Shakespeare’s King Lear is a five-act tragedy. Most Elizabethan theatre adheres to the five-act structure, which corresponds to divisions in the action. The first act is the Exposition, in which the playwright sets forth the problem and introduces the main characters.
In King Lear, Act I establishes the nature of the conflict between Cordelia and Lear, among Goneril and Regan and Lear, and between Gloucester and Edgar. This first act also establishes the duplicitous, or treacherously twofold, nature of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, while demonstrating that Cordelia and Edgar are good characters. The remainder of the play’s central characters also make an appearance in this act.
Act II is the Complication, in which the entanglement or conflict develops further. The erosion of Lear’s power begins, the depth of the conflict between Lear and his daughters is revealed, and the conspiracy that unites Goneril, Regan, and Edmund is established.
Act III is the Climax; and as the name suggests, this is when the action takes a turning point and the crisis occurs. In this act, Lear has been cast adrift in the storm, and his words reveal that his mind is also now lost. Likewise, the extent of Regan and Cornwall’s depravity is revealed as they torture Gloucester, ultimately gouging out his eyes.
Act IV is called the Falling Action, which signals the beginning of the play’s resolution. In this act, Edgar reunites with his father, although Gloucester is still unaware that Edgar is his son, and Cordelia returns to Lear, who begins to emerge from his madness. In action that indicates the approaching downfall of the conspirators, Cornwall’s death is revealed, and Edgar kills Oswald. The audience sees in Act IV the tragedy overtaking the hero, as well as the efforts in progress to aid the hero.
Act V is called the Catastrophe, wherein the conclusion occurs. As the name suggests, this act brings closure to the play, a resolution to the conflict, and death to the hero. As the play draws to a close, Regan and Goneril die, Edmund is killed in a duel with his brother, Lear and Cordelia die, and
Edgar is chosen to restore peace to the kingdom.