One of the most prominent themes, or ideas, throughout act one is the theme of power. The play opens with an aging King Lear deciding to relinquish his power and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. In exchange for a part of his kingdom, King Lear wants his daughters to flatter him and prove to him that their love for him is deserving of a share of his kingdom. The implication here is that the power King Lear has become accustomed to has made him also accustomed to sycophants and flatterers. In this way, he has perhaps been blinded by his power so that he can no longer see which of his daughters truly loves him (Cordelia) and which of his daughters love only the power he can give to them (Goneril and Regan).
In scene two of act one we meet Edmund, one of the main villains of the play. Edmund presents his father with a letter which he says has been written by his brother, Edgar. In the letter, Edgar seems to invite Edmund to join with him in a plot to overthrow their father, whose refusal to die, he says, “keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them.” This letter has of course been written by Edmund, who, as a bastard, is jealous of his brother’s hold on their father’s affections. The main idea that Shakespeare presents through the character of Edmund is the idea that one’s appearance is not always an accurate reflection of the reality behind that appearance. This is also an idea which can be just as well applied to the characters of Goneril and Regan.
This theme of appearance and reality is also conveyed in act one, scene four, in which Kent disguises himself as a peasant called Caius. Kent is a faithful servant to King Lear but was dismissed in the opening scene for standing up for Cordelia. Kent alters his appearance so that he can enter the service of King Lear once more and protect him against his Machiavellian daughters. Here then we have the idea once more that appearances can be, and sometimes necessarily need to be, deceptive.