King Lear Short Story Summary | Shakespeare

King Lear by William Shakespeare

 Hi, I’m Cecilia Elise Wallin. And this is a video in my series Learn from the Classics of literature.

In some of the videos in this series, we will learn from the incomparable Shakespeare. 12 of Shakespeare’s greatest plays have been summarized into beautiful groundbreaking short stories by the British poet and novelist Edith Nesbit, and these short stories have been recorded by great LibriVox readers. One of these exquisite short stories is King Lear, by William Shakespeare.


KING LEAR was old and tired. He was aweary of the busi-

ness of his kingdom, and wished only to end his days

quietly near his three daughters, whom he loved dearly.

Two of his daughters were married to the Dukes of Albany and

Cornwall; and the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France

were both staying at Lear’s Court as suitors for the hand of Cor-

delia, his youngest daughter.

Lear called his three daughters together, and told them that he

proposed to divide his kingdom between them. “But first,” said he,

“I should’like to know how much you love me.”

Goneril, who was really a very wicked woman, and did not love

her father at all, said she loved him more than words could say;

she loved him dearer than eyesight, space or liberty, more than

life, grace, health, beauty, and honor.

“If you love me as much as this,” said the King, “I give you a

third part of my kingdom. And how much does Regan love me?”

“I love you as much as my sister and more,” professed Regan,

“since I care for nothing but my father’s love.”

Lear was very much pleased with Regan’s professions, and gave

her another third part of his fair kingdom. Then he turned to his

youngest daughter, Cordelia. “Now, our joy, though last not

least,” he said, “the best part of my kingdom have I kept for you.

What can you say?”

“Nothing, my lord,” answered Cordelia.


Nothing,” said Cordelia.

Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again,” said the King.

And Cordelia answered — “I love your Majesty according to my

duty, — no more, no less.”

And this she said, because she knew her sisters’ wicked hearts,

and was disgusted with the way in which they professed un-

bounded and impossible love, when really they had not even a right

sense of duty to their old father.

“I am your daughter,” she went on, “and you have brought me

up and loved me, and I return you those duties back as are right fit,

obey you, love you, and most honor you.”

Lear, who loved Cordelia best, had wished her to make more

extravagant professions of love than her sisters ; and what seemed

to him her coldness so angered him that he bade her begone from

his sight. “Go,” he said, “be for ever a stranger to my heart and


The Earl of Kent, one of Lear’s favorite courtiers and cap-

tains, tried to say a word for Cordelia’s sake, but Lear would not

listen. He divided the remaining part of his kingdom between Gon-

eril and Regan, who had pleased him with their foolish flattery,

and told them that he should only keep a hundred knights at arms for

his following, and would live with his daughters by turns.

When the Duke of Burgundy knew that Cordelia would have no

share of the kingdom, he gave up his courtship of her. But the

King of France was wiser, and said to her — “Fairest Cordelia,

thou art most rich, being poor — most choice, forsaken; and most

loved, despised. Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon. Thy dow-

erless daughter, King, is Queen of us — of ours, and our fair


“Take her, take her,” said the King; “for I have no such daugh-

ter, and will never see that face of hers again.”

So Cordelia became Queen of France, and the Earl of Kent, for

having ventured to take her part, was banished from the King’s

Court and from the kingdom. The King now went to stay with

his daughter Goneril, and very soon began to find out how much

fair words were worth. She had got everything from her father that

he had to give, and she began to grudge even the hundred knights

that he had reserved for himself. She frowned at him whenever she

met him ; she herself was harsh and undutiful to him, and her ser-

vants treated him with neglect, and either refused to obey his

orders or pretended that they did not hear them.

Now the Earl of Kent, when he was banished, made as though

he would go into another country, but instead he came back in

the disguise of a serving-man and took service with the King,

ho never suspected him to be that Earl of Kent whom he him-

self had banished. The very same day that Lear engaged him as his

servant, Goneril’s steward insulted the King, and the Earl of Kent

showed his respect for the King’s Majesty by tripping up the caitiff

into the gutter. The King had now two friends — the Earl of Kent,

whom he only knew as his servant, and his Fool, who was faith-

ful to him although he had given away his kingdom. Goneril was

not contented with letting her father suffer insults at the hands of

her servants. She told him plainly that his train of one hundred

knights only served to fill her Court with riot and feasting; and

so she begged him to dismiss them, and only keep a few old men

about him such as himself.

My train are men who know all parts of duty,” said Lear.

Saddle my horses, call my train together. Goneril, I will not

trouble you further — yet I have left another daughter.”

And he cursed his daughter, Goneril, praying that she might

never have a child, or that if $he had, it might treat her as cruelly

as she had treated him. And his horses being saddled, he set out

with his followers for the castle of Regan, his other daughter. Lear

sent on his servant Caius, who was really the Earl of Kent, with

letters to his daughter to say he was coming. But Caius fell in

with a messenger**of Goneril — in fact that very steward whom he

had tripped into the gutter —and beat him soundly for the mis-

chief-maker that he was; and Regan, when she heard it, put Caius

in the stocks, not respecting him as a messenger coming from her

father. And she who had formerly outdone her sister in professions

of attachment to the King, now seemed to outdo her in undutiful

conduct, saying that fifty knights were too many to wait on him,

that five-and-twenty were enough, and Gonerit (who had hurried

thither to prevent Regan showing any kindness to the old King)

said five-and-twenty were too many, or even ten, or even five,

since her servants could wait on him.

“What need one?” said Regan.

Then when Lear saw that what they really wanted was to drive

“him away from them, he cursed them both and left them. It was a

wild and stormy night, yet those cruel daughters did not care what

became of their father in the cold and the rain, but they shut the

castle doors and went in out of the storm. All night he wandered

about the heath half mad with misery, and with no companion but

the poor Fool. But presently his servant Caius, the good Earl of

Kent, met him, and at last persuaded him to lie down in a wretched

little hovel which stood upon the heath. At daybreak the Earl of

Keilt removed his royal master to Dover, where his old friends

were, and then hurried to the Court of France and told Cordelia

what had happened.

Her husband gave her an army to go to the assistance of her

father, and. with it she landed at Dover. Here she found poor King

Lear, now quite mad, wandering about the fields, sineing aloud to

h’mself and wearing a crown of nettles and weeds. Thev brought

him back and fed and clothed him, and the doctors gave him such

medicines as they thought might bring him back to his right mind,

and by-and-by he woke better, but still not quite himself. Then

Cordelia came to him and kissed him, to make up, as she said, foi

her sisters. At first he hardly knew her.

“Pray do not mock me,’* he said. /I am a very foolish, fond old

man, four-score and upward, and to deal plainly, I fear I am not in

my perfect mind. I think I should know you, though I do not know

these garments, nor do I know where I lodged last night. Do not

laugh at me, though, as I am a man, I think this lady must be my

daughter, Cordelia.’*

“And so I am — I am,” cried Cordelia. “Come with me.”

“You must bear with me,” said Lear ; “forget and forgive. I am

old and foolish.”

And now he knew at last which of his children it was that had

loved him best, and who was worthy of his love; and from that

time they were not parted. 

Goneril and Regan joined their armies to fight Cordelia’s army,

and were successful : and Cordelia and her father were thrown into

prison. Then Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, who was a

good man, and had not known how wicked his wife was, heard

the truth of the whole story; and when Goneril found that her

husband knew her for the wicked woman she was, she killed her-

self, having a little time before given a deadly poison to her sister,

Regan, out of a spirit of jealousy.

But they had arranged that Cordelia should be hanged in prison,

and though the Duke of. Albany sent messengers at once, it was

too late. The old King came staggering into the tent of the Duke

of Albany, carrying the body of his dear daughter Cordelia in his



Oh, she is gone for ever,” he said. “I know when one is dead,

and when one lives. She’s dead as earth.”

They crowded round in horror.

“Oh, if she lives,” said the King, “it is a chance that does re-

deem all sorrows that ever I have left.”

The Earl of Kent spoke a word to him, but Lear was too mad

to listen.

“A plague upon you murderous traitors all ! I might have saved

her. Now she is gone for ever. Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Her

voice was ever low, gentle, and soft — an excellent thing in woman.

I killed the slave that was hanging thee/’

” Tis true, my lords, he did,” said one of the officers from the


“Oh, thou wilt come no more,” cried the poor old man. “Do you

see this? Look on her — look, her lips. Look there, look there.”

And with that he fell with her still in his arms, and died.

And this was the end of Lear and Cordelia.”

King Lear, by William Shakespeare, adapted into a short story by Edith Nesbit

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