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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
The play opens in King Lear's palace with Kent and Gloucester in conversation. They are discussing King Lear's regard for his two sons-in-law, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Kent suggests that the King favors one over the other and fears that the favoritism will cause a problem and affect the kingdom. Listening to them is a young man, Edmund. Gloucester explains that Edmund is his illegitimate son--a folly of his youth. He then declares that he also has a legitimate son named Edgar. Gloucester prides himself on loving both of them equally even though Edmund is socially considered an outcast and a bastard. There is then an exchange of formalities between Kent and Edmund as they are introduced.
The King enters with his procession. Due to his age, he has decided to abdicate his throne in the near future. He will divide his kingdom among his three daughters; the largest share will go to the child who proves that she loves him the most. He assumes that Cordelia, his youngest and favorite child, will receive the largest portion.
After sitting on his throne, he makes public his plans to divide the kingdom into three parts and takes out a map to show the dividing lines. One will go to Goneril, who is married to the Duke of Albany; one will go to Regan, who is married to the Duke of Cornwall; and the last will go to the unmarried Cordelia, who is currently being courted by the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France.
Lear asks his daughters to publicly explain their love for their father. Goneril answers with rich words that are loaded with flattery; everyone but Lear seems to know that Goneril praises her father only for personal gain. Regan states that nothing except her love for her father could possibly give her any joy. Both elder daughters promise that they love the King more than they love their husbands.
Lear next calls on Cordelia; since she is Lear's favorite, he is expecting great praise and flowery speech from her; instead, her reply is short and unexpected. When Lear asks, "What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?" Cordelia replies, "Nothing." She then adds, "I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less." This blunt, honest reply infuriates Lear. After asking her once again to reveal her love in words, Cordelia explains that she cannot. Lear grows more enraged. Then, much to the dismay of the others, the King curses Cordelia and disinherits her. When Kent pleads Cordelia's case, he is also sent away, banished like Cordelia.
The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy arrive to court Cordelia. Hearing of her disgrace and banishment, the Duke withdraws his proposal of marriage. The King of France, however, seeks to know the reason for Lear's anger; when he hears what Cordelia has said, he understands her true worth and is all the more eager to wed her.
The king and his retinue exit. Cordelia turns to her two older sisters and warns them to treat their father well. Her entreaties, however, fall on deaf ears. Goneril and Regan immediately begin their plotting. They comment on Lear's rashness and the general defects that age brings and agree that something must be done with him.
In this first scene, all the major characters are introduced, either in person or in conversation. By the end of the scene, the major conflict has unfolded as Cordelia is disinherited and Goneril and Regan plot against their father.
Many critics state that Lear makes several fatal mistakes in this first scene of the play. His plan for his daughters is not a wise one, for it totally removes power from the King and divides the kingdom. Since the British people believed in a centralized government and thought their king was a link between the divine and the human, they would be very displeased over Lear's plan. They would also believe that disavowing one's role as king would be to defy the divine ordination and to invite chaos and strife. Lear's plan will also inevitably pit one sibling against another in a struggle for more power.
Even before the daughters declare their love to him, Lear has a plan for parceling out the kingdom, as revealed on the map that he unfolds; his youngest and favorite daughter will get the largest portion. Since his mind seems to be made up about the kingdom, it is obviously his pride and greed that cause him to demand his daughters' public declarations of fatherly devotion. It is a foolish mistake on Lear's part, for it appears that he is trying to buy the love of his daughters.
The speeches of Goneril and Regan are flowery and pretentious; they praise their father profusely and state that they love him much more than their own husbands. They are flattering to Lear only because they hope to get more from him. Lear is blind to their hypocrisy and praises their spoken devotion to him. The pure and honest Cordelia refuses to play the game; she will not try and outdo her hypocritical older sisters. She simply states her love for her father and says she will also love her future husband; she also reprimands him for being so indulgent as to ask for a public display of love. Lear is shocked by her brevity and brashness and pushes her to say more, but Cordelia refuses. She will not make a public show of true love for Lear, least of all in exchange for riches. Lear grows enraged over her response and banishes Cordelia. He then redivides the kingdom between Regan and Goneril, fully proving his "blindness." Throughout the rest of the play, images and allusions or lack of sight or insight will be developed.
Kent, in trying to persuade Lear to change his mind about banishing Cordelia, speaks with a bluntness that is characteristic of his personality. He is known for his stubbornness and straightforward approach. Although Lear knows his friend well, for they have been together for many years, the King is enraged by Kent's argument. In anger, Lear tells him not to come "between the dragon and his wrath;" the dragon, an ancient symbol of royalty of Britain, is a clear reference to the King. When Kent refuses to back down in his opinion, he, too, is banished, like Cordelia. After his interactions with Kent and Cordelia, Lear has emerged as a person whose judgement is clouded; he is flattered by those who are false and manipulative and blinded to those who are loyal and honest. The loss of judgement is very significant, for a king must be trusted to make correct decisions.
The two suitors of Cordelia arrive and Lear explains to them what has happened to his youngest daughter. The shallow Duke of Burgundy quickly bows out from his proposal of marriage when he realizes that Cordelia no longer has a dowry. The King of France, however, is more eager than ever to wed Cordelia. He recognizes that she is "most rich, being poor; most choice, forsaken. . .To him Cordelia is herself a dowry." As Cordelia leaves to become the Queen of France, she is sad to be leaving her father. She fears that her sisters will manipulate him and treat him cruelly; as a result, she warns her sisters to take care of the King. As soon as Cordelia leaves, Regan and Goneril begin to plot against Lear.
The subplot of the play revolves around Gloucester, a man who is passionate about life and irreverent about society and its tradition. In his youth, he fathered an illegitimate son, Edmund. To his credit, Gloucester loves Edmund as much as he loves Edgar, his legitimate son. The society around Gloucester, however, is not as liberal as he; Edmund is considered to be an unworthy bastard. By the end of the play, it will be obvious that Gloucester's love for Edmund was misplaced.