'King Lear' Act 1: Analysis of the Opening Scene

In Depth Analysis of 'King Lear', Act 1, Scene 1

The Madness of King Lear
The Madness of King Lear. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

We take a close look at the opening scene to Act 1. This analysis of Act 1, Scene 1 is designed as a study guide to help you understand, follow and appreciate Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Analysis: Opening Scene to King Lear, Act 1

The Earl of Kent, Duke of Gloucester and his illegitimate son Edmund enter the King’s Court. The men discuss the division of the King’s estate; they consider which of Lear’s son in laws will be favoured; The Duke of Albany or Cornwall.

Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son Edmund; we also learn he has a second son (Edgar) who is legitimate but loved equally by Gloucester.

King Lear enters with the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and attendants. He asks Gloucester to get the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy who have both expressed an interest in marrying Lear’s favourite daughter Cordelia.

Lear then sets out his plan in a long speech:

KING LEAR

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answer'd. Tell me, my daughters,--
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first.

A Divided Kingdom

Lear then explains that he will divide his kingdom into three; he will divest the largest part of his kingdom on the daughter who professes her love most fervently.

Lear believes his favourite daughter Cordelia will be most eloquent in professing her love for him and will therefore inherit the largest part of his kingdom.

Goneril says that she loves her father more than ‘eyesight, space and liberty’, Regan says she loves him more than Goneril and ‘I am alone felicitate In your dear Highness’ love’.

Cordelia refuses to take part in the ‘love test’ saying ‘nothing’, she believes her sisters are just saying what they need to say in order to get what they want and she refuses to take part in this; ‘I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue’.

Cordelia's Refusal

Lear’s pride has been knocked as his favourite daughter refuses to take part in his test. He becomes angry with Cordelia and denies her her dowry.

Kent tries to make Lear see sense and defends Cordelia’s actions as a true manifestation of her love. Lear angrily banishes Kent. France and Burgundy enter, Lear offers his daughter to Burgundy but explains that her worth has diminished and there is no longer a dowry.

Burgundy refuses to marry Cordelia without a dowry but France wants to marry her regardless proving his true love for her and establishing her as a noble character by accepting her for her virtues alone. ‘Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; Most choice forsaken; and most loved, despised: Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.

Lear banishes his daughter to France.

Goneril and Regan become nervous in witnessing their father’s treatment of his ‘favourite’ daughter. They think his age is making him unpredictable and that they may face his wrath if they do not do something about it. They resolve to consider their options.