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Lear, the elderly king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom into three parts to give to his three daughters. But before he officially does so, he demands they proclaim aloud how much they love him. The eldest daughters of Lear, Goneril and Regan, both indulge his request, but his youngest, Cordelia, is too honest for her own good. Despite being Lear's favorite and having the most love for her father, Cordelia refuses to flatter her father and gives a rather brief response. Enraged at her apparent lack of gratitude, Lear banishes his faithful daughter, as well as his own close friend the Earl of Kent who speaks in her defense. Cordelia's share is divvied up between her elder sisters and Lear announces his retirement, though he insists on keeping one hundred knights, the respect and title of a king, and free room and board at his daughters' homes.
It doesn't take long before Lear wears out his welcome. His daughters, resentful and wary from the outset, quickly tire of his knights causing trouble, not to mention the vast expense of keeping them in their father's employ. Lear is outraged and, rather than compromising with his daughters, he rails against them. When they refuse to take in his knights, Lear refuses their shelter, and is caught out in a thunderstorm while both his followers and his sanity desert him. He is left with only his Fool and the disguised Earl of Kent to care for him.
A closely-related subplot follows another family, that of the Earl of Gloucester, another of Lear's close friends. His younger son, the illegitimate Edmund, tricks Gloucester into thinking his legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. Gloucester is duped and Edgar goes on the run, disguising himself as a homeless madman to escape capture. Edgar falls in with his godfather Lear, while Edmund, resentful of the world who judges him simply because he was born a bastard, decides to show everyone what a bastard he can be and seduces not just one but BOTH of Lear's elder daughters. With a few deft moves, he goes from inheriting nothing to potentially the most powerful man in Britain.
And then the kingdom is attacked by Cordelia's recent husband, the King of France ... hilarity does NOT ensue .
King Lear is an extremely powerful play, and for quite some time was unpopular with critics and audiences because it made what was once a traditional Happily Ever After Fairy Tale ending massively depressing instead. Honest children are punished while villains prosper, the good characters suffer through madness and despair and are forced to extreme measures merely to survive, a king is forced to face his own sins, and one character is tortured brutally on-stage. The kingdom is left a shattered mess, and, if done right, so is the audience. The ending is so depressing that it was fully rewritten in 1681, so Cordelia survives and marries Edgar; the revision was more popular than the original for over than a hundred years. After World War II and the horrors people saw in it, the story of Lear made a comeback. Today, it is considered one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, along with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello.
The play has been adapted several times for the screen, but no adaptation is more famous than the one that moves it to Japan, changes the daughters into sons, and adds a whole bunch of other stuff. Ran.
It's also been adapted into literature, such as Jane Smiley's 1991 novel A Thousand Acres, itself adapted into a movie. A reimagining of the story from the perspective of the Fool was written by Christopher Moore.
- Abdicate the Throne: The decision that kicks the whole thing off.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: The original ending proved so unpopular, that less than a century after it was first put on, most stage versions reworked the play to have a happy ending. While critics bashed it, the legend the play was originally based on virtually does have Cordelia live. In fact, her death was supposed to be a "twist" ending in Shakespeare's play.
- Ambition Is Evil: Edmund, Regan and Goneril all have high ambitions, making them the main Antagonists.
- Anachronism Stew: King Lear is a legendary Brythonic monarch said to have reigned sometime before 400 BC. All the terminology used in the play however is either contemporary to Shakespeare's time or only a few centuries before that. This is standard for the time.
- Author Avatar: The Fool. (He only exists in the Shakespeare version)
- Badass Bystander: In Act 3 Scene 7 one of Cornwall's servants defies and fatally wound him, trying to save Gloucester.
- Badass Grandpa / Papa Wolf: Lear despite being canonically in his eighties kills the executioner who was holding him and his daughter when he executed Cordelia.
- Bastard Bastard: Edmund.
- Body Motifs: The play is littered with references to eyes. These explore the nature of truth and our understanding of it — Lear is blind to the love of the only daughter who actually cares for him, Gloucester loses his sight for his loyalty to the crown, while Kent and Old Tom must disguise themselves to aid it.
- Brother Chuck: The Fool vanishes from the play between Acts and his whereabouts are never accounted for. Many speculate that the character probably was meant to have died and that the scene explicitly stating or depicting this was lost. His final line about "Going to bed at noon," has been interpreted as Foreshadowing his demise. Another theory is that the Fool and Cordelia may have been depicted by the same actor in the original production, necessitating the disappearance of one when the other reenters the play.
- Interestingly, King Lear refers to Cordelia as his "poor fool", possibly supporting the latter theory.
- Cain and Abel: Subverted. Since he was born out of wedlock, Edmund is Edgar's half-brother. However, this doesn't stop Edmund trying to do away with and discredit Edgar in the pursuit for his father's title. Edgar finishes Edmund off in the final act, the religious Aesop being that the true child will always triumph over the bastard.
- Character Title
- The Chessmaster: Edmund, Regan and Goneril.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: This trope is shared between Edmund, Regan and Goneril. Edmund tries to play the two off against one another, while they both sexually pursue him in order to harness his raw ambition for their own benefit. Their interactions become increasingly more fractured towards the end of the play as the three Chessmasters try to outdo one another.
- Darker and Edgier: Pity Shakespeare's audience; the story they'd all heard couldn't have prepared them for this.
- Downer Ending: Almost every named character is dead, and it's heavily implied that one of the handful of survivors plans to kill himself shortly.
- Eviler Than Thou: Edmund's ruthless pragmatism generally gets the better of Regan and Goneril's more personal vendettas.
- Eye Scream: Gloucester.
- Get Thee to a Nunnery: 'Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill,' I cannot conceive you' (though it is a bit more like verbal irony in I.1.11)
Kent: I cannot conceive you.
- It's practically a 'your mum' joke.
- Gold Digger: Cordelia has a suitor who drops his suit when her father disinherits her.
- Heel Face Door Slam: Edmund uses his last breath to repeal his death sentence upon Cordelia. Naturally, it's too late.
- Hope Spot: Lear eventually reunites with Cordelia and obtains her forgiveness. Yay! Wait, what just happened?
- Hurricane Of Insults: Hoo boy, Kent's got a mean tongue.
Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
- And so also gets into Flowery Insults with stuff like "Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter""
- It Got Worse: King Lear starts with a king giving his land away to his daughters after they tell him how much they love him, then one refuses to and he banishes her, then banishes the man who objects to the kings choices, then he gets betrayed by the first, and then second, of his daughters. At the same time Gloucester is being manipulated (and eventually betrayed) by his bastard son Edmund to cast out his legitimate son Edgar, and has his eyes put out in a rather horrid way. Meanwhile, while Edmund is manipulating his way towards becoming ruler of England, Lear is wandering the countryside slowly going insane, and even when he is reunited with his youngest daughter... um, yeah...
- Kill'Em All: Obviously. This play has one heck of a body count.
- Lady of War: Affairs in France force Cordelia's husband to remind behind when the French army comes to Lear's aid, and even though a conversation mentions the man assigned to lead in his absence, Cordelia is the only one shown to be in charge.
- Long List
- Love Hurts: Pretty much all the conflicts from this play spawn from love that is not understood, expressed, or requited.
- Manipulative Bastard: Quite literally in the case of Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Throughout the play, he uses just about every character he meets in order to heighten his own power, no matter what the cost.
- Master of Disguise: The Earl of Kent disguises himself as a servant after being banished by King Lear, and Edgar disguises himself as a madman after he is declared an outlaw by his father. Both of them are able to fool close friends and family (and each other).
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The Fool.
- Obviously Evil: Edmund is the illegitimate son. Remember that the play was written 400 years ago.
- One-Scene Wonder: The First Servant, who suddenly takes a level in badass and defies Cornwall.
- Only Sane Man: Kent and the Duke of Albany. Edgar is one as well, but he spends most of the play pretending to be insane.
- Plot Parallel
- Promoted to Love Interest: Edgar/Cordelia in the 1681 rewrite (Cordelia's original husband, the King of France, naturally doesn't exist in this version).
- Pyrrhic Victory: The defeat of the villain seems worthless when contrasted with how many good people have died.
- Sanity Slippage: Lear.
- Self-Made Orphan: Edmund doesn't actually kill his father, but he's totally complacent as even worse things are done to him. This makes Edmund very much an Evil Prince.
- Smite Me Oh Mighty Smiter: The storm scene is the archetypal example — thunder, lightning and all.
- Because of Lear's rather unwound state, however, he alternates between cursing nature, asking nature to smite Goneril and Regan, and thanking nature for not being as inhumanely cruel as Goneril and Regan.
- This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: By the end of the play, Edgar is convinced that only he can undo his brother's plot.
- Took a Level In Badass: Edgar begins the story a naive, loyal, dutiful son and brother. However, when Edmund makes a fugitive of him, not only does Edgar set out to save his father and godfather (Lear), but he kills Oswald in combat, nurses his father's wounds and tricks him out of suicidal depression, uncovers his brother's treachery, and defeats said brother, fatally wounding him.
- And the Duke of Albany, who is described as "mild" but turns out to be one of the only characters willing to stand up to Regan or Goneril.
- Villain's Dying Grace: A complete My God, What Have I Done? moment from Edmund as he dies allows the King to be rescued. However, they were too late to save Cordelia.
- You Know What You Did
- Youngest Child Wins: Cordelia is the only one of Lear's daughters who actually loves him enough not to demean him with flattery.
- Subverted with Edgar and Edmund — Edmund is younger than Edgar, so even if he wasn't born out of wedlock he still couldn't inherit Gloucester's land and title. Edgar is, however, the one who eventually foils his half-brother's schemes.
- What Happened to the Mouse??: In one of the oldest and most famous examples of this trope, The Fool abruptly disappears from the play between Acts 3 and 4. Different productions handle this in different manners, e.g.
- Playing it straight, sticking to the script and offering no explanation.
- Offering some vague clue, enabling the production to stay true to the script but also offering the audience a degree of closure; for example, in The Movie adaptation starring Ian Holm, the Fool is shown having trouble breathing in the scene just after the thunderstorm, suggesting hypothermia. This, coupled with the fact that the actor playing the Fool is obviously well into his sixties, implies that the Fool has died between acts.
- Being blatant about it: The recent Royal Shakespeare Company run with Ian McKellen had a silent execution scene that served to explain his disappearance and emphasise the growing cruelty of England under Regan and Goneril. (Lear does say, "And my poor fool is hanged," in the final scene, but it's not clear exactly what this means.)
- The Fool's final appearance is often given some symbolic overtone. In addition to the example already given, the Drury Lane Theatre's 2005 production had the Fool tap Tom O'Bedlam/ Edgar on the shoulder as he walked off the stage for the last time, passing O'Bedlam his Jester's baton. O'Bedlam was left staring at the baton in his hands with a confused look on his face, then he spouted some inane gibberish and followed the rest of the cast. From that point on, every time O'Bedlam appeared on stage ( until he reveals himself as Edgar at the end), he carried the baton with him. Many interpret The Fool's disappearance as being due to his redundancy as comic relief and holy fool once O'Bedlam appears — note that the Fool has few lines in his final scenes, starting from when Tom O'Bedlam is first introduced — and this "passing of the baton" acknowledged that.
- In the Parody version "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth" by Richard Nathan, the play ends with the Fool bounding back onstage and saying, "Hey, everyone, I'm back! Did I miss anything?"