Act 1, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365
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, about the cause of all this trouble. Goneril's answer is that Lear is in his “dotage,” meaning, as it would be termed today, that he has dementia. Lear returns and again furiously expresses his anger at how unfairly and disrespectfully Goneril is treating him in requiring that he divest himself of half the one hundred knights in his retinue. He leaves with Kent and his attendants. The Fool remains behind until Goneril orders him to go as well.
It is clear that Albany does not entirely share Goneril's anger toward Lear, while Goneril again emphasizes the suspicion that Lear has lost his mind and that it's therefore dangerous for him to have knights at his command whom he can order to do anything that occurs to his unhinged mind. She then instructs Oswald to deliver a letter to her sister Regan, warning her against their father, while Albany still seems uncertain that Goneril's actions in alienating her father are justified.
In the court outside Albany’s palace, Lear, now seeming to be in command of his senses, instructs Kent to deliver letters to Gloucester. Kent leaves, still unrecognized by Lear. The Fool continues to banter with Lear and, through jokes and riddles, indicates how foolish Lear’s behavior has been in giving away his lands and in trusting Goneril. In a veiled way, the Fool says Lear should expect the same treatment from Regan. When the horses are ready, Lear, the Fool, and the retinue depart for Gloucester's castle.
It is unsurprising that Lear's stay at Goneril and Albany's palace is not going well. Even in better circumstances, problems tend to occur when an elderly parent moves in with a grown child and their family. In this case, it’s compounded by Goneril's hypocrisy and her lack of feeling for her father. But it wouldn't be at all unexpected for Lear's retinue to have done exactly what Goneril is charging them with: behaving in a noisy, rude, and unruly manner. And it is perfectly reasonable for Goneril to be dismayed at the sheer number of them: a hundred knights in a palace perhaps not large even for a duke and his own people.
As in the opening scenes, the crisis develops precisely because people overreact and behave irrationally. Lear's temper and oversensitivity have already been evident. Goneril, instead of speaking to him in the kindly way one would expect of a daughter who claims she loves him, is cold and harsh. She clearly wants to get rid of him and is probably using the behavior of his knights—though she is justified in calling attention to it—as a pretext to throw her father out. At this point, the issue of Lear's possible dementia becomes more central to the drama. Goneril is probably correct in recognizing this as a problem, though she's totally unsympathetic about it.
In commentaries over the years, both Goneril and Regan have normally been identified as the “evil” daughters. As unfeelingly as Goneril acts, however, there might have been an element of misogyny in this critical view. Lear himself is guilty of being irrational, dictatorial, and unfeeling as well, first to Cordelia and then even to Goneril, despite the latter's coldness to him. If anything, these scenes demonstrate the absence of a clear answer to the problems presented by the story. But they also emphasize that same mystery at the heart of human nature that has been evident from the opening of the play. Many people would ask what Kent's motive is for taking on a disguise and appearing out of nowhere, as he does, in order to help Lear, when Lear has treated him so badly. In a play where the worst misdeeds are repeatedly carried out against people both innocent and guilty, Kent's selflessness is an antidote to the thoughtlessness and cruelty that dominate the action.
The Fool, as well, stands by Lear despite knowing that Lear has destroyed himself by giving away his kingdom and putting his trust in those who have no regard for him.