratching criticism of Lear and his conduct attached to them.
- Joker Jury: Played with; while taking refuge from the rain in one of old Gloucester's farmhouses, Lear conducts a trial in absentia with Edgar (disguised as Tom O'Bedlam) as judge, with the disguised Kent and the Fool also in attendance. to arraign Regan and Goneril (who are not present).
- Karmic Death:
- Lear dies after having to watch his beloved youngest daughter be hanged, the same daughter he disinherited at the start and caused the entire mess in the first place.
- Regan spends the whole play attacking other people, and manipulating them into doing unspeakably horrible things. She ends up outwitted by her sister and poisoned.
- Kick the Dog: After Gloucester is blinded, Regan orders the servants to throw him out into the storm. It should also be said that all this happened within Gloucester's own home."Let him smell his way to Dover."
- Kill 'Em All: This play has one heck of a body count. But it's a Shakespearian tragedy, so it was to be expected. By the end of it only Edgar, Albany and Kent are left alive. Even then it's hinted that Kent may kill himself too.
- Kill the Cutie: Cordelia will never get a break, unless you count her reconciliation to Lear before her execution.
- Killed Offscreen: Even though we never see Old Gloucester's death, it is reported in Act V, Scene 3, when Gloucester learns that his companion has been none other than Edgar himself, and when Edgar tells him the details of his flight, exile, and wanderings, Gloucester can rest easy now that he knows he and Edgar have been reconciled.
Albany: What news?
- Cornwall, who was wounded but barely alive at the end of Act 3, is reported dead in Act IV, Scene II:
Gentleman: Oh my good lord, the Duke of Cornwall's dead, slain by his servant, going to put out the other eye of Gloucester.
- 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.
- Let Them Die Happy: As he's dying, Lear convinces himself that he sees Cordelia moving - dying believing that his beloved daughter is still alive.
- Long List: Kent gives Oswald a list of what he knows him for - "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." - also doubling as a Pre Ass Kicking One Liner.
- 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 Tom O'Bedlam, a rustic peasant, and a masked knight 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 disguise, and Gloucester feels as if his son is close at hand when he hears the disguised Edgar's voice.
- Middle Child Syndrome: Present within Regan's characterization. As Cordelia is the clear favourite, and Goneril has some status as the oldest sister, a lot of Regan's actions come from trying to match what Goneril does.
- A Mistake Is Born: The first scene is the Earl of Gloucester talking with the Earl of Kent about his bastard son, and how he was a mistake... with the bastard son right there. Is it any wonder Edmund is a Bastard Bastard?
- More Deadly Than the Male: The females are the ones who do the direct killing in the play - Regan killing the servant that stabs Cornwall and Goneril poisoning her sister. By contrast, the males usually kill via executions.
- 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.
- A more charitable interpretation would say that Goneril's suicide is remorse over the evil things she's done.
- Neutral No Longer: Albany was neutral in the sense that he neither condoned nor protested against the scheming of the others. By the fourth act, he's on the side of good and ends up as one of the few survivors.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: After Old Gloucester's eyes are gouged out, Cornwall makes the mistake of letting him live instead of killing him on the spot, which proves to be a fatal mistake, since Old Gloucester finds his way to Lear's camp after Cornwall's death:Regan: It was great ignorance, Gloucester's eyes being out, to let him live. Where he arrives he moves all hearts against us.
- Nice, Mean, and In-Between:
- Lear's three daughters. Cordelia is the kind-hearted, generously honest Nice one. Regan is the manipulative, blood-thirsty sociopathic Mean one. Goneril is In-Between - not necessarily nicer than Regan but less outwardly vicious and implied to feel some remorse and regret over what's happened.
- The three daughters' husbands count as well. The King of France is Nice - he marries Cordelia even when she is disinherited. The Duke of Cornwall is Mean - he stocks Kent and gouges Gloucester's eyes out. The Duke of Albany is In-Between - turning a blind eye to a lot of the worse deeds in the play before finally taking action.
- 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.
- No Pronunciation Guide:
- Gloucester can be a tricky one for any productions outside England. Despite the spelling, it's 'gloss-ter'. Getting it wrong into 'glow-ster' or 'gloss-chess-ter' is quite common.
- Regan too. 'Ree-gan' is the correct way, but it's not uncommon to also hear 'ray-gan' or 'reggan'.
- And Albany can either be 'all-bany' or 'al-bany'.
- Goneril, pronounced as 'GAHN-eh-ril', with accent stress on the first syllable.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The Fool. Despite being, well, a Fool, he is one of the wisest characters of the play.
- Obviously Evil: Edmund is the illegitimate son and the line from Gloucester telling us this is meant to be a clue in that he's the villain.
- Older Hero Versus Younger Villain: Kent, who is forty-eight years old, is one of the most heroic characters in the play. His antagonists are the two wicked sisters, who are much younger.
- Only Sane Man: Kent is the one who calls Lear out on the ridiculousness of dividing the kingdom and banishing his youngest daughter. He's also sane enough to realise that Lear will still need him once his daughters are in power. Also, The Fool, who is ironically far more wise than any other character.
- The Ophelia: Lear himself becomes a male example. After he's cast out of Regan's household, he slowly goes mad and is found running around on the moors wearing flowers and babbling a Madness Mantra.
- Papa Wolf: Lear kills the hangman that was hanging Cordelia.
- Parents in Distress: As soon as old Gloucester's eyes are gouged out, Edgar seeks him out and helps him meet with Lear in Dover.
- When Lear is wandering the countryside in the midst of a Sanity Slippage, Cordelia sends soldiers to rescue her father, so the doctors can treat him.
- Parental Favoritism: Lear makes clear that Cordelia is his favorite daughter. And he's surprised when the other two treat him so badly. When she's out of the picture, he tries this with the remaining daughters.
- Perfectly Arranged Marriage:
- France is so enchanted by Cordelia's virtue that he marries her when she is disinherited. Their married life isn't shown, but she seems to be happy.
- An evil version in Regan and Cornwall, who work extremely well together as villains.
- Pet the Dog: Goneril seems to have some affection for her servant Oswald.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Lear has very demeaning views about women.
- Precision F-Strike: Kent delivers one to Oswald when listing his bad qualities:Kent: ...and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.
- Purple Prose: Kent waxes very eloquent before engaging in a swordfight with Oswald:Kent: Fellow, I know thee.
Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
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.
- Pyrrhic Victory: The defeat of the villain seems worthless when contrasted with how many good people have died.
- Real Life Writes the Plot:
- 17th century audiences found the play's ending so depressing that a happier one was created - where Cordelia survives and marries Edgar. After World War II, the original ending made a comeback.
- It's been theorised that the reason The Fool disappears after Act III is because the same actor would have played Cordelia as well, and she comes back into the plot shortly afterwards.
- "Reason You Suck" Speech: Albany delivers one to Goneril, telling her that karma will get her in the end. She laughs it off but it's ultimately played straight.
- Redemption Equals Death:
- Lear, while not evil, is a temperamental, power-hungry Jerkass who thinks only of himself. Unlike most of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, he does see the error of his ways and becomes a genuinely good person by the end... but his transformation comes too late to prevent him from losing everything, including, ultimately, his life.
- Edmund repents at the very last minute and tries to order a pardon for Cordelia's execution. He dies shortly after his dying reconciliation with Edgar who bests him in battle.
- 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."
- Sacrificial Lion: Cornwall dies at the end of the third act to show that Anyone Can Die.
- Sanity Slippage: Lear. His Break the Haughty breaks his sanity too.
- Seemingly Profound Fool: Lear finds himself in awe of Tom O'Bedlam's/ Edgar's profound wisdom when they take shelter from the storm:Lear: What! Have his daughters brought him to this pass? Couldst thou save nothing? Didst thou give them all?
Fool: Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed.
Lear: Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters!
Kent: He hath no daughters, sir.
Lear: Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness, but his unkind daughters. Is it the fashion that discarded fathers should have little mercy on their flesh? Judicious punishment! 'Twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters.
- Self-Made Orphan: Edmund doesn't actually kill his father, but he's totally complacent as even worse things are done to him; his own father's estate is the place of Gloucester's demise, with Regan and Cornwall sending him out of the room so he won't witness the gruesome gouging of his father's eyes. This makes Edmund very much an Evil Prince.
- Servile Snarker: When Lear arrives at Goneril's palace and the servants ignore him, Oswald's impudent speech to Lear treats him as an ordinary father instead of a king, and Lear immediately takes offense:Lear: O, you sir, you! Come you hither, sir. Who am I, sir?
Oswald: My lady's father.
Lear: "My lady's father"? My lord's knave! You whoreson dog! You slave! You cur!
Oswald: I am none of these, my lord! I beseech your pardon.
Lear: Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal? [Lear strikes Oswald]
Oswald: I'll not be strucken, my lord.
Kent: Nor tripped neither, you base football player? [Kent kicks and trips Oswald]
- Shoo Out the Clowns: The Fool disappears after Act III, meaning the comic relief is absent. That's also when the bodies start piling up.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: Albany rebukes the villainess Goneril with this, after Edmund loses to a disguised Edgar:Goneril: This is mere practice, Gloucester. By law thou wast not bound to answer an unknown opposite. Thou art not vanquished, but cozened and beguiled.
Albany: Shut your mouth, dame, or with this paper shall I stop it. [He reveals her letter addressed to Edmund.]
[to Edmund]: Hold, sir.
[to Goneril] Thou worse than any name, read thine own evil. No tearing, lady! I perceive you know it.
Goneril: Say if I do— the laws are mine, not thine. Who can arraign me for it?
Albany: Most monstrous! O! Knowest thou this paper?
Goneril: Ask me not what I know. [She flees offstage]
Albany: Go after her, she's desperate, govern her.
- Sibling Triangle: Edmund seduces Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan. When Goneril finds out her rival is her sister, she poisons her drink.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Cornwall - a mere Duke - stocks the king's messenger for speaking out of turn. To put it from a modern perspective, it's the equivalent to humiliating someone like an ambassador. This also comes back into play when Cornwall ties up and tortures Gloucester in his own household.
- Small Role, Big Impact: Cornwall appears in only five scenes (besides a non-speaking part in the first scene) yet he is the one who does the gouging out of Gloucester's eyes. His death also marks the start of the sisters turning on each other - as they both want to marry Edmund.
- 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.
- The Sociopath: Regan through and through. She casts her aged father out into the storm, tortures Gloucester and murders one of her own servants. She seems to adore violence, as does her husband.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Kent's speech to Oswald before he brawls with him:Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
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-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk inheriting slave, one that wouldst be a bawd in the way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, panderer, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will besat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
- 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.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Lear himself is a recipient of this. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, the king's name was spelled with an "i" as "Leir".
- 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.
- Sweet and Sour Grapes: Cordelia refuses to stroke Lear's ego like her two sisters. Although this earns her no favour with her father, his disinheriting her results in the shallow Burgundy abandoning his offer of marriage (to Cordelia's own pleasure it's implied). And France is so enchanted with her virtue that he marries her dowerless - and makes her his Queen. So Cordelia gets to rule a whole kingdom, as opposed to having to deal with a divided share and her senile father.
- Tempting Fate: Edgar, after he's wrongly accused and has to disguise himself as a homeless madman, tries to console himself by saying that he has reached Rock Bottom and things can only get better for him. Immediately after, he meets his father who has just been blinded.Edgar: O gods! Who is t can say I am at the worst?
I am worse than e'er I was.
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say This is the worst.
- This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: By the end of the play, Edgar duels his brother by himself while the other characters sit and watch. Though Albany does scream "save him" to prevent Edgar from outright killing him.
- 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.
- Token Good Teammate: The Duke of Albany to Edmund, Reagan and his wife Goneril.
- 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.
- Tragedy: This is one of Shakespeare's classic four tragedies. Lear's actions bring nothing but doom and misery upon those around him, and his Fatal Flaw is the cause of most of them.
- Two-Faced Aside: After Lear has left the throne room, Regan and Goneril, who have just made flowery professions of their love for their aging father, who fear his violent outbursts may get worse, decide to take precautionary measures to deprive the king emeritus of what little power he has left in his 100 knights with Goneril's staff ignoring him and Cornwall placing Kent in the stocks after he brawls with Oswald.
- The Unfavorite: Edmund, to Gloucester. As Gloucester's illegitimate son and Edgar's younger half-brother, his bastardly status motivates him to scheme against Edgar and deceive his father:Edmund: Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother? Why bastard, wherefore base, when my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous, and my shape as true as honest madam's issue?[...]Edmund: Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund as to the legitimate. Fine word, "legitimate"! Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed and my invention thrive, Edmund the base shall top the legitimate; I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
- Unholy Matrimony: Regan and Cornwall are the two most bloodthirsty characters in the play, and they seem to feed off each other's evilness. And this seems to make for a happy marriage.
- 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.
- 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?"
- Currently the most popular explanation seems to involve Lear killing the Fool during one of his mad moments, such as the 2014 National Theatre production starring Simon Russell Beale, where the Fool ended up being beaten to death by Lear with a bit of pipe in the final scene of Act 1.
- An Irish theatre company called Thirteenth Floor did a version in 2017 where The Fool is entirely a figment of Lear's imagination, also giving him a Gender Flip to imply that it's the ghost of his dead wife. Very little had to be changed, aside from the other characters not being able to see her. Ironically The Fool continued to appear in the background after her final line.
- The Manga Shakespeare graphic novel combined Cordelia and the Fool with the latter being a disguise of the former. Thus Cordelia's death is also the Fool's.
- Even though the King of France is often mentioned but never seen onstage after Act I, Scene 1, he leaves his marshal, Monsieur Le Far, in charge of his armies, returning to France soon afterwards, with no further mention made of him after his forces lose and Cordelia's death leaves him a widower.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Even though he's the king, multiple characters speak out against Lear's behavior when he makes his big mistake: disowning Cordelia.
- Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Albany says of much after discovering Goneril's affair with Edmund."a woman's shape doth shield thee."
- 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.
- You Know What You Did: Gloucester chooses to believe his embittered bastard son's claims that Edgar is a traitor, thus kicking off the subplot.
- Youngest Child Wins: As the play is based on fairy tale tropes, this one is present. Cordelia the youngest is the most moral person in the play, and she's her father's favourite. She ends up disowned and, despite pulling Big Damn Heroes to save her father, she still ends up hanged. Ian McKellen's version had Lear wearing two wedding rings, implying that Cordelia is a child of a second marriage.
The 1681 rewrite provides examples of:
- Adapted Out: Neither the King of France nor the Fool appear.
- Adaptational Villainy: Edmund is made even worse as he attempts to abduct and rape Cordelia and dies without repealing his order to hang her.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Lear regains his throne and Edgar and Cordelia are allowed to marry.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: In this version, both Goneril and Regan secretly poison each other.
- 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).
- Spared by the Adaptation: Lear, Cordelia and Gloucester all survive.