King Lear Characters

King Lear The aging king of Britain and tragic hero of the play. Lear, who is used to complete obedience from everyone around him, makes two related major errors: giving up of political responsibility by transferring power to his daughters; and trusting the flattering Goneril and Regan over the plainspoken, but true, Cordelia. Despite his flaws he is able to maintain the loyalty of certain subjects, particularly Kent and Gloucester. However, these will not be enough to save him.
Cordelia Lear’s youngest daughter, whom he disowns when she refuses to flatter him, as her sisters do, during the ceremony in which he hands over power. Cordelia remains loyal to Lear despite his unjust harshness to her at the beginning of the play and even seems prepared to forgive her treacherous sisters at the end. Other characters who do not betray Lear—particularly Kent—admire Cordelia for her virtue and mildness.
Goneril Lear’s vicious older daughter, who is the first to flatter him in the power-transfer ceremony and the first to insult him afterwards, throwing him and his knights out of her house. Goneril’s ruthless temperament contrasts with that of her husband, the Duke of Albany. In the end, she plots against Albany, and even against her former ally, her sister Regan, out of lust for Edmund.
Regan Lear’s middle daughter, who shares the vicious traits of Goneril, also flattering him in the power-transfer scene and abusing him thereafter. Regan shows her particularly brutal nature when she aids her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, in blinding Gloucester.
Gloucester An earl, or nobleman, who is loyal to Lear and similar to him in many ways. Like Lear, Gloucester misjudges his children, trusting his scheming illegitimate son, Edmund, over his honest and good child from his legal marriage, Edgar.
Edgar Gloucester’s elder, legitimate son. Although at first Edgar comes across as a bit naïve, easily duped by Edmund, he later disguises himself successfully as a madman beggar and manages not only to save himself from the death sentence his misled father has pronounced on him, but also to help Gloucester and Lear and to avenge the wrongs committed by his traitorous half-brother.
Kent A nobleman of the same rank as Gloucester, banished by Lear in the first scene when he attempts to intercede with the king on Cordelia’s behalf. Kent spends most of the play disguised as Caius, a disguise he takes on so that he can continue to serve Lear even after being thrown out of his kingdom.
Fool Lear’s jester, who accompanies him through much of the play. Although his statements come out as riddles, the Fool offers insight into Lear’s mistakes and their consequences. Insofar as he stays with Lear, despite all his mockery and criticisms (and at his peril, during the violent storm in Act 3), the Fool, like Kent, Gloucester, and Cordelia, proves himself loyal.
Albany The husband of Lear’s older daughter, Goneril, and a Duke. Albany is kind and generous, in contrast to his malicious wife, and criticizes her for her treacherous behavior toward her father. However, he realizes the viciousness of the other characters he is aligned with (namely, Edmund and Regan) too late in the play to prevent the evil that they cause.
Cornwall Cornwall is the husband of Lear’s middle daughter, Regan, and just as vicious as she is. He disrespects Lear by putting his man Kent in the stocks and, later, violently blinds Gloucester.
Oswald Goneril’s steward, or chief servant. Oswald’s blind obedience to the evil Goneril earns him contempt from the “good” characters Kent and Edgar, and eventually costs him his life.
France The husband of Cordelia. France is a benevolent character, who takes Cordelia as his wife without a dowry, when she has been rejected by her father, and even sends her back to England with the French army to rectify the wrongs carried out by Goneril and Regan against Lear. However, France only appears in the first scene.
Curran Gloucester’s servant.
THE STARS, HEAVENS, AND THE GODS In Shakespeare’s time there was a particularly strong belief that order on earth depended on order in the heavens—or, as Kent puts it, that “the stars above us govern our conditions” (4.3.39). Celestial bodies are thus both a metaphor of order and a potential source of disorder, when they go awry. Multiple characters in King Lear make references to eclipses that have taken place; in Act 1 Scene 2 in particular, Gloucester attributes the chaos in Lear’s court—the banishment of Kent and abrupt departure of Cordelia and France—to “these late eclipses of the sun and moon” (1.2.109). Edmund then mockingly takes up the theme of “what should follow these eclipses” (1.2.148). Later inthe play, Lear and Gloucester both appeal to the stars and gods together as benevolent spectators of their sad plights, and as forces for justice. (E.g., Lear cries out in 2.4: “You heavens, give me that patience […] You see me here, you gods, a poor old man” (313-4).
ANIMALS From start to finish, King Lear is full of references to animals, usually incorporated into insults and curses or used to describe states of maximum human degradation. (The Fool also frequently tells jokes or sings songs involving non-human creatures.) Lear himself observes, in his rage at Goneril and Regan: “Allow not nature more than nature needs,/ Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (2.4.307-8). Throughout the play, animals present a vision of brutal nature to which men can descend, and yet the animals are also held up as less corrupt than men. After all the beasts are just beasts, and are naturally brutal, while the finely dressed Goneril and Regan, along with the other disloyal members of Lear’s court, can spout beautiful language about love and honor, and then stab their father in the back.
CLOTHING AND COSTUMES (DISGUISE) Complementing the many references to animals throughout the play are mentions of clothing and instances of disguise. Kent, banished by Lear, disguises himself as the commoner Caius. Edgar, fleeing Gloucester’s mistaken wrath, transforms himself the mad beggar, Poor Tom. As the honorable characters of the play must take off their fine clothes and put on disguises to remain loyal, and Lear associates Goneril and Regan’s fine clothing with their duplicity, clothing becomes a symbol of the desire for power and status that corrupts characters like Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cornwall. On Dover beach Lear remarks to Gloucester: “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear./ Robes and furred gowns hide all” [4.6.181-2].