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King Lear, the protagonist of the play, is a truly tragic figure. Driven by greed and arrogance, he rules as a cruel, absolute monarch who selfishly demands his own way. Known for his stubbornness and imperious temper, he often acts upon emotions and whims. As a result, he grants his inheritance to Goneril and Regan because they flatter him with the words he wants to hear; at the same time, he banishes Cordelia, the only daughter who really loves him. Because of his pride and misjudgment, Lear suffers greatly during the play because of the cruelties inflicted upon him by his older, ungrateful daughters. They treat him with contempt, strip him of his power and dignity, and toss him like a plaything from one place to another. Because of his ill treatment, Lear undergoes a redeeming reversal of character. Humbled by the loss of power and material well being, he begins to see the errors of his ways and identify with humanity at large. When he is reunited with and forgiven by Cordelia, whom he had wronged, he is healed and brought back to sanity. Unfortunately, Cordelia, the innocent one, is hanged; her death is more than Lear can bear; without a will to live, the King dies beside the lifeless body of his beloved and faithful youngest daughter.
Goneril and Regan
Goneril and Regan are symbols of true evil in the play and serve as Lear's physical antagonists. Cruel, cold, selfish, untruthful, deceitful, ungrateful, and callous, the two of them form an evil force that perverts and destroys everything that they contact. In their greed for land and power, they lie to Lear, flattering him with hypocritical words and convincing him of their pure love for him. Not burdened by any moral scruples, both Goneril and Regan are determined to secure their share of their father's kingdom by any means available to them. After Cordelia is banished and they have received their inheritance from Lear, they totally humiliate their proud father, who has given them everything. Stripping him of his army, his power and his dignity, Regan and Goneril succeed in reducing the helpless old King to a state of nothingness.
Goneril is more aggressive and strong-willed than her sister, Regan. From early in the play, she plans to destroy her father and obtain his kingdom and power for herself. After she has received her inheritance, depriving Cordelia of any share of it, she also plans to kill her husband so that she can run away with the evil Edmund. In short, nothing is allowed to stand in Goneril's way. She even poisons her sister Regan because she is afraid that Regan will win Edmund, rather than herself. End the end, she kills herself, not wanting to bear shame and imprisonment for her evil doings.
Regan is almost as evil as Goneril. Although less forceful and aggressive than her sister, Regan is more spiteful and equally wicked; her venomous ways are as dark as those of Goneril, as seen in her participation in the blinding of Gloucester when she taunts him with his son's betrayal.
The elderly Gloucester, the protagonist of the subplot, is pompous and vain at the beginning of the play, much like King Lear. Although normally good-natured, he lacks inner strength and is easily upset. He is also very gullible; as a result, the evil Edmund easily tricks him into believing that the innocent Edgar is planning to murder him. Trusting to the point of naiveté, he foolishly believes Edmund without questioning him.
His misjudgment of his sons leads to great sorrow and suffering, including his cruel physical blinding. Once he is deprived of his sight, he begins to see the errors of his ways, undergoing a moral and spiritual awakening. Drawing courage from Lear's terrible sufferings and his new understanding of humanity, he finds an inner peace, especially after he is reunited with and forgiven by the banished Edgar. The tragedy of Gloucester is that of a simple and weak man who is blind to reality until he is actually blinded.
Although Edmund is young, intelligent, and attractive, he is amoral and inherently evil. The illegitimate son of Gloucester, he resents the fact that he is not respected or treated in the same manner as Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son. He tells his father that Edgar is planning to kill him, thereby successfully convincing Gloucester to grant him his inheritance and to banish Edgar as an outlaw. Desiring to gain even more power, he ingratiates himself to Cornwall and pretends to love both Goneril and Regan. He becomes the leader of Regan's army and captures King Lear and Cordelia during the fighting between the British and the French. Hoping to gain the crown for himself, he orders that both of the prisoners be put to death. In the end his evil ways are exposed by his stepbrother, Edgar. The two of them fight a duel, and Edmund is mortally wounded.
As he faces certain death, Edmund becomes somewhat repentant, admitting that "the wheel is come a full circle." He is touched by the story of his father's end and moved by the deaths of Goneril and Regan. Trying to be noble, he declares his intention to do one good deed before his death. He confesses that he has given orders for the hangings of Lear and Cordelia. Unfortunately, the news comes too late, for Cordelia has already been killed.
Despite her sweetness and youth, the virtuous Cordelia is proud like her father. Within her is a strong will that makes her stubbornly cling to what she considers the truth. She loves her father deeply, but she refuses to flatter him as he wishes. As a result, she is disinherited by Lear and banished from the kingdom. Because of her noble nature, she accepts her destiny without complaint. The King of France, who has been her suitor, admires her truthful ways and proud spirit. He takes Cordelia away to France to become his queen. She is not seen again in the play until the last act, when she returns with the French army to restore her father to his rightful position as King. She also acts like a ministering angel to her father, nursing him back to health. Through her caring and forgiveness, Cordelia transforms Lear's miserable existence into a haven of peace and love. Unfortunately, at the end of the play she is captured by Edmund and hanged.
Edgar is introduced as a totally naïve young man who allows himself to be duped by his half-brother, Edmund. Banished by his father because of Edmund's false accusations, Edgar flees from the castle and takes on the disguise of a poor beggar named Tom. He meets the insane Lear and becomes his companion in order to protect the King. In ministering to the suffering Lear, Edgar forgets his own misfortunes and becomes a better person. Upon meeting his blinded father, he uses all his resourcefulness, tact, and love to save the man who disowned him. At Dover, to where he leads his father, Edgar convinces Gloucester that he has miraculously survived for a purpose after a leap from dizzying heights. When Edgar finally reveals his identity and forgives his father, Gloucester can die a peaceful man.
At the end of the play, Edgar fights Edmund in a duel and mortally wounds his half-brother, ending the chaos and evil that has prevailed throughout the play. As Edmund dies, it is clear that there is no hatred in Edgar's heart for all the wrongs that Edmund has inflicted on him and their father. A generous and noble Edgar forgives his brother. Such nobility and kindness is properly rewarded. At the end of the play, Edgar has been made ruler of the kingdom, promising to restore order out of the chaos.