King Lear dramatizes the story of an aged king of ancient Britain, whose plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters ends tragically. When he tests each by asking how much she loves him, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him. The youngest, Cordelia, does not, and Lear disowns and banishes her. She marries the king of France. Goneril and Regan turn on Lear, leaving him to wander madly in a furious storm.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund turns Gloucester against his legitimate son, Edgar. Gloucester, appalled at the daughters’ treatment of Lear, gets news that a French army is coming to help Lear. Edmund betrays Gloucester to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who puts out Gloucester's eyes and makes Edmund the Earl of Gloucester.
Cordelia and the French army save Lear, but the army is defeated. Edmund imprisons Cordelia and Lear. Edgar then mortally wounds Edmund in a trial by combat. Dying, Edmund confesses that he has ordered the deaths of Cordelia and Lear. Before they can be rescued, Lear brings in Cordelia’s body and then he himself dies.
Early printed texts
The textual history of King Lear is complicated, from its first printing to how it is edited today. The play first appeared in 1608 as a quarto titled True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear (Q1). That version of the play is in itself confusing: some verse lines are erroneously divided or set as prose, prose lines are sometimes set as verse, and the book went through multiple changes during its press run, correcting mistakes, but also introducing new ones. The play was reprinted in 1619 (Q2), with some additional lineation and word changes. In 1623, the play was included in the First Folio as The Tragedie of King Lear (F1). This version of the play is markedly different than Q1: there are about 100 lines that are in F1 but not Q1, and about 300 lines (including the entirety of 4.3) that are in Q1 but omitted in F1; there are also differences in about 800 words between the two versions.
Since the 18th century, editors have conflated the two versions—combining both texts to produce a play that is different from either Q1 or F1. In the 20th century, scholars increasingly argued that each version was a distinct play, either due to one of the versions incorporating interventions from someone other than Shakespeare, or due to Shakespeare's own revision of the play. It is possible now to find modern editions that conflate Q1 and F1, that are based on solely Q1 or F1, or that present Q1 and F1 on facing pages. The Folger edition is based on Q1, but it includes additions from F1 where the omission would otherwise leave a gap. The edition marks off the F1-only text in square brackets; Q1-only text is indicated with angled brackets. In some cases, the editors have made changes that are not from F1 or Q1; those emendations are marked with half-brackets.
Picturing King Lear
As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to King Lear is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.
More images of King Lear can be seen in our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)