aging king of Britain and the protagonist of the play. Lear is used
to enjoying absolute power and to being flattered, and he does not
respond well to being contradicted or challenged. At the beginning
of the play, his values are notably hollow—he prioritizes the appearance
of love over actual devotion and wishes to maintain the power of
a king while unburdening himself of the responsibility. Nevertheless,
he inspires loyalty in subjects such as Gloucester, Kent, Cordelia, and
Edgar, all of whom risk their lives for him.
in-depth analysis of King Lear.
youngest daughter, disowned by her father for refusing to flatter
him. Cordelia is held in extremely high regard by all of the good
characters in the play—the king of France marries her for her virtue
alone, overlooking her lack of dowry. She remains loyal to Lear
despite his cruelty toward her, forgives him, and displays a mild
and forbearing temperament even toward her evil sisters, Goneril
and Regan. Despite her obvious virtues, Cordelia’s reticence makes
her motivations difficult to read, as in her refusal to declare her
love for her father at the beginning of the play.
in-depth analysis of Cordelia.
ruthless oldest daughter and the wife of the duke of Albany. Goneril
is jealous, treacherous, and amoral. Shakespeare’s audience would
have been particularly shocked at Goneril’s aggressiveness, a quality
that it would not have expected in a female character. She challenges
Lear’s authority, boldly initiates an affair with Edmund, and wrests
military power away from her husband.
in-depth analysis of Goneril.
middle daughter and the wife of the duke of Cornwall. Regan is as
ruthless as Goneril and as aggressive in all the same ways. In fact,
it is difficult to think of any quality that distinguishes her from
her sister. When they are not egging each other on to further acts
of cruelty, they jealously compete for the same man, Edmund.
in-depth analysis of Regan.
nobleman loyal to King Lear whose rank, earl, is below that of duke.
The first thing we learn about Gloucester is that he is an adulterer,
having fathered a bastard son, Edmund. His fate is in many ways
parallel to that of Lear: he misjudges which of his children to trust.
He appears weak and ineffectual in the early acts, when he is unable
to prevent Lear from being turned out of his own house, but he later
demonstrates that he is also capable of great bravery.
older, legitimate son. Edgar plays many different roles, starting
out as a gullible fool easily tricked by his brother, then assuming
a disguise as a mad beggar to evade his father’s men, then carrying
his impersonation further to aid Lear and Gloucester, and finally
appearing as an armored champion to avenge his brother’s treason.
Edgar’s propensity for disguises and impersonations makes it difficult
to characterize him effectively.
younger, illegitimate son. Edmund resents his status as a bastard
and schemes to usurp Gloucester’s title and possessions from Edgar.
He is a formidable character, succeeding in almost all of his schemes
and wreaking destruction upon virtually all of the other characters.
in-depth analysis of Edmund.
nobleman of the same rank as Gloucester who is loyal to King Lear.
Kent spends most of the play disguised as a peasant, calling himself
“Caius,” so that he can continue to serve Lear even after Lear banishes him.
He is extremely loyal, but he gets himself into trouble throughout
the play by being extremely blunt and outspoken.
husband of Lear’s daughter Goneril. Albany is good at heart, and
he eventually denounces and opposes the cruelty of Goneril, Regan,
and Cornwall. Yet he is indecisive and lacks foresight, realizing
the evil of his allies quite late in the play.
husband of Lear’s daughter Regan. Unlike Albany, Cornwall is domineering,
cruel, and violent, and he works with his wife and sister-in-law
Goneril to persecute Lear and Gloucester.
jester, who uses double-talk and seemingly frivolous songs to give
Lear important advice.
steward, or chief servant, in Goneril’s house. Oswald obeys his
mistress’s commands and helps her in her conspiracies.