King Lear, Act 1


Some things are obvious about I, i:

In preparation for the upcoming marriage of Cordelia (to either Burgundy or France), Lear pretends to be staging a kind of love-contest, but in fact he has already decided how to divide up the kingdom, with equal shares to Goneril and Regan, and “a third more opulent” to Cordelia, his favorite. Goneril and Regan play along, but Cordelia won’t. (This sets up a choice for the director: should Cordelia speak quietly, modestly, even hesitantly, or should she be a little hard-edged, stiff-necked?)

The Gloucester plot already parallels the Lear plot: again there is a father (n.b., no mother) who treats his children unequally and doesn’t see any problem with that.

-Kent and Cordelia are allied and aligned in their plain-speaking, their love of Lear, and their readiness to speak back to him. Regan and Goneril are similar in their speech — I love you just as much as she does — and by the end of the scene are planning to work together. (Should actors present them as already clearly evil, or just wary and a little tired of Lear’s impetuous manner?)

Lear’s denunciations of Cordelia and Kent are really shocking (even Goneril and Regan recognize that). He not only formally disowns Cordelia but “disclaims” his paternity. He banishes his most faithful servant and threatens to kill him.

Some key words: see/eye, folly/mad, nothing.

Some technical things (concerning the way the story unfolds) struck me that I don’t think I have fully registered before.

It’s very long for an opening scene, more than 300 lines. (Compare Hamlet, where the opening scene — with a lot going on — is about 175 lines.)

Both the family explosion and the political breakdown come in the very first scene. (The explosion and breakdown, both common features in Shakespeare plays, usually come later in a play.)

In the opening 30 lines, Kent and Gloucester are distinguished by the length of their speeches. Kent speaks in short, declarative sentences. Gloucester, who seems rather full of himself, goes on and on, perhaps a bit like Polonius. 

I also began wondering what Lear had been like for the period leading up to the beginning of the play. He has already been acting erratically, as Goneril and Regan have noticed. Didn’t Cordelia notice too? Is she also a little tired of playing his games?


That opening bit with Gloucester, Kent, and Edmund always strikes me as strange. Yes, it’s narrative to explain Albany and Cornwall’s rivalry (if that’s what it is), the coming division of the kingdom, and Edmund’s presence. But the jokiness about Edmund’s bastardy seems uncomfortable: the pun on conceive, the sort of wink in “do you smell a fault,” the insistence that Edmund’s mother was “fair,” and that there was “good sport at his making.” And “whoreson.” The emphasis on the unnamed Edgar’s legitimacy rather strikingly puts Edmund in his place. I wonder if Jacobeans were more used to speaking of their children’s conception in front of their children than we are. Does the revelation that Edmund has been “out” nine years and will shortly return there (wherever “out” is) explain anything about his disposition in what’s to come? Yes, Gloucester is a bit Polonius-like, and I wonder if Kent is meant to be played as a bit embarrassed by what he’s going on about. And can we see how Edmund is reacting? All rather strange.

There’s definite shock in Cordelia’s “Nothing” and what follows. Up to this point, everything has seemed rather ceremonious, the map, the speeches of the older sisters, Lear’s division of the kingdom. I think we don’t even notice at this point that it’s not really a contest, just a performance to justify what’s already been decided. In retrospect we see all this as false and dangerous. But up to “Nothing” it seems like courtly routine, even the speeches of the sisters seem rhetorical performance, nothing much to worry about. This is the kind of thing to say when asked who loves the most. Then the radical distinction, and shock, between what’s real and what’s false. Yes, the denunciation of Cordelia and Kent is shocking and suggests a mind breaking up. I like the way this gets into the language, when Kent responds to Lear’s “The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft,” by shifting to the disrespectful and plainspoken second person singular, “What wouldst do, old man.” Suddenly Lear is no longer a king, just a crazy old man. Suddenly the play takes off, off to where it will get in Act 4 when Lear finally recovers — or comes to — a sense of what authority really is.

Even Goneril and Regan don’t seem evil at this point, just apprehensive about what Lear has become and what the division between the ceremony and reality will become. But Cordelia slices through it. The little morality play with Burgundy and France surprises even France. Suddenly he knows where he stands. G & R seem strikingly realistic about Lear (G’s “The best and soundest of his time . . .”) Clearly we’re done with the ceremonious performance and courtly language.

It’s an extraordinary scene, isn’t it, where the whole play is set up?  I hadn’t thought about its length, but that length is amazing in what it encompasses.

I think people sometimes worry about whether Cordelia seems too insistent about things, a bit self-righteous, etc., but the scene suggests the need for the basic distinctions, in language and mental understanding.


1.2, much shorter than the first scene, opens the second plot (I hesitate to say “subplot”). I think it’s designed to be accessible, readable, even funny. Only one new character is introduced: Edgar. And we already know the relationships among Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar. Again we have a family in which the children are trying to get their hands on their father’s “revenue,” so there is less need for exposition. Again we have that powerful word “nothing” — out of Edmund’s mouth this time rather than Cordelia’s. Gloucester want to “see . . . see,” and we know what comes of that.

Edmund is in charge of the scene. He opens and closes it with soliloquies (which invite us to see things from his point of view), and has more lines than his father or brother. I think we are supposed to be engaged by his energy and wit, even his conscious villainy.

A couple of things are puzzling: is Edmund the elder brother or not? (You would think that he is illegitimate because his parents were not (yet) married when he was conceived, and that Edgar came along after the wedding. But in 1.1 Gloucester says that Edgar is the older one (“some year elder than this”). And just what does Edmund mean by “Nature.” Presumably he is contrasting it to “custom” and to law (“natural” son vs. “legitimate” son).

Shakespeare seems to set up Gloucester as a gullible, foolish old man, a patsy, an easy mark (for Edmund, and for the audience). He’s “credulous,” he’s superstitious. He’s sententious. We think Edmund is right about him, which makes us side with Edmund. Interesting that Gloucester’s first speech consists of a series of questions (just as the heart of Edmund’s soliloquy is a series of questions), but the tone is different. Edmund knows the answers to his questions.

Does Edmund’s speech (“suspend your indignation,” “auricular assurance”) sometimes imitate Gloucester’s windiness, and mock it?

Edgar is unsuspecting  — does that make him less “credulous” than his father? He is naive. Maybe simple. Should a director have him emphasize his simplicity, simple-ness? His speeches are all short, most just one line. Edmund’s are longer, and are used to draw out Edgar’s one-line responses, as if he has cast his brother in the role of fool (and even knows Edgar’s responses in advance). Are we supposed to form a low opinion of Edgar here, and revise it later when we see him on his own?

The scene is almost all in prose (as opposed to the poetry of scene 1), except for Edmund’s opening and closing soliloquies. Does that induce the audience to think that this plot is subsidiary to the royal plot?


I think the center of the scene is to characterize Edmund and contrast him to Gloucester. His invocation of Nature I take to mean his “modern,” almost scientific cast of mind, over against Gloucester’s more superstitious, backward-looking understanding. Interestingly it doesn’t really set him off from Edgar, who expresses surprise at Edmund’s pretended expounding of astronomical lore. Edmund plays the Iago-like temptation of Gloucester in the business over the letter, and it does seem comic, or almost comic, since it works so well. I think there may be some inattention on Shakespeare’s part on the issue of the relation of Edmund and Edgar. The real point is Edgar’s legitimacy, and therefore his claim to succeed his father, so I take it that the brothers’ birth rank doesn’t really matter. Edmund aims to take Edgar’s place in Gloucester’s affection through his plot, and this would mean the vigorous, virile bastard, devotee of pure “nature,” usurping the customary legal ranking.

I like the reference to the “old comedy” in Edmund’s noting of Edgar’s entrance. I think this suggests the underlying relation of the tragedy to the earlier dramatic traditions of the morality play, which suddenly become relevant. Edmund becomes a vice character, which makes Edgar the character who will be tested. Edgar’s decision, coming a few scenes later, to take the part of Tom o’ Bedlam doesn’t really make sense on the surface; he could protect himself with a much less onerous personification. But he makes himself the complete opposite of Edmund’s intellectually sophisticated “new man.” I think it’s this contrast that the play starts to emphasize rather than Edgar’s credulity or simplicity. Is it implied that anyone would be tricked by Edmund’s machinations? Edgar’s Tom o’ Bedlam seems part of the way the play has everyone and everything going to extremes.

Can I venture briefly into I. iii? What Goneril speaks here of Lear’s misbehavior seems realistically sensible. The old man is causing unreasonable trouble, and her directions to Oswald seem to make a certain sense. This will seem wrong only when we’re forced to see the consequences of such realistic and “reasonable” chastising of the old man. But the play will only sneak up on that gradually. In Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (I think that’s the title) Goneril and Regan’s positions are made to seem quite sensible; the old buffer is clearly losing it, and he has to be treated like a misbehaving child — if not for his own good, then everyone else’s. But here too Goneril makes sense, and the play may draw us to an understanding that we will only later have to realize is inhuman.

I agree “subplot” doesn’t really describe the Gloucester family plot; it’s too prominent and comes to a relation to the Lear family that’s an essential commentary. 


Does there seem something arbitrary and even unnatural about Edgar’s legitimacy? Does Shakespeare draw attention to that by seeming to make Edmund the elder?

Good point about “old comedy. You suggest that Edmund is the Vice character, but is he also staging a little dramatic scene, arranging for Gloucester and Edgar to “play their parts” in what is really a pre-scripted scene?

Our eyes are on Edmund, and Edgar is harder to read. It seems a long way from this scene to the Tom o’ Bedlam scenes, and then to the return of Edgar as challenger. He seems less like a plausible “character” than anybody else in the play.


In further response to I.2, I agree that Edgar is hard to read. He takes on several disguises over the course of the play, seeming to play roles in response to Lear and Gloucester. It’s as if he’s a sort of instrument rather then a person. But I rather like Edgar, maybe because of his various functions. We remember his weird identity as Lear’s godson.

I.4 of Lear is even longer than the first scene, and terrifying in Lear’s mad curse of Goneril. Kent’s disguised return and his insistence on plain speech might seem heartening, but then the quarrel with Oswald darkens things and leads to the encounter with Goneril. I suppose the biggest question for performance and a director is how much to make of Goneril’s accusation of the disorder and mayhem of Lear’s knights. Strikingly, the riots of Lear’s train are entirely textual, aren’t they, just reported by Goneril? Albany seems unaware of the problem and is inclined to blame Goneril for making too much of it. And Lear defends them as well behaved. I’ve seen the knights performed as riotous, confirming G’s ire and anxiety. But is that right? Common sense of course would suggest that a hundred knights under Lear’s separate command would create problems, and G’s suggesting that he disquantify his train makes sense. But Lear’s reaction pays no heed to anything practical; it becomes an attack on him and drives him to extremes. Maybe the reality of Lear’s train is best left offstage as a symbolic element?

And of course we love the fool, who does the wonderful work of stripping down Lear with his mockery. Lear of course takes all the mockery without fighting back, as if the fool is somehow a part of him. I once did some poking around the fool’s songs and rhymes and found that much of it came from mid-16th cent. moralities. He’s spokesman for a common sense of a rather basic type. The effect is clearly to make Lear realize he’s no longer king, just a foolish old man who did something quite stupid in giving away everything (except those hundred knights). Lear’s seemingly ironic question about his apparent lack of identity, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” has of course more resonance that he knows.

And the fool, like Kent, seems to value and love Lear. Freud once wrote that Lear’s death was forecast in the opening scene in Cordelia’s “nothing” and her objection to flattery. I don’t think the details of his argument are very persuasive, but I did write something not long ago that suggested that the summons of death morality paradigm  (as in Everyman) may lie at some level in the tragedy. If there’s anything to this, the fool’s mockery serves to strip Lear of any pretensions of wisdom in preparation for his discovery of his human weakness. So the “Who is it can tell me” means more than Lear intends?

Lear’s curse of Goneril (“Hear, Nature, hear . . .) must be one of the most terrible passages Sh. ever wrote. And does it suggest the utter ruin of Lear’s self? To curse fertility and one’s own generative power?

What’s your take on this very painful scene?


1.3 and 1.4 constitute a pair of related scenes. Both are about service, good vs. bad service. The good servant is not the one who does what the master orders, but does what is right. They are also linked superficially by the business about “dinner” (the last word in 1.3). Interesting that from Goneril’s point of view Lear is now just “my father” — no longer “the king.” Oswald takes the cue.

In 1.4 Kent takes on a new identity, just as Edgar will later. Lear’s question to him, “Dost thou know me,” and Kent’s answer, suggest that Lear is not only not wearing a crown (and the Fool is going to make much of Lear’s having given it away) but presumably not wearing royal raiment. “Thou art nothing” picks up Cordelia’s “nothing” and looks ahead to more fearful versions.

Goneril’s speech at line 27 seems stiff and formal, as contrasted to Kent’s plain speaking.

You raise a good point about Lear’s knights. I think that in the productions I have seen they are usually riotous, but you are right to note that we don’t get any independent confirmation of that. Interesting that you never see Lear speaking to them (unless the exchange at the end of the scene with a “Gentleman” is meant to be an exchange with a knight.)  What would Lear do with a hundred knights? (He’s beyond practicality now, fully occupied with his grievances and with the Fool.)

Lear’s appeal to “Nature” of course recalls Edmund’s invocation of “Nature.” The curse is indeed violent and extreme. Lear, having disowned his own children, is now trying to make sure that they have no children (and we never hear a word about any existing grandchildren, even though he is supposed to be old and maybe even 80). He is in effect trying to ensure that he has no descendants of any kind. Lear is driven nuts more by his thankless child than by his reduced train. For him, this is personal and familial rather than political.

When Lear speaks about plucking out his eyes, Goneril hears the idea, and saves it for later.

I’d like to see your piece about Lear and morality plays .(Doesn’t Mack talk about that a bit in his King Lear in our Time, especially in relation to the trial-by-combat scene later?) Did you ever submit it for publication?

I’ll say a bit about 1.5. Again a short scene following a long one. It’s all in prose, as compared to the previous scene, which is mostly in verse.It serves partly as transition from Goneril to Regan. The Fool’s fooling seems very similar to that in 1.4, though perhaps it’s a little more pointed. And it gets a strong response: “O, let me not be mad.” Lear is already on his way to the madness in Act 3. The Fool announces his “departure” — he is not seen until Act 3.


Here’s some response on I.5 and 2.1 and maybe some anticipation of 2.2 since I.5 is so short. In the former the Fool’s fooling seems to become a bit thinner, and though Lear responds, he also seems more distracted by what he’s learned about Goneril and feels about Cordelia (“I did her wrong”) and senses the onset of his mental dissolution. And the next scene returns to the Gloucester plot and develops the success of Edmund’s plot against Edgar. It may be slightly amusing that Edmund’s wounding himself to gain Gloucester’s sympathy seems initially ignored, though G. does mention it at 107-08. The sides are being joined up, with Cornwall and Regan coming to sympathy with Edmund. 2.2 continues the opposition in a rather comic way, Kent still the truth teller and almost instinctively opposed to Oswald. I suppose we’d ordinarily sympathize with Oswald over what may seem rather nutty and extreme abuse from Kent, but instead we know Kent’s on the right side, and I’m guessing an audience enjoys Kent’s taunts. (Interestingly, none of ll. 14-23 appear on my coffee cup of Shakespearean insults.) Oswald has to be humiliated in the encounter for the oppositions to become clear. And Edgar’s taking on the Poor Tom disguise continues this.

You’ll see my take on Kent in the stocks in the essay. I think this was something that an audience understood from the moralities, and it developed the sense of opposing goodness and evil.

I don’t think we really like Oswald; I meant that the sudden outbreak of Kent’s abuse would ordinarily cause our sympathies to go to his opponent. But the play constantly pushes us to embrace extremes, doesn’t it? In a similar way, we might ordinarily be annoyed by Cordelia’s disinclination to go along with Lear’s game. But of course our sympathies go to Kent, Cordelia, Edgar, the Fool, and after the heath scene (?) to Lear.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell