King Lear Act I, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Knight: one of Lear’s many attendants

Fool: the king’s professional court jester

The scene continues in Albany’s palace, where Kent is considering the success of his disguise. He is convinced that if he falsifies his accent, the masquerade will be complete. Ironically, he wishes to remain loyal to the King who has banished him. Just as Lear returns from his hunting trip, Kent appears disguised in servant’s garb. Lear questions his abilities and his motives for wanting to serve him. Answering each question in a jovial manner, Kent portrays a character unlike his own. Convinced of Kent’s qualifications, Lear invites him to join him as his servant and immediately calls for his dinner and his Fool.

Oswald, Goneril’s steward, enters and Lear demands to see his daughter. Walking away, Oswald purposely ignores the King’s request. Lear calls him back, but when Oswald does not respond, he sends his knight after him. The knight comes back with the news that Oswald rudely refused to obey the King. Shocked at such defiance of the King, Lear discusses the matter with his knight who has also noticed the recent “abatement of kindness” evident in the servants, Goneril, and the Duke of Albany himself. Lear again calls for his Fool, whom he has not seen for two weeks and is told that he has been pining away for Cordelia ever since she left for France. Unwilling to discuss it further, Lear quickly dismisses the idea, instructing his knight to bring Goneril and his Fool to him.

In the meantime, Oswald appears and addresses Lear with insolence and disrespect. Lear strikes him and Kent trips his heels and pushes him out. Grateful to Kent, the King hands him money for his service.

Lear’s Fool finally appears with humorous and witty remarks about his coxcomb or cap. The Fool’s satiric jesting about Lear’s loss of his title and the division of his kingdom is a sad but honest commentary on his plight in which his “daughters” have become his “mothers.” Goneril enters and the King kindly asks her why she wears a frown on her face. The Fool chastises him for patronizing her. Goneril confronts her father with a long diatribe concerning his quarreling and riotous servants. She blames him for allowing them to exhibit this kind of behavior. Lear cannot believe these words are coming from his own daughter. Goneril is relentless, however, finally demanding that he diminish his “train of servants” so that there will be order in the palace again, and he will be able to act in a manner befitting his age. Lear reacts with rage, calling her a “degenerate bastard” and promising to trouble her no longer.

Unaware of the situation, Albany enters, telling Lear to be patient, but he turns a deaf ear to his son-in-law. Claiming his “train are men of choice,” he tells Goneril she is lying about their conduct. Cordelia’s faults suddenly seem small compared to Goneril’s, and he beats his head, blaming himself for his foolishness and poor judgment in giving up his “fix’d place.” Before he leaves, he invokes the goddess Nature to curse Goneril with sterility, or, if she must bear a child, to let it be a spiteful child who will torment her and cause her to grow old before her time. Albany, still puzzled, questions Goneril about her father, but she evades the issue, telling him not to worry.

Having heard that Goneril has just reduced his train of followers by 50, Lear reenters, cursing his daughter for destroying his manhood. He threatens to leave and stay with Regan, convinced that she would scratch her sister’s eyes out if she heard of the way in which Goneril had been treating her father. Goneril, however, quickly sends a letter to her sister, warning her that Lear is coming. Doubting the wisdom of Goneril’s actions, Albany censures his wife for her decision, but she criticizes his “milky gentleness” and his “want of wisdom.”

As Kent interviews for a position as a servant in Lear’s...

(The entire section is 1,365 words.)