The setting is a hall in Goneril's palace. Kent, earlier banished by Lear, reappears in disguise as Caius. Lear enters and begins asking Kent questions about his identity and his intent. Kent's responses are vague, but he asserts his loyalty and willingness to serve the king. Kent's obvious admiration impresses Lear.
When the king asks to see Goneril, Oswald leaves without responding to the request. A knight reports that Goneril is unwell and unavailable. The knight also tells Lear that all the members of Goneril's household are treating the king's entourage rudely.
Goneril enters, complaining about the king's Fool and his unruly knights. Goneril demands that Lear reduce the number of knights in his service. In anger, the king declares that he will pack up his people and move to Regan's palace, where he is sure to receive a warmer reception.
In this scene, the audience sees how erratically Lear deals with problems. When Oswald ignores the king, Lear is shocked: "he would not!" (I.4.54). Lear is king, and he expects to be obeyed. Nevertheless, when he learns of the poor service afforded his knights and recalls how he, too, has been neglected by Goneril's staff, Lear says, "I will look further into't" (I.4.69). But in the next line, Lear asks, "But where's my Fool?" (I.4.69). Lear looks to the Fool to distract him with entertainment, to help him forget his problems.
Although the lack of attention and service is insulting and demeaning, the king is not prepared to confront Goneril and her steward. At other times, Lear responds to problems with outbursts of cursing, even a physical attack when provoked. The audience saw an angry Lear disown his youngest daughter in Scene 1. In this scene, Lear is almost out of control when he answers Oswald's insulting address: "My Lady's father! My lord's knave, you whoreson dog you slave, you cur!" (I.4.79-80).
Lear is helpless, at the mercy of his daughter and her servants. The once-omnipotent king has no effective means of dealing with these events, except with anger. Kings are used to making rules, not following them. And thus, Lear responds to Oswald's insults with swearing and by striking him. Another response to his dilemma is expressed in self-pity. As he finally recognizes the precariousness of his new position, Lear strikes his own head and curses his misfortune (I.4.268-270).
Lear succumbs to despair. As the play progresses, the king will lapse into other fits of self-pity and fury, and he will discover different means of dealing with the realities of the mistakes he has made. As the depth of his tragedy grows deeper, Lear will react with denial, with helplessness, with regret and apathy, and with a growing compassion for those around him.
Kent reappears, disguised in this scene. He is truly selfless, devoted to the king who earlier banished him. When queried by Lear as to his identity, Kent replies that he is "a man" (I.4.10). Thus, he is no one special, and yet, he stands apart from other men. Kent's response distinguishes him from animals, because he is not defined by desires, needs, and a willingness to simply seize whatever he wants — as animals do to survive. This characteristic sets him apart from other characters, such as Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund, all of whom are willing to behave as beasts, taking what they want. Instead, Kent is a man defined by honesty and love for his king.
The Fool enters the play for the first time in this scene. He functions much as a Chorus would in a Greek tragedy: His role is to comment on events and the king's actions, serving in some respects as the king's conscience. The Fool requires a careful study, because he often sounds cruel as he addresses the king with sarcasm and irony. Sometimes, the Fool seems to be rubbing salt in Lear's wounds, rather than acting as the king's advocate. However, as the play progresses, the audience begins to sense how much the Fool loves the king; he will try to protect and care for Lear just as Cordelia attempts to do when she returns.
The Fool's initial address to Kent makes clear that he sees Kent as the king's ally; thus he asks if Kent is in need of a fool's coxcomb (I.4.94). These lines, which focus on the coxcomb, indicate that the Fool needs a fool, and clearly Kent is one, since he seeks to follow Lear, who has neither a kingdom nor even a home. The Fool is loyal and honest, a good match for Kent, but he is also able to point out the king's faults, as no one else can. The king may threaten to have the Fool whipped (it was not unusual for the king's jester to be beaten), but the audience never regards this as a viable threat. The Fool's use of irony, sarcasm, and humor helps to ease the truth and allows him to moderate Lear's behavior as no other character can. In Scene 1, Kent's attempts to restrain Lear's actions earn banishment, but the Fool can bridle the king's unpredictable disposition more successfully.
Goneril's confrontation with her father initially invites the audience's sympathy. The king's retinue have been rude, demanding, and unappreciative guests.
Goneril accuses Lear of not only failing to control his men but also encouraging their disruptive behavior. No doubt Goneril has suffered from this misconduct, which the king refuses to address. Instead of responding to these concerns, Lear replies by asking, "Are you our daughter?" (I.4.216). The king is, after all, the king, accustomed to having his own way and behaving any way that pleases him. He does not yet acknowledge his role of guest or his diminished control under a new order. Lear doesn't grasp that a king without a kingdom has little to distinguish him from any other man. But when Goneril abruptly dismisses half his men, Lear is forced to admit that he is no longer in control.
However, any sympathy the audience might muster for Goneril dissipates when she sends Oswald to deliver a letter warning Regan of their father's pending visit. She instructs Oswald to add his own embellishments and warnings about Lear's conduct.
As the conflict between father and daughter escalates, Lear turns inward and questions who he is (I.4.223-227). Can Lear be king when he has given away his kingdom? What Lear has relied upon as truth is no longer trustworthy; his reality has changed. His daughter is not obedient, nor does she treat him with the respect due a father and a king. Even her servants deny him the high regard generally granted to a sovereign.
In conversation with the Fool, Lear echoes Cordelia's words from Scene 1 — "Nothing, my lord" (I.1.86) — with his own — "nothing can be made of nothing" (I.4.130). Kent began this exchange with his own "nothing" (I.4.126) in response to the Fool's bit of verse. Again, "nothing" is a word with significant meaning, since already nothing has resulted in the growing tragedy. From nothing emerges the beginnings of a family tragedy, as Lear is displaced. Lear finally realizes he has treated Cordelia poorly (I.4.265) and admits his mistake.
Although he was present in Scene 1, Albany has no real role in the disbursement of the king's property. Nonetheless, the conversation in Scene 1 between Kent and Gloucester reveals that the king prefers Albany to his other son-in-law, Cornwall. In this scene, Albany attempts to calm the king, but Lear is beyond patience and refuses to listen to Albany, although he has admired him in the past. Albany obviously is concerned for the king's welfare, but he lacks the strength to stand up to his wife, Goneril, and thus, he cannot control her. Albany is Goneril's opposite, gentle and kind as compared with his wife's cruel and self-serving demeanor.
defuse 1 complicate. 2 to render harmless.
curious highly detailed, as in workmanship; elaborate.
roundest outspoken; plain and blunt; straightforward.
bandy to give and take; specifically, to exchange (words) in an angry or argumentative manner.
coxcomb a cap topped with a notched strip of red cloth like a cock's comb, formerly worn by jesters.
besort to be suitable to.