King Lear, Act 1

February 5, 2011

Considered by many scholars and laypeople alike as Shakespeare’s best tragedy, King Lear is a powerful play that is a retelling of a story considered historical in England of a king who divides his lands between his three daughters. I have read the play before and found it beautiful, although it still always pales in comparison with Hamlet to me, but perhaps that is a function more of my personal position and feelings in life than a reflection of Shakespeare’s art and craft.

The first act of King Lear begins with a conversation between the Earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester, and Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son. The two earls are discussing the division of King Lear’s kingdom between the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, married to Goneril and Regan, respectively, the eldest two daughters of King Lear. The conversation eventually turns to Edmund, who Gloucester admits was born illegitimately although conceived with ardor. King Lear abruptly enters the scene, declaring that he has divided his kingdom into three. Nevertheless, he asks his three daughters to make bombastic professions of their love to him in order to secure their territorial portions. Goneril and Regan comply, and King Lear gives them each a third of his kingdom. Cordelia, however, says that her love is in her actions and not her words. She points out the hyperbole of her sisters’ speeches and refuses to try to outdo them, incurring Lear’s wrath. He decides to give her none of his kingdom, and her predetermined third of the kingdom is split between Goneril and Regan. Kent, an outspoken advisor to the king, tells him of the folly of his action, but Lear will hear no one oppose him and therefore banishes Kent from England. The two suitors that had been courting Cordelia, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, next decide who will marry Cordelia. Burgundy does not desire her if she doesn’t come with a third of the kingdom, so France, who loves Cordelia for the woman she is, marries her and takes her to his kingdom.

Meanwhile Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, has forged a letter in the handwriting of his legitimate brother, Edgar, that indicates that Edgar believes that Gloucester’s lands should be divided between the two sons. Edmund makes sure that Gloucester reads the letter, and Gloucester is incensed and afraid of the supposed machinations of his eldest son, likely because he has just seen King Lear deposed by similar longings of the younger generation. Edmund warns Edgar that Gloucester is angry with him, and Edgar flees the house on the advice of Edmund, who notes that his plots are succeeding perfectly because of the credulity of his family members.

Lear, after abdicating the throne, maintains a bevy of one hundred knights and spends alternating months at the estates of his eldest two daughters. His first tenure is with Goneril, though she grows tired of Lear, his loud fool, and the revelries of his one hundred attendant knights. Goneril tells Lear of these offenses, and he is gravely offended. He disowns her, curses her womb not to be fecund, and decides to go spend time with Regan, his second daughter. Throughout all of the scenes with Lear, Lear’s witty and brilliant fool mocks him for having rent his kingdom and banished his best daughter.

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