An aging King Lear decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He seeks a kind of oath of love before doing so, with which Goneril and Regan falsely comply. Feeling that any statement of “most love” would be false, Cordelia refuses, provoking Lear to disown her and then banish his faithful steward Kent who comes to her defense. She leaves to marry the king of France. However, Lear still wants the trappings of kingship, so proposes to move between the now-divided kingdoms of his two remaining daughters while demanding royal privileges, represented by a companion train of one hundred knights. Kent reappears in disguise and takes up service to Lear. However, Lear gets no further than two weeks at Goneril’s castle. She tires of his knights’ unruly behavior, and threatens to take away half of them. In a rage Lear moves to Regan’s, but she has removed herself to Gloucester’s house, which is too small for one hundred knights. There she and Goneril gradually reduce his status until he is little more than an unwanted house guest, stirring him to increasingly bitter tirades against their ingratitude. He finally banishes himself, winding up on the heath in a brutal storm.
Meanwhile, Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, has convinced his father through the ruse of a forged letter and a staged wound from a fight that his legitimate son, Edgar, intends to assassinate him. Edmund also convinces Edgar that he is in danger (of course he is). Edgar flees and disguises himself as a beggar and madman to avoid detection. In this state he hides in a hovel on the heath during the storm. Nearby, Lear rages against the gods, nature, and his daughters. As the Fool and Kent try to get him shelter, they discover the “mad” Edgar. The quartet carry on in a madcap kind of way until Lear asks “Is man no more than this?” and has his clothes removed (in some performances). Gloucester finally finds them and leads them to shelter, where Lear conducts a mock trial of his daughters. Sensing danger, Gloucester has Lear led to Dover where (we assume) the French army awaits.
During the same interval (Act III), Edmund has learned from Gloucester of an impending invasion from France, and betrays his father to Regan’s husband Cornwall. After sending Lear away, Gloucester finds himself seized, strapped to a chair, and then brutally blinded one eye at a time. Cornwall does the deed, but he is slain by an angry servant in return. Left alive but unable to see, Gloucester crawls towards Dover when he encounters Edgar in disguise. Feigning a helping hand to Gloucester’s desire to commit suicide, Edgar convinces him that he hovers over the cliffs of Dover, over which Gloucester thinks he throws himself. Saved, Gloucester decides to let nature finish his life. He then meets Lear cavorting about with a crown of weeds. The two have a mad, sad, sublime reunion. Cordelia has meanwhile appeared with the army of France. She finds Lear, takes him in and revives him, and then forgives him in the play’s most shining moment of reconciliation if not redemption. However, she loses the subsequent battle; she and Lear are captured.
Edmund (it turns out) has been engineering a domestic civil war by alternating his sexual favors between Goneril and Regan, both now wanting him. Edmund has also been a leader in the fight against Cordelia. He orders Lear and Cordelia imprisoned, then secretly orders their deaths. Meanwhile, Goneril has poisoned Regan, who staggers off the stage sick to death. At the third trumpet, Edgar arrives, still disguised but now as some kind of warrior. He battles Edmund and kills him. A messenger arrives to disclose that Goneril has killed herself. Before dying Edmund confesses his deeds and his intentions for Lear and Cordelia. However, they are too late. The executioner has hung Cordelia, but he is killed in turn by Lear. Lear returns to the stage howling, with Cordelia in his arms. Imagining (against hope) that she may still live, he too dies, of grief. Only Kent, Edgar, and Goneril’s good husband Albany are left to rue the “weight of this sad time.”