Actors Jack Willis and Michael Winters will each play King Lear in alternating performances (schedule subject to change). Performance schedule
Weary of his duties, the aging Lear has decided to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Each must publicly proclaim her love for him; the one who shows she loves him best will get the largest share. Cordelia, the youngest, refuses. Unlike her sisters, she will not turn her feelings into flattery. Incensed, Lear disowns his former favorite and banishes the Earl of Kent when he defends her. Cordelia departs to marry the King of France. Kent, anticipating trouble, resolves to return and serve Lear in disguise.
Though he’s rid himself of kingship’s cares, Lear still expects its privileges. He and his train of rowdy knights soon exhaust the (slender) patience of his remaining daughters, each tasked with keeping him in turn. Goneril and Regan collude to strip him, bit by bit, of his dignity and welcome. Increasingly distraught, Lear finally flees into a fierce storm, accompanied only by his Fool and Kent.
In a parallel story, the Earl of Gloucester is tricked by his illegitimate son, Edmund, into believing that his “trueborn” son, Edgar, means to kill him. Edgar disguises himself as a mad beggar and escapes onto the heath, where he eventually encounters Lear in the storm.
Gloucester finds Lear and sends him to Dover, where Cordelia will land with an invading army. Edmund reports his father’s actions to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who captures Gloucester and blinds him before being killed by a horrified servant. In a final act of cruelty, Regan tells Gloucester it was Edmund who betrayed him. Despairing, Gloucester contemplates suicide, but Edgar, still disguised, comes across him and foils his attempt. Edgar then guides his father to Dover, where Gloucester and Lear reunite.
Cordelia arrives and is reconciled with her father, who begs her forgiveness. However, her army is defeated by her sisters’ forces, and she and Lear are captured. The newly widowed Regan declares she will marry Edmund, with whom she’s secretly been having an affair. But Edmund has been two-timing Regan, having also schemed with Goneril to kill her husband, Albany, so the two of them could wed. Aware of the plot, Albany forces Edmund to fight an anonymous challenger: Edmund’s brother, Edgar. Edgar mortally wounds Edmund, then tells him that their father died after Edgar revealed to him his true identity.
More deaths ensue. The jealous Goneril poisons Regan, then takes her own life. Before he dies, Edmund confesses that he has ordered Lear and Cordelia’s execution. Just as Albany sends soldiers to their rescue, Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms.
e-Luminations: King Lear
The following edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
“I See It Feelingly”
The scene is almost unbearable: “out, vile jelly,” Gloucester’s eye crushed, Cornwall’s foot smashing down again.
For the rest of the play, Gloucester’s bleeding sockets will make us relive this horror, enforcing our continual, visceral recognition of the cruelties people do. In short, they impel us not to blind ourselves to suffering the way others would do in the play. For blindness in King Lear is both a metaphorical and a literal state. From the play’s beginning, the image alerts us to the damages caused by not seeing—which, in the case of Gloucester and Lear, is first and foremost a self-inflicted condition. Gloucester does not recognize the humanity or deep humiliation of his illegitimate son, whom he views only as a sign of his shame. Lear’s blindness is even more willful; he refuses to perceive what does not please him.
“See better, Lear,” Kent warns, sensing the tragedies his king is about to set in motion. But Lear has already ordered Kent out of his sight.
Both Lear and Gloucester will broaden and sharpen their vision. “I stumbled when I saw,” Gloucester admits after his blinding. To say he gains insight in losing his eyes is too pat a formulation for the enormity of his pain, just as it is to say Lear gains wisdom in madness. Still, the men’s new vulnerabilities change them.
“I should ev’n die of pity / To see another thus,” the rescued Lear tells Cordelia, his central reference still himself but his sympathies now widening. Gloucester, for his part, will learn to see “feelingly”—literally to make his way by touch, but also to gain insight through emotional connection. He would no longer be the man “that will not see / Because he does not feel.”
True sight, then, requires a willing vulnerability to others’ pain. “O thou side-piercing sight,” Edgar will cry as he looks on his father and Lear together, alluding to Jesus’ suffering for humankind. This is the feeling act of sight we must summon at Lear’s final cry: “Do you see this? Look . . . look . . . / Look there, look there!”