Previously, in King Lear:
Lear announces his plans to retire from rule, to split his kingdom between this three daughters. The king, unhappy with his youngest daughter Cordelia–for failing to proclaim her love for him (as the older sisters had)–disowns her, sends her off dowry-less to marriage with the French prince; Lear also exiles his trusted adviser Kent, when he attempts to reconcile the two. Lear isn’t alone in his rash decisions, though: the Earl of Gloucester is convinced by his bastard son Edmund that the legitimate son Edgar is plotting against his life.
When the short Act One, Scene Three begins, the scene has shifted to Goneril and the Duke of Albany’s castle. It seems that one of Goneril’s gentlemen had chided Lear’s Fool, and had been struck by Lear for the remark. Goneril is not happy with this and tells her steward Oswald that she has grown tired of her father’s antics and those of his knights. She says that she will refuse to “speak with him” (I.iii.8), when he returns from hunting. She also gives Oswald permission to disrespect him as well–to “put on what weary negligence [Oswald] please[s]” (I.iii.12). She realizes this may anger Lear, but she doesn’t care, saying he can go to stay with Regan if he is unhappy. In case of this, Goneril will “write straight to [her] sister to hold [her] course” (I.iii.19). It seems that Cordelia’s opening-scene fears of poor treatment of her father at the hands of her sisters were founded in reality.
In Act One, Scene Four, Kent appears disguised and in “other accents” (I.iv.1), ready to continue to serve Lear even though he’s been exiled by the old king. And when Lear enters, Kent offers his services–to “keep honest counsel … and deliver a plain message bluntly” (I.iv.32, 33). [IRONY ALERT: this is what got him exiled in the play’s opening scene.] Lear takes him on, at least for the short-term.
Oswald enters and exits, ignoring Lear. One of the king’s knights arrives to inform Lear that it is his belief (though he admits that he may “be mistaken” [I.iv.63]) that the king is “not entertained with that ceremonious affection as [he is] wont” (I.iv.57-8). It’s an interesting statement: it makes one think that the whole “tell me who loves me most” contest from the first scene was a recurring game in the Lear household. The knight is not mistaken (as we know from the previous scene); even Lear has felt it: “I have perceived a most faint neglect of late, which I have rather blamed as mine own jealous curiosity than a very pretense and purpose of unkindness” (I.iv.67-9).
It is at this point that we learn more of Lear’s Fool. He’s been missing for the last two days, and since Cordelia’s “going into France…the fool hath much pined away” (I.iv.72-3). Lear doesn’t want to hear of that daughter, instead saying he wants to talk to Goneril. One can only imagine that mention of the Fool has brought this needed discussion to mind. With perfect timing, Oswald enters. When Lear attempts to engage him in conversation, Oswald disrespects him by calling him Goneril’s father rather than king. Lear strikes him for this, and when Oswald says that he will not be treated in this way, Kent trips him.
Kent now has a job with Lear. Oswald runs off, and the Fool enters.
The Fool asks Lear if he can hire Kent as well, offering Kent his “coxcomb” (I.iv.96), or Fool’s cap, since anyone who would follow Lear “must needs wear [the] coxcomb” (I.iv.104). And despite threats of “the whip” (I.iv.109) by Lear, the Fool continues to mock his master, “Thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav’st them the rod and putt’st down thine own breeches” (I.iv.154-6).
Goneril arrives to chide her father for allowing not only the Fool but his knight-followers to be “insolent” (I.iv.185) and take part in “not-to-be-endured riots” (I.iv.186). Worse, she insults him, “As you are old and reverend, should be wise” (I.iv.220). The old king can’t believe what he’s hearing:
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ’Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
The Fool’s response: “Lear’s shadow” (I.iv.215). Sad to say, the Fool may be onto something here. If a king’s power can be seen in the size of his army, or even his retinue, Lear’s power is about to be reduced, or as Goneril demands, “A little to disquantity your train” (I.iv.229) of one hundred knights.
Lear responds rashly, calling for his horses and saying, “Yet I have left a daughter” (I.iv.235). He berates Goneril and poor Albany who enters to chaos. Lear goes as far as to curse his own daughter, invoking Nature to make her sterile, and if that doesn’t work then to “create her child of spleen” (I.iv.264). Leaving, he drops a verbal bomb that still gets used today: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is // To have a thankless child” (I.iv. 270-71).
In his absence, she sends Oswald with a letter to Regan, in which she has outlined her “particular fear” (I.iv.320), and even allows Oswald add to the letter “such reasons of [his] own // As may compact it more” (I.iv.321-2). When Albany tries to calm his wife, she is full of wrath, and criticizes his “milky gentleness and … harmful mildness” (I.iv.324, 327).
In the short first act-closing Scene Five, Lear, too, sends a letter to Regan, this one by his new man, the disguised Kent. The Fool attempts to distract Lear from his anger, but all it does is create a fear in Lear: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! // Keep me in my temper; I would not be mad” (I.v.44-5).
And with this ominous bit of foreshadowing, the first act of King Lear comes to a close.