The story opens in ancient Britain, where the elderly King Lear is dividing his realm amongst his three daughters: Cordelia, Regan and Goneril. Lear plans to give the largest piece to his favorite, Cordelia, and has devised a public ceremony to assure the loyalty of the various factions. Of the three, Cordelia refuses to engage in Lear’s game. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia completely and banishes his dear friend Kent when he intercedes on her behalf. The loyal Kent then disguises himself and returns as a servant who will follow Lear to the end.
Cordelia leaves the court to marry the King of France. Lear and his hundred knights, his beloved fool, and the disguised Kent, go to live with Goneril. This proves disastrous and in a rage Lear abandons Goneril and goes to Regan’s house. Meanwhile, Regan and her husband Cornwall have gone to stay with Gloucester to avoid hosting Lear. It is not long before the two sisters begin plotting to kill their father. Gloucester discovers the cruel plan and rushes to find the King and send him to Dover for protection. Gloucester’s kindness discovered, Regan and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester’s eyes in revenge, then throw him out of his own house to wander blind in the wilderness. Edgar, Gloucester’s son, now disguised as “poor mad Tom”, finds his father and protects him.
Meanwhile, Cordelia has raised an army of French troops to avenge her father and has landed at Dover. Regan and Goneril ready their troops and a battle ensues. Cordelia loses and she and the King are captured. They are sent to jail, but Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, has privately sent an order that they be murdered.
Goneril and Regan are both in love with the conniving Edmund. Ferociously jealous, Goneril poisons Regan. But when Goneril discovers that Edmund has been fatally wounded by Edgar, she kills herself as well. As Edmund takes his last breath he repents and the order to execute Cordelia is reversed. But the reversal comes too late and Cordelia is hanged. Lear appears, carrying the body of Cordelia in his arms. Lear’s great suffering is finally relieved, as he too takes his final breath. Kent declares that he will follow his master into the afterlife and Edgar reluctantly receives the crown and the weight of rule.