The aging king of Britain and the protagonist of the play. Lear is used to enjoying absolute power and to being flattered, and he does not respond well to being contradicted or challenged. At the beginning of the play, his values are notably hollow—he prefers his two older daughters' obvious flattery over the actual devotion of Cordelia, and he wishes to maintain the power of a king while unburdening himself of the responsibility. Nevertheless, Lear inspires loyalty in subjects such as Gloucester, Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar, all of whom risk their lives for him.
Lear's youngest daughter, disowned by her father for refusing to flatter him. Cordelia is held in extremely high regard by all of the good characters in the play—the king of France marries her for her virtue alone, overlooking her lack of dowry. Cordelia remains loyal to Lear despite his cruelty toward her, forgives him, and displays a mild and forbearing temperament even toward her evil sisters, Goneril and Regan. Despite her obvious virtues, Cordelia's reticence makes her motivations difficult to read, as in her refusal to declare her love for her father at the beginning of the play.
Lear's ruthless oldest daughter and the wife of the duke of Albany. Goneril is jealous, treacherous, and amoral. Shakespeare's audience would have been particularly shocked at Goneril's aggressiveness, a quality that it would not have expected in a female character. Goneril challenges Lear's authority, boldly initiates an affair with Edmund, and wrests military power away from her husband.
Lear's middle daughter and the wife of the duke of Cornwall. Regan is as ruthless as Goneril and as aggressive in all the same ways. In fact, it is difficult to think of any quality that distinguishes her from her sister. When they are not egging each other on to further acts of cruelty, they jealously compete for the same man, Edmund.
A nobleman loyal to King Lear whose rank, earl, is below that of duke. The first thing we learn about Gloucester is that he is an adulterer, having fathered a bastard son, Edmund. Gloucester's fate is in many ways parallel to that of Lear: he misjudges which of his children to trust. Also like Lear, Gloucester suffers tremendously for his mistakes.
Gloucester's older, legitimate son. Edgar plays many different roles, starting out as a gullible fool easily tricked by his brother, then assuming a disguise as a mad beggar to evade his father's men, then carrying his impersonation further to aid Lear and Gloucester, and finally appearing as an armored champion to avenge his brother's treason. Edgar's propensity for disguises and impersonations makes him a complex and at times puzzling character.
Gloucester's younger, illegitimate son. Edmund resents his status as a bastard and schemes to usurp Gloucester's title and possessions from Edgar. He is a formidable character, succeeding in almost all of his schemes and wreaking destruction upon virtually all of the other characters.
A nobleman of the same rank as Gloucester who is loyal to King Lear. Kent spends most of the play disguised as a peasant, calling himself “Caius,” so that he can continue to serve Lear even after Lear banishes him. Kent is extremely loyal but gets himself into trouble throughout the play by being exceptionally blunt and outspoken.
The husband of Lear's daughter Goneril. Although Albany allows Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall to abuse their power, Albany himself is good at heart, eventually denouncing and opposing their cruelty and treachery. Yet Albany is indecisive and lacks foresight, not realizing the evil of his allies until quite late in the play.
The husband of Lear's daughter Regan. Unlike Albany, Cornwall is domineering, cruel, and violent, and he works with his wife and sister-in-law Goneril to persecute Lear and Gloucester.
Lear's jester. The Fool uses double-talk and seemingly frivolous songs to criticize Lear for the latter's foolish mistakes.
The steward, or chief servant, in Goneril's house. Oswald obeys his mistress's commands and helps her in her conspiracies.