Upon her retirement, King Lear decides to divide the kingdom among her daughters so that she might “unburdened crawl towards death.” Lear makes her daughters earn their inheritance by performing declarations of flattery. Cunning Goneril and Regan play along, win their portions, and are married off to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. However, Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved daughter, refuses to speak such false flattery. This enrages Lear resulting in Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France, disinherited and banished from the country. In a moment of bravery, the Earl of Kent, Lear’s trusted and faithful advisor, condemns Lear’s rash decisions and is exiled for his trouble, but returns to court disguised as Caius, a servant loyal to Lear.
Lear declares she will retain her rank in name only and will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, maintaining a retinue of only 100 men; but Lear’s retirement does not go as planned as Goneril and Regan begin to exert power over her in humiliating ways. This forces Lear to comprehend her diminished state of power and respect. Lear’s court Fool berates her for her foolishness.
In a closely related subplot, more conflict arises from the question of inheritance. The Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund resents his illegitimate status and plots to gain his father’s fortune by framing his virtuous older brother Edgar. Edmund falsifies a letter from his brother, detailing Edgar’s wishes to usurp their father. Faking an attack from Edgar, Edmund forces his older brother into hiding. Gloucester falls for the ploy and proclaims his legitimate son an outlaw and grants his inheritance to cunning Edmund.
At Gloucester’s home, Kent disguised as Caius is placed in the stocks by Regan and Cornwall for a quarrel with Goneril’s servant, Oswald. Upon her arrival at the estate, Lear flies into a rage at this appalling treatment of her servant. Lear expects Regan to side with her against Goneril, but Regan is just as disdainful of her mother’s behavior. Both daughters declare they will not allow Lear to retain more than twenty-five men. Cursing her daughters, Lear rushes out into the storm accompanied by faithful Kent and her wise but mocking Fool. Gloucester denounces the treatment of the King by Goneril and Regan and goes out in search of her to inform her of Cordelia’s imminent arrival with an invading army from France intended to restore Lear’s position.
The play reaches its highpoint in the midst of the storm as Lear suffers a complete breakdown. Having lost all her power and familial relationships, she begins to comprehend her own failures and experience some of her first moments of empathy.
Edmund betrays his father, revealing Gloucester’s knowledge of an impending invasion to reinstate Lear. Gloucester is declared a traitor and has his eyes gouged out. A servant reacts to such gruesome torture and attacks Cornwall, giving her a mortal wound. Regan informs Gloucester that he trusted in the wrong son and was betrayed by Edmund. Edgar, who in exile has donned the disguise of Tom o’ Bedlam, eventually finds his blinded father wandering outside. Gloucester begs Tom to lead him to a nearby cliff so he can end his life. Tom simulates leading his father to the cliff, and then, pretending to be someone new, swears his father has miraculously survived the fall.
Albany becomes aware of the family’s ever-increasing corruption and he and Goneril fight. Regan, newly widowed, and Goneril, finding her husband cowardly, both set their lustful sights on the bastard Edmund.
Still recovering from her emotional breakdown in the storm, Lear finds herself in the care of Cordelia, newly arrived from France. Lear begins to regain her senses and begs for forgiveness. The reunion is short-lived as Cordelia and Lear are quickly taken prisoner by the sisters’ armies. Edmund orders the King and Cordelia killed.
Goneril’s pursuit of Edmund is divulged and Albany charges them both with treason. Regan, who has also declared her intent to marry Edmund, falls ill and is escorted off stage. Edmund demands a trial by combat and fights a disguised Edgar. Edgar deals Edmund a fatal wound before removing his disguise. He reveals the fate of their father who died from joy and grief upon learning of Edgar’s true identity. Regan’s illness and subsequent death is reported to be the result of her sister poisoning her, and Goneril commits suicide. Just before death, Edmund reveals his execution orders for Cordelia and Lear. His warning comes too late, and Lear stumbles on stage carrying the corpse of Cordelia. Lear, overwhelmed by all that has happened and filled with grief, dies. Kent, determined to follow Lear even to the grave, declines the request to lead the country, leaving Edgar alone to offer hope.