ACT I – Scene.iv
(This scene is set in the Duke of Albany’s palace)
The Earl of Kent arrives at the palace in disguise and using the name Caius.
He seeks a place in service for the King to whom he remains loyal. The King questions Kent and he is so impressed by his answers that he agrees to hire him.
The King has a large entourage and they are already beginning to annoy
Goneril and her steward Oswald. The steward makes a point of ignoring Lear’s questions and he is becoming increasingly angered by the lack of respect he is shown by both his daughter and her household.
He is also disturbed that he is unable to find his Fool, who is pining over the dismissal of Cordelia.
The Fool loves both his master the King, and Cordelia. Lear orders one of his attendants to inform both Goneril and the Fool that he wishes to see them without delay.
Oswald reappears and continues his insolence towards the King who loses his
temper and strikes him. When Oswald protests at his treatment, Kent bundles him out of the hall.
Lear thanks the disguised Earl and gives him some money, which is a final acknowledgement that Kent is now in the King’s service.
The Fool arrives and provides a series of jests and comic rhymes, some of
which provide a commentary on Lear’s folly in splitting his Kingdom between his daughters.
Goneril arrives and scolds her father calling him “all-licensed Fool” and
also shows impatience concerning the King’s boisterous knights. She demands that he reduces his followers and this only fuels Lear’s anger, but he is unable to influence his daughter. He has lost his power.
Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany enters and he asks Lear to be patient
with his daughter, but the King cannot be placated. He curses his daughter, calling upon the gods to make her sterile, but if she should bear a child he hopes it will only bring her misery.
When Albany is alone with his wife he expresses his amazement at the worsening of relations between Goneril and her father.
The King re-enters having learnt that his daughter has already dismissed
fifty of his followers. He tells Goneril that he has another child who, hopefully, remains kind and he will go and stay with Regan.
Albany goes to protest about Lear’s departure, but Goneril silences him.
She instructs Oswald to deliver a letter to Regan warning her of their father’s impending arrival.
The scene opens with Kent still trying to serve his King and protect him,
and to do this he takes on a disguise so that he can obtain a position close to the King.
The audience can clearly see that he is unselfishly concerned for the King’s
The King questions Kent whose answers are at first ambiguous. When asked who he is, he replies that he is simply a man, in other words a human being as opposed to an evil beast. Although others around the King no longer consider him as the King of Britain, Kent still shows due respect to him even though he has made a foolish mistake. This is demonstrated by the fact that he chastises Oswald for his lack of respect when addressing the King. We will note that Kent was not deceived by Goneril and Regan at the start of the play, and that he also recognised Cordelia’s virtue. He perhaps realizes the danger his master may be in now that he is left to the devices of Goneril and Regan.
Although we are not aware of the extent of Goneril’s evil at this stage, we
suspect that she is already scheming to oust him and his knights from her castle. There may be a tendency to sympathies with her.
It appears that the King intends to take no responsibility for governing his land, and to engage in frivolous behavior with his large band of unruly knights. However, as the scene progresses, we note that it is more than intolerance for Goneril is intent on bringing her father low, and she instructs her servants to act coldly towards Lear and his party. It is an indication of Lear’s own willfulness and lack of control that his knights behave in an unruly fashion.
Lear’s personality seems to be made up of extremes. Despite his age,
he still enjoys revelry. He is quick to lose his temper and become violent, and the curse he lays on his daughter of sterility appears to the audience to be an over-reaction.
He has to come to terms with his change in status. Up until now he has been accustomed to giving orders and having them carried out. He is now treated like a child having tantrums and is openly ignored. He starts to wonder about his own identity.
We are introduced to the Fool in this scene, and we are immediately
intrigued by this odd jester. We warm to him as we sympathize with his loss of Cordelia, but we are soon aware that he has a sharp tongue and he appears to be able to say things to the King that others would
fear to do. The Fool is King Lear’s conscience and he is also a means for the reader to see King Lear’s true character, undiminished by age and eccentricity.
Although the Fool makes hardly any contribution to the plot, he is a key character of the play. Less enlightened generations were unable to come to terms with the complexity of the Fool and some productions deleted his part altogether. The Fool’s main purpose is to enable the audience to understand King Lear’s original nature. Like Kent, the Fool will remain loyal to his master, but he cannot stand silently by without commenting on the King’s Foolishness. So, in addition to providing a fuller picture of Lear, the Fool also provides us with a commentary on the events as they unfold in the play. Ironically, the Fool is very wise and probably Lear’s most experienced counselor.
Shakespeare clearly delighted in introducing this character to his play.
He has all the best lines and as you might expect, provides comic relief to the tragic events that are told. The Fool refers to Lear as nuncle. When the Fool enters he offers Kent his coxcomb or jester’s hat, indicating that he thinks Kent is a Fool in wanting to serve the King who has no kingdom. We note the King’s affection for the Fool as he says to him, “How now, my pretty knave! How dost thou?” The Fool gives Lear this advice,
“Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.”
Lear asks the Fool to teach him more, and the Fool asks the King who told
him to give away his Kingdom so that he can find him and get him to sit at his side – a jester beside a jester.
Lear’s misfortune is that he does not listen to the advice given by his Fool
or the predictions that he makes. The Fool goes on to say, “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had it head bit off by it young. So, out went the candle, and we were left darkling.”
The punishment for the Fool, if he stepped over the mark, was usually a
whipping, but these were rare and it was one of the occupational hazards of being a court jester. Other comments that the Fool makes concern the upheavals in their world where traditional values count for
nothing, and respect for elders and betters is evaporating. Despite all his jibes and criticisms of his master, the underlying devotion and affection that the Fool has for Lear shines through.
The student should study carefully all the Fool’s lines, for they have great
relevance to the play.
Towards the end of the scene, there are indications that Albany is
uncomfortable with his wife’s treatment of her father.
He is clearly dominated by his wife, but not totally subservient. Right at the end of the scene he says to his wife, “How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell: Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” On the face of it, this quotation has little significance, but it has relevance to several events in the play. Firstly, we know that Lear is unable to see through the false testimonies of love made by his daughters, and he is unable to see the virtue of Cordelia. Although he cannot see how clearly Goneril views the situation, the observer can well guess what she has her sights on. This quotation also symbolizes the fate that Gloucester will suffer when he loses his sight by having his eyes gouged. Shakespeare wishes to stress the ferocity of what will happen later in the play.