King Lear's five act structure

King Lear Title page 1608Aristotelian tragedy

In common with most Elizabethan theatre (and all of Shakespeare’s plays) King Lear is a play in five acts which each correspond to the typical structure of a tragedy. Aristotle in his Poetics, defined the shape of drama as requiring:
  1. Exposition – introducing the main characters and the potential areas for future dramatic conflict
  2. Rising action, or complication, in which conflict and relationships are developed
  3. Climax or crisis – the conflict reaches its height with perhaps an impasse, but there is no going back regarding the protagonist’s fortunes
  4. Falling action – the catastrophe which engulfs the protagonist, although more positive action may also be initiated
  5. Resolution or (as it was later termed) dénouement, in which everything is untangled and the action is brought to a close. 

Act 1

Act 1 is the exposition, the section of the play which introduces the play’s principal characters and establishes the main areas of conflict which will drive the story forward. Act 1 establishes major areas of conflict between:
  • Lear and the truthful, uncompromising Cordelia
  • Lear and his other two daughters, Goneril and Regan
  • Gloucester and Edgar
  • the ‘good’ (as represented by Cordelia, Edgar and Kent) and those who are clearly immoral and treacherous (Goneril, Regan and Edmund). 

Act 2

In Act 2 we witness the rising action as the initial conflicts are developed. Lear increasingly loses the respect he has been used to, as well as his power. We see a chasm open up between the King and Goneril and Regan. The subplot centred on Gloucester and his sons is also developed. At the same time we see the beginning of the conspiracy which unites Edmund, Goneril and Regan.

Act 3

In King Lear’s central Act 3 is the climax, where the action reaches a turning-point and when the crisis occurs. The climax of this play could hardly make a bigger dramatic effect as it centres on a violent storm into which Lear has been cast. This storm not only makes a huge physical impact but it also represents the storm which rages in Lear’s mind as he begins to lose his sanity. The Gloucester subplot also reaches its climax with the gouging out of the Earl’s eyes, an act which also reveals the full extent of Cornwall and Regan’s cruelty.

Act 4 

The falling action begins as King Lear moves towards its resolution. Edgar (although still disguised) is reunited with his father and Cordelia returns to Lear. The King also begins to recover his sanity. Amongst the elements which suggest that the story may be moving towards a good-triumphing-over-evil happy ending are the deaths of Cornwall and Oswald. Ultimately, however, these signs of a more just world only serve to heighten the catastrophe that unfolds as we move into Act 5. 

Act 5 

The play concludes with a resolution to the various conflicts but not in any way which suggests a simple moral resolution. The ‘evil’ characters (Goneril, Regan, Edmund) all die but so too do Lear and Cordelia. The play ends with Edgar as the one chosen to restore peace to the kingdom.
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