King Lear: king of pre-Christian Britain; protagonist of the play
Goneril: King Lear’s oldest daughter with whom he lives first
Regan: King Lear’s middle daughter who refuses to take him in
Cordelia: King Lear’s youngest daughter who is banished and disinherited
Duke of Cornwall: husband of Regan who stops at nothing to gain power
Duke of Albany: the mild-mannered husband of Goneril
Earl of Kent: King Lear’s devoted courtier who is banished
Earl of Gloucester: protagonist of the subplot whose family situation is analogous to Lear’s
Edmund: bastard son of Gloucester
King of France: marries Cordelia without a dowry
Duke of Burgundy: Cordelia’s suitor who rejects Lear’s dowerless daughter
Setting the scene for King Lear’s rumored intention of dividing his kingdom, Gloucester and Kent discuss the King’s preference between his sons-in-law, the Duke of Albany and Cornwall. Kent is introduced to Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, whom his father loves no less than his legitimate son, Edgar.
The trumpet sounds and King Lear and his attendants enter with his two sons-in-law and his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. He immediately orders Gloucester to attend to the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy who are both suitors contending for Cordelia’s hand in marriage. Gloucester leaves and without delay Lear clarifies his intended purpose. He plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, giving the greatest share to the daughter who publicly professes to love him most.
Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughter, is called on first. She flatters her father into believing that she loves him more than “words can wield the matter.” Not to be outdone, Regan claims to love the King as much as her sister does, except that Goneril “comes too short.” Expecting a grander expression of love from Cordelia, his favorite, the King is surprised and angry when her reply is simply “Nothing, my lord.” He implores her to mend her “speech a little” or else she might “mar her fortunes.” She tries to explain to the King that she only speaks the truth, but it is to no avail. Lear banishes her without an inheritance or a dowry.
In a futile attempt to change the King’s mind, Kent argues on Cordelia’s behalf but is also banished. He bids good-bye to the King, commending Cordelia for speaking truthfully and admonishing Goneril and Regan to live up to their “large speeches” of love for their father.
Gloucester ushers in the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. They are both made aware of Cordelia’s banishment and recent loss of fortune and are given a chance to accept her without a dowry. The King of France is confused, wondering what Cordelia, who had always had been Lear’s favorite, could have done to deserve such treatment from her father. Cordelia begs her father to understand that she lacks the “glib and oily art” to speak of her love for him, but he only responds with a wish that she had never been born. Burgundy appeals to Lear to change his mind about the inheritance, but the King is unyielding. When Burgundy rejects Cordelia for lack of a dowry, she responds with a refusal to marry him if he is only interested in her “fortune.” The King of France who has gained a new admiration and respect for Cordelia, happily accepts King Lear’s “dow’rless daughter” and offers to make her the new Queen of France.