Act 1, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis
Lear has been staying with his daughter Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. Already there are problems: it is obvious that Goneril is resentful of her father's presence and the large retinue of knights whom her father is quartering with him. Goneril's steward Oswald tells her that Lear has struck her “gentleman” for criticizing Lear's jester, the Fool. Meanwhile, Lear has gone out hunting, and Goneril says she won't talk to him when he returns. She moreover gives directions to Oswald to be disregarding and rude to Lear and to his knights. She resolves to write to her sister Regan about the overall situation.
Kent appears in a hall at Albany’s castle in disguise, with the intention of helping Lear in spite of Lear having mistreated him and banished him from the kingdom. Lear returns from hunting and instructs an attendant to prepare his dinner immediately. He doesn't recognize Kent, who makes no attempt to reveal his identity but instead offers his services incognito to the king. Kent speaks to Lear in a half-humorous way, lumping together “offering counsel,” “riding,” “running,” and “mar[ring] a curious tale” among the services he can offer him. Lear accepts him as a servant. When Oswald enters, he refuses to respond to Lear's question about Goneril's whereabouts, and exits. Lear questions one of his knights about Oswald's behavior, and the knight not only tells him Oswald has been rude to him as well, but that it's clear the king and his party are not being treated well by their hosts. Lear has noticed this as well, though only slightly, having perceived “a most faint neglect of late.” The king then inquires about his Fool, whom he hasn't seen for two days, and the knight tells him the Fool is upset about Cordelia's absence. When Oswald reappears, Lear upbraids him and strikes him, and Kent then trips up Oswald and pushes him out of the room, for which Lear rewards Kent with money.
The Fool appears. An extended dialogue occurs among Lear, the Fool, and Kent, during which the Fool repeatedly answers questions in riddles and jokes, though the underlying meaning of his responses indicates he comprehends the disturbing situation better than Lear himself does. The Fool is loyal to the king, but he makes it clear in his scraps of jests and puns that Lear is deceiving himself and has brought about his own misfortune. He as much as tells the king that he was a fool to give away his kingdom, and Kent quietly tells Lear that he agrees with the Fool.
When Goneril appears she tells her father that not only the Fool but his entire retinue of knights have been generally unruly, rude, and disrespectful to her, her husband, and their servants. She also indicates that Lear is not acting like himself, and wishes that he would
These dispositions, that of late transform you
From what you rightly are.
Lear understandably bridles at this suggestion. When he appeals to the others (mainly to the Fool and to Kent) to tell him that he's the same person he has always been, the Fool answers that he is now merely “Lear's shadow.” Lear suggests that Goneril herself is not acting as if she is his daughter, and seems jestingly to ask her, “Your name, fair gentlewoman?” Goneril takes advantage of this rhetorical question to imply that Lear is, in fact, losing his reason, though she doesn't say so openly. Instead she turns to the question of why Lear needs to keep such a large contingent of knights with him, repeating that their behavior is unruly and that they're making her house seem more like a tavern or a brothel than a palace.
Lear is infuriated by Goneril's criticisms and orders his horses to be saddled so that he might leave the palace. Albany appears, and Lear asks him if he agrees with Goneril's view of the situation. Albany seems to wish to stay out of the argument, and Lear pours forth a stream of words cursing Goneril, then leaves, while Albany is evidently oblivious, as he questions Goneril,...
(The entire section is 1,363 words.)