King Lear Act 1, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

Scene 1

The play begins with a seemingly casual conversation between two of King Lear's courtiers, Kent and Gloucester, regarding the king's impending division of his kingdom among his daughters and their consorts. Gloucester introduces his son Edmund to Kent, not sparing the details about Edmund having been the result of an extramarital union, unlike Gloucester's legitimate son, Edgar.

Gloucester and Edmund leave the scene, and the king enters, immediately announcing that he has divided his kingdom in three and that the bounties embodied in each part are to be based upon the degree of love each of his daughters declares she has for him. The eldest daughter, Goneril, speaks first and, in exaggerated language, tells Lear she loves him more than words can express. The next daughter, Regan, similarly flatters Lear, claiming that Goneril's love falls short of her own, which is so great that “I profess myself an enemy to all other joys.” As a result of their extravagant declarations, Lear grants to Goneril and Regan (and their respective spouses, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall), each a third of his kingdom, making it clear that the lands they will possess are bounteous, with “plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads.”

Cordelia, after listening to her sisters' flattering words to Lear, makes brief asides expressing her doubt that when it comes her turn to announce her love for her father, she will have the honest ability to say anything equaling what they have declared. When Lear asks her how much she loves him, she replies that

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more, no less.

Lear is infuriated by this lack of feeling, and though Cordelia has apparently been his favorite daughter, when asked again, she is unable to make the expected emotional display. He disinherits her, granting her no part of the kingdom and refusing to grant a dowry as well.

Kent attempts to make the king change his mind, letting him know that his behavior toward Cordelia has been harsh and unfair, but Lear will hear nothing of this and then decides to banish Kent for his insubordination. Lear declares that the dowry he would have bestowed on Cordelia's future husband will instead be divided between Goneril and Regan. Cordelia's two suitors are the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. The latter tells Lear he cannot marry Cordelia without receiving a dowry, while the King of France values Cordelia for herself and, though first seeming to ask Burgundy if he might still be interested in Cordelia, agrees to marry her.

Lear has decided that although relinquishing power, he will still hold the title and honors of a king and will reside alternately with the two daughters upon whom he has bestowed his kingdom. Goneril and Regan privately confer about their father and observe that Lear seems to be losing his powers of judgment, and they vaguely indicate they will have to have some plan to deal with this. The results of the action so far are that Cordelia and Kent are banished, Lear's intention being that they are never to see or have anything to do with him again.

Scene 2

The scene opens at Gloucester’s castle, where Gloucester's son Edmund is soliloquizing over the unfairness of his position as an illegitimate son. His half-brother, Edgar, is the favored one, and Edmund is despised, as are all “bastard” sons, he believes. Edmund has forged a letter that purports to be from Edgar. When Gloucester enters the room, Edmund pretends to hide the letter in his pocket. His father demands to see it, Edmund hands it to him, and Gloucester reads it aloud. In the letter, Edmund has Edgar say that the two of them should conspire against their father in order to obtain his estate. Gloucester immediately believes Edmund that the letter was written by Edgar after asking him if he's sure it is in Edgar's handwriting. He declares his previously favored (and legitimate) son a villain, while still saying “he...

(The entire section is 1,490 words.)