King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
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.
Before 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?
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. 14You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. 17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 31It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn. 34But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil. 38You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: 2And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, 3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. 10Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 12Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. 13Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. 14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. 17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. 21Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. 23Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. 25Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. 26Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. 27Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 31It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. 33Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: 34But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: 35Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. 36Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. 37But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. 38Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. 41And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. 43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 47And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 48Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
A play on the meaning of words, often for comic effect.
Term applied to those who are not Christian, particularly followers of the classical religion of Greece and Rome and of the pre-Christian religions of Europe.
In the ancient Celtic religion a druid was a type of priest or magician.
A person whose role is to carry out religious functions.
A regular observance or ceremony, commonly associated with the Church.
The study of the stars and planets in the belief that the future can be revealed from their patterns.
Communication, either aloud or in the heart, with God.
Relating to irony, in which a comment may mean the opposite of what is actually said.
Chief of the Roman gods. (Greek name, Zeus.)
An event evoking wonder, believed to be the result of supernatural intervention.
The beliefs, doctrines and practices of Christians.
A figure of speech wherein an apparently contradictory set of ideas is presented as being, in fact, part of the same truth.
The beatitudes are the opening sentences of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They describe the blessings promised to those who live according to the standards of the kingdom of God.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
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