by David Dean
The story of King Lear and his three daughters was very popular in Elizabethan England and was retold in chronicles, poems and plays. Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear originally had the longer title His True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters. With the unfortunate life of Edgar, son and heir to the Earl of Gloucester, and his sullen and assumed humour of Tom of Bedlam. As this tells us, there are two main plots: one about Lear and his daughters and the other about Gloucester and his son Edgar.
The aging King Lear of Britain, lacking a male heir, has decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril (married to the duke of Albany), Regan (married to the duke of Cornwall) and Cordelia (whose hand in marriage is sought by the King of France and the duke of Burgundy). Lear will still keep the title of King, an entourage of servants (including his beloved court Fool) and one hundred knights, and he plans to live with each daughter in turn. To prove they deserve this inheritance, Lear asks his daughters to publicly declare their love and devotion to him. Goneril and Regan offer him false flattery, but Cordelia, Lear’s favourite, can only say she loves him as a daughter should. Furious, Lear disinherits her. The duke of Kent protests and is banished by Lear. Burgundy withdraws his suit but the French king becomes Cordelia’s husband. Edmund, illegitimate son of the earl of Gloucester, tricks his father into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, plans to kill him; Edgar is forced to flee and takes on the disguise of a mad beggar, Tom of Bedlam.
Goneril and Regan soon tire of Lear and his rowdy company and break the terms of the arrangement. Realizing his mistake, Lear, accompanied only by his Fool and Kent (disguised as a servant), runs onto to the heath and meets Edgar when they seek shelter from a horrendous storm. Lear begins to slip into madness. Gloucester helps Lear escape the moor and is blinded by Cornwall for his treachery, who is then killed in turn by one of Gloucester’s servants. The death of her husband pleases Regan, who has become infatuated with Edmund.
Kent leads Lear to Dover, where Cordelia has arrived with French troops to help her father. She and Lear are reconciled. Edgar leads the blind Gloucester to Dover, preventing his father from committing suicide along the way. Goneril sends a servant, Oswald, to murder Gloucester, but Oswald is killed by Edgar who discovers a letter proving that Goneril plans to do away with her husband Albany so that she may marry Edmund. Edgar reveals this to Albany and asks that the duke set up a tournament in which a champion will fight Edmund to the death. Edgar reveals himself to his father but the shock kills Gloucester. The French army is defeated and Edmund orders both Lear and Cordelia to be executed. Regan announces that she will marry Edmund but is poisoned by the jealous Goneril, who then kills herself when she learns that her plan to kill her husband and marry Edmund has been discovered. Edgar, as the champion, fights and kills Edmund, who reveals that he has ordered Lear and Cordelia to be executed and urges them to be saved. However, it is too late: Lear appears carrying the dead Cordelia and dies leaving the kingdom to an uncertain future.