Dementia. Unexpected socialist leanings. Real estate woes. King Lear is about aging: the regret, but also the loss of control and the shock when you discover you are just as frail as the old people you used to make fun of.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “It’s hell getting old.”
What happens in King Lear
The aging King Lear of England decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He demands each of them prove how much they love him. Whoever loves him the most will get the most land.
Goneril and Regan, the two oldest daughters, offer some patently insubstantial flattery. Cordelia, the youngest, is disgusted by this display. She states the simple truth that she loves her father. Lear misunderstands, gets angry, and disowns Cordelia. She elopes with the King of France.
Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan. Lear’s trusted friend Kent warns that this may be a mistake. Lear gets angry and banishes Kent. We begin to sense an anger-and-banishment theme.
Kent turns right around and goes into Lear’s service in disguise. It may be a clue to Lear’s declining mental health that he doesn’t recognize Kent, but then again, it’s Shakespeare. All it takes is a hat to change your appearance beyond all recognition. Or if you’re a woman, a pair of pants.
There’s a subplot with another noble, Gloucester. We don’t usually do subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR, but bear with me, because this one leads to some very dramatic dying by important characters. Gloucester has 2 sons: Edgar (whose mother was Mrs. Gloucester, making him legitimate) and Edmund (whose mother was, according to a seriously inappropriate dad speech Gloucester makes, not his wife but most impressive in the sack). Edmund schemes against Gloucester and Edgar because he wants a bigger inheritance. Edgar realizes his brother wants to kill him and goes away in disguise.
Back to the main plot. Lear stays with Goneril first, but she gets tired of hosting his entourage of 100 knights and their non-bathing ways. She throws him out.
Lear goes to Regan next. She doesn’t let him stay with her at all.
The two sisters gang up on Lear and demand he let go of some of the knights if he wants any help from them. This is a thinly disguised bid for power: they are afraid he can take over the kingdom again with his entourage of irrational men who have swords.
Lear realizes his daughters don’t love him after all. He gets angry. Usually when he gets to peak rage he banishes people, but this time he’s not the landlord, so he just stomps out into a storm. Kent follows him.
Out on the wild moors, Lear has a crisis of conscience. It occurs to him that he shouldn’t have disowned Cordelia. And one night of sleeping in a hut shows him that he should have been kinder to homeless people while he was in power.
Lear and Kent encounter Gloucester, who has gone out to help the unmoored (sorry) king in spite of orders from Regan and Goneril to stay away from him.
Gloucester goes home. Regan has his eyeballs plucked out to punish him. Later his son Edgar-in-disguise helps him.
Kent leads Lear to Dover. They find Cordelia and her husband (the King of France) preparing to invade England (now controlled by Goneril and Regan).
The battle happens. The French lose. Lear and Cordelia are captured.
Regan and Goneril argue because they are both in love with Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son. Goneril kills Regan.
Gloucester learns Edgar-in-disguise’s identity and dies of, apparently, a happy shock.
Edgar stabs Edmund. Edmund gasps out that he’s sent someone to execute Cordelia and Lear, then he dies.
Goneril is having the worst day ever. She commits suicide.
Lear goes to stop Edmund’s messenger, but it’s too late. Cordelia has already been hanged. Lear dies of a broken heart.
For a more, with pictures, hie thee to the hilarious Good Tickle-Brain’s King Lear summary.