The scene opens in King Lear's palace. A conversation between Kent, Gloucester, and Gloucester's son Edmund introduces the play's primary plot: The king is planning to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The audience also learns that Gloucester has two sons. The older, Edgar, is his legitimate heir, and the younger, Edmund, is illegitimate; however, Gloucester loves both sons equally. This information provides the subplot.
King Lear enters to a fanfare of trumpets, followed by his two sons-in-law — Albany and Cornwall — and his three daughters — Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Lear announces that he has divided his kingdom into three shares to be given to his daughters as determined by their declarations of love for him. Goneril, as the eldest, speaks first. She tells her father that her love for him is boundless. Regan, as the middle child, speaks next. Her love, she says, is even greater than Goneril's.
Finally, it is Cordelia's turn to express the depth of her love for her royal father. But when queried by Lear, Cordelia replies that she loves him as a daughter should love a father, no more and no less. She reminds her father that she also will owe devotion to a husband when she marries, and therefore cannot honestly tender all her love toward her father. Lear sees Cordelia's reply as rejection; in turn, he disowns Cordelia, saying that she will now be "a stranger to my heart and me" (I.1.114). King Lear then divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, giving each an equal share.
Kent interferes by asking Lear to reconsider his rash action. Lear is not swayed, and in anger, he banishes Kent for defending Cordelia and for confronting the king.
At Kent's departure, the King of France and Duke of Burgundy enter, both of whom are suitors for Cordelia's hand in marriage. They are told that Cordelia will not receive a dowry or inheritance from her father. The Duke withdraws his suit, because a wife without a dowry is of no use to him. In contrast, the King of France claims that Cordelia is a prize, even without her share of Lear's kingdom, and announces his intent to marry Cordelia.
Cordelia bids her sisters farewell, and leaves with the King of France. When Goneril and Regan are left alone, the two sisters reveal their plan to discredit the king.
The play opens with a scene that introduces most of the primary characters and establishes both the main plot and a subplot. This first scene also is important because it provides the audience with an introduction to the character of Kent before he is banished and before he reappears disguised as Caius in Scene 4.
In the opening conversation, Gloucester speaks of Edmund's illegitimate birth in what can be described aptly as Elizabethan locker-room talk. Although Gloucester loves his illegitimate son Edmund and his legitimate son Edgar equally, Elizabethan society does not regard the two men as equals. Edmund realizes that his chances of a prosperous future are limited because he was born second to Gloucester from an unholy union. Edmund will not receive an equal inheritance under laws of primogeniture, which name the eldest son heir to his father's possessions. Gloucester relates to Kent that Edmund has been away seeking his fortune, but now he has returned — perhaps believing that he can find his fortune at home.
Initially, Lear appears to be a strong ruler, a monarch who has decided to divide his kingdom. Lear's choice will provide one clear benefit: Albany and Cornwall will be in charge of the outlying areas of his kingdom, which have not been easily governed. Lear plans to place Cordelia, with himself as her guest, in the center section. Lear recognizes that he is growing older and explains his decision to divide his kingdom by saying:
'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburden'd crawl toward death. (I.1.37-40)
But the one benefit derived from this division creates many problems. By delegating his royal authority to his daughters, Lear creates chaos within his family and his kingdom not unlike the civil distress experienced by Shakespeare's audience. At the time Shakespeare penned King Lear, the English had survived years of civil war and division. Thus, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have been horrified at Lear's decision to divide his kingdom. The audience also would have questioned Shakespeare's inclusion of the French suitor, especially since Lear intends for Cordelia and her new husband to oversee the choice center section of his kingdom.
The fear that a foreign king might weaken England (and a Catholic monarch made it worse) would have made Lear's actions seem even more irresponsible to the audience. But Lear is doing more than creating political and social chaos; he is also giving his daughters complete responsibility for his happiness, and he will blame them later when he is not happy.
Moreover, the test that Lear devises to measure his daughters' love is a huge mistake. Lear is depicted as a wise ruler — he has, after all, held the country together successfully for many years. Yet he lacks the common sense or the ability to detect his older daughters' falseness. This flaw in Lear leads the audience to think him either mad or stupid.
The love test is derived from Shakespeare's source and so it is included. Shakespeare's primary source is an anonymous play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, in which the love test is used to trick Cordelia into marriage. Consequently, the test of love is only a device to further the plot, which Shakespeare plucked from his source. It is important to remember that King Lear is not historically based, although sources state that the story was based on events occurring at about 800 B.C. King Lear should more accurately be regarded as a sort of fairy tale. In many ways, Goneril and Regan are similar to Cinderella's evil older sisters.
Goneril and Regan's expressions of love are so extreme that they are questionable as rational responses to Lear's test. Cordelia's reply is honest, but Lear cannot recognize honesty amid the flattery, which he craves. Of course, Lear is not being honest either when he asks Cordelia, "what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?" (I.1.84-85). Lear plans to reward Cordelia's expected exaltation with a larger portion of his kingdom than that allotted to her sisters. The shares should be equal, but Lear clearly loves Cordelia more. Cordelia's reply, "Nothing," is a word that will reappear throughout the play — with disastrous connotations. "Nothing" is a key word that is repeated several times in the play, thus emphasizing the word's importance. Cordelia's uttering of "nothing" is echoed at the end of the play when she is dead, and "nothing" remains of her. But it is also important to remember that Lear really understands "nothing" about his daughters, just as Gloucester knows "nothing" about his sons. When Gloucester sees "nothing," he is finally able to see the truth, and when Lear emerges from the "nothingness" of his mental decline, it is to finally know that Cordelia has always loved him.
Cordelia loves Lear according to the bonds of a blood relationship, as paternity demands. Her response is in keeping with Elizabethan social norms, which expect a daughter to love her father because that is the law of nature. According to nature, man is part of a hierarchy, from God to king to father to child. The love between each of these parties is reciprocal, and Cordelia's love for her father is what she owes him.
Cordelia tempers her love test reply with reason — a simple, unembellished statement of the honor due a father from his daughter. Lear irrationally responds by denying Cordelia all affection and paternal care.
Kent's interference on Cordelia's behalf leads to another outburst from Lear. Like Cordelia, Kent is honest with the king, providing a voice of reason. Kent sees Lear making a mistake and tells him so. The depth of Lear's anger toward Kent suggests excessive pride — Lear cannot be wrong. Cordelia's answer injures Lear's pride; he needs her excessive protestations of love to justify giving her the choicer parcel of land. Lear's intense anger toward Kent also suggests the fragility of the king's emotional state.
Cordelia's two suitors provide more drama in this initial scene. The Duke of Burgundy cannot love Cordelia without her dowry, but the King of France points out that she is a prize as great as any dowry and correctly recognizes that Burgundy is guilty of selfish self-interest. France's reply to Cordelia reveals that he is, indeed, worthy of Cordelia's love:
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor,
Most choice, forsaken, and most lov'd, despis'd!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon,
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away. (I.1.249-252)
The final section of this scene reveals that Cordelia knows that her sisters are liars, and so informs the audience of their dishonesty. Goneril replies that Cordelia deserves to be banished. This heated exchange foreshadows the feud that develops over the course of the next acts. Additional foreshadowing is supplied by Goneril and Regan's promise that if Lear becomes too much of a nuisance, they will have to deal with him accordingly. The first scene ends with Regan acknowledging that Lear isn't just weak because of old age, but that he has never really known himself — or his daughters. Regan's complaint reveals much about the relationship that Lear has with his daughters. His obvious preference for Cordelia has come at the expense of losing touch with his older daughters. Lear cannot recognize Goneril and Regan's deceit because he does not know them well enough to recognize when they are being dishonest. Lear's privileging of Cordelia prevents him from forming the kind of relationship with his older daughters that might have resulted in genuine love.
Scene 1 establishes a plot and subplot that will focus on a set of fathers and their relationships with their children. The audience will be privy to the conflict between father and child, and to fathers easily fooled by their children. Each father demonstrates poor judgment by rejecting a good child and trusting a dishonest child(ren). The actions that follow illustrate just how correct Regan's words will prove to be. It will soon be obvious how little Lear knows and understands his daughters as Goneril and Regan move to restrict both the size of his retinue and his power.
moiety 1 a half; either of two equal, or more or less equal, parts. 2 an indefinite share or part.
braz'd 1 made of, or coated with, brass or a brasslike substance. 2 made hard like brass.
proper fine; good; handsome.
wide-skirted vast; extensive.
felicitate made happy.
propinquity nearness of relationship; kinship.
make from to stay away from; avoid.
recreant failing to keep faith; disloyal; traitorous; apostate.
unpriz'd precious to be unimportant to one person, but appreciated or valued highly by another.
long-engrafted firmly established.