Download King Lear Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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

Summary
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.

Without her father’s blessing, Cordelia bids farewell to her sisters with tear-stained eyes, telling them that she wishes she could leave her father in better hands. Goneril and Regan sneer at her request for them to love Lear well. When they are alone together, the older sisters quickly turn on their father, discussing his “poor judgment” and making plans to usurp his power to prevent any more of his rash behavior.

Analysis
The universality of King Lear revolves around the theme of appearances versus reality as it relates to the world of filial love and, in...

(The entire section is 1,474 words.)