The main plot deals with the head of the royal family, King Lear of Britain. Lear has three daughters: Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. The oldest, Goneril, is married to the Duke of Albany. The middle child, Regan, is married to the Duke of
Cornwall. Cordelia, the youngest, has two potential suitors, the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. The Fool is a major character in the head family, serving as the king's foremost right-hand man.
Within the plot, another story weaves its way. It is headed by the Earl of Gloucester, a member of Lear's court.
Gloucester has two sons: the elder, legitimate son, Edgar, and the younger, illegitimate son, Edmund.
The plot opens at King Lear's retirement. Lear has decided to give up the throne and divide his kingdom among his daughters. Before allotting the portions of the kingdom, Lear asks each of his daughters to profess her love for him in the best way she knows how. Doing so will guarantee each girl her portion of the entitlement. While Goneril and Regan delve into expressions of adoration for their father, Cordelia remains speechless, saying that words cannot express her love. Lear becomes enraged by what he considers his favorite daughter's lack of attachment and affection. With that, Lear cuts
Cordelia off, deciding she will receive none of the entitlement. Her share is divided between the other two girls, who receive almost the entirety of the royal court. The only thing Lear keeps for himself is a retinue of 100 knights who will take him back and forth between the two girls for visits.
After Cordelia loses her portion of the kingdom, her suitors are called in to propose. Burgundy is rejected but the King of
France woos her well enough to earn her hand.
Meanwhile, at Gloucester's castle. Edmund decides he will not let his illegitimate birth prevent him from earning his father's estate. He conjures a plan of his own to convince Gloucester that Edgar is covertly planning to kill Gloucester himself, in order to more quickly procure the estate while he's at a young age. Edmund tells Edgar that their father is after him, having heard falsely that Edgar committed some heinous crime. With that, Edgar flees.
At the same time, Lear decides that he can't stand living with his two daughters. They treat him cruelly and it enrages him. He screams at them and curses them, running out into a violent storm,