ACT I - Scene.i
(It is Britain and this scene takes place in the stateroom of King Lear’s
There is a conversation between the Earls of Kent and Gloucester where we
learn that the King plans to divide his Kingdom amongst his three daughters, two of whom are married, and the youngest has two suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France.
The Kingdom is expected to be divided according to the worth of King Lear’s sons-in-law.
The audience also learns that Gloucester has two sons, Edgar his heir, and
Edmund the younger son who is illegitimate. Gloucester reveals that both his sons share his affections.
The King enters heralded by a trumpet, followed by his eldest daughter
Goneril and her husband the Duke of Albany, then Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall, and finally Cordelia his youngest daughter.
Cordelia’s two suitors are also present, but they wait outside. King Lear announces that he is tired of ruling his Kingdom and because of his advanced age, he intends to divide his Kingdom into three parts based on his daughters’ testimonies of love for their father. Lear’s plan is for the extremities of his Kingdom to be divided equally between Goneril and Regan, for he hopes their husbands will be able to maintain law and order. He wishes to live in the central part of his Kingdom with his favorite youngest daughter Cordelia.
The oldest two daughters fawn over their father exaggerating their
affections for him. When it comes to Cordelia to make her testimony, she says,
“You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you and most honor you.
Why have my sisters’ husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.”
Lear asks why his daughter is untender. He fails to recognize his
daughter’s true affections for him and falls for the other two sisters’ false declarations of love. He decides to disinherit Cordelia and split the whole Kingdom between Goneril and Regan.
The Earl of Kent intercedes on Cordelia’s behalf, telling the King that he
is making a grave act of Foolishness, but the King will not be swayed and he banishes Kent as well.
Kent departs, hoping that the gods will protect Cordelia and that Goneril and Regan’s testimonies will be shown to be true.
Gloucester returns with the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy and they
are told that Cordelia is now destitute and without a dowry. The King of France is astonished at this news for it was well known that Cordelia was her father’s favorite.
Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France acknowledges Cordelia’s virtues and accepts her as his bride-to-be. As Cordelia leaves, she is anxious about her father’s welfare, for she knows her older sisters well.
The sisters are glad to see their younger sister depart, as she has been the
subject of their jealousy for a long time.
Most of the primary characters of the play are introduced in this first scene.
We are given information concerning the three players that make up the
sub-plot, the Earl of Gloucester and his heir Edgar, and his illegitimate son Edmund.
The initial conversation between Kent and Gloucester is somewhat
bawdy. We read, Gloucester: “But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account.
Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whore son must be acknowledged. Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” Although Gloucester considers his two sons to be equal, Elizabethan society does not. Bastards were much discriminated against and had no rights to wealth and property. Edmund will be fully aware that he will not receive an equal inheritance, and his father’s estate will go to Edgar, his legitimate heir. The sub-plot deals with Edmund’s determination to obtain fortune and position.
Elizabethan society would also be shocked at King Lear’s plans to divide up
his Kingdom. This is a path to chaos, and English history is full of power struggles when there have been different factions with claims to the throne.
We are then introduced to the remaining main characters and we learn how
Lear intends to divide his Kingdom. His daughters will be required to provide a testimony of their love for their father and depending on their replies; the Kingdom will be divided accordingly.
This aspect of the story is probably one of the original elements of the early Pagan tale. It is thought that the events mirror similar happenings in Britain around 800 B.C. The aged Lear is still a physically vibrant man, but we suspect that his hold on reason is diminishing and we view him as a Foolish man who doesn’t recognize the true feelings of his three daughters. His ego is flattered by the false declarations made by Goneril and Regan, which are purely based on material factors. When Cordelia makes her response, she realizes that she stands to have control over the choicest part of the Kingdom, but her love for her father has no price and so she resists the temptation to flatter Lear’s ego.
It is no coincidence that Cordelia’s two suitors are both French, England’s
Perhaps the Shakespearean audience at this stage of the play may consider that Cordelia poses the greatest threat to her father, rather than the other two daughters. The symbolism here is of course, that these foreign suitors are Roman Catholic as opposed to the Protestant England. The inference, therefore, is that Lear is providing a recipe for political, social and religious chaos, which will only result in the weakening of the country.
As we will learn, Lear is surrounded by many who love and honor him, so we
can assume that up until now he has ruled wisely, but the Earl of Kent recognizes Lear’s folly and tries to advise his King to spare Cordelia the banishment, but he is also banished for his pains.
Kent makes his testimony to the King by saying,
“Royal Lear, whom I have ever honour’d as my King,
Lov’d as my father, as my master follow’d
As my great patron thought on in my prayers”
The measure of Kent’s love will be shown later, but he does not propose to
desert his liege.
Cordelia’s fate seems sealed, for she will be married to the King of France.
We must assume that the King’s wit is severely diminished, for he seems unable to appreciate the implications of dividing his Kingdom. He is consumed with arrogance and willfulness.
The key element in understanding the play and Cordelia’s actions is
contained in her dialogue in this scene. You will note that her dialogue starts at line 63 with an aside, which helps illuminate what is to follow. This should be studied carefully.
In conclusion, it should be realized that the play is a direct product of
Cordelia’s proud integrity, and this helps compound Lear’s folly. However, she will pay the price for this attitude.
One of the main themes of the play is the struggle between nature and basic
instincts, which are at odds with the rule of law and social structure. This struggle will destroy family ties and violate the common laws of society.
As well as Lear losing the only daughter that truly loves him, he also loses
the Earl of Kent, who through his own bluntness angers the King, who banishes him.
Again we have another noble character acting in a Foolish manner, and he is being removed from a position where he could have protected his King.
The specter of evil raises its head towards the end of the scene and Goneril
and Regan’s triumphant dialogue provides an ominous tone for the King.
The two older daughters show that they have little respect for their father,
and with the absence of Cordelia and Kent, their quest to gain power will be easier.
We should not, however, leave this interpretation without saying something
in support of Lear.
It is evident he has put in many years of sound leadership to his people, and he wishes to pass on the burden to others. Although he has little time for the Duke of Cornwall, he does recognize that the Duke of Albany has some redeeming virtues. He does not appreciate the resentment that the two oldest daughters have concerning Lear’s treatment of Cordelia as his favorite daughter. As a result of his over-reaction in banishing both Cordelia and Kent, Lear has opened the door for evil to enter.
We note that Shakespeare has not adapted the original story and placed it in
a Christian context.
Reference is made to the gods, Jupiter, Apollo etc., so the audience will be in no doubt that this is a Pagan land where perhaps divine justice will not hold sway. However, there are some Christian references and we see from the King of France quotation, “Fairest Cordelia, thou are most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken; and most lov’d, despis’d!”, which has similarities to II Corinthians Ch.6 v.10, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” The clear distinction is made here that Cordelia is virtuous and good and the inference is therefore, that her older sisters are not. The extent of their evil will be revealed as the plot unfolds.