King Lear

Author: Joshua Michael Stern/William Shakespeare
Genre: Drama/Historical
Storyline: 9
Dialogue: 9
Characterization: 9
Writer’s Potential: 8

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When the daughter of an aged king refuses to suck up in order to gain land, she is cast out of the kingdom and he is riddled with guilt.


Britain, 54 B.C. Elderly KING LEAR leads a charge into a Celtic camp, followed by nobleman KENT (50s) and the DUKE OF CORNWALL, Lear’s son-in-law. Also in tow are the elderly EARL OF GLOUCESTER and his sons, gentle EDGAR and brooding bastard EDMUND. Kent asks Gloucester about Edmund, who has found friendship in a mangy dog. Gloucester downplays Edmund, instead pointing Kent to Edgar. After leading a successful attack on the camp, a topographer maps the area, revealing that Lear now controls the entire island of Britain. On the way back to Lear’s castle, Lear has a bloody coughing fit.

Before going to the castle, Lear stops to visit the tomb where his wife rests. A sarcophagus waits for him, too. He finds the court FOOL waiting there. At the castle, Kent asks Gloucester if Lear prefers Cornwall or rival son-in-law, the DUKE OF ALBANY, to receive the best territories. Gloucester thinks the dukes are less important than the daughters. LEAR arrives in the great hall, where Cornwall and Albany wait with their respective wives, REGAN and GONERIL. Young, unmarried CORDELIA also waits. Lear surprises everyone by asking each daughter to tell him just how much they love him. Goneril and Regan booth kiss major ass, but Cordelia says nothing, offering instead that her actions — including her unwillingness to get married — demonstrate more love than words could. This enrages Lear, who vows to find a man to marry her and subsequently banish her from his kingdom. When Kent speaks up in Lear’s defense, the king banishes him, as well. Gloucester calls the dukes of FRANCE and BURGUNDY; without getting a decent dowry, Burgundy has lost interest, but France is still willing to marry Cordelia.

Lear sits alone, remembering a younger Cordelia. She leaves with France. Goneril and Albany await the arrival of Lear and his train. To Albany, she questions his bringing so many knights, fearing he may attack and reclaim his land. In Gloucester, Edmund watches bitterly as Edgar helps Gloucester collect taxes. He mutters to himself about taking drastic measures to gain Edgar’s land. He forges a letter in Edgar’s handwriting, signing his name. Later, Edmund puts on a show for Gloucester, showing him the letter, which implies that Gloucester is greedy and Edgar wants Edmund’s help in forcing Gloucester to retire. Edmund warns Edgar that Gloucester’s angry, suggesting Edgar arm himself before meeting with him. At Castle Albany, a group of knights and servants harass and mock the Fool. Lear sees the fool as a teary-eyed Cordelia and flies into such a rage, he nearly kills one servant. When servant OSWALD reports the incident to Goneril, who fears and dislikes his erratic behavior.

Kent arrives at Castle Albany, disguised as a peasant. He gets into Lear’s good graces and is allowed to follow Lear into the castle. Oswald tells Lear that Goneril is too ill to speak to him; Lear flies into a rage, demanding her presence. Oswald won’t move, so Lear asks Oswald who he is, and Lear gets even angrier when Oswald doesn’t answer “king.” Later, Lear runs into Goneril, who wreaks psychological havoc on him, confusing him and hurling hostilities. This makes so angry Lear decides to take back his land. In the courtyard, he watches Goneril’s soldiers escort his knights away. After insulting the departing men, Lear, Kent, and the Fool storm away. As they pass peasant girls, Lear sees Cordelia once again. Edmund finds Edgar hiding in the stables, sends him away quickly, then stabs himself and pretends Edgar did it. Saddened, Gloucester sends his knights after Edgar. Lear goes to Castle Cornwall to find that Cornwall and Regan have departed for Gloucester. He gets confused, but they redirect to Gloucester.

Regan and Cornwall arrive at Gloucester. Edmund flirts with Regan. Kent runs into Oswald, who was sent to warn Regan about what Lear did to Goneril, in the Gloucester stables and attempts to kill him. Oswald calls for help, drawing Edmund’s attention. Gloucester, Cornwall, and Regan follow, demanding explanation. Kent is insolent, so Regan insists they put him in the stocks. Lear and his men travel through stormy countryside. Edgar hides in a windmill. Lear is shocked to find Kent in the stocks when he arrives at Gloucester. He demands explanation from Gloucester, then demands to speak with Regan and Cornwall, all the while lamenting cutting Cordelia out of her fortunes. When Lear asks who put Kent in the stocks, everyone’s afraid to answer. Goneril arrives at the castle, and Lear treats her horribly, verbally abusing her until she’s in tears. He’s angry about her sending the knights away, so Regan and Goneril gang up on him, wondering what he needs with so many followers. Lear flies off the handle at both of them before storming out, Kent and the Fool chasing him. All who remain in the great hall stand still and silent.

Lear stumbles through the storm, with Kent and the Fool at his side. Lear shouts at the storm to deliver its worst, as the Fool begs the old man to return to shelter. Gloucester takes Edmund aside and informs him of a letter delivered by Kent, detailing the various injustices committed by Goneril and Regan, which Lear intends to rectify. He tells Edmund to keep it under his hat. Kent and the Fool lead Lear to the windmill where Edgar’s hiding. Edgar pretends to be insane, but he can’t compete with Lear. Things get awkward when Gloucester arrives, but Edgar carries on with the fake insanity. Gloucester confesses an unwillingness to suffer Lear’s daughters’ harsh rule. Back at the castle, Edmund shows Cornwall Lear’s letter. While Lear rests, Gloucester instructs Kent and the Fool to move Lear to Dover, where he’ll be protected.

Gloucester returns home to accusations of treason. Regan, Cornwall, Goneril, and Edmund have conspired to have guards arrest him. They badger Gloucester until he admits he sent Lear to Dover. Cornwall stabs Gloucester in each eye, blinding him. A guard comes to Gloucester’s defense, and Regan kills him. In the chaos, Cornwall is fatally stabbed. Immediately, Regan and Edmund get together and make love. Shortly thereafter, he also sleeps with Goneril. Edgar finds Gloucester stumbling through the marshlands. He pretends to be a servant and agrees to lead Gloucester to Dover. Albany arrives at Gloucester and chews Goneril out for treating Lear poorly. A messenger tells Albany of Gloucester’s blindness. He is not pleased.

Kent and the Fool bring Lear to a French camp in Dover. Cordelia is there, but Lear is unconscious and deathly ill. Regan learns that Goneril has written a letter to Edmund. Unsure of why, she convinces Oswald to let her see the letter. Cordelia allows a doctor to wake Lear, who is confused and agitated. He’s not sure he’s actually seeing Cordelia, but eventually regains lucidity. He fears Cordelia doesn’t love him, because Goneril and Regan have proven they don’t. The Fool and Oswald meet on the road; Oswald kills him. Oswald comes upon Gloucester and Edgar, as well; not knowing Edgar, Oswald attempts to kill him. Edgar, a knight, annihilates Oswald and takes the letter. The letter is to Edmund from Goneril, subtly suggesting he’d be rewarded for killing Albany. Regan and Edmund meet up with Albany and Goneril on the road. The former couple make a big show of their romance, enraging Goneril.

The group arrives at Dover and prepares for an attack. At night, Goneril sneaks into Regan’s tent and laces her cloak with poisoned thorns. The French camp sees the approaching attack from the British. A massive battle takes place, with Kent and Cordelia fighting side by side as Edmund, who’s enjoying the killing, approaches. Edmund tries to kill Cordelia, but Albany sees this and sends him away. They arrest Cordelia instead. Kent sneaks away, crawling into a patch of tall grass to hide. Edgar and Gloucester wait out the battle from afar. Edgar turns to tell Gloucester when the battle ends, but his father is dead.

Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned together in impromptu cages. Edmund sees them and threatens a few guards into killing them, under the guise of transporting them to prison. Albany catches up with Edmund and admits being impressed with his valiance on the battlefield — he thinks Edmund has a bright future in Albany’s kingdom. Edmund bows. Albany asks to see Lear, but Edmund confesses he sent him to prison. Albany’s suddenly suspicious. As Regan and Goneril squabble, a messenger delivers a note to Albany — the one Edgar took from Oswald. Just as Albany prepares to fight Edmund, Edgar — in disguise — steps in to do the honors. Edgar fatally wounds his half-brother. Goneril tries to arrest Edgar, but Albany refuses to allow it. He shows Goneril the letter, so she runs away. She returns to her tent and finds Regan, poisoned, coughing up blood and crawling on the floor. Watching her sister, Goneril takes a knife and stabs herself.

Edgar reveals his true self to dying Edmund as Kent returns, wondering where Lear is. Out of remorse, Edmund confesses he sent Lear and Cordelia to their death. Meanwhile, the knights hang Cordelia. Lear breaks free of his restraints and kills the knights. As Albany, Kent, and Edgar arrive, Lear howls in pain over the body of his dead daughter. Sympathetic, Kent reveals his true self and tries to comfort Lear, who quickly dies. After philosophizing on Lear’s life and death, Albany offers Edgar and Kent the other two-thirds of Lear’s former kingdom. They look out over the ocean. In the distance, Roman ships approach.


This is a faithful but drastically abridged version of King Lear, working from Shakespeare’s original text. The writer takes a couple of interpretive liberties with it (for instance, showing Goneril’s death, which happens offstage in the play and is ambiguous enough to suggest that it didn’t have to be suicide — Regan could have killed her in one last act of defiance), but much of what he excises is either unimportant or is revealed in different ways that effectively use the tools of cinema to convey things that Shakespeare could only get across with dialogue (e.g., Lear’s visions of a youthful, happy Cordelia). The Roman ship ending is probably the most striking difference, but it adds another layer to an already rich source, pointing out the futility of everything we’ve just witnessed.

The only real problem with the adaptation is that the story gets rushed. Audiences will likely forgive it, but in most cases messengers are dispatched to deliver plot-point-containing letters, only to have the authors of those letters arrive in the next scene. It might strike newcomers to the play as bizarre, but it seems unlikely that anybody who’s never heard of, read, or studied the play would take a gamble on the movie version, so maybe it’s all a wash.

Because it’s King Lear and it’s a solid adaptation, the success really depends on the actor playing Lear. With a good enough actor in the role, this could join Olivier’s Hamlet and Branagh’s Henry V as one of the all-time great Shakespeare films.

This will pretty much appeal only to Shakespeare fans. Maybe with a big enough name or some award buzz, the audience could expand, but it’s hard to conceive of an elderly British star both talented enough to play the role and with enough box-office draw to overcome the stigma of Shakespeare’s difficult text and the bleakness of the story.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 29, 2008 11:20 AM