Act 1 scene 1

Synopsis of Act 1 Scene 1

King Lear opens with the Earl of Gloucester introducing his illegitimate son Edmund to the Earl of Kent, acknowledging that he loves this son just as much as he loves his elder, legitimate son, Edgar. 
When King Lear arrives he announces that he wishes to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril (married to the Duke of Albany), Regan (married to the Duke of Cornwall) and Cordelia (as yet unmarried) so that they and their husbands can shoulder the responsibilities of ruling Ancient Britain. On their father’s disposal of his domains according to the question, ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’, Goneril and Regan do not hesitate to flatter their father and Lear shows each on a map the land that will be hers. 
However, Cordelia refuses to play her father's game. Uncompromisingly, she says simply that she returns the love due to him as her father, adding that she will divide her love between her father and her future husband. Lear is furious, disowns Cordelia and bestows his royal power and possessions on her sisters and their husbands, retaining only his title and a retinue of one hundred knights. He intends to live one month in turn with Goneril and Regan and their husbands Albany and Cornwall, and he passes his coronet to the men to share. When the loyal Duke of Kent opposes this arrangement and vouches for Cordelia, the King sends him into exile.
Suitors for Cordelia’s hand in marriage, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, are summoned into the royal presence. When they learn that Cordelia has been stripped of her dowry, Burgundy is no longer interested but the French king is undeterred and proposes marriage to her. 
Three daughters of King Lear by Gustav Pope, image available through Creative CommonsBefore she leaves for France with her prospective husband, Cordelia urges her sisters to treat their father well. Their response is cool and, once Cordelia has left, they discuss how erratic Lear’s judgement is, Goneril ominously saying, ‘We must do something.’

Commentary on Act 1 Scene 1

This opening scene acts as a prologue to the play, introducing characters and establishing central themes. Much action is squeezed into a small amount of time, as if the play's opening action is like the beginning of a folktale: ‘Once upon a time there was an old King who decided to give his kingdom to his three daughters . . .’ 
The concentration of so much action into a tiny compass suggests that Lear's decisions are precarious, emerging from the heat of emotion rather than the coolness of rational thought. As Gloucester comments in Act 2 Scene 1: ‘All this done/Upon the gad!’ – i.e. on the spur of the moment.
I thought the king had more affected: It is only later that the audience fully understands how important these opening words are. They introduce one of the play's most important themes: Lear’s impetuous decisions, as well as the difficulty of predicting what will arise from them.
the division of the kingdom: This has obviously been discussed before both with Gloucester and with Kent. Later the King announces that he intends to divide the kingdom into three parts.
equalities … moiety: The shares in the kingdom are so precisely balanced that detailed scrutiny of them could reveal nothing which would persuade one Duke to prefer the share given to the other.
I cannot conceive you: The word ‘conceive’ is a pun, meaning not only ‘to understand’ but also ‘to become pregnant’. Gloucester is proud that he is father of an illegitimate son, the living proof of his father's virility. Gloucester suggests that his son arrived in the world as a result of ‘sport’. In using words like ‘saucily’ and ‘whoreson’, he shows little concern for the dignity of his son, who is present on the stage and can hear his father talking to Kent. This conversation introduces the concept that children are created to serve their parents, an important idea which underlies the tragedy and is later mirrored in Lear’s treatment of Cordelia, who is disowned because she fails to please her father.
whoreson: This word was generally not used literally to mean ‘the son of a whore’. It was used to mean little more than ‘fellow’ - although Gloucester is exploiting its literal meaning as part of his story of extra-marital sex.
and away he shall again: Edmund is treated very casually by his father. Just after Edmund has said that he wants to deserve Kent’s ‘love’ Gloucester announces that his son will not be around long enough to do so. He is being sent abroad again (having already been out of the country for nine years) – no doubt the reason why he has never met Kent until now.
The King is coming. Notice how Lear’s entrance follows a conversation (fairly low-key and in prose) which suggests ideas which we shall see subsequently played out on a much grander scale. The stage is set for the crucial division of the kingdom.
our darker purpose: i.e. ‘my more secret intention’. What he means is that he intends to give out shares according to how much his daughters say they love him. Goneril and Regan are happy to play this game, knowing what reward awaits their words.
constant will … dowers: Lear declares his resolve to announce publicly what property (dowers) he will bestow on each of his daughters when they marry, so as to prevent quarrelling about who will succeed him and who will inherit what after his death. 
Where nature … challenge. We know, from the play’s opening line, that Lear has already decided to split the kingdom and later comments indicate that Cordelia could have received the most valuable share. However, he now seems to have decided, on the spur of the moment, that the value of each share will depend on his daughters publicly stating how much they love him. This suggests a certain amount of vanity as well as an unpredictable nature. Although he says he will reward merit as well as right of birth, ‘merit’ here means the ability to profess love for him.
eye-sight. The first thing Goneril says highlights a key concept of the play: the ability (or inability) of characters to see the truth. 
self-same metal: The language which Regan uses to profess her love for Lear is even more inflated and grotesque than Goneril’s.
Nothing, my lord: The stark simplicity of Cordelia’s words stands in sharp contrast to the overblown exaggeration of her sisters. She is disgusted at their hypocrisy and willingness to flatter their father. Her ‘Nothing’ and refusal to explain what she means sounds hostile. Whilst this may be towards her sisters, she must realise that her father will react badly, since she is not playing the game by his rules. ‘Nothing’ is a very significant term in King Lear, repeated several times. 
bond: Cordelia means the duty that a child owes to a parent. She knows it is her duty to repay the love and care she has received from her father.
To love my father all: Cordelia is being logical and shows her allegiance to the truth. How could Goneril and Regan be loving wives, if they loved Lear exclusively?
the sun, / The mysteries: Without pausing for thought, Lear declares that all family ties are severed between him and Cordelia. Lear’s extraordinary oaths by the sun and night reflect the pagan world from which this play springs. The sun and the night were both worshipped by the Druids, the priests who conducted religious rites in ancient Britain.
the operation of the orbs: This refers to the belief that celestial bodies were fixed to hollow, concentric, crystalline spheres which orbited the earth. Astrology was the science of explaining the influence of these bodies (planets and stars) upon human beings. 
The barbarous Scythian: Scythians were people who lived north of the Black Sea, infamous for their cruelty.
sometime daughter: Cordelia is ejected from the family and the kingdom is now divided between Goneril and Regan. Lear is so impervious to reason that when Kent tries to stand up for Cordelia, he too is banished.
Who stirs: Lear is furious that his courtiers do not rush to carry out his commands. This is the first hint of the diminution of authority which accompanies Lear’s progress through the play.
Only we will retain: Lear has given up kingly authority but he still wishes to retain some of the trappings of kingship, such as a hundred knights who will be paid for by his two sons-in-law when he stays with each for one month.
Patron … prayers: This refers to the (particularly medieval) practice of people,  depending on financial support from patrons, vowing to say prayers for them.
be Kent … mad: Kent means that he will never be intentionally rude (unmannerly) to Lear until Lear is mad, i.e. never. However, this is ironic since Lear does indeed go mad. Both Kent and Cordelia have a very strong sense of duty: Kent to the King and Cordelia to the ties which bind together the family.
Reverse thy doom: Change your sentence of banishment (i.e. on Cordelia).
The true blank: The blank is the white circle in the middle of a target and, as hitting it achieves the highest score, is the place to aim for. Kent means that the king should always look to him for advice.
turn thy hated back/Upon our kingdom: Lear cannot ‘see’ Kent’s integrity and loyalty. He treats him just as impetuously and unfairly as he does Cordelia. In a very short period of time Kent has become ‘hated’.
Jupiter: In Roman mythology Jupiter was the king of the gods and the god who had most influence on human affairs.
Freedom lives hence: Kent says that Freedom lives somewhere else, so banishment will mean greater freedom for him, not less. Lear has turned his kingdom into a world of banishment, not freedom.
if aught within that little-seeming substance: Lear clearly thinks Cordelia is an 'unnatural' daughter because she has failed to please him and, therefore, failed in her duty as a 'natural' daughter. Lear says to Burgundy that Cordelia may seem small and harmless but, because of what she has said (and what she has not said), she is unnaturally lacking in the love a daughter owes to a father. He adds that she will come to a husband with 'nothing' more – i.e. no dowry except the king's displeasure. ‘Nature’ is one of the most complex words in the English language and this play explores the concept perhaps more than any other by Shakespeare. 
I would not … hate: Lear's anger does not prevent him from saying what he means. He does not want to damage his relationship with the King of France by offering him the hated Cordelia in marriage.
her offence … monsters it: The ‘Nature’ idea is prominent here. France is concerned that Cordelia's offence is so monstrous that it must be contrary to the laws of nature.
Must be a faith that reason: France says that he would find it impossible to believe that Cordelia could ever do anything evil, unless a miracle revealed it to him. The language here (faith, miracle, reason) sounds more like the language of Christianity than the language of the pagan world in which the play is set. 
Fairest Cordelia: The French king’s speech is full of paradoxes. He values Cordelia precisely because she has been rejected - not only by her father but also by Burgundy. Notice all the opposites. Cordelia is rich because she is poor (i.e. disinherited) and this pattern is continued in further pairs of opposites: ‘choice’/’forsaken’,’ loved’/’despised’, ‘take’/’cast away’, ‘cold'st’/’inflamed’, ‘unprized’/’precious’. These seemingly incompatible statements echo the Beatitudes with which Shakespeare’s audience would be familiar, where Jesus says, for example, that those who mourn are blessed (see Matthew 5:1-10 and The way to live (known as the Beatitudes).
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind: The word 'unkind' has the dual meaning in Shakespeare of both 'cruel' and 'behaving in an unnatural, unfamilial manner'.
The jewels … your professed bosoms: Cordelia calls her sisters jewels because their words have had just the sort of showy effect which was bound to please their father. She commits Lear to what they profess to feel for him (with the understanding that she would not want to commit him to what they really felt about him).
I think our father will hence tonight: There is a sharp contrast between Goneril’s previous extravagant language and this very different tone. Her concern now is the practical problem of accommodating her unpredictable and volatile father.
carry authority: Goneril shows her true regard for her father. Lear will be difficult to handle if he continues to exercise his authority in the impetuous and passionate way in which he has dealt with Cordelia. He is supposed to have abdicated power, but what has just occurred does not suggest that he will retire quietly.
We must do something, and i'the heat: It is Goneril who has the last word and who insists that action is needed immediately.

Investigating Act 1 Scene 1

  • Why do you think Shakespeare begins the play with the discussion between Gloucester and Kent?
  • What are your first impressions of Lear:
    • as a person?
    • as a father?
    • as a king?
  • Why do you think Cordelia decides to say ‘nothing’ in response to the challenge that Lear sets his daughters?
  • How do you feel about the way Kent responds to the king’s actions and immediacy with which Lear banishes him from the kingdom?
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