Character Directory


Lear Title character of King Lear, an ancient king of Britain. Lear rejects Cordelia, his only honest daughter, when he mistakes her frankness for a lack of affection. He is then rejected by his other two daughters Regan and Goneril, to whom he has granted his kingdom, and finds himself wandering in the wilderness outcast and insane. His prideful wrath has blinded him to the difference between good and evil, but before the play's end he recovers his sanity in part, although too late to prevent the tragedy of Cordelia's death However, in the course of his trials he does come to recognize his failings, which constitutes the play's most important lesson. 

Lear's descent into madness, the central event of the play, illustrates the extent to which humanity can be degraded by its errors. Lear is both victim and perpetrator, for his own egocentricity has sparked the events that lead to his collapse; his ensuing suffering is a result of his inadequacy as a human being Thus his story presents to us a powerful demonstration of humanity's frailty, and the consequent potential for tragedy in life. 

Our horror at Lear's tale is alleviated somewhat by his partial recognition and acceptance of his failings Lear s trials have been variously interpreted They may be seen as comparable to God's punishment for sins; his recognition of his fault is followed by reconciliation with Cordelia, which is suggestive of God's forgiveness following a sinner's repentance. That the relief is accompanied by death suggests the importance of the Christian afterlife and its eternal mercy but this promise is lacking in Lear's pagan world. In a non-religious interpretation, Lear's endurance is heroic in itself, and his triumph lies in his acceptance of his errors before he dies. These two interpretations are not, of course, mutually exclusive: Lear is heroic in both senses. Also, most commentators agree that Lear's suffering is finally redemptive, in that it leads to heightened consciousness on his part. Further, Lear's last words seem to indicate (though the question is disputed) that he dies believing that Cordelia is alive which implies a happy resolution in death akin to that of Gloucester, whose heart 'Burst smilingly' (5.3. 198), and whose sufferings conspicuously parallel Lear's. 

In the course of his wanderings, both physical and mental, the distracted Lear is able to understand his folly. He first recognizes a general lack in his conduct as a ruler. Raving madly in the storm, Lear suddenly realises that he had been previously unaware of hunger and homelessness, and he sees that the knowledge would have been valuable to him as king. He tells himself 'Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, /That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, / And show the Heavens more just' (3.4.34-36). 

Lear comes to a more personal acknowledgement of fault, though his progress is fitful. At first, his guilt takes an unhealthy, morbid form, as he castigates himself for having fathered his daughters, seeing the fault in the sexual process rather than in his egotistical demands. While still on the stormy moor, he declares his torment to be 'Judicious punishment! 'twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters' (3.4.73-74). He elaborates on these sentiments when he equates female sexuality with the torments of hell, in 4.6.117-128. Lear's attitude towards sex—also displayed by Edgar—is evidence of the unhealthy mental and moral state of the play's world. 

However, before his lowest point, Lear learns of Cordelia's faithfulness and realises the wrong he has done her. As Kent reports, 'burning shame' (4.3.46) drives him from her camp. While wandering in the fields nearby, he encounters the blinded Gloucester and, stirred by the sight of another sufferer, acknowledges his own weakness—'they told me I was every thing', he says of his former courtly flatterers, adding sardonically,' 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof (4.6.104-105). Later, as part of his remarks on patience, he declares the weakness of all humanity, firmly including himself. He is raving, but the tone of his lament is clear enough; the arrogance that informed his earlier vow of revenge is entirely gone. Finally, in Cordelia's presence, he declares himself'a very foolish fond old man' (4.7.60) and admits that he has wronged her. He asks her to 'forget and forgive' (4.7.84), and later, as father and daughter are taken to prison, he is pleased at the prospect of perpetual atonement: 'I'll kneel down, /And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live . . .' (5.3.10-11). 

Still, his insight is at best flawed. That a catastrophe and such a great degree of unhappiness has been necessary to elicit in Lear the acknowledgement of his faults and the existence of human ingratitude has been held against him by many readers. Shakespeare accepted no simple views on the complexities of life, and Lear is distinctly not a perfectly reformed man. Strikingly, no trace of guilt is found in his grief over Cordelia's death, and his enthusiasm for imprisonment with her is disturbingly egocentric in his lack of any sense other life, as was his original demand for love, in 1.1. This point has been central to much recent feminist criticism of the play. However, Cordelia acquiesces and so do most audiences; the play's emphasis on forgiveness and redemption seems clear, and in this light, Lear's residual defects are perhaps best viewed as evidence of Shakespeare's honesty about human frailty. Finally, King Lear is a play that raises more questions than it answers, and the extent to which Lear's tragedy is illuminating to him—as opposed to us, for its potential for illumination is unquestionably clear—remains for us to contemplate.  Shakespeare doubtless believed that there was a historical king of Britain named Lear, as is recorded in his sources, but he is in fact a mythical figure. The name derives from a Celtic god of the sea, Llyr. The legendary king is reported to have founded the town of Leicester, whose name is related to his own (Lear 4 castrum, Latin for 'camp').


King of France is the suitor and later the husband of Cordelia, King Lear’s rejected daughter. France, as the king is called, appears only in 1.1. He recognizes the honesty and virtue in Cordelia and thus emphasizes Lear's moral blindness.  He agrees to marry her, saying 'She is herself a dowry' (1.1.240), and takes her back to France. Cordelia is thus absent for most of the action as her sisters humiliate and banish their father. The Earl of Kent soon knows that 'from France there comes a power' (3.1.30) to aid Lear, but France himself does not reappear; he has returned home to deal with 'something he left imperfect in the state' (4.3.3), while a French general unsuccessfully attempts to re-establish Lear on the throne. The subject of foreign invasion was a touchy one in Shakespeare's day because Protestant England felt threatened by Catholic enemies, including France, and scholars believe that the playwright found it expedient, in view of government Censorship, to deemphasize the role of France, both man and country, in King Lear.


Duke of Burgundy is a suitor who rejects Cordelia when she is disinherited by King Lear. Burgundy appears only in 1.1; he and the King of France have been summoned to determine which of them will marry Lear's youngest daughter and thus govern one-third of Britain. Burgundy's concern is with a politically and materially advantageous match, and when Cordelia is disinherited he simply loses interest in her. She dismisses his frank but polite apology cooly, saying, 'Peace be with Burgundy! / Since that respect and fortunes are his love, /I shall not be his wife' (1.1.246-248). Burgundy's conventionally greedy behavior contrasts tellingly with the response of France, who recognizes Cordelia's virtues and marries her.  The Duke's equal footing with the King of France reflects a reality of medieval Europe: the Duchy of Burgundy, though formally a client state of France, was an independent and wealthy country. However, this medieval context is an anachronism, for in the early period in which King Lear is set the Duchy of Burgundy did not yet exist.


Duke of Cornwall is the villainous husband of King Lear’s usurping daughter Regan. Cornwall takes a prominent part in the evil deeds that spark much of the play's action. In 2.1 he declares that Edgar, who has been falsely accused of a murder plot against his father, Gloucester, shall be executed, and he adopts as a follower Edgar's persecutor, Edmund. He places Lear's loyal follower Kent in the stocks and he supports his wife and sister-in-law Goneril in their expulsion of Lear. At his most cruel, in 3.7 he puts out Gloucester's eyes when the earl remains loyal to the outcast former king. For this offence he is killed by an appalled Servant, as is reported in 4.2 by a Messenger). His death is proof that the triumph of villainy will not be total, but at the same time the enormity of his final deed contributes greatly to the general atmosphere of horror that so distinguishes the play.


Duke of Albany is the virtuous but weak husband of Leap’s villainous daughter, Goneril. Albany, who does not discover his wife's wickedness until too late, eventually aids the banished Lear and formally restores him to power just before his death. In this way he represents an instance of moral growth in a degraded world. At the play's close he is the ruler of Britain, sharing power with Edgar and Kent, and intent on repairing the damage to the state that Lear's crisis has produced. In the final lines, Albany offers a possible lesson to be drawn from the tragedy, saying, 'The weight of this sad time we must obey' (5.3.322); he recognizes the need to be aware of human susceptibility to catastrophic error, as Lear did not. (Albany's lines here are sometimes given to Edgar, as in the First Folio text.) 

In his early appearances Albany is ineffectual. He is governed entirely by his wife, who dismisses his question about her rift with Lear by curtly ordering, 'Never afflict yourself to know more of it' (1.4.289). After Act 1 he does not reappear until 4.2, when, having learned of the treacherous blinding of Gloucester, he denounces Goneril as an evil-doer. 'You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face', he declares (4.2.30-31). Nevertheless, he goes along with her alliance with Edmund against Cordelia’s French army, though he privately asserts his intention to revenge Gloucester. Informed by Edgar of Edmund and Goneril's plot against his own life, Albany exposes the villains in 5.3. By this time Albany is clearly intent on rectifying the misdeeds of his wife and her allies, but his earlier weakness has already helped them. His poor judgment in patriotically fighting the French has an unintended and fatal result when Edmund gains control of Lear and Cordelia. Thus, though well intentioned and finally benevolent, Albany reinforces the play's theme of human fallibility.


Earl of Kent is a nobleman faithful to King Lear. Kent attempts to dissuade the king from his catastrophic decision to banish Cordelia when she honestly admits that her love will go to her husband as well as her father, but Lear banishes him as well for interfering. Kent then disguises himself and attempts to assist Lear when he is rejected by his other daughters, Regan and Goneril. He succeeds in keeping Lear safe from possible murder, and he reunites the king and Cordelia at Dover. His conflict with Goneril's steward Oswald stresses an important value in the play, the association of virtue with gentlemanly behavior. Kent's steadfast honesty and loyalty is contrasted with the courtier's self-serving ambition. However, when Cordelia's invasion fails and she and Lear are captured by Edmund, Kent is helpless. As he witnesses Lear's death at the play's close, he exclaims, 'Break, heart; I prithee, break!' (5.3.311). Whether he refers to his own heart or Lear's, this forsaken cry is emblematic of the sorrowful view of humanity's plight that is an important theme of the play. Yet Kent's final declaration of his own imminent death, 'I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me, I must not say no' (5.3.320-321) also contributes to the play's sense of the nobility of human suffering. 

Kent corresponds to a character named Perillus in Shakespeare's chief source for Lear, the play KING LEIR (c. 1588). Some scholars think Shakespeare may have played Perillus for the Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s, for a number of passages in the older play are especially closely echoed in Lear when Kent is onstage.


Earl of Gloucester is the father of Edgar and Edmund. Gloucester is the central figure of the play's subplot, in which his illegitimate son Edmund's villainy and his own error lead him to disaster and suffering from which he recovers only to die.  This progression parallels the story of King Lear in the main plot. Deceived by Edmund, who wants to inherit the earldom, Gloucester disinherits and banishes his legitimate son Edgar. Because Gloucester is faithful to the outcast and insane Lear, Edmund turns him over to Lear's enemy, the Duke of Cornwall, who puts out Gloucester's eyes and banishes him into the wilderness. Edgar, disguised as a wandering lunatic, tends to his father. He saves him from suicide, in 4.6, and renews in him the strength to endure. Finally, however, when Gloucester learns Edgar's identity, the old man dies; 'his flaw'd heart, . . . 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly' (5.3.195-198). 

Gloucester's tale offers a significant parallel to that of Lear; like the king's, Gloucester's tragedy is self induced, for his actual blinding is preceded by figurative blindness when he fails to see either Edgar's virtue or Edmund's villainy. Like Lear, Gloucester recogniszs his error—'I stumbled when I saw' (4.1.19), he confesses—when it is too late. His helpless wanderings, dependent on the aid of a seeming lunatic, suggest powerfully the similar straits of the mad king. The similarity between the two reaches a horrific climax, in 4.6, when they encounter each other on the beach at Dover; it is one of the most touching passages in Shakespeare. The mad and the blind old men recognize each other and acknowledge their joint status as victims; their consciousness, though it is flawed by their handicaps, is clearly more acute than it was before. Their parallel tales, and the close sympathy of Lear and Gloucester when they meet, is highly significant for our interpretation of the play's final moments.  Gloucester's death immediately precedes Lear's at the close of the play, and because their parallel development has been stressed, we may read in the king's death the same 'extremes of passion' and presume that his heart, too, 'burst smilingly'. Thus, Gloucester's tragedy helps confirm the nobility of human suffering, a central message of the play.


Edgar is the banished son of the Earl of Gloucester. Misled by his illegitimate son Edmund, Gloucester formally exiles Edgar to the wilderness; this action parallels King Lear’s rejection of his daughter Cordelia. In 2.3 under threat of execution, Edgar disguises himself as a wandering lunatic.  When Lear is banished by his villainous daughters the disguised Edgar accompanies him, in 3.4 and 3.6. When Gloucester is blinded and expelled because he has remained loyal to Lear, Edgar, still disguised, becomes his father's guide, in 4.1, and saves him from suicide and a murder attempt by Oswald, in 4.6. In Act 5 Edgar finally takes control of the play, exposing Edmund and Goneril’s plot to murder the Duke of Albany and defeating Edmund in a trial by combat. At the play's close Edgar is invited by Albany to share in the rule of Britain; with his final lines, he offers a possible lesson to be drawn from the play—that we must be aware of our human susceptibility to folly, as Lear was not—saying, 'The weight of this sad time we must obey' (5.3.322). (In some editions these lines are given to Albany.) 

As the insane Tom O'Bedlam, Edgar embodies the play's theme of disease and misery as products and emblems of human folly. Tom blames his insanity on his sexual promiscuity, thus illustrating the morbid attitude towards sex that permeates the world of the play. Similarly, when he is again himself, Edgar attributes Gloucester's tragedy to 'The dark and vicious place' (5.3.171) where Edmund was conceived, that is, to sex outside of marriage. 

On the other hand, Edgar's loving loyalty to his father parallels Cordelia's to Lear. Both present a Christlike willingness to sacrifice themselves that is often cited as a lesson in accepting the will of God. Even from a non-religious viewpoint, Edgar is an agent of redemption, preserving order and goodness where chaos and evil have threatened by acting as a guide and savior first for Lear, then for his father, and finally for Britain as a whole. When he saves his father from suicide, in 4.6, he offers a way to renew acceptance of life. Deceiving Gloucester into believing he has jumped from a cliff and lived, Edgar declares his father's survival to be 'a miracle' (4.6.55); the blind man concludes that he should not give in to despair, but endure. Thus, Edgar illuminates a basic principle that is at the core of the tragedy: we must struggle to make the best of our lives, accepting death only when its time comes. As he says to his father, 'Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all' (5.2.9-11).


Edmund is the unscrupulous and ambitious illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Edmund' conspires against his legitimate brother Edgar, who is banished into the wilderness in 2.1; he betrays his father to King Lear’s evil daughter Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, who put out the old man's eyes, in 3.7; and he pursues a love affair with Lear's other daughter Goneril, with whom, in 4.2, he plots to murder her husband, the Duke of Albany. When Cornwall is killed the widowed Regan schemes to take Edmund from Goneril, and this unsavory love triangle is an important part of the play's atmosphere of moral collapse. 

In Act 5 Edmund leads Cornwall's army against the supporters of Lear's faithful daughter Cordelia; victorious, he thwarts Albany's plans for mercy and imprisons Lear and Cordelia, ordering their execution. Edgar learns of the plot against Albany, charges Edmund with treason and challenges him to a trial by combat, wounding him fatally. The dying Edmund confesses his intention towards Lear, but it is too late to prevent Cordelia's death, and Lear dies of a broken heart soon thereafter. 

Edmund's villainy is a central element in King Lear; his schemes are crisply executed and do much to pro- vide a dramatic structure in the subplot that the more idea-oriented main story lacks. However, Edmund is a stereotypical villain with little human complexity—his deeds are more interesting than he is himself—and his schemes are effective due to the moral weakness of others, not his compelling personality. His declaration of repentance—'some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature' (5.3.242-243)—is perfunctory and unconvincing. It serves to spark the final episode—Lear's fatal grief—after which Edmund is carried away to die. Albany's brusque dismissal of the news of his death demonstrates the extent of the villain's defeat; compared to the lessons to be absorbed from Lear's end, Edmund's demise is 'but a trifle here' (5.3.294). 

Shakespeare identified Edmund's unscrupulous ambition with a troubling social phenomenon of his own day, the rise of the new commercially active classes—the bourgeoisie of the cities and the lesser landowners, or gentry, of the countryside. The success of these groups depended on their willingness to engage in trade and banking, as opposed to the traditional dependence on the land, and in this they were at odds with the great territorial nobles of the old aristocracy.  A worldly emphasis on practical finance characterized the commercial classes, and this was regarded as unscrupulous by hostile eyes. From this point of view, Edmund represents the new man in his lack of chivalric scruples and his concern for his own advancement. 

Traditionalists conventionally associated such an attitude with a new, 'modern' strain of thought, and Edmund quite plainly identifies himself with this new mode. In his first soliloquy he declares, 'Thou, Nature, art my goddess' (1.2.1), boldly stating his independence of'the plague of custom' (1.2.3) and its manmade moral standards. Such sophisticated agnosticism arose in part from the Renaissance rediscovery of classical paganism, and it was reflected in such works as the Essays of Montaigne, which Shakespeare had read and which he admired in some respects.  However, in placing these sentiments in the mouth of a self-proclaimed villain, Shakespeare declares his alliance with the old world of the aristocracy that is quite clearly represented by Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar, Edmund's enemies.


Curan is a follower of the Earl of Gloucester. In 2.1 Curan tells Edmund of a rumor that the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany—the husbands of Regan and Goneril, to whom King Lear has foolishly given power—are soon to fall into civil war. This is the first hint that Lear's error, already disastrous for him personally, is also a potential catastrophe for the kingdom as a whole.

Old Man Old man is a a vassal of the Earl of Gloucester. In 4.1 the Old Man escorts the blind Gloucester who has had his eyes put out by the evil Duke of Cornwall. The demoralized and fatalistic Gloucester orders him away, but the Old Man observes that he has been tenant to the Earl and his father for 'fourscore years' (4.1.14) and does not obey until he has turned his master over to an escort, the wandering lunatic Tom O'Bedlam (who is actually Gloucester's son, Edgar, in disguise). The frailty of the Old Man emphasizes Gloucester's weakness, while at the same time his devotion offers evidence that some good remains in the increasingly violent and evil world of the play.
Doctor Doctor is a physician who reports to Cordelia on the condition of her father, King Lear. In 4.4 he tells Cordelia that Lear's sanity can be restored through rest, saying, 'Our foster nurse of nature is repose' (4.4.12). He assures her that he can provide drugs to sedate the mad king. Later, he oversees the touching reunion of the rested Lear with his daughter. He ends the meeting for the good of his patient, but again reassures Cordelia that 'the great rage ... is kili'd in him' (4.7.78-79). His kindly ministrations contrast with the evil that has permeated Lear's world to this point.

Fool is the court jester to King Lear. The Fool sees that Lear should not have rejected Cordelia and placed himself in the power of Regan and Goneril, and he repeatedly reminds his master of this. He employs barbed quips, for instance, having caused Lear to observe that 'nothing can be made out of nothing', the Fool remarks,'. . . so much the rent of his land comes to' (1.4.130-132). He also utters simple truths, such as 'Thou should'st not have been old till thou hadst been wise' (1.5.41-42). He strives to use his wit to ease Lear's mind as the king goes insane, and he accompanies him into the stormy wilderness in Act 3. The Fool is last seen leaving with Lear and Kent after Gloucester has warned them of a murder plot against the king. His last line, 'And I'll go to bed at noon' (3.6.83), suggests an early death, but his fate is not reported. 

The Fool is deeply moved by Lear's plight, but he is capable of detachment from it. Lear's Fool shares with other Shakespearean jesters, such as Feste and Touchstone, an irony that permits him to comment on the action of the play, as does a Chorus. With jokes, riddles, and scraps of Song he clarifies the central situation by commenting on it more intelligently than the other characters. Especially pertinent is his observation, '. . . the Fool will stay, / And let the wise man fly' (2.4.79-80); with it he makes a declaration of loyalty that helps contrast a moral world with the tragic one that dominates the play. Similarly, his sanity is a foil for Lear's increasing disintegration. 

The Fool is closely associated with Cordelia at two significant points. Before his first entrance in 1.4.72, he is said to have 'much pined away' for her, the first mention of Lear's daughter since her departure in 1.1. At the play's close, Lear, grieving over Cordelia's corpse, says, 'And my poor fool is hang'd' (5.3.304). 'Fool' was a common term of endearment in Shake- speare's day, and Lear may simply be referring to his lost daughter, but the playwright nevertheless takes the occasion to compare the two characters. The Fool resembles Cordelia in both his devotion to Lear and his commitment to a truthful assessment of life. He replaces her as the exponent of these virtues during her long absence from the play, in fact, some scholars suggest that the two roles may have been taken by the am'e actor in the original productions by the King’s Men. Others, however, hold that the part of the Fool was probably played by the famed comedian Robert Armin, whose notoriety would have made him an unlikely Cordelia.


Oswald is the steward of King Lear’s villainous daughter Goneril. In 1.3 Oswald coolly accepts Goneril's instructions to treat her father insolently, for she wishes to humiliate him thoroughly. In 1.4 Oswald acts upon these orders. Thus, the steward is identified with his mistress as a villain, and when Lord Kent beats him and drives him away, we approve. In 2.2 Kent encounters Oswald again and berates him in a long, comical series of insults that focus on the steward's pretensions to gentlemanly status.  Kent's speech is a scathing critique of the vain, self serving 'glass-gazing, super-serviceable' (2.2.16-17) courtier that Oswald seems to be. Less prominent after these encounters, Oswald principally serves Goneril as a messenger, until, in 4.5, he delivers a letter to Regan and accepts her implied commission to kill the outcast and blinded Earl of Gloucester. When he encounters Gloucester in the next scene he attempts to do so, only to be killed himself by the blind man's son, Edgar. With his dying breath he begs his killer to make amends by delivering his letters. He thus demonstrates loyalty to his mistress—he is indeed 'super-serviceable'—while at the same time he reveals her secrets and provides for her ultimate downfall in the final scene. 

Oswald represents a familiar character type found in the satirical comedy of Jacobean Drama, a caricature of an ambitious commoner attempting to climb into aristocratic social circles. The rise of the gentry and the birth of the bourgeoisie during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I i resulted in a crisis of confidence among the aristocracy, who attempted to distinguish themselves from the newly rich by insisting on proper manners and values. This social conflict is the subject of humor in many plays of the period. In the clash between Kent and Oswald the advantage is given clearly to the old nobility at the expense of the rising class, reflecting Shakespeare's conservative social instincts. Some scholars have speculated that Oswald is further intended as a satire on an actual person, perhaps William Farington, the obnoxious steward of the Elizabethan theatre patron Lord Strange, but this cannot be proven.


Officer is the murderer of King Lear’s daughter Cordelia. In 5.3 Edmund orders the Officer, a captain (designated as 'Captain' in some editions), to kill the captured king and his daughter, hanging Cordelia to make her death seem a suicide. The officer is a petty representative of the evil that permeates the play. He responds to Ed mund's promise of reward in a cynically mercenary spirit, saying 'I cannot draw a cart nor eat dried oats; / If it be man's work I'll do 't' (5.3.39-40). He succeeds in disposing of Cordelia, but he is killed by her father as he does so as we learn from Lear himself in 5.3.273.


Gentleman is a follower of Lear. The Gentleman assists the loyal Kent in his efforts to aid the wandering and insane king.  Primarily a useful attendant, the Gentleman delivers two important descriptions that help form the audience's responses to the play in significant ways. In 3.1 he reports vividly to Kent on Lear's raging in the storm and prepares the audience for the wild scene to follow. In 4.3 he movingly describes Cordelia’s haunting response to the news of her wretched father. Rich in religious imagery, this passage provides a strong sense of Cordelia's saintly nature, a central image of the play.  Also a second Gentleman is a follower of the Duke of Albany. In 5.3, the horrified Gentleman announces the deaths of Goneril and Regan. Goneril has stabbed herself after confessing that she poisoned Regan. The character adds to the increasing hysteria of the final scene.


Servants are members of the household of the Duke of Cornwall. In 3.7, one of the Servants, designated the First Servant, attacks Cornwall in an effort to prevent him from barbarously putting out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester. The First Servant is killed, but he wounds the duke, who dies later. The Second and Third Servants assist the wounded Gloucester and they comment on the evil natures of the duke and his wife Regan. The episode stresses the horror that has been loosed by King Lear’s folly in granting power to Regan and her sister Goneril. At the same time, the Servants demonstrate that good still resides in some people, and thereby offer some relief from the increasing violence and terror of the plot.


Goneril is one of the villainous daughters of King Lear. Goneril and her sister Regan declare their great love for Lear, in 1.1, when in fact they merely want the portion of his kingdom that he has foolishly promised to whichever daughter can assure him she loves him most. They share the prize when their honest younger sister Cordelia enrages the king with a frank admission that her love will be given in part to her future husband. Goneril takes the lead in the two sisters' villainy. She introduces the idea of humiliating Lear, in 1.1, and she orders her steward, Oswald, to commence the practice, in 1.3. In 1.4 she starts the dispute over Lear's followers that sends the ex-king fleeing into the storm, where he descends into madness. In 4.2 Goneril's wickedness becomes more pronounced as she enters into a love affair with the ambitious Edmund and hints at the existence of a murder plot against her husband, the virtuous but weak Duke of Albany. She and Regan both desire Edmund, and Goneril declares that she would rather lose the battle against the avenging forces led by Cordelia than lose Edmund to her sister. This rivalry depicts the vicious sexuality that is part of the play's general atmosphere of moral and physical unhealthiness. When Goneril and Edmund's plot against Albany is exposed, she poisons Regan and then commits suicide as the Gentleman reports in 5.3.225-226. 

Goneril's extravagantly evil nature is so boldly and unsubtly drawn that only her greater aggression distinguishes her from her sister. Her manipulation of her husband foreshadows Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, but Goneril, a less sophisticated creation, is simply an imitation of a standard male villain, cruel and ambitious. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she cannot compare herself with conventional femininity, nor does she succumb to illness through a bad conscience, for she is a much less complex character and serves chiefly as an emblem of evil.


Regan is one of the villainous daughters of King Lear. In 1.1 Regan and her sister Goneril hypocritically claim to love their father in order to share the portion of the kingdom lost by the honest Cordelia, their younger sister, who frankly admits that her husband as well as her father will receive a share other love. Regan follows Goneril's lead, and they humiliate Lear once he has surrendered power to them and their husbands. She is led on also by her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, and supports him when he performs the play's most appalling act of cruelty and puts out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester, in 3.7. Cornwall is killed while performing this deed, and Regan sets her sights on Goneril's lover, the ambitious Edmund, but her stronger sister poisons her. Regan is last seen as she withdraws, overcome by sickness. Only later is word other death, and of Goneril's confession as to its cause, brought to the other characters. Regan is the least distinguished of the play's villains, being chiefly a follower of her sister and her husband, though her somewhat cool and aloof quality presents a contrast with the more energetic Goneril.


Cordelia is the virtuous daughter whom King Lear mistakenly rejects. Knowing she will marry, Cordelia refuses to assert that all of her love will forever go to her father, unlike Regan and Goneril, her hypocritical sisters. Lear mistakes Cordelia's honesty for a lack of affection and disinherits her, though the King of France recognizes her innate worth and marries her anyway. She leaves Britain with him at the end of 1.1 and does not reappear until Act 4, when she arrives with an army. She intends to restore her father to his throne, for he has been humiliated and banished to the wilderness by Regan and Goneril. Lear and Cordelia are reunited, but are nonetheless defeated in battle, and the villainous Edmund imprisons them and orders their murder, in 5.3. Although Edmund is defeated by Edgar it is too late; the assassin has killed Cordelia, though Lear kills him. In the play's final episode Lear grieves over his daughter's corpse and dies of a broken heart. 

During her long absence from the play we are not permitted to forget Cordelia, for her goodness and self-sacrifice are central to the tragedy: the Fool is said to have 'much pined away' for her, in 1.4.72; in 2.2, the loyal Kent reveals that she knows of Lear's situation; Lear himself refers to her in 2.4.211; and her invasion force is mentioned several times, beginning in 3.1.30. 

Many commentators believe that Shakespeare specifically intended Cordelia as an example of the Christian virtues of self-sacrifice and acceptance of God's will. Cordelia accepts her undeserved fate while she displays undiminished love for her erring father. In this view she is a Christ like figure in a pagan world who offers a suggestion of Christianity's coming redemption of humanity. Her death thus symbolizes Christ's crucifixion, and the tragedy's lesson is the mysterious nature of God's will. A non-religious interpretation of Cordelia's sacrifice is also proposed by many critics, who see her virtue as its own reward, for as a pagan she lacks the Christian's promise of recompense in the afterlife. In this humanistic view her goodness inspires our admiration all the more for being unrewarded, and the pure light of her courage offers the most compelling sense that the play's tragedy is not utterly futile. Also,

many critics hold that Shakespeare intended Lear to die believing that Cordelia is still alive, in which case his own fate is greatly eased, and we can feel more strongly the redemptive effect of her virtues. A final variation on her importance does not diminish it: some writers hold that King Lear reflects a despairing and pessimistic view of life that denies aid for human folly in a tragic universe. In this interpretation Cordelia's virtues, combined with the injustice of both her rejection by her father and her ultimate death, offer striking confirmation of the dire point of view attributed to the playwright. 

In almost any view Cordelia's manifest virtue is a dominating element of the play, giving her an importance seemingly unjustified by her relatively few appearances on stage. In her pure honesty and unqualified love she seems almost devoid of ordinary human personality traits, and her saintly qualities are especially stressed by the Gentleman who reports on her in 4.3, preparing the audience for her return to the drama. In a passage rich in imagery and rhetoric he describes her mingled joy and sorrow at news of Lear, saying, for instance, '. . . she shook / The holy water from her heavenly eyes' (4.3.29-30). Later, she is described as one 'Who redeems nature from the general curse' (4.6.203). Evoked in these terms, Cordelia resembles an angel more than she does a worldly character. Her vague personality contributes to our sense of dislocation in King Lear. She is remote from the more active figures, even the fighters against evil, Edgar, Kent, and Albany, and this draws attention to the failure of human interaction in the play's tragic universe.  

Cordelia may also be seen in a more human light, in act some writers declare that she exhibits a prideful stubbornness in Act 1, only adopting an attitude of loving generosity when she sees the damage that has been done. In this light her moral progress may be said to parallel that of her father. This is a minority view, however, for most commentators feel that Shakespeare intended her initial insistence on honesty to be an obvious virtue.


Messenger is a servant of Regan. In 4.2 the Messenger interrupts a dispute between Goneril and Albany with the news that Gloucester has been blinded and Cornwall is dead. Goneril immediately withdraws to plan her selfish response to the latter event, in contrast to her husband's shocked dismay over the former. The Messenger then adds that Gloucester had been betrayed by his son Edmund. The episode stresses the evil that Albany realises he must oppose as the play approaches its climax. 

A second messenger is a follower of Cordelia. In 4.4 the Messenger brings his mistress the news that the armies of Goneril and Regan are approaching. His brief announcement immediately throws the newly arrived Cordelia into the fury of battle, and thereby increases the play's pace as it reaches its climax.


Officers are the followers of the Duke of Albany. In 5.3.109 an Officer relays Albany's order for a trumpet blast. A little later, an Officer (perhaps the same one) is sent after the fleeing Goneril, but he does not speak. When it is learned that an assassin has been ordered to kill Cordelia and Lear, a different Officer (the pursuer of Goneril does not return) is sent to prevent him. He returns and confirms, in half a line (5.3.274), Lear's account of how he killed Cordelia's murderer. The Officers, whether two or three in number, function merely to swell the ranks of the victorious Albany's entourage in the busy climactic moments of the play.


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