|Plot outline (Wikipedia)
King Lear, who is elderly, wants to retire from power. He decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, which pleases him. For Cordelia, there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she speaks honestly but bluntly, which infuriates him. In his anger he disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Kent objects to this unfair treatment. Lear is further enraged by Kent's protests, and banishes him from the country. Lear summons the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, who have both proposed marriage to Cordelia. Learning that Cordelia has been disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway.
Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, revealing that their declarations of love were fake, and they view Lear as an old and foolish man.
Edmund resents his illegitimate status, and plots to dispose of his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise under the name of Caius, and Lear hires him as a servant. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to behave better and reduces his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him an outlaw.
Kent meets Oswald at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall. When Lear arrives, he objects, but Regan takes the same line as Goneril. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and echoes Regan. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests against Lear's mistreatment. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets Edgar, in the guise of a madman named Tom o' Bedlam. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Kent leads them all to shelter.
Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges out his eyes. As he is doing so, a servant is overcome with rage by what he is witnessing and attacks Cornwall, mortally wounding him. Regan kills the servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him; then she turns him out to wander the heath too. Edgar, in his madman's guise, meets his blinded father on the heath. Gloucester, not recognising him, begs Tom to lead him to a cliff at Dover so that he may jump to his death.
Goneril meets Edmund and discovers that she finds him more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as cowardly. Albany has developed a conscience- he is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces Goneril. Kent leads Lear to the French army, which is accompanied by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and terribly embarrassed by his earlier follies. Albany leads the British army to meet the French. Regan too is attracted to Edmund, and the two sisters fall out over him. Goneril sends Oswald with love letters to Edmund and also tells Oswald to kill Gloucester if he sees him. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. Lear, who is now completely mad, appears. Lear rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald tries to kill Gloucester but is killed by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds a letter from Goneril to Edmund, telling him to kill Albany and marry her. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness slowly passes. Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that they fight the French invaders but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters lust for Edmund, who has inadvertently made promises to both. He considers the dilemma and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives Goneril's letter to Albany. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund sends them off with secret orders for execution.
The victorious British leaders meet, and Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan suddenly collapses, dead. It emerges that Goneril slipped poison into her food. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears in his own clothes, and challenges Edmund to a duel. He wounds him fatally, though he does not die immediately. Albany confronts Goneril with the letter which was intended to be his death warrant; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself. Gloucester now realises Edmund deceived him, and is overjoyed to be reunited with Edgar. But sadly, their reunion is brief- the shock of all he has been through finally overwhelms Gloucester, and he dies offstage.
Offstage, Goneril, with all her evil plans thwarted, commits suicide. The dying Edmund has seen the error of his ways, and tries to save Lear and Cordelia: however, he is too late. Cordelia has already been killed. Lear, however, has survived- he killed his daughter's murderer and escaped. Lear carries Cordelia's corpse in his arms. Lear now immediately recognizes Kent. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but like Gloucester, the trials Lear has been through have finally overwhelmed him, and he dies. Albany offers to share power between Kent and Edgar. Kent declines, with implications that he himself is not long for this world. Whether he intends to commit suicide out of his great regard for Lear, or feels he is going to die in the same way as Lear and Gloucester, is debatable. At the end, either Albany (in the Quarto version) or Edgar (in the Folio version) has the final speech, with the implication that he will now become king.