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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 4

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's play King Lear.

King Lear | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



Kent takes the stage alone. He has disguised himself so he can stay near Lear, despite Lear's having banished him. When Lear enters with his knights, the disguised Kent talks his way into Lear's service.

Oswald is repeatedly rude to Lear, prompting Lear and the disguised Kent to talk about how they've been mistreated. Lear sends one servant to fetch his daughter and another to fetch the Fool. While he's waiting, Oswald reenters. When he speaks rudely to Lear, Lear hits Oswald, and Kent trips him.

The Fool enters. He comments on how Kent is foolish to join Lear's company now. When the Fool teases Lear about the situation he's set up with his daughters, Lear threatens to whip him. The Fool gives Lear advice and then returns to chiding the king for giving away his crown, calling him a fool.

When Goneril enters, she and Lear clash over how his company has been acting and the duties a daughter owes a father. They go back and forth about these issues, sometimes with Albany in the mix, until Lear storms out, saying he will go stay with Regan instead. Goneril sends her sister a letter to warn her.


Though this is technically one scene, there are four distinct "beats," or developments, within it. The theme of loyalty is again very strong here. Kent demonstrates just how loyal he is to Lear, as he's willing to risk death to stay with him. He also demonstrates one of the play's complexities, showing that not all deception is wrong. Instead, the value of a deceptive act (in this case, Kent's disguising himself) is determined by its intent.

Oswald's mistreatment of Lear and the knight shows the kingdom is continuing to disintegrate. Another important event has happened offstage, leaving the audience to wonder whether Goneril's household is mistreating Lear's company or if Lear and his men are out of hand.

The Fool's commentary introduces a new theme: the value of foolishness or madness. The Fool turns the order of things upside down in mocking Lear and offering Lear the hat of the court jester. Lear becomes the Fool and the Fool becomes the wise man in this turn of fortune. The Fool comments on Lear's failing condition and says, "Thou art nothing." In essence, Lear has become nothing by dividing his kingdom. The kingdom could represent Lear's mind; the division of the kingdom reflects the disintegration of his intellect, and the two are inextricably linked. He has lost his kingdom, the power he once had, and the respect he expects to retain. The animal metaphors Lear uses to describe Goneril indicate that he believes she has lost her empathy and humanity.

The final exchange advances the plot. Lear won't be able to settle permanently in one location or to move between his daughters when he chooses. When a daughter treats him too badly or when he gets too mad (or both), he'll move on.

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