King Lear is a play about blindness – blindness to others’ motivations, blindness to one’s own true nature, blindness to the emptiness of power and privilege, and blindness to the importance of selfless love. Lear’s only desire is to enjoy a comfortable, carefree old age, but he fails to see the role his absolute power has played in shaping his relationship with his daughters, whom he expects to take care of him. Once he loses his power Lear gains insight into his own nature and realizes his shortcomings, admitting “mine eyes are not ‘o th’ best.” (V.iii) Tragically, this self-knowledge comes too late, at a point when Lear has forfeited the power that might have enabled him to change his fate. He finally sees the world as it really is, but is powerless to do anything about it. He dies after saying the final words, “look there, look there,” (V.iii) a literal command that the others look at Cordelia, but also a symbolic plea that the survivors see themselves, and the world, more accurately.
The play opens with a glimpse of the subplot that mirrors the main action, as Gloucester explains that he has two sons, one legitimate and one illegitimate, but he tries to love them equally. They discuss Lear’s plans to divide his kingdom, suggesting that he has already decided to share equally among his daughters, and his love test will be just a show, and actually won’t decide anything. Lear then announces his intention to divide his kingdom, admitting that Cordelia is his favorite. He clearly expects all three daughters to try to outdo each other with declarations of their love, for which he will reward them with portions of land. But Cordelia refuses to flatter him, and humiliates him publicly with her disobedience. Enraged by Cordelia’s stubbornness, Lear disowns her, and divides the kingdom between the remaining two daughters. Lear’s inability to understand that despite Cordelia’s reluctance to publicly flatter her father she actually loves him best is the tragic mistake that incites the action of the rest of the play.
The audience understands that Lear’s other two daughters, the deceitful Goneril and Reagan, are the antagonists to Lear’s desire to hold onto his power, and the rising action of the play see these two characters actively thwarting their father and hastening his downfall. After dividing his kingdom between Goneril and Reagan Lear continues to demand that his daughters care for him, expecting to retain the privileges of the crown without the responsibilities. Lear has never recognised the role power plays in his family, so he expects his daughters to treat him exactly as they did when he was their king. Instead, Regan and Goneril treat Lear according to his new status as a powerless old man. Lear is deprived not only of the loving care he expected from his daughters, but also of his attendant knights, and finally even the shelter of their roofs. Meanwhile, the subplot reverses the structure of the main plot: while Lear mistakenly believes that power plays no role in his family, Edmund is all too aware of the role power plays in his. Angry that his illegitimate status makes him powerless, Edmund schemes to banish Edgar and take his place as Gloucester’s heir.
In keeping with its mirrored plot and subplot, King Lear has two simultaneous climaxes where a protagonist comes in direct conflict with an antagonist. For Lear, this moment comes when he is denied shelter by his daughters and forced to wander in the storm, a reversal of fortune that drives him mad. He tries to make the storm obey him, and the result is that he is deprived of the few comforts he has left. Lear spends much of the storm talking with Edgar, who is disguised as a mad beggar called “Poor Tom,” and helps Lear see that as king he failed to care enough for the poor and downtrodden “wretches” of his kingdom. Meanwhile, Edmund triggers the climax of the subplot when he reveals to Cornwall that Gloucester has tried to help Lear. As a result, Gloucester is blinded, stripped of his title and banished from his home. The climax of the subplot confirms the vision of the main plot: raw, violent power is a greater force than even the love of families. Edmund has achieved his goal because he understands this truth and is prepared to act on it.
In his madness and suffering, Lear learns how fragile and temporary his former power was, and in the play’s falling action this insight allows him to be reconciled with Cordelia. He no longer demands that his daughter treat him like a king. He is happy to be treated as a “foolish, fond old man” (IV.vii) so long as Cordelia loves him. He imagines that in prison he and Cordelia will be sustained not by power but by their mutual love for one another: “We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage” (V.iii). Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom, meets his blinded father, Gloucester, who intends to commit suicide: both men are so damaged by the political power that has crushed them—Edgar forced to hide, Gloucester suicidal and unable to see—that father and son are unable to be truly reconciled. Edgar does not reveal his true identity to Gloucester, and he has to trick his father into surviving his suicide attempt. Edgar’s deception suggests that true reconciliation is impossible for families torn apart by power, which undermines Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia, and foreshadows the terrible denouement of the play, in which both families will be destroyed.
The play’s denouement involves the deaths of many of the characters, most of them violent. Edgar kills his brother Edmund. Edgar also unintentionally kills his father, who is overcome by the discovery that his son has survived and forgives him. Edgar is restored to power, as the new Duke of Gloucester, but like Edmund he has had to destroy his family to do it. Lear’s family is also destroyed. Regan, Goneril, Cordelia and finally Lear himself all die. The center of the denouement is Cordelia’s death. Even though Edmund reverses his orders to have Cordelia and Lear killed, his decision comes too late. This truth echoes the fatalism of the entire play – a mistake, once made, can’t be undone, just as Lear can’t undo his fatal mistake of giving the wrong daughters his kingdom. In the play’s final scene Lear carries Cordelia’s body onstage, howling with grief. Lear has finally learned to love his daughter without asking for anything in return, only to have her taken from him. All Lear’s suffering has been for nothing.