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Ultimate King Lear Cheatsheet | English Advanced

Read this article to get an understanding of the key concerns in King Lear so you can ace your next English assessment.

Are you struggling to understand Shakespeare’s King Lear at school? Are you looking for tips on how not to divide your kingdom? Well, you’re in the right place. In this article, we discuss the plot, the main characters, Shakespeare’s key contextual points and the main themes – with examples! – in ‘King Lear’.

 

In our King Lear Cheatsheet, we will discuss:

 

What happens in King Lear?

King Lear has ruled over Britain for a long time and is now 80 years old. He decides that it is time to step down and pass on his responsibilities and distribute his kingdom to his 3 daughters. His two eldest daughters are already married, and his youngest currently has 2 suitors: The Duke of Burgundy and The King of France.

He decides to test his daughters’ love for him to determine the distribution of the land. King Lear’s two eldest daughters, Goneril, Duchess of Albany, and Regan, Duchess of Cornwall, both give moving speeches of love to flatter their father. On the other hand, King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, remains silent as she claims that there is nothing she can say that will truly capture her great love for her father. However, King Lear misunderstands her silence and banishes her forever.

The kingdom is now distributed between Goneril and Regan. When the Duke of Burgundy discovers that Cordelia is banished, he withdraws his proposal. So, Cordelia leaves with the King of France who still wishes to marry her.

Hearing this, King Lear’s loyal nobleman, the Earl of Kent, tells King Lear that banishing Cordelia is wrong. So, King Lear banishes Kent too. Instead of leaving, Kent decides to go in disguise as Caius to help King Lear.

A similar storyline also occurs to the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund, lies about Gloucester’s real son, Edgar. He claims that Edgar is planning to murder his own father to take over his land and money. Gloucester becomes mad and hunts Edgar down causing Edgar to go into hiding by disguising himself as a beggar, ‘Poor Tom’.

King Lear soon learns that he has made a mistake when his two daughters Regan and Goneril and their husbands begin to dismiss him and turn against him. Angered and alone, he ends up alone in a storm with a Fool and Kent disguised as Caius. There, he slowly becomes mad.

Goneril and Regan are angered by Gloucester’s loyalty towards King Lear as he attempts to help Lear. So, they banish him to the countryside alone. There, his legitimate son disguised as Poor Tom helps him.

Meanwhile, in Dover, Cordelia leads her French army to save her father from her sisters and their army led by Edmund. She reunites with her father who begs for her forgiveness.

Regan and her husband, Cornwall, gouges out Gloucester’s eyes and blind him. This causes Gloucester to attempt suicide. However, his son, Edgar as Poor Tom, saves him and reunites him with King Lear.

Both Regan and Goneril fall for Edmund despite having husbands. However, Edmund is uninterested in them because he is driven by his goals. As such, Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy and plans to kill her own husband.

The sisters’ army defeats Cordelia’s army. So, King Lear and Cordelia are captured and due to be hanged. Edgar, as Poor Tom, duels Edmund and kills him. On his dying breath, he tells a messenger that Cordelia should be saved. When Goneril finds out about Edmund’s death, she kills herself.

Unluckily, the messenger arrives at the prison too late, as Cordelia is already dead. King Lear is carrying her body. Here, he finds out that Gloucester also died during the battle from suicide. King Lear dies of heartache from all the deaths which also causes his loyal Kent to commit suicide.

Only Edgar is alive.

ultimate king lear cheat sheet - year 11 eng adv - plot summary

 

Who are the main characters?

We know there are a lot of characters in Shakespeare’s texts. So, let’s go through who they all are so you have a better understanding of them!

 

King Lear

King Lear is the aging King of Britain and the father of Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. He enjoys flattery and grand appearances of love, regardless of their hollowness and falseness. However, by the end of the play, he learns that love is not just about superficial acts, it is about loyalty and devotion.

 

Cordelia

Cordelia is King Lear’s youngest daughter. She is banished from Britain by her own father for staying silent when he asks his daughters to declare their love for him. She is a virtuous woman and loyal and devoted to her father. She is also very forgiving of her father.

 

Goneril

Goneril is King Lear’s eldest daughter and Albany’s wife. She is easily jealous, ruthless and aggressive.

 

Regan

Regan is King Lear’s middle daughter and Cornwall’s wife. Like Goneril, she is also jealous, ruthless, and aggressive.

 

Earl of Kent/Caius

Earl of Kent is very loyal to King Lear, despite being banished by Lear. He even goes into disguise as Caius so he can continue to help King Lear.

 

Earl of Gloucester

Earl of Gloucester is King Lear’s friend and father to Edgar (legitimately) and Edmund (illegitimately). He seems weak and easily fooled as he misjudged his son’s intentions. However, at the end of the play, he shows some signs of courage.

 

Edgar/Poor Tom

Edgar is Gloucester’s legitimate son. He is devoted to his father and goes into disguise as a beggar (Poor Tom) to help him despite being hunted down by his own father.

 

Edmund

Edmund is Gloucester’s illegitimate son. He is greedy, jealous and a liar. He lies to Gloucester to banish Edgar so he is able to inherit Gloucester’s wealth.

ultimate king lear cheat sheet - year 11 eng adv - characters

 

Context of King Lear

King Lear was written in 1604, shortly after Queen Elizabeth died and James I ascended the throne. Shakespeare used the myth of Leir of Britain, a mythical king of England from around the 8th century BCE as source material. The “biography” he used was the History of the Kings of England by Geoffery of Monmouth (Fun fact: this is the same text that contains the first references to a magician named Merlin and a king called Arthur!). Shakespeare crafted this myth of Leir to make it relevant for his Jacobean viewers. It is highly important that you understand Shakespeare’s context when he wrote the text as it will help you better understand the text and why it was written.

Try thinking about the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s context and our current context! This might help you realise parts of the human condition or common social experiences.

So, let’s dig into some key contextual points.

 

Based on legal cases and past stories

The base plot of King Lear is something that Shakespeare’s audience would be very familiar with hearing. During this time, there was a popular case of Sir Brian Annesley, where his two daughters attempted to declare their father insane to take over his properties. However, Annesleys’ youngest daughter, Cordell, fought against her sisters and successfully stopped them.

There was also a case much earlier where Sir William Allen was mistreated by his three daughters after dividing his properties between them. He died in the end.

Furthermore, in the 1590s, there was also a play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir. This has a similar plot to King Lear, only with a happy ending where Cordelia wins and King Lear takes his throne again.

As such, King Lear‘s storyline is one that the Shakespearean audience is very familiar with. This would have piqued their interest in the story as they would be curious to see how Shakespeare shaped the story in his own way.  

 

Primogeniture law (laws of inheritance)

There was a law during Shakespeare’s time where the oldest male is to inherit the property after the father dies. Since King James is the leader of 3 kingdoms – England, Scotland and Ireland – there were questions about his division of properties to his children. However, King James was determined to pass on all 3 kingdoms to 1 heir in order to ensure the strength of the monarchy and maintain social order.

This is why Shakespeare delves into the troubles of dividing property in King Lear. When King Lear attempts to divide his property, chaos ensues. In the end, he dies, all of his daughters die, and his servant and friend die too. This reaffirms King Lear’s decision to pass his inheritance to 1 heir.

 

Monarchy was under constant scrutiny over ‘true succession’ – Divine Rights of Kings

The Divine Rights of Kings was a common political doctrine during Shakespeare’s time that believed that the Kings (or Queens) was chosen by God and therefore they have absolute power to rule. As such, it was very important for Shakespeare’s audience to have the ‘true ruler’ on the throne and not someone who usurped the throne for their own benefit.

This is why the English throne has always had conflicts regarding true successions. The notorious War of Roses (1455-1487) was a battle for the thrones. Two houses branching from the same royal House of Plantagenet – Lancaster and Yorks – fought over the English throne as they both believe they should be the true ruler. Long story short, at the end of the war, the two houses were united, leading into the Tudor Dynasty where Queen Elizabeth I ruled. This is why there were so many Shakespearean plays that attempted to reaffirm Elizabeth’s divine right to rule. (If you like to learn more about the War of Roses, take a read of the Context section of King Richard III & Looking for Richard Part 1)

Since Queen Elizabeth I didn’t have a male heir, she appointed the throne to James IV of Scotland to be the next King. When she died, James IV of Scotland became King James I of England. As such, King Lear attempts to reaffirm James I succession. King Lear was a good ruler who kept society stable, despite having some hollow values. This is especially contrasted against his daughters who became ruthless and greedy for power once given responsibility and authority. So, King Lear reaffirms the patriarchal monarchy as we see the stark differences between King Lear and the two daughter’s ruling styles.

ultimate king lear cheat sheet - year 11 eng adv - context

 

Main themes and examples

You need a strong understanding of the main themes in King Lear to write Band 6 essays! So, let’s go through some of the main themes and examples in this Shakespearean text.

 

Appearance and reality

The difference between appearance and reality appears in King Lear in numerous ways. The first instance is when Lear’s two daughters, Goneril and Regan, exaggerate their declaration of love for Lear, despite it being hollow and meaningless.

Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour,
As much as child e’er loved or father found—
A love that makes breath poor and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
– Goneril, Act 1, Scene 1

Sir, I am made of that self mettle as my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart,
I find she names my very deed of love—
Only she comes too short, that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses.
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness’ love.
– Regan, Act 1, Scene 1

These hollow and flattering platitudes trick Lear into thinking that they love him more than Cordelia as she chose to remain silent as no words can express her great love for her father. Here, the CONTRAST between Cordelia’s silence and Goneril and Raegan’s flattery is what conveys the theme.

(aside) What shall Cordelia speak?
Love, and be silent…
Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s
More ponderous than my tongue.”

– Cordelia, Act 1, Scene 1

These false and misleading appearances lead to King Lear’s demise as Goneril and Regan only put up a show of ‘love’ to inherit his property and gain power. Meanwhile, Cordelia comes off as though she doesn’t love her father when in reality, it is the opposite. As such, Shakespeare highlights the importance of being more critical of appearances and not accepting them at surface level.

Similarly, Edmund pretends to be a good and loyal son and lies to his father, Gloucester, about Edgar to rid of his half brother and inherit the wealth.

I beseech you, sir, pardon me. It is a
letter from my brother that I have
not all o’er-read. And for so much
as I have perused, I find it not fit for
your o’erlooking.
– Edgar, Act 1, Scene 2

Other examples of the dichotomy between appearances reality are found in the disguises used by Edgar and Kent when they are in hiding or banished, respectively.

Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom after his father attempts to hunt him down based on Edmund’s accusations. However, even after these actions, he still tries to help his father while under disguise. He saves his father from suicide by making him jump on flat land as opposed to a cliff (his father is blind because his eyes were gouged out by Regan).

EDGAR
Gone, sir. Farewell.
(aside) And yet I know not how conceit may rob
The treasury of life when life itself
Yields to the theft. Had he been where he thought,
By this had thought been past. Alive or dead?—
Ho you, sir, friend! Hear you, sir? Speak.—
Thus might he pass indeed. Yet he revives.—
What are you, sir?”

GLOUCESTER
Away, and let me die.”

Edgar also says that it is better to be a beggar and openly hated as opposed to being Edgar and secretly hated by others, highlighting the theme of appearance and reality:

Yet better thus, and known to be contemned,
Than still contemned and flattered.
– Act 4, Scene 1

Similar to Edgar, the Earl of Kent also uses a disguise to help the man who banished him in the first place, King Lear. Kent pretends to be Caius to continue to serve the King and continue to show his loyalty. This shows how King Lear can easily misjudge people based on their appearances. He tends to enjoy flattery and dislike challenges as Kent was (rightfully) challenging Lear’s banishment of Cordelia.

ultimate king lear cheat sheet - year 11 eng adv - themes

 

Blindness and knowledge

This theme links into the theme of appearance vs reality. Throughout the play, King Lear’s lack of knowledge is explicitly mentioned as a fault as it leads him to easily trust appearances. This is his hamartia (tragic flaw) that leads to the demise of nearly every character in the play.

As Goneril says:

He hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
– Goneril, Act 1, Scene I

At the beginning of the play, he is blind towards Cordelia’s true love for him and Regan and Goneril’s lust for power. He accepts things at face value because he lacks the knowledge to challenge claims.

However, by the end of the play, he has learned his mistakes… at the expense of his sanity and his wealth. He has gone mad at learning the truth about all of his daughters and he has lost everything, including Cordelia:

“I am mightily abused. I should ev’n die with pity
To see another thus. I know not what to say.
I will not swear these are my hands. Let’s see.
I feel this pinprick. Would I were assured
Of my condition…
Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
– King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7

Similarly, Gloucester is also blind towards the truth, due to his lack of knowledge. Gloucester trusts Edmund instead of Edgar, despite Edmund lying to Gloucester for personal gains. In the play, Regan gouging out Gloucester’s eye is a metaphor for his blindness. However, it is also ironic, because it is only when Gloucester is physically blind that he is able to see the truth.

I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abusèd father’s wrath,
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!
– Gloucester, Act 4, Scene 1

As such, Shakespeare highlights the importance of having the knowledge to prevent being in these tragic situations.

 

Exemplar body paragraph

Question:

Shakespearean dramas are mirrors to our human flaws and social issues.

To what extent is the above statement true to your prescribed text? In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed play.

By portraying how a ruler’s flawed judgment can lead to the downfall of a regime, Shakespeare positions the audience to appreciate the stability of the English monarchy. He reaffirms James I divine right to succeed Queen Elizabeth I, despite not being an immediate male heir to the throne. King Lear’s judgment is initially brought into question when he decides to pass on his kingdom to Goneril and Regan based on their ridiculously excessive declarations of love for him. Shakespeare contrasts their hyperboles including “[my love for you] makes breath poor and speech unable” and “I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys” with Cordelia’s silence to highlight how King Lear is easily misled by appearances and neglects those who genuinely care for him. While King Lear eventually realises his tragic flaw, his kingdom has already been divided and warring at the command of his two ruthless daughters. Shakespeare emphasises the shortcomings of this divided regime to affirm Queen Elizabeth’s decision to appoint James IV of Scotland as the sole ruler of England. In King Lear’s final words “I fear I am not in my perfect mind”, he uses a euphemism to reflect on his misjudgement that resulted in the demise of his kingdom, his loved ones and eventually himself – from heartbreak. Similarly, the Earl of Gloucester is manipulated and ruined by his illegitimate son and ironically, it is only after his eyes are gouged out by Regan, is he able to “see” the truth, admitting in the metaphor “I stumbled when I saw”. Thus, Shakespeare skilfully depicts the flawed realities of human judgment to address and dismiss social controversies regarding the relatively stable English monarchy.

 

Ace your ‘King Lear’ analysis now!

After reading this article, you should get a good foundational grasp of King Lear. The Matrix English Course can help you further break down the text and refine your writing skills, with quick feedback from HSC experts!

Written by Tammy Dang

Tammy is a former student of Matrix and is now studying Law / Media (Screen and Sound Production) at UNSW. She is a Digital Content Writer for the Matrix Education blog. Tammy aspires to become a lawyer in the future while continuing to run her art business.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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