Act 1 scene 4

Synopsis of Act 1 Scene 4

The faithful Duke of Kent is now in disguise and plans to rejoin the King’s court at Goneril's castle. Lear arrives with his followers and Kent is accepted amongst them. When Goneril’s steward Oswald behaves in a surly fashion towards the King, Lear strikes him and Kent trips him up, both offended by Oswald’s insolence. Lear’s Fool mocks the King for having surrendered his authority.

Goneril appears and complains about the rowdy behaviour of Lear’s knights. Her father can't believe his own daughter would be so critical and when Goneril suggests he should reduce his retinue by half, Lear declares that he will leave and go to Regan. He prays to Nature that Goneril should either become sterile or that she should produce a child as cruel as herself. 

After Lear departs, Albany protests about Goneril's behaviour, but she refuses to listen. Instead she sends Oswald with a letter to Regan, warning her sister that their father is on his way and which sets out what her tactics have been regarding Lear and his retinue.

Commentary on Act 1 Scene 4

  • Kent is the epitome of loyalty. He is still determined to support Lear, the embodiment of kingly authority
  • The Fool also has an important part in this scene. He never lets the audience forget Cordelia, and his other role is to criticise Lear in his songs, rhymes and caustic comments. He is 'licensed' to do this, confronting Lear with truths to which the old king seems blind. The confrontation between Lear and Goneril is set off by her intolerant attitude to the Fool
  • This scene conveys the first signs that Albany is unhappy about his wife's treatment of her father. Goneril treats Albany with scarcely disguised contempt.

If thou canst serve: Kent plans to act, in disguise, as a servant to Lear, from whose presence he has been banished.

and to eat no fish: It is possible that this may have an anti-Catholic meaning, as Catholics abstained from meat on a Friday. At the time the play was written, Catholics were considered to be traitors to the state. However, Kent's words could also be simply humorous and/or saying that he is an unrepentant meat-eater.

as poor as the king: Kent is taking a risk here in linking the king's state with poverty. Kent and Lear exploit two meanings of 'poor' here - i.e. poor = having little money and poor = of low worth

Call the clotpoll back: Oswald has pretended to be too busy to tend to Lear, thus carrying out his mistress's order to be 'slack of former services'.

with that ceremonious ... wont: with the same respectful devotion as you used to have. 'Ceremony' is an important aspect of a monarch's life, showing respect for the institution of monarchy. If the rules are broken or ignored, then this shows contempt for the person in authority.

I have perceived a most faint neglect ... purpose of unkindness: Up till now Lear has preferred to blame himself for any perceived diminution in the respect he has received. He says he has interpreted the 'faint neglect’ (very poor service) as excessive concern for detail on his part. He has tried to give others the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the neglect that he has perceived (rather than face the unpalatable truth).

sir: This does not have the formal connotations it has today. Servants were commonly called 'sir' or 'sirrah' by their masters.

taking ... favour: The Fool has his first important exchange with Lear. The role of a Fool in a royal court was to entertain by singing, dancing, telling jokes etc. - but he was also allowed to speak truths which would have been dangerous for anyone else, that his master would otherwise prefer not to hear. Lear's Fool takes risks even for a fool, and is threatened with punishment for some of his barbed remarks. The Fool has a 'coxcomb' as a symbol of his role. This would have been a cap in the form of a cock's crest. True to his role, Lear's Fool commences here a string of amusing remarks which carry deeper philosophical implications.

this fellow has banished two ... against his will: This is, of course, not literally true. In fact, it is the opposite of what has occurred, but the Fool ironically suggests that Cordelia may be lucky to be banished, since she will be away from her willful father and she is 'blessed' by being married to the King of France.

If I gave them all my living: If I gave my daughters all my possessions, I would wear the sign of being a Fool. The Fool now pointedly offers his cap to Lear and tells him to 'beg' another from his daughters. The Fool makes it quite clear what he thinks of Lear's foolish decision.

the whip: Even a licensed Fool risks punishment if he goes too far.

a monopoly out: a monopoly granted to me. Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have been familiar with the power of a monarch to grant certain individuals the sole right (monopoly) to sell a particular commodity. They could therefore charge whatever they liked, since there was no competition. The Fool says that he could not keep all the foolishness in the world to himself, even if he were granted one of these monopolies.

Image of a foolFools had ne'er less grace ... go the fools among: It is partly through songs that the Fool conveys his more unpalatable truths to Lear. The main question is - who is the greater fool, the Fool or Lear? The song points up parallels and contradictions. There is weeping for joy and singing for sorrow - as well as a king associating with fools. This adds to the sense of roles being confused that we have already seen several times in the play and which will continue to be a major theme.

we'll have you whipped: Shakespeare's audiences would have been very familiar with the practice of corporal punishment. Schoolmasters, for instance, regularly beat their pupils for trivial offences.

all-licensed: allowed to do whatever he wants. We can assume that it is very challenging to have someone like Lear staying in your castle - let alone a huge number of knights and other members of his retinue. However, the tone Goneril uses in speaking to Lear is extremely harsh and inappropriate for a daughter to use towards a father. To Shakespeare's audience, her behaviour would seem to fly in the face of biblical teaching about children honouring their parents (see Only Connect > The role of children). Goneril's language has a complexity and formality which suggests her lack of 'natural' emotion. It all sounds very impersonal and is designed to hurt. No wonder Lear asks, 'Are you our daughter?' The distance between father and daughter is further suggested by Lear's use of the royal plural.

Where are his eyes?: The theme of sight/blindness is a very prominent one in this play. Lear also talks about his 'notion' (understanding) and 'discernings' (powers of discernment) as if he knows that he has undergone a change for the worse. He wants to know who he now is, since he clearly is not the man he was.

I should be false persuaded that I had daughters: Lear is no longer sure who he is or what his powers are. His senses can no longer be trusted, as he can no longer recognise his daughters as belonging to him.

admiration: pretended surprise. Although Lear's anxiety is genuine, Goneril uses her father's words as further proof of his 'pranks' or foolish behaviour.

Epicurusepicurism: debauched living. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who taught that the purpose of philosophy was to lead a happy, peaceful and virtuous life. After his death his teachings became associated with leading a life purely for pleasure and this led to 'epicurism' shrinking in meaning to convey merely 'indulging the senses'.

Is it your will? Is this what you want? As Goneril's husband, Albany is the head of the household that is hosting Lear and his retinue. Lear hopes that Albany may stop Goneril behaving in this 'unnatural' way towards her father.

the sea-monster: Lear is clearly thinking of something fearsome and ugly. The word 'monster' also had the connotation of being something outside the rules of nature.

That, like ... place: this (small fault) which, like the rack, wrenched my body out of its natural shape. Again this underlines the emphasis on the violation of nature. For children to treat a parent with such contempt is to upset the whole natural order. The 'small fault' has had a disproportionate effect on the general order of the universe. See Chain of being.

Into her womb convey sterility: Lear's curse strikes at the heart of his daughter's natural function as a child-bearer. As far as he is concerned, this is what she deserves for her unnatural treatment of her father.

spleen: malice. The spleen is an organ of the body. In Shakespeare's day it was believed to control emotional responses such as malice and loss of temper.

let his disposition have that scope: Again Goneril uses her father's outburst as proof of his 'dotage'.

fifty of my followers at a clap: Presumably Lear has been told, in the very brief time he has been offstage, that he must lose half his retinue 'at one stroke' within the next fortnight.

untented: Lear's language is very specifically violent. A 'tent' was a small roll of cloth used to probe and clean deep wounds. His use of the word 'untented' here means that he wants his curse to pierce so deeply that it cannot be cleaned, with the implication that an uncleansed wound will become infected.

Do you mark that, my lord? Goneril is clever. Lear has just threatened to take back his kingly power ('I'll resume the shape..'). Goneril wants her husband Albany to be fully aware of the significance of this threat, since if Lear were restored to the monarchy he would deprive Albany of his new powers.

This man: This is Goneril speaking of her father, the former ruler of the kingdom. Her language strips Lear of any dignity.

If she sustain him and his hundred knights: Goneril does not finish this sentence but clearly she would not tolerate any softer approach on the part of her sister Regan.

This milky gentleness ... : Goneril has no time for her husband's mildness of nature. Her words are superficially polite but her comment - that Albany's mild and generous course of action lacks wisdom - implies that Goneril will not tolerate it.

Investigating Act 1 Scene 4...

  • How does Kent demonstrate his loyalty to the King’s authority?
  • Why is it dramatically appropriate that Lear cannot penetrate Kent’s disguise?
  • What is the role of Oswald in this scene?
  • What sorts of comments does the Fool make about Lear’s new and diminished condition?
  • Why does Lear still think that he deserves respect?
  • What is the effect of the animal imagery that Lear uses to curse Goneril?
  • What effect does Goneril’s cruelty have on her husband Albany?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.