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King Lear | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The Earl of Kent and the Earl of Gloucester are talking about what has been happening in the kingdom. When Kent asks about Gloucester's son Edmund, Gloucester jokes about Edmund's conception. Gloucester introduces Edgar to Kent.

King Lear enters. The Dukes of Albany and Cornwall walk with him, as do his daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and some servants. Lear says he's ready to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He'll give the largest portion to the daughter who loves him most. Goneril and Regan both give positive and poetic answers, and Lear gives each of them a third of his kingdom. He then asks Cordelia. She refuses to make any claim about how much she loves him.

Furious, Lear disowns Cordelia and splits her third of the kingdom between her sisters. Kent tries to advise the king against his actions. Lear banishes Kent for interfering.

Cordelia's suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, enter. When Burgundy learns Cordelia no longer carries a dowry, he declines to marry her. The King of France accepts Cordelia as his wife without a dowry. Everyone leaves except the King of France and Lear's three daughters. Cordelia tells her sisters she knows what they are really like and asks them to take care of their father. Regan tells her to leave them alone, and Goneril tells Cordelia she needs to focus on pleasing her husband. Cordelia and her husband leave. Once Goneril and Regan are alone, they talk about how Lear is changing with age and how they will need to act to address the situation.

Analysis

In this first scene, Shakespeare introduces all the themes of the play, and he sets all of the plot threads in motion. Kent and Gloucester's discussion of recent events in the country signals that their king is changing and changeable and that more change is to come.

This change soon appears. Lear repeatedly refers to Cordelia as his favorite, saying she is "our joy." However, as soon as she doesn't conform to his expectations, he changes completely. Removing her dowry not only makes Cordelia an oddity (in this period, a noblewoman was expected to have a dowry) but also puts her at risk. She might never marry as a result. Lear's reaction to his daughters' responses shows that he's in an odd place mentally; he either doesn't know his family nearly as well as he thinks he does, or he's willing to accept everyone at face value. Neither quality is worthy of a king.

As for his daughters, they immediately show their true natures when they talk amongst themselves. Cordelia attempts to give her elder sisters advice, saying, "I know you what you are, / And like a sister am most loath to call / Your faults as they are named. Love well our father." When her sisters dismiss her concern and then treat their father's actions toward them not as their good fortune but as something to be upset about, they signal their selfishness.

Finally, in addition to the obvious themes of family relations, aging, and order, Shakespeare introduces the theme of vision. He shows how important vision is by demonstrating what happens when Lear—and, to a lesser extent, Gloucester—lack it. Both men are heads of their families and carry considerable social authority, but neither can see who his children truly are or how his actions will influence them.

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