King Lear Character Outlines & Description
King of Britain. At the beginning of the play Lear wilfully demands a show of parental loyalty, in exchange for a share of his divided kingdom. In choosing this forced way of dividing his realm between his three daughters, Lear prevents truthful and spontaneous responses. He receives dutiful assurances from two of his children, but the youngest refuses to participate and Lear angrily sends her away. This act sets in motion a chain of events that result in Lear's fall from his royal position, the loss of his beloved daughter Cordelia and the mistreatment of the King and his knights by the other daughters, Regan and Goneril. The journey of the play takes Lear from his arrogant kingly status to the lowliest beggar and finally to understanding, compassion and self-awareness. At the end of the final act, Lear has momentarily regained his crown, his truthful daughter and his sanity, only to lose them all. He dies in an agony of grief and joy, thinking Cordelia is still alive, but also aware that he has caused so much misery.
Lear's eldest daughter. In reply to Lear's question, 'which of you shall we say doth love us most?' Goneril replies that she loves her father 'more than word can wield the matter.' Given her large share of the kingdom, Goneril later reveals her true intentions to get rid of Lear to her sister Regan, with the chilling conclusion 'We must do something, and i'the'heat'. She is wife to the Duke of Albany, who disapproves of her treatment of her father. Volatile and vicious, she humiliates her father in front of his retinue, refusing him shelter. When Albany calls her barbarous, Goneril despises her husband for what she perceives of as weakness. She plans to kill Albany and lusts after Edmund, but becomes jealous when she finds out Regan wants Edmund for herself. After poisoning her sister Regan, Goneril stabs herself and dies.
Lear's middle daughter. In the division of the kingdom Regan decrees that her only joy in life is to love her father. Wife to the Duke of Cornwall, she is cruel and superior, prefering to stay in the background when Goneril is around. Regan initially refuses to see her father when he visits and joins with Goneril in humiliating him. When Goneril berates Lear for needing 50 knights, Regan supports her sister and pointedly asks 'What need one?', sending Lear off without shelter into the stormy night. She urges on her husband to pluck out Gloucester's eyes, then lusts after Edmund when Cornwall dies. When she threatens to tell Albany of Goneril's plan to kill him, Regan is poisoned by her sister and dies.
Lear's youngest daughter, she is pure of love and meticulously honourable, even to the point of accepting terrible hardship in order to keep her integrity. Cordelia refuses to answer Lear's demand for a public demonstration of her love - 'Nothing, my lord'. Lear, expecting Cordelia to speak more opulently, berates her 'Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.' Cordelia then replies that if she were truly honest, she loves her father as much as she can and when wed, she will share her love for her father with love for her husband. Furious, Lear sends her away with nothing - 'Thy truth then be thy dower!' and dismissively offers her to the King of France or the Duke of Burgundy to take away - 'Better thou hadst not been born than not t'have pleased me better.' France sees her virtue and offers to marry her without a dowry. Banished after the division of the kingdom, she returns with a French Army to fight for her father, and although reunited with him, in the end Cordelia pays the ultimate price for her father's moral blindness, murdered in prison.
Equally loyal to King Lear, but in contrast to Cordelia, the Fool berates the King for his own foolishness. Lear asks 'Dost thou call me fool?', to which he replies 'All thy other titles thou has given away.' He doesn't appear until Act One Scene Four, when Lear enquires why he has not seen the Fool lately and is told 'since my young lady's going to France, sir, the Fool hath pined away...' Haunting and astute, the Fool stays with Lear, throughout his wanderings, acting as a chorus, talking in witty riddles, questions and answers. Only the rationally foolish Fool and the pretend-mad Edgar are with Lear in his descent into real madness. He at times acts like the child that Lear needs, but without the Fool to humanise him, the audience would not feel as linked to Lear. The Fool fades from the play when he is no longer needed. Sometime on the road to Dover, never recovering from the loss of Cordelia, the Fool hangs himself in grief. His only epitaph is spoken by Lear 'and my poor fool is hanged.'
A parallel to Lear, Gloucester also doesn't recognise the true nature of his children. He is deceived by Edmund into banishing Edgar and pays a heavy price for his failings. Cruelly blinded by Cornwall and Regan, he wanders hopelessly until found by his son Edgar, who he fails to recognise and believes to be Poor Tom. Led to Dover, where he hopes to jump from the cliff, Edgar deceives him into believing he has jumped and survived miraculously. He is briefly reunited with Lear and the present state of both the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester graphically depicts how far they both have fallen. Gloucester finds out the truth of Edmund's treachery, but it is too late and he dies, like Lear, 'twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief...'
Elder legitimate son of Gloucester, light and honest, he is tricked by his jealous brother Edmund into running away and disguises himself as Poor Tom of Bedlam. This enables him to reinvent himself, staying close to Lear, Kent and the Fool. A parallel to Cordelia, Edgar is innocent, yet stubborn, but goes further by drawing himself into the lowest form of human existence - a madman and fool. He stumbles upon his father, blinded by Cornwall and seeking help. Taking pity, Edgar cares for Gloucester, leading him as requested to Dover, but tricking him into believing he has fallen from the high cliff. He is about to kill Edmund in single combat but is stopped by Albany. At the end of the play, he is asked to co-rule the kingdom with Albany. Having debased himself in order to recover his humanity, it is fitting that Edgar delivers the last lines of the play, offering a shaft of hope amongst the devastation- 'The weight of this sad time we must obey...The oldest hath borne most; we that are young shall never see so much nor live so long.'
The bastard son of Gloucester, he 'came saucily to the world' when his father begat him with his mother. Dark and brooding, he is like the anti-Hamlet in his soliloquies. 'Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me...Why bastard? Wherefore base?' He conspires to turn his father against Edgar by falsifying a letter and planting ideas of a plot to remove his father. Edmund then tricks Edgar into running away, and compounds the view in Gloucester's mind that Edgar is guilty. Basking in the renewed love of his father, Edmund enjoys the approval of Cornwall and Regan for exposing Edgar's supposed treason. But then worried that his father's support for Lear will deprive him of his newly acquired status, Edmund betrays his father. Lusted after by both Goneril and Regan, Edmund's ambition grows, and he plots to kill Albany and assume the throne. When Albany plans to grant amnesty for Lear and Cordelia, Edmund captures the king and his daughter in the battle and orders them to be murdered. Exposed of his treachery and wounded in combat with the returned Edgar, Edmund briefly repents of his evil, moved by his brother's telling of Gloucester's death. He dies from his stab wounds, joining Regan and Goneril 'all three now marry in an instant'.
The second longest part, the Earl of Kent delivers the first line of the play and through to the end is present in most of the scenes. Fiercely loyal to King Lear, he is unable to watch the King's treatment of Cordelia without speaking out. Subsequently banished for his intervention, Kent returns almost immediately to serve his king in disguise as 'Caius'. His quarrel with Oswald lands him in the stocks and Gloucester's freeing of him, leads to Gloucester's torment and Lear being thrown out of the castle in to the storm. Kent stays with the King in the hovel, the only sane voice amongst the mad Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom. Communicating with Cordelia by letter, Kent keeps her informed of Lear's situation and orchestrates their reunion. After Lear's death, Albany asks Kent to help rule the kingdom, but Kent refuses, loyal to end to King Lear - 'I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me, I must not say no.'