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King Lear: Analysis by Act and Scene

From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.


Act I, Scene i. In King Lear the exposition is in the closest conjunction with the complication or rising action. In lines 1-28 all the leading characters, except Edgar and the Fool, are introduced; the two plots and their interaction are prepared for, and the keynote of both Gloucester's character and Lear's is struck. With line 29 and the old king's announcement of his "darker purpose" begins the action of the Lear plot. "Darker" suggests the atmosphere of the drama. The love test, the division of the kingdom, the disinheritance of Cordelia, and the banishment of Kent, determine the issue of the whole action.

Act I, Scene ii, 1-304. The action of the Gloucester plot begins with Edmund's soliloquy, in which, like Richard the Third, he is determined to prove a villain, and his persuasion of Gloucester by a forged letter that Edgar wishes to conspire with him in a plot to kill their father and share his property. Edgar is introduced, and his open- mindedness results in his playing into the hands of his arch-enemy.

Act I, Scene iii, 1-186. Goneril's assumption of authority and her attitude to her father are revealed in her conversation with Oswald, who presents an effective contrast to Kent. Kent disguised enters Lear's service, and Lear pathetically begins to realize the position in which he has placed himself. In his answer to the Knight, iv, 64-68, is given a glimpse of his nobler nature. With the entry of the Fool, the keynote of whose character is struck in lines 69-70, the exposition is complete.


Act I, Scene iv, 187-338. The function of the Fool in evolving the plot is noteworthy. His poignant wit unmasks the real Goneril and compels her outburst of passion, which sets in motion the machinery that brings about the final overthrow of Lear's mind and the concluding scenes of devilry and death.

Act I, Scene v. While the Fool is preparing Lear for the way he will be treated by Regan, his sallies touch the old man to the quick. Lear begins to feel remorse for his treatment of Cordelia (line 22), and the tragic note is struck in all its terror in the cry to be saved from madness (lines 42-43). The very jests with which the Fool strives to avert his master's madness cooperate to augment it, fixing his mind on that which is the irritating cause.

Act II, Scene i. The Gloucester plot is developed by Edmund's success in turning his father against Edgar. When Edmund brings Regan and Cornwall to Gloucester's castle, the way is prepared for the union of the two plots. The chief link between the Lear plot and the Gloucester plot is Edmund's association with Regan and Goneril.

Act II, Scene ii. While Regan solicits Gloucester's aid and Corn wall invites Edmund's service, Oswald and Kent fight and Kent is put in the stocks, where, before he sleeps, he intimates that he is in communication with Cordelia.

Act II, Scene iii. Edgar plans to disguise himself as a Bedlam beggar. "His assumed madness serves the great purpose of taking off part of the shock which would otherwise be caused by the true madness of Lear." Coleridge.

Act II, Scene iv. Lear's anguish reaches its height when Regan shows herself to be crueler even than Goneril, and with the words "I shall go mad," line 280, he rushes out into a night of wild storm.

Act III, Scene i. The plot is further complicated by the news communicated by Kent to a friend that France, of which country Cordelia is now queen, has planned an invasion of Britain. The tide begins to turn against Regan and Goneril.

Act III, Scene ii. Lear, the Fool, and Kent are in the storm. Here, as in Julius Caesar, the storm is the dramatic background to the tempest of human passion. The old man appeals from his daughters to the heavens, and the heavens prove as deaf to his call as either Goneril or Regan. Amid the "dreadful pudder," line 45, of the elements, his "wits begin to turn," line 62.

Act III, Scene iii. The Gloucester plot is now closely interwoven with the Lear plot. Gloucester tells Edmund that he intends to aid Lear, and in this confidence he plays unwittingly into the hands of his enemies. The result is that he is suspected of being friendly to France, and the relations between Edmund, Cornwall, and Regan are strengthened.


Act III, Scene iv. In the hovel scene the Lear plot and the Gloucester plot are interwoven as one. Here, to use Aristotle's famous figure, all the elements of interest in main plot and subplot are tightened into a compact knot of general entanglement. Edgar is the victim of the Gloucester plot, and his disguise as a Bedlam beggar is the climax to the tragedy of his own sufferings; contact with the feigned madness of Edgar completes the overthrow of Lear's mind, and, while the storm continues to rumble, the old king begins to tear off his clothes. Gloucester, seeking to save Lear, reaches the hovel,- and in his words to Kent, lines 153-156, Edgar learns how his father had been deceived, and his anger against him is turned to pity. The beginning of the resolution in a drama is usually in the closest union with the climax. "From this meeting of the mad Edgar with the mad Lear there springs at once the final stroke in the misery Gloucester suffers from the son he has favored [the attempt to save Lear being betrayed by Edmund, who becomes thereby the cause of the vengeance which puts out his father's eyes] and the beginning of the forgiving love he is to experience from the son he has wronged." Moulton.


Act III, Scene v. Edmund's intrigue is successful. He betrays his father to Cornwall, and is made by Cornwall Earl of Gloucester. The development of the action up to this point in the drama has been masterly. With the resolution or falling action, there is a slack ening of the emotional tension until the scenes immediately before the denouement. All through the resolution Edmund and Edgar are prominent in the working out of the causes and conditions which are to bring about the catastrophe.

Act III, Scene vi. While Lear in his madness arraigns Regan and Goneril in an imaginary trial, with Edgar and the Fool as judges, Gloucester prepares to send him in a litter on the way to Dover to meet Cordelia. Act III, Scene vii. Gloucester, betrayed by Edmund, is brought before Cornwall and Regan. He is "pinioned like a thief," and Regan hears from his lips the first condemnation of her atrocious cruelty to her father. Stung by his reproaches, Cornwall gives orders for his eyes to be put out. In his agony Gloucester calls upon Edmund to avenge him, and he learns from Regan in a bitter speech that it is Edmund who has brought him to this pass. Cornwall receives a deathblow from a servant's sword.

Act IV, Scene i. The wronged Edgar lovingly tends his blind father on the way to Dover, and his tender regard is like that of Cordelia for Lear. From now on the place of Gloucester, who has acted as a link between the two plots, is taken by Edmund, whose story becomes one with that of Regan and Goneril.

Act IV, Scene ii. The success of Edmund's intrigue is entangling him in a relation which will be the nemesis to punish him. The adulterous love of Goneril for Edmund is resented by Albany.

Act IV, Scene iii. This scene, omitted in the Folios, is in dramatic contrast to the preceding. In a conversation between Kent and a Gentleman is revealed the solicitude with which Cordelia had learned of the treatment to which her father had been subjected.

Act IV, Scene iv. With drum and colors and attended by soldiers, indicating her rank as queen and the military preparations in progress, Cordelia re-enters upon the scene. In conversation with a Doctor she gives a wonderful word picture of Lear, who, "mad as the vex'd sea," line 2, has wandered away, crowned, like Ophelia, with wild flowers.

Act IV, Scene v. Goneril and the widowed Regan are rivals for the affection of Edmund. Regan tries to induce Oswald to betray his mistress, but in vain. One element in the catastrophe is plainly foreshadowed.

Act IV, Scene vi. This long scene is crowded with action. Edgar persuades his father that, though he threw himself over Dover cliff, he has been miraculously preserved. Lear in his insane wandering encounters Gloucester, led by Edgar, and the two hapless old sufferers talk until Lear is found by the attendants sent in search of him. Gloucester is then attacked by Oswald, who hopes to win high reward by killing him; but Edgar interposes, and Oswald is killed. On his body Edgar finds a letter from Goneril to Edmund proposing that he kill Albany and marry her. He plans to inform the "death-practis'd duke."

Act IV, Scene vii. In all his great tragedies, with the notable exception of Othello, when the forces of the resolution or falling action are gathering towards the denouement, Shakespeare introduces a scene which appeals to an emotion different from any of those excited elsewhere in the play. "As a rule this new emotion is pathetic; and the pathos is not terrible or lacerating, but, even if painful, is accompanied by the sense of beauty and by an outflow of admiration or affection, which come with an inexpressible sweetness after the tension of the crisis and the first counter-stroke. So it is with the reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius, and the arrival of the news of Portia's death. The most famous instance of this effect is the scene where Lear wakes from sleep and finds Cordelia bending over him, perhaps the most tear-compelling passage in literature." Bradley.

Act V, Scene i. The action now falls rapidly to the denouement. Interest in the preparations by Edmund and Albany for the impending battle with the French army is subordinated to the interest in the bitter division between Regan and Goneril caused by jealousy of Edmund. Edgar, disguised, brings Goneril's treacherous letter to Albany, and arranges that, if Cordelia loses, he should call for a champion to challenge Edgar.

Act V, Scene ii. Between military alarums Edgar takes farewell of Gloucester. Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoners. The insignificance of this battle as compared with the corresponding battles in Julius Caesar and Macbeth is due partly to the dramatic necessity for concentrating attention on the main interest of the plot, and partly to the fact that while the play calls for sympathy with Lear and Cordelia, Elizabethan patriotism demanded that the British forces win, and in these circumstances the more meagre the description the better (see note, V, ii, 5).


Act V, Scene iii. The action of the denouement is swift and marvellously concentrated. The results of all the varied actions are gathered up in 326 lines, where every word tells. All the leading characters of the opening scene gather to receive the reward of their deeds. It is the sudden reaping of a terrible sowing. Albany demands the release of Cordelia and Lear, and Edmund refuses to give them up. The quarrel that ensues shows to what an insane length had gone the indecent rivalry of Regan and Goneril over Edmund. Regan, given poison by her sister, dies horribly. Albany taunts his wife with the incriminating letter, charges Edmund with treason, and calls for the champion. Edgar enters the lists, and Edmund falls. Goneril stabs herself to death, and, while Edgar hastens to save the prisoners, Lear totters on the scene with mur dered Cordelia in his arms, and in a wild burst of grief over her, dies. The wheel, indeed, is come full circle. The " darker purpose "of the opening scene has brought about this holocaust. Mortals are punished for their mistakes as well as for their crimes, and the innocent are overwhelmed in the disasters wrought by fools and knaves.


At the beginning of IV, vii, the scene of Lear's reunion with Cordelia, the stage direction found in most modern editions is:

SCENE VII. A tent in the French camp. LEAR on a bed asleep, soft music playing; Gentleman and others attending. Enter CORDELIA, KENT, and DOCTOR.

Koppel1 has made clear that this stage direction, undoubtedly an inheritance from the Nahum Tate version, is at variance with the text and destroys both the dramatic and the poetical significance of the first meeting of Cordelia and her father since they parted in I, i. The text shows that Cordelia has not seen her father until the moment before she begins, "O my dear father" (line 26).

The stage direction in Quartos and First Folio make no mention of Lear at the beginning of the scene, indicating that he is not on the stage at all. The Quartos give no subsequent stage direction in the scene, but in the First Folio, immediately after Cordelia has asked, "Is he array'd?"2 the stage direction is, Enter Lear in a chaire carried by Seruants. The moment of this entrance, as so frequently in the First Folio, is probably too soon, and should come at the words, "Please you, draw near" (line 25).

Professor Bradley sums up his argument in support of the First Folio stage direction as follows:

This arrangement (1) allows Kent his proper place in the scene; (2) makes it clear that Cordelia has not seen her father before; (3) makes her first sight of him a theatrical crisis in the best sense; (4) makes it quite natural that he should kneel; (5) makes it obvious why he should leave the stage again when he shows signs of exhaustion; and (6) is the only arrangement which has the slightest authority. ... Of course the chair arrangement is primitive, but the Elizabethans did not care about such things. What they cared for was dramatic effect.

FOOTNOTE 1: Textkritische Studien Uber Richard III u. King Lear. Dresden, 1877. Cf. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, pages 453-456.
FOOTNOTE 2: 'Array'd' here has reference to his being properly tended after his mad wanderings in the fields, crowned with wild flowers. The Gentleman's mention of 'fresh garments' makes this clear.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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