If you're thinking about complaining that King Lear isn't a great book because it's a play, I don't want to hear it. King Lear made it on five lists, more than any other single Shakespeare work. As a nice coincidence, King Lear is the first book I've read treated in David Denby's Great Books, which I'm reading concurrently. I'd already noted the similarities between Lear and Oedipus Rex (the blindness/wandering with kid thing) but what I didn't know is that Shakespeare probably had no access to the Greek story. Very interesting.
So. Here's the plot.
Lear is going to retire and he's planning to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, Cordelia, and Goneril. But first, he asks them how much they love him. Regan and Goneril step up to the plate and lay it on really thick. Cordelia, youngest, doesn't play nice. King Lear takes his toys and gives them to Regan and Goneril instead. Cordelia runs off with the King of France and Lear settles down to what he expects will be a pleasant retirement living with his daughters. Instead, Regan and Goneril refuse to accord him his former honors and turn him out into the countryside. Meanwhile, Gloucester, the king's loyal supporter, is betrayed by his illegitimate son. Gloucester, blinded, and Lear, insane, wander about the English countryside. Regan and Goneril engage in extra-marital affairs with Gloucester's bastard and kill each other (seriously). The King of France invades and, as usual for the end of a Shakepeare play, everybody dies.
I've read Jane Smiley's Thousand Acres, which kind of freaked me out, and primed me to look at the play from the viewpoint of the cruel Regan and Goneril. Yes, they betray their father. But Lear's insatiable demand for love and loyalty lies at the seed of the conflict. Alas, he is blind (metaphor!) to the poisonous <----) effect of his behavior.