Home Page


American Literature

British History

American History




Cultural Studies

Personal touch


ACT I, Scene 1

The play opens in King Lear's palace with Kent and Gloucester in
conversation. They are discussing King Lear's regard for his two
sons-in-law, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Kent suggests that
the King favors one over the other and fears that the favoritism will
cause a problem and affect the kingdom. Listening to them is a
young man, Edmund. Gloucester explains that Edmund is his
illegitimate son--a folly of his youth. He then declares that he also
has a legitimate son named Edgar. Gloucester prides himself on
loving both of them equally even though Edmund is socially
considered an outcast and a bastard. There is then an exchange of
formalities between Kent and Edmund as they are introduced.

The King enters with his procession. Due to his age, he has
decided to abdicate his throne in the near future. He will divide his
kingdom among his three daughters; the largest share will go to the
child who proves that she loves him the most. He assumes that
Cordelia, his youngest and favorite child, will receive the largest

After sitting on his throne, he makes public his plans to divide the
kingdom into three parts and takes out a map to show the dividing
lines. One will go to Goneril, who is married to the Duke of
Albany; one will go to Regan, who is married to the Duke of
Cornwall; and the last will go to the unmarried Cordelia, who is
currently being courted by the Duke of Burgundy and the King of

Lear asks his daughters to publicly explain their love for their
father. Goneril answers with rich words that are loaded with
flattery; everyone but Lear seems to know that Goneril praises her
father only for personal gain. Regan states that nothing except her
love for her father could possibly give her any joy. Both elder
daughters promise that they love the King more than they love
their husbands.

Lear next calls on Cordelia; since she is Lear's favorite, he is
expecting great praise and flowery speech from her; instead, her
reply is short and unexpected. When Lear asks, "What can you say
to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?" Cordelia replies,
"Nothing." She then adds, "I love your Majesty according to my
bond, no more nor less." This blunt, honest reply infuriates Lear.
After asking her once again to reveal her love in words, Cordelia
explains that she cannot. Lear grows more enraged. Then, much to
the dismay of the others, the King curses Cordelia and disinherits
her. When Kent pleads Cordelia's case, he is also sent away,
banished like Cordelia.

The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy arrive to court
Cordelia. Hearing of her disgrace and banishment, the Duke
withdraws his proposal of marriage. The King of France, however,
seeks to know the reason for Lear's anger; when he hears what
Cordelia has said, he understands her true worth and is all the more
eager to wed her.

The king and his retinue exit. Cordelia turns to her two older
sisters and warns them to treat their father well. Her entreaties,
however, fall on deaf ears. Goneril and Regan immediately begin
their plotting. They comment on Lear's rashness and the general
defects that age brings and agree that something must be done with

Table of Contents


In this first scene, all the major characters are introduced, either in
person or in conversation. By the end of the scene, the major
conflict has unfolded as Cordelia is disinherited and Goneril and
Regan plot against their father.

Many critics state that Lear makes several fatal mistakes in this
first scene of the play. His plan for his daughters is not a wise one,
for it totally removes power from the King and divides the
kingdom. Since the British people believed in a centralized
government and thought their king was a link between the divine
and the human, they would be very displeased over Lear's plan.
They would also believe that disavowing one's role as king would
be to defy the divine ordination and to invite chaos and strife.
Lear's plan will also inevitably pit one sibling against another in a
struggle for more power.

Even before the daughters declare their love to him, Lear has a
plan for parceling out the kingdom, as revealed on the map that he
unfolds; his youngest and favorite daughter will get the largest
portion. Since his mind seems to be made up about the kingdom, it
is obviously his pride and greed that cause him to demand his
daughters' public declarations of fatherly devotion. It is a foolish
mistake on Lear's part, for it appears that he is trying to buy the
love of his daughters.

The speeches of Goneril and Regan are flowery and pretentious;
they praise their father profusely and state that they love him much
more than their own husbands. They are flattering to Lear only
because they hope to get more from him. Lear is blind to their
hypocrisy and praises their spoken devotion to him. The pure and
honest Cordelia refuses to play the game; she will not try and
outdo her hypocritical older sisters. She simply states her love for
her father and says she will also love her future husband; she also
reprimands him for being so indulgent as to ask for a public
display of love. Lear is shocked by her brevity and brashness and
pushes her to say more, but Cordelia refuses. She will not make a
public show of true love for Lear, least of all in exchange for
riches. Lear grows enraged over her response and banishes
Cordelia. He then redivides the kingdom between Regan and
Goneril, fully proving his "blindness." Throughout the rest of the
play, images and allusions or lack of sight or insight will be

Kent, in trying to persuade Lear to change his mind about
banishing Cordelia, speaks with a bluntness that is characteristic of
his personality. He is known for his stubbornness and
straightforward approach. Although Lear knows his friend well, for
they have been together for many years, the King is enraged by
Kent's argument. In anger, Lear tells him not to come "between the
dragon and his wrath;" the dragon, an ancient symbol of royalty of
Britain, is a clear reference to the King. When Kent refuses to back
down in his opinion, he, too, is banished, like Cordelia. After his
interactions with Kent and Cordelia, Lear has emerged as a person
whose judgement is clouded; he is flattered by those who are false
and manipulative and blinded to those who are loyal and honest.
The loss of judgement is very significant, for a king must be
trusted to make correct decisions.

The two suitors of Cordelia arrive and Lear explains to them what
has happened to his youngest daughter. The shallow Duke of
Burgundy quickly bows out from his proposal of marriage when he
realizes that Cordelia no longer has a dowry. The King of France,
however, is more eager than ever to wed Cordelia. He recognizes
that she is "most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken. . .To him
Cordelia is herself a dowry." As Cordelia leaves to become the
Queen of France, she is sad to be leaving her father. She fears that
her sisters will manipulate him and treat him cruelly; as a result,
she warns her sisters to take care of the King. As soon as Cordelia
leaves, Regan and Goneril begin to plot against Lear.

The subplot of the play revolves around Gloucester, a man who is
passionate about life and irreverent about society and its tradition.
In his youth, he fathered an illegitimate son, Edmund. To his
credit, Gloucester loves Edmund as much as he loves Edgar, his
legitimate son. The society around Gloucester, however, is not as
liberal as he; Edmund is considered to be an unworthy bastard. By
the end of the play, it will be obvious that Gloucester's love for
Edmund was misplaced