Lear is King of Britain. He is an old, highly successful warrior king. (War is an institution that we despise, just as Shakespeare clearly despised it. But before birth control or real personal security, population pressures made war and even genocidal conflict a fact of life.) Like Hamlet and Othello, we are impressed with him because of what others say about his background. (You can find examples. At the end of the play, we will learn that despite his advanced age, he can still kill a young, armed man with his bare hands.) King Lear has decided to retire and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands. His stated intention is to prevent future conflict. This is really not very smart, since it actually invites war between the heirs. Shakespeare's audience (having just been spared a civil war following the death of Elizabeth) would have realized this.
King Lear has staged a ceremony in which each daughter will affirm her love for him. Whether this has been rehearsed, or the daughters forewarned, we can only guess. Goneril and Regan may have been embarrassed. Goneril says she loves her father more than she can say. King Lear thanks her and gives her Third Prize. Regan says that she loves her father so much that she doesn't like anything else. King Lear thanks her and gives her Second Prize. Cordelia says that she loves her father exactly as a daughter should. King Lear goes ballistic and disinherits her, and banishes the Earl of Kent for speaking in her defense. First Prize is divided between the other two daughters.
You can decide whether King Lear is showing early signs of mental illness (as his other daughters think), or whether he just wanted an excuse to give Cordelia the best share of the kingdom and she just spoiled it. Cordelia has been courted by the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. Burgundy says he will not marry a woman with no property. France is more clever. He swears that he loves Cordelia, and marries her. This is an obvious plan to make a claim on the British throne, and Shakespeare's audience would have realized this. We'll see the proof later. France may or may not be sincere in loving Cordelia. We won't know.
As the basis of his retirement agreement, King Lear has stipulated that he will live alternately with his daughters, who will support him and 100 followers. When he leaves, Goneril and Regan express their understandable concern about hosting a mentally-imbalanced father and his personal army.
King Lear goes to live with Goneril. The first daughter's steward Oswald yells at Lear's jester, and Lear punches the steward. Goneril decides to assert control. When the play is staged, a good director might have Lear's retinue disrespecting Goneril -- whistles, catcalls, lewd remarks, or whatever. Kent returns in disguise to serve Lear, and we meet the jester ("Fool"). For some reason, just like Kent, the jester is loyal to the king, even though you can find hints that the King has not always been kind to the jester. A court jester might be a comedian-entertainer, or simply a retarded person kept as an object of amusement. Lear's jester is specially privileged to speak the truth, which he does ironically.
Oswald is rude to Lear, and one of Lear's knights makes an indignant speech about the King not being cared for properly. (This knight, and all the others, will soon abandon their king.) Lear yells at Oswald, Kent trips Oswald, and a scene ensues in which Goneril demands that Lear reduce the number of his followers -- evidently to 50. Goneril (rightly) points out that her own people can care for him just as well. (There's a subtlety here. In the original story, the daughters send the knights away, i.e., refuse to pay to support them. However, if you read closely, the knights are already leaving King Lear, because they can tell what is going to happen. The King is showing lapses in judgement, and has no way of forcing his daughters to honor their promise to support him. In a time of warlords, soldiers will desert when the leader shows signs of being unable to lead and/or guarantee their salaries.) Lear curses Goneril and departs for Regan's. He sends Kent before him, and Goneril sends Oswald.
Regan and her husband have gone to visit the Earl of Gloucester, and when Kent and Oswald meet at the Earl's castle, Kent picks a fight and Regan's husband puts him in the stocks. This is a serious breach of protocol, and when Lear arrives, he is furious. (Kent's difficult phrase "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery", by its context, seems to mean that when things seem to be going really badly, it's common to receive unexpected, seemingly-miraculous help.) Goneril arrives and Lear curses her again. Regan says she will allow him only 25 followers. Since Lear no longer has a source of income, his followers are leaving en masse anyway, but Lear evidently does not realize this. Lear says he will return to Goneril, but now she will not even allow 25, and the daughters re-enact the fairy-tale plot by alternately reducing the numbers, and asking "Why do you need even one follower, when we can care for you ourselves?" Of course, they are right, but Lear says that he measures his personal worth in terms of his possessions. "Reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life is cheap as beast's." Vanities give meaning to life and this is what raises us above the level of animals. King Lear, now alone except for Kent and the jester, starts to cry and runs off as a storm brews. The daughters lock him out of the castle to teach him a lesson.
Lecturers who enjoy talking about "The Elizabethan World Picture", in which orders of nature reflect human law and its breakdown, will tell you that the ensuing storm mirrors the chaos in Britain. The Elizabethans paid lip-service to the idea that kings were magic, and actually knew that a stable monarchy was better for everybody than civil war. (Lawful democracy would be devised later.) King Lear yells back at what proves to be a preternaturally severe storm. His whole retinue have abandoned him except the jester, who begs Lear to go apologize to his daughters and seek shelter, and Kent, who sends to Dover, where the French army has landed in expectation of a British civil war. Even though the jester pretends to be foolish, he always knows exactly what is going on, and what's more, he is loyal to the old king. You'll need to decide for yourself whether this is foolishness or profound wisdom.
In the first storm scene, which is difficult, Lear is going crazy. He:
first calls on the power of the storm to sterilize the human race;
then accuses the storm of taking sides with his daughters against his dignity and being their degraded slave;
then, realizing that people have deceived him, says the storm must be "the gods"'s way of finding and punishing secret evildoers, and that he is "a man more sinned against than sinning";
then comments, "my wit begins to turn", i.e., he realizes he is going crazy -- in literature, becoming insane is often a metaphor for changing the way you look at yourself and the world;
notices the jester is cold, and comments that he is also cold; this is the first time Lear has been responsive to the needs and concerns of someone else;
accepts Kent's suggestion to take shelter in a hut.
Already inside the hut is "one of the homeless mentally-ill." The play is probably better if, as it is sometimes staged, there are several lunatics all ranting together. (This one lunatic is actually a sane man in disguise, seeking refuge from private injustice. The "extras" who served as knights in the first and second act and who will be in the battle scenes at the end can be the extra lunatics.) When he sees the hut, and before seeing the lunatic(s), King Lear realizes that what is happening to him now is what he has allowed to happen to the poor throughout his reign. "Oh, I have taken too little care of this." He suddenly realizes that his luxuries have been maintained at the expense of his poorest subjects, and that justice is only now being served on him.
When he sees the lunatic(s), Lear cracks, and says he/they must have given everything to their daughters and been turned out also. But the onset of madness confers a deeper insight. Lear sees in the naked lunatic someone who has taken nothing wrongfully from anyone, and is the essential human being. Saying that "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art," the King rips off his clothes.
In the third storm scene, King Lear holds a trial of his two daughters, evidently mistaking a stool for Goneril, something else (I've seen a chicken used) for Regan, and so forth. In one Royal Shakespeare Company production, the King mistook a pillow that the jester was holding for Regan, and stabbed the jester to death through the pillow. The good Earl of Gloucester comes and urges Kent to take the King (who has passed out) to Dover, since his daughters' people are planning to kill him. At the end, Kent tells the jester to follow Lear. As often played, Kent discovers the jester to be dead. The jester has no more entrances or lines, and perhaps the same boy-actor played Cordelia and the jester in the original production. You can read more about Robert Armin, the beloved comedian who played Shakespeare's jesters at the time, elsewhere online.
Kent and Lear reach Dover and Cordelia, who loves him. Cordelia accompanies an invading French army. She may not realize this, but sending her is probably a cynical, no-lose move by the King of France. If his forces win and kill the other heirs, he is now also King of Britain. If his forces lose, the heirs will kill Cordelia and he will be rid of a wife who is no longer of any political value. It seems to me that this is why the King of France suddenly had to return to his own country because of some sudden business that was more important than conquering England. Uh huh. He has left his wife either to do it for him, or be killed. (Shakespeare's English audience mostly did not like the French. Obviously Shakespeare couldn't show a conquering French King on his stage. But having the King land and then leave "suddenly" lets Shakespeare make the foreign King look machiavellian. You'll have to decide about this for yourself.)
Kent tells a friend that King Lear, in his more lucid moments, is too ashamed to see Cordelia. The King reappears in a field where the Earl of Gloucester lies, his eyes having been gouged out by Regan and her husband. King Lear is now crowned and decorated with weeds and wild flowers. He wavers between hallucinations and accurate perception. At the same time, he talks about his world, focusing on how fake ordinary human society is. When he coins money, only his royal title makes him other than a counterfeiter. People pretend to be modest and virtuous, but even the animals commit adultery. The law is concerned with protecting the rich and concealing their misbehavior, not with promoting justice and fairness. Regan and Goneril have played and humored him. He learned the truth only in the storm. He says that "when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." Cordelia's people come to bring him back to their camp, and they chase him down.
We next see King Lear asleep under the care of Cordelia. He awakes, and thinks -- correctly -- that he recognizes her. But he thinks that they are both dead. "Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound upon the wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead." Cordelia kneels, Lear tries to do the same (as in the older play), but Cordelia prevents him. Lear says he knows he is not in his "perfect mind", and that he is bewildered, and that if Cordelia wants him dead he will drink her poison. When Cordelia says she has no cause to be angry, but merely wants to help him, Lear says "Pray now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish."
King Lear is not about wrongs being righted. If Shakespeare were a Hollywood writer, his King might have returned to rulership and ("having learned to be sensitive, and that it is all right to cry") become a champion for the poor in his own country and set up a social agency to deal effectively with other dysfunctional families. In contrast to the happy ending in the source, Shakespeare has the French army defeated by the British, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. King Lear looks forward to happy time with his daughter in prison, merely laughing at the rest of the world. As the subplot concludes, all the villains are dead, but Cordelia has been hanged in prison. King Lear kills the hangman with his bare hands. He comes onstage, carrying Cordelia's body and howling. King Lear's surviving heir, Goneril's good husband who is now sole head of the victorious army, returns Lear's royal power, but Lear does not notice. Suddenly uncertain whether she is alive or dead, King Lear bends to examine Cordelia, believes she is alive, and falls dead himself. The good survivors see the passing of a man who was larger than life