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Scene by Scene Synopsis

Scene: Ancient Britain

Act I, Scene 1:  The Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son Edmund to the Earl of Kent and observes that he has a legitimate son as well. King Lear arrives with his daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and explains his intention to abdicate and distribute Britain among his sons-in-law, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall—married to Goneril and Regan, respectively—and either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France , suitors of Cordelia. He will give the largest share of the kingdom to whichever daughter can convince him she loves him the most. Goneril and Regan declare their love effusively, but Cordelia simply states that her love is that of a daughter to a father, and that she will also love her husband when she has one. Infuriated, Lear disinherits her; Kent attempts to dissuade him, and Lear banishes him. Burgundy rejects the disinherited Cordelia, but France decides to marry her and take her back to France. Regan and Goneril confer on the need to control their obviously senile father lest he turn against them.

Act I, Scene 2:  Edmund bewails his illegitimacy and decides to steal his brother EDGAR'S inheritance with the help of the letter he holds. Gloucester enters, and Edmund pretends to hide the letter, but his father insists upon reading it. It is supposedly from Edgar, proposing to Edmund that they murder Gloucester. Edmund pretends to believe the letter is merely a test of his morals, and he offers to arrange for Gloucester to overhear a conversation between the half brothers. Gloucester agrees and leaves; Edmund remarks on his naiveté.  Edgar appears, and Edmund tells him that their father is viciously angry with him, warning him to go armed lest he be attacked. 

Act I, Scene 3:  Goneril desires to humble her father and instructs her steward Oswarld to treat Lear and his followers disdainfully when they arrive.

Act I, Scene 4 Kent, disguised, plans to rejoin the king's court at Goneril's castle. Lear arrives with his followers, and Kent is accepted among them. Oswald is surly to the king, and, to Lear's delight, Kent rails against him, knocks him down, and drives him away. Lear's Fool mocks the king for having surrendered his authority. Goneril appears and scolds Lear for the conduct of his men. She demands that he halve their number, and he declares that he will leave and go to Regan. He departs. Albany protests over Goneril's behavior, but she silences him and sends Oswald with a letter to Regan that details her tactics with their father.

Act I, Scene 5 Lear sends Kent with a letter to Regan. The Fool again taunts the king for being at the mercy of his daughters. 

Act II, Scene 1:  Edmund encounters Edgar and advises him to flee for his life. As Gloucester approaches, Edmund tricks Edgar by saying that he must pretend to prevent Edgar's flight but that he will actually help him escape.  He draws his sword and fakes a fight, hustling Edgar away. He then tells Gloucester that Edgar had assaulted him when he opposed the murder plot.  Gloucester declares he will have Edgar captured and executed, and he vows to legitimate Edmund. Cornwall and Regan arrive on a visit to Gloucester; they praise Edmund and take him into their service.

Act II, Scene 2 Outside Gloucester's castle, Kent insults and pummels Oswald as Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, and Gloucester appear. Asked to explain his behavior, Kent declares that Oswald is a hypocrite. Cornwall places Kent in the stocks despite his status as messenger of the king. Gloucester protests but is ignored.  When the others leave, Kent muses on a letter he has received from Cordelia, who has learned of Lear's humiliation.

Act II, Scene 3 Edgar has escaped from a search party and overheard a proclamation that he is outlawed. He decides to disguise himself as a wandering lunatic, taking the name Tom 0' Bedlam. 

Act II, Scene 4 Lear, seeking Regan, arrives at Gloucester's castle and finds Kent in the stocks. The Fool calls Kent a fool for attaching himself to a powerless master. Gloucester reports that Regan and Cornwall will not receive Lear, who begins to rage but restrains himself. Regan and Cornwall appear and Kent is freed. Regan defends Goneril against Lear's complaints as Goneril arrives.  The two unite in demanding that Lear dismiss his retinue. The distressed Lear wavers between tears and anger and rages out into a storm that has arisen, followed by Gloucester and the Fool.

Act III, Scene 1:  Kent meets a Gentleman who reports that Lear is raging madly in the storm, accompanied only by the Fool. Kent asks him to report Lear's situation to Cordelia, who has arrived in Dover with a French army.

Act III, Scene 2 Lear raves in the storm, cursing his daughters. Kent appears and urges the king to take shelter in a nearby hovel. The Fool bitterly predicts disruption for England, whatever lies in store. 

Act III, Scene 3:  Gloucester tells Edmund that Cornwall, his feudal lord, has forbidden him to take Lear in. He confides, however, that he has received a letter assuring that Lear's revenge is at hand in the form of the French invasion. Edmund decides to inform on his father so he can get his inheritance sooner.

Act III, Scene 4:  Lear, Kent, and the Fool approach the hovel. Lear declares that he prefers the storm to the thoughts he would have if he were sheltered, but he sends the Fool inside. He reflects on the woes of the poor and homeless, whom he had never considered when he ruled. The Fool reappears, terrified of a madman in the hovel. He is followed by Edgar, disguised as Tom 0'Bedlam, who raves about being pursued by devils. Lear sympathizes with him, assuming that he too has been betrayed by his daughters. Edgar asserts that his demons are punishment for certain offences: he had been a decadent and immoral servant who slept with his mistress, among other sins. Gloucester appears and offers them shelter. He confides to Kent that Lear's daughters seek the king's death.

Act III, Scene 5 Edmund has revealed Gloucester's correspondence s with the French army, and Cornwall orders him to have his father arrested.

Act III, Scene 6: Gloucester leaves Kent, Lear, the Fool, and Edgar in a warm room. Lear acts out a criminal trial of Goneril and Regan and finally falls asleep just as Gloucester returns and warns them to flee immediately. Kent and the Fool leave, carrying the sleeping Lear. Edgar, left behind, reflects that his own fate does not seem so bad compared with that of the mad king.

Act III, Scene 7 Gloucester, under arrest, is brought before Cornwall and Regan. When he says that he will see them punished by fate, Cornwall puts out his eyes. The duke is attacked by a Servant, who cannot abide such evil. Cornwall kills the Servant, but not before being badly wounded. Regan takes him away, and the remaining Servants agree to take the blinded Gloucester to the wandering madman, who can help him safely escape.

Act IV, Scene 1:  An Old Man leads the blind Gloucester to Edgar, who grieves to see his father in such condition. However, still an outcast, he resumes his madman's disguise. He agrees to lead Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover.

Act IV. Scene 2 Oswald meets Goneril and Edmund and tells them that Albany has learned of Cordelia's invasion, which pleases him, and that Edmund has informed on Gloucester, which does not. Goneril sends Edmund with a message to Cornwall to hastily muster an army; they exchange loving farewells, accompanied by hints of a murder plot against Albany. Albany appears and berates Goneril for her evil; she replies that he is merely a coward. A Messenger arrives with news of Cornwall's death and Gloucester's blinding. In an aside, Goneril worries that Regan has possible designs on Edmund, now that she is a widow. Albany vows privately to revenge Gloucester.

Act IV, Scene 3:  In Dover the Gentleman tells Kent of Cordelia's tearful response to news of Lear. Kent replies that Lear is in Dover but refuses to see Cordelia, out of shame.

Act IV, Scene 4:  Cordelia hears that Lear has been seen wandering wearing a crown of weeds and flowers, and she orders a search party. The Doctor assures her that Lear's madness may be eased by rest, and that sedatives are available. News arrives that the armies of Albany and Cornwall are approaching.

Act IV, Scene 5 Oswald reports to Regan that Goneril has convinced Albany to fight against Cordelia's invasion. He also has a letter from Goneril to Edmund, which sparks Regan's jealousy; she gives Oswald a token from herself to give Edmund with Goneril's letter. She adds that if Oswald finds and kills Gloucester, he will be rewarded.

Act IV, Scene 6:  Edgar convinces Gloucester that they have reached the top of the cliffs at Dover and then pretends to leave him. In an aside to himself he says that he must humor his father's despair in order to cure it. Gloucester leaps forward and falls to the ground. Edgar then pretends to be a passer-by at the bottom of the cliff and says that he had seen Gloucester at the top with a hideous demon. Gloucester accepts the idea that the gods have miraculously preserved him from an evil impulse, and he vows to accept his affliction in the future. Lear appears, covered with wildflowers and raving madly. A Gentleman with a search party arrives and takes Lear to Cordelia. Edgar learns from him the location of the British army. Oswald appears and at-tacks Gloucester, but Edgar kills him. As he dies, Oswald asks his killer to deliver his letters to Edmund. Edgar reads a letter from Goneril proposing that Edmund murder Albany and marry her.

Act IV, Scene 7 Cordelia greets her father, but Lear mistakes her for a spirit and only gradually realises that he is still alive.  The Doctor says that he needs more rest, and he is taken indoors, leaving Kent and the Gentleman to discuss the coming battle. Kent declares that his life will end that day.

Act V, Scene I:  Jealously, Regan interrogates Edmund about Goneril and Goneril says to herself that she would rather lose the battle than see Regan get Edmund. Edgar appears in disguise, and takes Albany aside. He gives him the letter he got from Oswald. He proposes that after the battle Albany call for a challenger to prove in trial by combat that its contents are true. In a soliloquy Edmund reflects that Albany's leadership will be needed during the battle, but that he hopes Goneril will then see to killing him. He observes that Albany has proposed mercy for Lear and Cordelia, but he, Edmund, will not permit it. 

Act V, Scene 2:  Edgar leaves Gloucester and goes to fight. Fleeing soldiers pass by, and Edgar returns, saying that Cordelia's forces have been routed and she and Lear captured. Gloucester fatalistically elects to stay, but he recovers when reminded of his resolution to endure, and the two flee together.

Act V, Scene 3: Edmund sends the captured Lear and Cordelia to prison. Lear rejoices at being with Cordelia, despite the circumstances. Edmund sends an Officer after them, telling him to carry out his written instructions mercilessly. Albany arrives with Regan and Goneril. He arrests Edmund and Goneril for treason, asserting that a challenger will appear to back the charge in trial by combat. Regan departs, suddenly sick. Edgar appears, unrecognizable in full amour, and he and Edmund fight until he wounds Edmund badly. Albany displays the letter, and Goneril departs hastily. The dying Edmund confesses his crimes. Edgar identifies himself and tells of escorting Gloucester, adding that when he finally told his father who he was the emotional shock killed the old man. An hysterical Gentleman reports that Goneril has confessed to poisoning Regan, and then committed suicide. Edmund reveals that he has ordered someone to kill the king and hang Cordelia in her cell, an apparent suicide.  Edmund is carried away and a soldier is sent to halt the killer, but Lear appears carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. He mourns her death, but at intervals believes she may be still alive. He sees Kent but cannot recognize or understand him; the others realize that he is mad again. Edmund's death is reported, and Albany declares that he will return Lear's kingdom to him. Lear suddenly announces that he sees Cordelia breathing, and as he does so, he dies. Albany orders funeral preparations and appoints Kent and Edgar to be his associates in rule, though Kent says that he will soon die.  Edgar closes the play with the assertion that such woes as Lear's shall not be seen again.


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