King Lear Act One (scenes one & two) plot synopsis: making mistakes

King Lear begins with an epic first act (only Richard III’s 1000+ line behemoth is longer). Epic first act, but quiet opening moment. A discussion between two lords (Earls, really), Kent and Gloucester, about current political events.

It seems the dukes of Albany and Cornwall are equal in the king’s love (“so weighed” [I.i.5]). We don’t know it yet, but these dukes are the husbands of Lear’s older two daughters–Goneril and Regan, respectively. The two dukes are equally loved, so there’s no (current) conflict; and the subject changes from domestic politics to matters of domesticity.

When Kent asks if the third person onstage, the handsome (“so proper” [I.i.17]) Edmund, is Gloucester’s son, we learn that he is, but from out of wedlock. Edmund is a bastard, “some year” (I.i.18) younger than his legitimate brother. If such casual discussion of the son’s bastardy isn’t bad enough, Gloucester goes on to make bawdy remarks about Edmund’s mother, saying “there was good sport at his making” (I.i.22).

This quiet opening doesn’t last long, however. Within minutes, we have Lear enter with his daughters–Goneril, Regan and Cordelia– and the dukes of Albany and Cornwall; the king calls for the “lords of France and Burgundy” (I.i.33) to be brought in. We learn these two men are suitors, “great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love” (I.i.45).

Lear has decided to retire from rule, dividing his kingdom between the three daughters; as prelude to discussing the division, though, he wants to hear the women proclaim their devotion: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most // [so] That we our largest bounty may extend // Where nature doth with merit challenge?” (I.i.50-52).

The two older sisters proclaim their love in escalating terms; all the while Cordelia reveals in asides her discomfort with the entire endeavor. Lear gives each daughter “ample third[s]” (I.i.79) of the kingdom, then asks Cordelia, “What can you say to draw // A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I.i.84-5).

Her answers is shocking and begins a back-and-forth with the king that spirals out of control quickly:

Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
  • I.i.86-89

She supports her answer with a cogent, logical argument. But what she fails to understand is that logic is not what her father is looking for: he wants love, devotion, even worship. And within two dozen lines, Lear has disowned her, “disclaim[ing] all [his] paternal care” (I.i.111).

Kent attempts to intervene, only to “come … between the dragon and his wrath” (I.i.120). Lear has Albany and Cornwall divide Cordelia’s third of the kingdom, splitting the rule two ways, no longer three. Kent again tries to speak reason to Lear, but to no avail. Lear sends Kent off into exile, proclaiming that if he his found in the country ten days from now, the punishment is death.

With Kent’s exit comes the lords of France and Burgundy, who are offered a dower-less marriage to Cordelia. Burgundy refuses outright, but France asks what has happened. Cordelia explains obliquely, and this is all France needs to take Cordelia because, as he says, “She is herself a dowry” (I.i.240). Burgundy is unimpressed, and he leaves with Lear and the entourage, leaving only France and the sisters onstage.

Cordelia, in saying goodbye to her sisters, pleads for them to “love well [their] father” (I.i.271), all the while fearing “what plighted cunning hides” (I.i.280). Both sisters bristle at her words, and when she and France leave, Goneril and Regan discuss “how full of changes [Lear’s] age is” (I.i.288), and how “he hath even but slenderly known himself” (I.i.292). They fear his “rash[ness]” (I.i.295) that they’ve seen both before and now with “Kent’s banishment” (I.i.300). While Regan feels they need to “think” (I.i.305) on the situation, the older sister Goneril says they “must do something” (I.i.306).

And if this was my first rodeo, er, reading of the play, I might think that these two were just being rational (in much the same way as Claudius doesn’t seem guilty in the first scenes of Hamlet). But it isn’t my first reading of the play, and now all of their statements carry with them ominous overtones. And with those overtones hanging over our heads, the first scene of the play ends.

Act One, Scene Two begins with the play’s first soliloquy–from the mouth of the handsome bastard we met at the beginning, Edmund. He speaks an invocation, a quasi-prayer; not to God, though, but to Nature, to which he pledges his “service” (I.ii.2). You might have had an internal debate or three about the concept of Nature vs. Nurture, but not Edmund. He sees society and external forces as “the plague of custom” (I.ii.3), and rails against said society for its concept of bastardy. And before the scene is less than twenty lines old, we have his clearly stated motivation: “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (I.ii.16).

And almost as quickly, we see his methodology. When his father Gloucester enters, Edmund hastily puts away a paper. Gloucester takes the bait, asking what the paper is; Edmund says, “It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I’ve perused, I find it not fit for your o’er-looking” (I.ii.37-40). Gloucester demands the letter, then reads it, finding a veiled request for a conspiracy against the life of the old man. As quickly as Iago turned Othello against Desdemona in our last play, Edmund turns Gloucester against Edgar. Edmund promises his father that he will learn more from his brother and report back to him.

Gloucester leaves bemoaning “these late eclipses in the sun and moon” (I.ii.101), Edmund soliloquizes on the “excellent foppery” (I.ii.115) of such astrological beliefs, and as if on “cue” (I.ii.131), Edgar enters. Edmund questions Edgar if he has offended their father lately, citing Gloucester’s “displeasure” (I.ii.149). Edgar is sure (ironically) that “some villain hath done (him) wrong” (I.iii.154), and Edmund–playing the good brother–promises to bring the two of them together. But just in case, he advises his half-brother to “go armed” (I.ii.157).

Two scenes into King Lear, we have two father figures, each mistaking good children for bad.