Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490
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.
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 cannot be such a monster.” Edmund simultaneously makes a show of defending his brother but alleges Edgar has told him directly that when a father becomes old, the sons should take charge of his money and that the father should be “as ward to the son.” He hypocritically tells his father not to move against Edgar immediately. Instead, Edmund intends to stage a conference between Edgar and himself so that Gloucester can overhear the supposedly treacherous intentions expressed by Edgar.
Gloucester agrees to this plan and observes that the natural order of things is becoming undone, seeing a parallel between his own son's assumed disobedience and King Lear's disowning of Cordelia, and the reflection of this in natural phenomena such as eclipses of the sun and moon. Gloucester exits, and Edmund congratulates himself on the ease with which he is deceiving his father and on the gullibility of people like Gloucester, who believe the world is driven by fate and the stars and attribute their own misfortunes to things they cannot control rather than to their own foolishness and credulity.
Edgar enters. Edmund now makes a show of surprise when Edgar says that he spoke with their father for two hours the previous night and there was nothing wrong between them. He advises Edgar to “go armed” the next time he is to see Gloucester to protect himself from their father's wrath. After Edgar leaves, not suspecting that there is anything false about what Edmund has told him, Edmund again expresses to himself his disdain for the credulity of people like his father and brother, who, though they are of noble birth, are fools. His plan has been set in motion to turn his father against the favored, “legitimate” brother and to destroy both Gloucester and Edgar.
Already in the opening two scenes of the drama, a dysfunctional dynamic is seen that governs both kingship and family relations. Though his son Edmund is accompanying him to court, when Gloucester introduces him to Kent, he immediately begins a coarse description of Edmund's “illegitimate origin,” saying “though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”
Lear's speech and behavior at first seem normal and rational. Though some commentators have made the point that he is abdicating for no good reason, he makes it clear that because of his age, he can't continue to handle the duties of kingship. Initially, the plan of dividing the kingdom among the three daughters does not sound like a bad idea.
When Goneril and Regan speak, it becomes evident that something is wrong. As the play progresses, the two are revealed as cold and unfeeling. Yet Lear completely believes their overstated declarations of love for him. One would think that a man still mentally sound would have some idea that the two young women are not what they seem to be, but Lear is clueless about them. He is also clueless about Cordelia. He overreacts against her lukewarm statement about her love for him, refusing to grant her any part of the kingdom, refusing her a dowry, and disowning her. These are not the actions of a rational man.
That said, Cordelia's own behavior, though honest, comes across as coldhearted. She is obviously repelled by the exaggerated and false praise heaped upon Lear by Goneril and Regan. This somewhat accounts for her understated declaration to him. Yet it is as if some mystery, some secret in the family dynamic is driving the dysfunctional behavior of the characters. Or perhaps their actions are merely emblematic of the irrationality of the world as a whole. The scene at court is an extended exercise in miscommunication. Lear is easily fooled, not understanding the falseness of Goneril and Regan, and not understanding the genuine though quiet devotion and honesty of Cordelia and Kent.
The same type of miscommunication, though driven in this case by intended deceit, occurs among Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar. Edmund clearly hates both Gloucester and Edgar. Yet given the way he has been treated as the illegitimate son—a sample of which occurs in the first scene when Gloucester speaks to Kent—it is not difficult to understand what has driven him to be “villainous.” Like Lear with regard to Goneril and Regan, Gloucester appears to have no inkling of Edmund's deceptiveness. One would think that, especially given the stereotype of a “bastard son” that Gloucester has bought into, he would not trust Edmund. Perhaps in some sense it's to be counted as a credit to Gloucester that he assumes Edmund to be as honest as anyone. His behavior with regard to Edgar parallels Lear's to Cordelia. And Edgar, too, does not seem to suspect that his brother is formulating a deception to drive him apart from his father.
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