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KING LEAR – Summary

 

THE ACTION OF THE PLAY

ACT ONE- Shakespeare’s orientation – the audience is filled in on what is happening – The exposition.

 

Scene 1. Lear, the aged King of Britain, weary of the task of ruling, is about to divide his kingdom between his, three daughters. In the throne-room of his palace, the ‘Earl of Kent and the Earl of Gloucester are discussing whether the King prefers the Duke of Albany, married to his eldest daughter, Goneril, or the Duke of Cornwall, the husband of his second child, Regan. Old Gloucester introduces to the forthright Kent, his handsome and seemingly modest son Edmond, a bastard, who has been sent out into the world for nine years past.

 

A critical scene – The establishment scene -  where the audience is introduced to the main characters.  First impressions can be lasting ones and a good director takes care to point the audience in the direction they have chosen. 

If you wish to engage your audience with Lear, you present him in a sympathetic warm light with favourable close-ups, soft features and empathising weak, frail and old facial expressions and his utter weariness .  

To distance, detach or alienate your audience you make Lear look cold, hard, arrogant, imperious, -utterly unreasonable in his demands so that the audience will fail to identify or empathise with him and emphasise this by having him bark his commands in strident imperatives .

 

The King enters and takes his seat upon his throne. He announces that he will confer the royal power upon his daughters, but demands that they should vie with one another in declaring which of them loves him most. Goneril and Regan reply in fulsome* terms , but when Lear turns to Cordelia, his youngest and best—loved child, shyness and a certain stubbornness deprive her of words. Lear reasons with her, but she cannot demean herself by trite proclamations of false love. In a paroxysm of rage he disinherits her, and summons her suitors, the King of France and Duke of Burgundy. Kent intervenes to condemn Lear’s folly and injustice, and is banished for his pains. Burgundy, warned of Cordelia’s disgrace rejects her; but France, prizing her for herself, takes her as his Queen. The King and Burgundy depart. Cordelia and France bid farewell to her  sisters, who, left alone, reveal their distaste at the King’s behaviour’ and conspire to manage him to their own advantage.

*1. Offensive to the taste or sensibilities.

2. Insincere or excessively lavish; especially, offensive from excess of praise.  (This word is often used incorrectly to mean full of praise.)

Much has been written regarding Cordelia’s refusal to play the game; was it naivety?  pride? or simply a rebuff to her sisters indicating her disdain at their false flattery as her declamations of love would sound trite.  Perhaps she was following the biblical saying: “The heart of fools is in their mouths, but the mouth of the wise is in their heart”.  

 

Scene 2.   The Gloucester plot is a sub plot that parallels the main one.

Alone in his father’s castle, Edmond reveals his vindictive jealousy of Edgar, his legitimate brother. He then poisons Gloucester’s mind by producing a forged letter which indicates that Edgar is plotting against his father.

When Gloucester leaves, he mocks the old man’s credulity and superstitiousness, and on Edgar’s entrance frightens him into the belief that their father suspects him of treachery and prevails on him to run away and hide.

Scene 3. Goneril complains to her steward, Oswald, of the boisterous conduct of Lear and his retinue of knights and. encourages him to treat the King with negligence and discourtesy.

Scene 4. Kent has disguised himself as a servant that he may follow Lear’s fortunes. The King returns from bunting with a company of knights, roaring for his dinner and calling for the fool. . He enlists the services of the unrecognised Kent, who proves his worth by tripping up Oswald when he behaves impertinently. The fool enters and harps in riddling terms on Lear’s folly. He is rebuked by Goneril, who tells her father plainly that his knights are a debauched and riotous rabble, and that he himself is to blame. With mounting rage the King decides to seek lodging with his second daughter. Invoking the Goddess Nature, he curses his daughter with barrenness, then rushes out to return almost instantly and deliver a final agonised outburst. Goneril sweeps aside Albany’ s feeble protests and packs off the fool to join his master. She summons her steward to take a letter to Regan warning her, of the quarrel with the King, and then attacks her husband for his weakness.

A film director, Peter Brooke, embellished the play  creating a scene with Lear overthrowing the dinner table and storming out while his knights stay behind, tip chairs, throw plates and generally trash the joint. (chamber).  This alienates us from Lear, diminishes our sympathy and increases our partiality for Goneril.  Instead of assuming Lear is right, and therefore pitiable, we are forced to  make judgements to decide between his claims and those of his daughters.  The balance is maintained evenly throughout with both sides appealing to our partiality.

 

Scene 5. Lear sends Kent ahead to deliver a letter to Regan. While the horses are being saddled the King broods on the ingratitude of Goneril and the wrong he has done Cordelia. The fool tries to distract him With his jests, but Lear for sees that his age and sorrows may drive him mad.

 

 

ACT II

Scene 1. At night . the courtyard of Gloucester’s castle Edmond learns that Cornwall and  Regan are on their way there. He summons Edgar from his hiding place, stages a mock fight, bids Edgar fly for his life, calls up the household. and displays a self—inflicted  wound as proof of Edgar’s plot. When Cornwall and Regan arrive and are informed of what has happened by the credulous Gloucester, they take Edmond into their service.

Scene 2. Oswald and Kent arrive at Gloucester’s castle at the same  moment. Kent is spoiling for a fight with the flunkey and when Oswald will not draw his sword beats him, Gloucester,. Regan and Cornwall enter  in response to Oswell’s cries, and when he has told his tale Cornwall has Kent put in the stocks for misbehaviour and blunt answers. Left alone, Kent comforts himself by reading a letter from Cordelia.

Scene 3. Edgar has escaped his pursuers and decides to disguise himself poor mad beggar.

Scene. 4. Failing to. find Regan at her home, Lear, the fool and a gentleman have followed her to Gloucester’s castle. They see Kent in the stocks, hear his story and learn that Goneril’s messenger has preceded  them and already warned Reg of her father’s visit.

 Lear hastens in to upbraid Regan and demand Kent’s release and meanwhile the fool advises Kent to quit the King’s service. Almost at once Lear re-enters with Gloucester. Cornwall and Regan at first refuse to see him, but the King demands their presence and they finally appear.. When Lear complains of Goneril’s ingratitude, he finds Regan determined to justify her sister. Goneril enters and the two daughters unite in their resolve to strip him of his retinue and the respect and homage due to a King. Stung to madness by their cold-blooded reasoning he rushes out into the night, followed by the fool and Gloucester and the disguised Kent. The first rumble of thunder is heard. When Gloucester returns, his protests are silenced. They enter the castle, the doors are shut, the storm. breaks,

 

ACT THREE

Scene 1  The storm scene:  Can be performed in a realistic, illusionist manner or in a stark, minimalist  non-illusionist style.

 

As the storm rages. over the black heath, Kent. meets one of the King’ s gentlemen and confides to him that there is dissension between Albany and Cornwall and that the King of France is secretly preparing an invasion He sends a message to Cordelia, who has landed at Dover.

Scene .2, Bareheaded, the King. pours out his wrath to the raging elements, while the fool cowers at his feet. Kent discovers them in the dark and leads them to shelter in a nearby hovel.

Scene 3. Within the castle Gloucester is appalled at the cruelty  shown to the. Old. King, He confides to Edmond that Albany and Cornwall have fallen out and that the army  of France has landed  to fight for Lear’s Cause. He intends to stand by King.  Edmond  vows to  betray him  to Cornwall.

 

Scene 4. On the heath the storm still rages, but it is as nothing to the turmoil in Lear’s own mind, and  before entering the hovel he kneeled to pray for the poor naked wretches for whom he had cared nothing when he was King, but now experiences a fellow—feeling. The naked Edgar, disguised as poor mad Tom, rushes out of the hovel with a demented cry, and the shock sends Lear out of his mind. Gloucester is seen approaching with a torch and Edgar redoubles his frenzy to prevent his father from recognising him. Gloucester offers to guide them to shelter, which Lear at first ignores, then accepts on condition that the beggar accompanies them.

Scene 5. Edmond betrays his father to Cornwall and is promised an earldom.

Scene 6. Gloucester has brought Lear and his companions to a farmhouse near the castle. Here the King conducts a mock trial. of his daughters, represented, by two warped joint—stools, with the fool, poor Tom and Kent sitting upon the Justice’s bench. The fool and the beggar sing snatches of ballads and. play their part in this demented charade until Lear’s frenzy suddenly dies away and like a tired child he is persuaded by Kent to lie down and rest. Gloucester brings news of a plot against the King’s life, and they place him in a litter and set off for Dover,

Scene 7, In Gloucester’s castle Cornwall orders Goneril and Edmund to find Albany and warn him of the French Landing. Oswald brings news of Lear’s escape. He departs with Goneril and Edmund. Gloucester is brought in and bound to a chair. Then he tires to argue in self— defence, Cornwall with bestial cruelty plucks out his eyes. But a servant has intervened, and although Regan stabs him in the back, he has given Cornwall a wound which is to prove mortal.

 

 

ACT FOUR

 

Scene 1. Edgar is deeply moved by Lear’s sufferings, which serve to reconcile him to his own misfortunes. He sees his blinded father being led by one of his old tenants Gloucester reproaches himself for his treatment of his son, and implores the mad beggar, as be believes Edgar to be, to guide him to Dover cliff.

Scene 2, Goneril returns to Albany’s palace accompanied by Edmond and Oswald warns her that her husband’s mildness has suddenly changed to resolution. Goneril reveals her growing passion for Edmond, who with a swaggering farewell returns to seek Cornwall. Albany enters and reproaches his wife for her cruelty to her father, but she sneers at his rebuke. A messenger announces Cornwall’s death and the blinding of Gloucester. In an aside Goneril reveals her jealous fear that the widowed Regan may win the affections of Edmond. She goes in to read a letter from Regan. Albany, who has discovered Edmond’s treachery to his father, vows to avenge Gloucester.

Scene 3. Kent has reached the French camp near Dover He learns from a gentleman how Cordelia received the news of her father’s sufferings. Lear has also arrived at Dover, but shame prevents him from seeing his wronged daughter,

Scene 4. Cordelia learns that her father is wandering through the countryside crowned with wild flowers and weeds. She sends out soldiers to  search for him. A messenger announces the approach of the opposing British army.

Scene 5, Regan tries to seduce Oswald from his loyalty to Goneril, urging him to hand over his mistress’s letter to Edmund, She is determined to marry Edmond and. promises preferment to any man who kills the blinded Gloucester.

 

Scene 6. Edgar now disguised as a peasant, leads his father not to the coast at Dover as Gloucester  supposes, but some way inland. After Gloucester has dismissed him and attempted to throw himself over the imaginary cliff, Edgar assumes a different voice and tricks him into believing that be has fallen from a great height and been miraculously preserved from a strange friend who was pursuing him.

 

Suddenly the King enters He half -recognises Gloucester, and with “matter and impertinency mixed, reason in madness” imagines himself once more a King. and utters a terrible indictment of sinful man, of the concupiscence of women, and the corruption of office and. riches. Cordelia’s attendants enter to rescue him, but with a defiant cry of ‘sa’ , he runs away from them. As Edgar is about to lead. Gloucester away to safety, Oswald enters and prepares to kill the old man. Edgar interposes and with his staff knocks out Oswald’s brains and opens the letters from Goneril to Edmond which he is carrying. Far off the drums sound for the final battle.

Scene 7. Kent has revealed his identity to Cordelia but asks her to keep the secret, Lear has been found and dressed in fresh garments, and is carried in asleep in a chair, He wakes as music plays, and when Cordelia kneels to him for blessing, be recognises her and. tries himself kneel  and ask her forgiveness. Left alone, Kent and the gentleman speak of the forthcoming battle. .

 

Act Five

Scene 1. Cornwall’ s army has encamped near Dover, Edmond sends an officer to discover the intentions of the apparently vacillating Albany, while Regan racked with jealousy, tries to discover from Edmond his relationship with Goneril.  Goneril, arriving with her husband, reveals in an aside her jealousy of Regan and Edmond, while Albany announces that his heart is only in the struggle against the French invaders, not against the old King, They go to plan the campaign in Albany’s tent.  Edgar enters disguised and gives Albany a letter; after the battle he will produce a champion to prove its truth.  Edmond, when he is left  alone cynically  reveals his perfidious liaison with both sisters and determines that if with Albany’s aid he wins the battle, he will put Lear and Cordelia to death

Scene 2, Alarums sound and the French army, with Lear and Cordelia, march by. Edgar shelters his father under a tree, until retreat is sounded, when he returns to rescue him, The French army has been defeated and Lear and Cordelia taken.

 

Scene 3. The royal prisoners are brought in, Lear rejoices that nothing can now separate him from Cordelia and that in a walled prison they  wear ‘ out packs and sects of great ones. that ebb and flow by the moon”.  They are led away and Edmond. sends an officer after than with orders for their execution. The victorious Goneril and Regan return with Albany, who) refusing to acknowledge Edmond as his equal in authority, demands the prisoners. Goneril and Regan now shamelessly  declare their feelings for Edmond, whereupon Albany arrests him and Goneril  for capital treason and throws down a challenge to single combat, either with himself or another champion, Regan is overcome with a mortal sickness: Goneril has poisoned her. The challenge is read out, the trumpet sounds, and an unknown character appears.  It is Edgar, still concealing his  identity. The brothers fight and, when Edmond falls, Goneril contemptuously dismisses Albany’s accusation of infidelity and rushes out in despair. Edmond confesses his guilt and Edgar at last makes himself known, The wheel has come full circle: Gloucester’s adultery has been punished by his blinding, and Edmond’s treachery by his death, Edgar describes his reconciliation with his father, and the death of Gloucester, overcome by the two extremes of joy and grief.  A gentleman rushes in carrying a bloodstained knife  breaking the news that Goneril has died by her own hand, and Regan poisoned ‘by her sister’. The arrival of Kent in search of the King leads to Edmond before dying, admitting that he had taken out a contract on both Cordelia and King Lear.  Edgar and Kent attempt to circumvent the order but are too late for Cordelia who was hanged in prison.

Lear enters carrying the body of Cordelia, howling in grief.  He admits the killing the slave who hanged Cordelia, and is obsessed with finding life in her body still. When he discovers who Kent is, resignedly welcomes him back.  Albany re-appoints the king to power but he dies bemoaning Cordelia’s lack of breathshortly later after which Albany anoints Kent and Edgar joint rulers.  Kent declines and Edgar reluctantly assumes the role with: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”  A final indictment of false flattery and platitudes.

 

The End

 

 

 

 


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