King Lear By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 3

Summary

Set in the palace of Goneril and the Duke of Albany, this scene opens with Goneril asking her steward, Oswald, if Lear struck him for making fun of the king's Fool. Oswald confirms the encounter. Goneril, enraged, instructs Oswald to keep Lear waiting when he needs something, and if the king is unhappy with this treatment, he should be told to move to Regan's palace. Goneril then commands her servants to treat the king's company with coldness since the knights' lewd behavior is creating a disturbance in her household.

Analysis

Goneril promises at the end of Scene 1 that if her father proves to be a nuisance, she will deal with him accordingly. In Scene 3, Goneril does just that by refusing to respond to the needs of the king and his entourage. She is calling the shots now, and Lear is never to regain control again. He may see himself as king, but Goneril views him as a doddering old fool, one she refers to as an "Idle old man" (I.3.17). Goneril treats her father with particular cruelty and callousness, not with the love and adoration she professed in order to gain control of half of his kingdom.

In this scene, as later in Scene 4, Goneril reveals her true character. She defies the hierarchy of nature, which calls for daughters to respect and honor their fathers, and lays the groundwork for the torment she sets in motion for the remainder of her father's life. In Goneril's defense, Lear is a poor guest. Goneril protests that his knights are riotous and that Lear complains constantly. By instructing her steward, Oswald, to make himself less accommodating, she is punishing her unruly guests. At this juncture, both father and daughter bear some fault, but Goneril has led her father to believe that her love for him extends beyond any evidence of bad behavior, and so ultimately, she is responsible for Lear's actions, having earlier endorsed them.

This scene introduces Oswald, who is clearly more familiar with Goneril than customary in a lady/steward association. Because Goneril gives Oswald the authority to treat the king rudely, it is apparent that the steward's position is not simply that of a servant. The scene opens with Goneril's reference to Oswald's chiding of the king's Fool, conduct not expected from an ordinary servant. The steward obviously runs the household, wielding a significant amount of authority over other servants. Still, Goneril expresses her desire for Oswald to act on her authority; she will answer for any problems caused by his actions.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Lear has been hunting, as the sounds of the hunting horns in the distance indicate. The king may be an old man, as Goneril states, but he is not infirm; nor is he idle, as she accuses him of being. Lear is obviously in good physical shape, even if not as mentally alert as he might have been in his younger years.

Glossary

idle frivolous; silly.

straight immediately.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How did the original audience respond to the ending of King Lear?




Quiz