King Lear Act I, Scene 5: Summary and Analysis

William Shakespeare

Act I, Scene 5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Gentleman: one of Lear’s train attending to the horses

Summary
The scene is set in the courtyard in front of Albany’s palace. Preparing to leave for Regan’s, Lear orders Kent to deliver a letter to her in the city of Gloucester. He urges Kent to make sure he arrives before Lear does. In an attempt to raise his master’s spirits, the Fool engages in honest witty metaphors and nonsensical riddles. Lear plays the game for a short time but soon slips back into his preoccupations with his daughter’s ingratitude and his fears of madness. His gentleman soon arrives with the horses, and they are on their way to Regan’s.

Analysis
This short scene acts as a commentary on Lear’s emotional state as he prepares himself for his new living arrangements with his middle daughter, Regan. His Fool, though annoying at times, honestly reflects his master’s fears. Lear has, after all, failed, and one can imagine him contemplating his last chance. Judging by observations thus far and the opinion of the Fool on the matter, Goneril and Regan are of like mind. The Fool’s honesty is no reassurance when he says, “She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab.” In his preoccupation, Lear seems unmoved by the Fool’s comments as he ruminates about Cordelia. “I did her wrong” is reminiscent of the previous scene where her faults seemed small compared to Goneril’s.

Lear’s illusory world is no longer intact, giving him new insights concerning the worth of his daughters and new perceptions of his own identity. In the previous scene he has begun to question that identity. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The Fool’s painful metaphor suggests that he is a snail that has given his shell or house away to his daughters. He considers taking Goneril’s half of the kingdom back again, but the Fool interjects with “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” The intrusion of his reality leads him to invoke the heavens to “Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!” Here again, we see his belief in the natural order of things with a higher being in control of the universe.