Act I Summary:
Gloucester and Kent, loyal to King Lear, objectively discuss his division of the kingdom (as Lear is preparing to step down) and to which dukes, Cornwall and Albany, they believe it will equally fall. Kent is introduced to Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund. Gloucester nonchalantly admits that the boy's breeding has been his charge ever since impregnating another woman soon after his legitimate son, Edgar, was born. Kent is pleased to meet Edmund. Gloucester mentions that Edmund has been nine years in military service and will return shortly.
Lear enters and sends Gloucester to find France and Burgundy, Cordelia's suitors. He then begins to discuss the partitioning of Britain he has devised to each of his three daughters and their husbands. Lear decides to ask each of his daughters to express how much they love him before he hands over their piece of the kingdom. As oldest, Goneril speaks first, expressing her love as all encompassing. Regan adds that she is enemy to other joys. Lear gives each their parcel, wishing them well. Cordelia, as the youngest and most liked daughter, is saved the choicest piece of land. However, she responds to her father's request by saying she has nothing to add. She loves only as much as her obligation entitles and will save some of her love for a husband. Lear is enraged and hurt. After giving her a few chances, he strips Cordelia of any title or relation. Kent intercedes on her behalf but he too is estranged by Lear. Kent cries that honesty will continue to be his guide in any kingdom.
Cordelia's suitors enter. Lear apprises them of Cordelia's new state of non-inheritance. Burgundy cannot accept her under the circumstances, but France finds her more appealing and takes her as his wife. Cordelia is not unhappy to leave her sisters and leaves with France. Goneril and Regan conspire to take rule away from Lear quickly as he is becoming more unreasonable.
The scene centers around Edmund, at first alone on stage, crying out against his position as bastard to the material world. He is envious of Edgar, the legitimate son, and wishes to gain what he has by forging a treasonous letter concerning Gloucester from Edgar. Gloucester enters, amazed at the events which have occurred during the last scene. He wishes to know why Edmund is hiding a letter and demands to see it. He shrewdly acts as if he is embarrassed to show it to Gloucester and continually makes excuses for Edgar's apparent behavior. Gloucester reads the letter detailing "Edgar's" call to Edmund to take their father's land from him. Edmund asks that he not make too quick a judgment before they talk to Edgar as perhaps he is simply testing Edmund. He suggests forming a meeting where Edmund can ask Edgar about his proposals while Gloucester listens in secret. Gloucester agrees, musing on the effects of nature and its predictions. He leaves directly before Edgar enters. Edmund brings up the astronomical predictions he had discussed with Gloucester and alerts Edgar that Gloucester is very upset with him, though he knows not why. Edmund offers to take Edgar back to his lodging until he can bring he and Gloucester together and advises him to go armed. Edgar leaves and Edmund notes that he will soon take his due through wit.
Scene iii reintroduces Goneril, as she is outraged by the offenses she contends Lear has been showing her since moving into her residence. He has struck Oswald for criticizing his fool, his knights are riotous and so on, she claims. Lear is out hunting. Goneril commands Oswald to allow her privacy from Lear and to treat Lear with "weary negligence". She does not want him to be happy, hoping that he will move to Regan's where she knows he will face the same contempt. She demands Oswald to treat his knights coldly as well. She leaves to write Regan.
Kent enters, disguised and hoping to serve in secret as a servant to Lear so that he can help him though he is condemned. Lear accepts to try him as a servant.Oswald comes in quickly before exiting again curtly. A knight tells Lear that Goneril is not well and that Oswald answered him curtly as well. The knight fears Lear is being treated wrongly. Lear had blamed himself for any coldness but agrees to look into a problem in Goneril's household. Lear's fool has hidden himself since Cordelia's departure so Lear sends the knight for him. Oswald reenters, showing Lear the negligence Goneril had suggested. Lear and Kent strike him, endearing Kent in Lear's eyes. Oswald exits as Fool enters. Fool persistently mocks and ridicules Lear for his actions in scene i, his mistreatment of Cordelia, trust in Goneril and Regan, and giving up of his authority. He calls Lear himself a fool, noting he has given away all other titles. The fool notes that he is punished by Lear if he lies, punished by the household if he speaks the truth, and often punished for staying silent.
Goneril harps on the trouble Lear and his retinue are causing, such as the insolence of Fool and the riotous behavior of the knights. She states that he is not showing her the proper respect and consideration by allowing these actions to occur. Lear is incredulous. Goneril continues by adding that as Lear's large, frenzied train cannot be controlled she will have to ask him to keep fewer than his hundred knights. Outraged, Lear admits that Goneril's offense makes Cordelia's seem small. As Albany enters, Lear curses Goneril with infertility or, in its stead, a thankless child. He then finds that his train has already been halved and again rages against the incredible impudence Goneril has shown him. He angrily leaves for Regan's residence. Albany does not approve of Goneril's behavior and is criticized by her for being weak. Goneril sends Oswald with a letter to her sister, detailing her fear that Lear is dangerous and should be curtailed as soon as possible.
Impatient, Lear sends the disguised Kent to bring letters to Gloucester. The Fool wisely warns that Regan will likely act no better than her sister had. He criticizes Lear for giving away his own home and place, using examples such as a snail carrying his shell. Lear recognizes he will have to subdue his fatherly instincts toward Regan as well. Fool points out that Lear has gotten old before he is wise. Lear cries out, praying that he will not go mad.
Act I Analysis:
The kingdom's division as alluded to by Kent and Gloucester is strange in that it is not mentioned in the context of Lear's daughters. The seeming arbitrariness this sheds on Lear's enactment of the love test provides a contrast through which to view the misplaced importance Lear is placing on words, appearance, and position. We will soon learn that Kent and Gloucester are two of the only men who could provide Lear with sound, sincere advice, thus endowing their original take of the situation with a greater significance. They have no problem with Lear's decision to divide the kingdom as he is old and is attempting to escape greater conflict after his death. Thus Kent's revolt against Lear's actions arises not from Lear's initial undertaking but from his reaction to Cordelia. Notice too that he does not protest when Lear asks for an estimation/competition for love from his daughters or when Goneril and Regan respond in very coarse, superficial words. He only strikes against Lear's rule when Lear does not notice the sincerity of Cordelia's words and then moves to strip her of his love and titles. This is not only foolish but hurtful and unjust.
The love test was foolish but, on the surface, harmed little. Yet, Goneril and Regan likely knew that their sister would not compete with them if their were extravagant enough in their claims of love toward their father. Of course, they did not love him with their all, but in Lear's old and insecure state, they knew he would fall for their insincerity and Cordelia would refrain from competing on such a hypocritical level. Notice the sonorous quality of the sisters' names. The two oldest have very harsh, coarse sounding names, lacking in femininity or beauty. Cordelia's name is much more melodic and feminine. This is the first constructed quality which sets her apart from her sisters. Also pay attention to the inflated verse Goneril and Regan use when addressing their father as opposed to the much harsher prose they regress to upon his exit in scene i. Their true voices are symbolized by the harsh prose we receive from them when alone, just as their names reverberate with crudeness. Cordelia however often speaks in rhyming couplets, a much more elevated form than her sisters, which allows her to be further set apart from their hypocrisy. We also note that Kent will at times, especially in his defense of Cordelia, slip into rhyming couplets. Shakespeare stresses the elevation of language to symbolize the true nature of characters, highlighting Kent and Cordelia as honorable characters.
Cordelia frequently however understates her sincerity and true affections. She is aware that her sisters speak superficially, employing terms of value and worth in expressing their love, and refuses to echo their hypocrisy, thus responding more coldly than she likely otherwise would. Her asides to the audience give an unadulterated view into her thoughts, similar to the true voices of Goneril and Regan we meet at the end of scene i. Her response "Nothing" echoes these asides instead of disguising them and illustrates to the reader how Cordelia as a character is stripped of pretense and artifice. The idea is echoed literally and symbolically in Lear's comment of scene iv, "Nothing can be made out of nothing" (I.iv.126). In the very same scene that Lear admits he has overreacted toward Cordelia, though only at this point acknowledging that Goneril's offense is greater, he perceives that truth and sincerity cannot be represented by pretense. Regardless of how well Lear has been fooled by the artifice of his older daughters, he allows the Fool to counteract his elderly need for praise and love. Not surprisingly in Shakespeare's plays, the Fool is often the least foolish, directing the lead characters to their miscues in slightly comedic or condescending ways. His singing to Lear illustrates further the use of language and the presentation of language which Shakespeare employs to distinguish between different characters' qualities or the different intentions of single characters.
King Lear is a parable, encrusted with symbolic figures and actions toward a predicted and fabled end. Suspension of disbelief must be enacted on a level as many readers are moved to question Lear's decision making and early blindness toward truth and goodness. As one critic raises, how would Kent and France recognize Cordelia's sincerity and inner beauty when her own father cannot? On a realistic level, Lear has started to regress toward dementia and old age. We know by Kent and Gloucester's loyalty toward him, that he had once been more reasonable. On the figurative and more appropriate level, Lear is a allegorical figure in a parable and must move blindly toward this character demise in order to be resurrected to honesty and the goodness his fallen daughter represents in the end. He committed a fatal and selfish human error which cannot be mended without the journey and transformation he must undergo. The story of King Lear had been kicked around in old British literature and lore, but Shakespeare appears to be the first to allow it to end as tragically as the story's course first suggests. With this in mind, Lear's life is headed in an almost inevitable downward spiral. The plot centers more around how Lear will handle this spiral and his conquering of artifice and insincerity.
Blindness is one of the most frequently employed metaphors in King Lear. Blindness will become a physical problem for Gloucester later in the play, but its metaphoric weight is used to foreshadow and heighten this development. Lear is blind to the blatant hypocrisy of his two oldest daughters from the first moment we meet him. However, unlike the implication that he was once a more noble man since he has the support of seemingly noble subcharacters, Kent and Gloucester, we are not given the impression that he ever knew well enough to previously suspect Goneril or Regan of ingratitude or dishonesty. They have obviously shown their true colors at some point before though since Cordelia responds in such a manner to alert us that she will not sink as low in hypocrisy as her sisters will. For instance, she comments, "A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue/ That I am glad I have not, though not to have it/ Hath lost me in your liking" (I.i.231-233).
Thus, although Lear has obviously favored Cordelia, he has been blind to the inherent ingratitude of his two other daughters and is foolish enough to trust them with his livelihood after more foolishly disinheriting Cordelia and exiling Kent. A good example of this is presented in the very first scene. Lear cries to Kent, "Out of my sight!" to which Kent retorts, "See better, Lear, and let me still remain/ The true blank of thine eye" (I.i.158-159). He wishes to be allowed to remain the one who could center Lear's focus. Yet even when Kent reenters the play disguised, he cannot alter the course that Lear has begun. Lear becomes increasingly blind to the truth around him. Sight, or the lack of it, is referenced a few scenes later more explicitly when Lear himself notices that he has lost sight of what is important, so to say. He cries, "Does any here know me? This is not Lear./ Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?" (I.iv.216-217). Kent cannot become his eyes as the tragic plot and subplot move toward blindness and disillusion.
The subplot of child betraying sibling and father eerily and intentionally mirrors the plot of children betraying father and father betraying child. Shakespeare's method of juxtaposing the two plots through the interspersing of a scene relating to the plot with a scene centered around Edmund's sinister conspiracy allows the audience to have a heightened awareness of the actions of one through the other. In both, the strong, honorable patriarch is undone by the ingratitude of at least one of his children. Both patriarchs seem to have contributed slightly to the misdeeds of their children. Gloucester directly separates his sons as legitimate and illegitimate and mentions it frequently. He also notes that he sent Edmund away, likely because of his illegitimacy, for a long period of time and plans to do so again. Stripped of property and title, one is less surprised by Edmund's move to undo his destiny. However, Shakespeare creates in the characters of Edgar and Gloucester hearts which seem honorable and trusting, making Edmund's plot to betray them more disgusting. Note that Gloucester immediately believes the letter which Edmund shows him, not at once questioning Edmund's honesty although it would be doubtful that Gloucester had any previous reason to suspect or distrust Edgar. Similarly, Edgar immediately believes Edmund when he tells him he should worry about his safety and his relationship with his father. The audience gains from these interactions that Edmund has done nothing in the past to arouse suspicion. Instead it seems that he has been waiting patiently to upset the familial balance and now hurries to do so when threatened with further military service.
But remember, we must also keep in mind that an attempt to make sense out of every encounter and character intention is not the purpose of the play. Instead, we must explore the character flaws and relationship developments as they are entwined within the parable Shakespeare is constructing and expanding. The parable's breadth is exaggerated and amplified by the doubling of themes in the plot and subplot. The demise of the father's position through betrayal by his own children was considered to be one of the cruelest, harshest offenses imaginable. This reflection of plot, for which the seeds are planted in Act I, magnifies the horrors of the tragedy. In this manner, blindness is one of the main symbolic and physical vehicles through which Shakespeare describes the horrors of ingratitude, insincerity, and hypocrisy.
Goneril is represented to the audience as one of the most evil participants in the familial crimes taking place. This character description is illustrated through the contrast Shakespeare establishes between her and her husband. Woman as the most evil of characters is not a new experiment for Shakespeare. Shortly before writing King Lear, he created a Lady Macbeth who expressed the need to sacrifice one's own children if necessary to gain more power and who urged her more weakhearted husband to kill the kindhearted King. Though in the end of Macbeth Lady Macbeth is suffering from her evil, she was still the instigator who brought about the continued evils by urging her husband to yearn for more and more power. Here, Goneril also yearns for power but does not feel the need to aim indirectly for it. Albany is basically told to stay out of her way as he is too weak to know what is best. She places more trust in her servant Oswald, it seems, as she sends him off to run her important letter to Regan whereas she pushes Albany off to the side. She manipulates how her sister will act and the manner in which they will strip Lear of his property and authority. The stories she creates of Lear's riotous knights and so on are supported by nothing in Shakespeare's text. The characters in Lear's train who speak to him are well behaved, polite, and honorable. They try to protect him and Lear himself is shown well when he places the blame for Goneril's coldness on himself instead of her and her household. Thus we exit the first Act with the knowledge of Cordelia's goodness, Lear's previous goodness and impending madness, Fool's truth telling, Edmund's plotting, and Goneril's evil. The parable is well in place.