Characters make up the skeleton of a story. They convey the author’s ideas, beliefs, and relationships of the world as well as of the human beings around them. Major characters in King Lear by William Shakespeare are interesting as well as deeply disturbing for the readers due to the depth of meanings they convey through their conversation and actions. Some of the major characters of King Lear have been discussed below.
Characters in King Lear
King Lear is the protagonist of the play, who shows human frailties and fragilities. As a king, he wants to enjoy the benefits but does not want to take the responsibilities of his subjects. So, he tests his daughters’ love and loyalties but falls prey to the pleasing flattery of Goneril and Regan. Although he knows that Cordelia loves him the most, he gives more value to the sycophancy Regan and Goneril are engaged in. However, by the end it proves that the flattery has taken its toll, leaving him at the mercy of circumstances when Goneril and Regan both leave him after getting their share in the kingdom. It shows King Lear valued flattery and appearances with inefficiency to look beneath the things. His hubris lies in making wrong judgments about Kent and his daughters which become obvious mistakes by the end.
As a complex character, who learned the lesson that he should adjust to the circumstances after committing foolish mistakes. Sadly, his punishment is more than his errors. He wins the sympathy of the audiences on account of his gullible nature that he does not pay heed to the nature of his daughters. He turns to the Fool, the court jester for entertainment during the difficult times in his life. Finally, he accepts the responsibility for his actions that led him to understand Cordelia’s love and her faithfulness.
Cordelia displays traits of kindness, loyalty, dedication, and above all honesty. In contrast with her sisters, Regan and Goneril, she does not use manipulation of circumstances to meet her own ends and surpasses all political shrewdness. Although she establishes her reputation by not going through the test of love, she, nonetheless, invites royal rage from King Lear. He refuses to accept her silent love as proof of her authentic love. The royal error has terrible consequences. Along with King Lear, Cordelia suffers and goes through an ordeal. It leads to the king finally knowing her worth. Despite her disappearance from the stage in the middle, the readers try to find that character during King Lear’s madness. The play again makes her center of the stage when she reaches Britain where she restores the lost order. She becomes instrumental in bringing the order in the chaotic world that regal error has brought in the kingdom.
Edmund is one of the most controversial and complex characters. He is also significant on and shows Machiavellian tendencies and their use whenever time suits him. However, his desires cross natural boundaries. Edmund is an illegitimate son, wishing for power and land denied to him. That is why his betrayal against the system is not just against the existing system but also against the social fabric. He, in fact, desires the status equal to Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester. Although he seeks divine assistance to win recognition, yet he is aware of his own efforts in this direction. A uniquely self- made person, Edmund surpasses in cleverness with no feelings for others. However, he shows a glimmer of compassion by the end saying that both Goneril and Regan have given their lives for him. Hence, his final repentance for Cordelia’s end makes the audience feel sympathetic to this villain.
Goneril is the eldest daughter and an accomplished villain with the power to show herself in every way while hiding her true emotions. However, after she accrues power and share, she turns a blind eye to her father, terming him an old child and banishes him. She even supports her sister, Regan, who is also deceitful not to invite their father, King Lear, when he goes to meet her. Despite being married to a duke, she develops an illicit relationship with Edmund, coaxes him to slay her husband so that she could fulfill her desire of marrying him. Her suicide, however, may evoke sympathy for the readers and audiences that she might have realized the grave mistakes that she committed in her wedded life. She dies with regret of failing to do her duty as the eldest daughter of the king.
Regan is another evil character next to Goneril. Despite her sympathetic and reasonable appearance during Edgar’s infidelity. She shows deceptiveness and yet remains polite as she welcomes her father. However, her true nature surfaces when she also shuts her doors to her father. She crosses the boundaries of indecency when she plucks the beard of Gloucester and finally succumbs to the public pressure, relieving Gloucester from miseries.
An earl, Gloucester is blinded by his illegitimate son, Edmund’s lies. He is kept out of the loop until Cornwall really blinds him and makes him incapacitated for life. Unintuitive and lazy, the Earl of Gloucester blames stars for turning his fate against him, absolving himself from any responsibility. However, his heroic act of saving the king gains him appreciation from the public despite the fact that he appears a mere boaster in the first act.
The Fool or Court Jester
The character of the Fool or the court jester is significant in that when Cordelia faces exile, he provides shelter to King Lear. He is loyal and also an honest fellow who supports the King when he needs somebody the most. The Fool’s sarcastic comments help King Lear to see beneath the surface of things, makes him a bit tolerant. As a character, it seems that he works as a chorus in the Greek plays.
Despite a secondary character, Edgar is significant as he takes the garb of a poor, Tom when Edmund lies to frame him. He ultimately unites with his father in that disguise and kills Edmund to get rid of him. By the end of the play, he is left with Albany to rule the kingdom.
Kent’s character becomes significant for the truth that he speaks about Cordelia when King Lear decides to disinherit the loyal daughter. Later he returns as Caius to advise King Lear about other issues. However, when the right moment comes, he reveals his identity and wins the pardon of the king. His goodness and greatness come in front when by the end he gets an invitation to have a share in the kingdom but he declines.
Despite being the husband of Goneril and slow in learning things about himself, Albany finds himself in a good position at the end of the play, when he sees that things have automatically cleared for him to rule the kingdom.