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

An In-Depth Look at 'King Lear' Act One, Scene One

The Madness of King Lear
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We take a close look at the opening on Shakespeare's "King Lear." This summary of Act One, Scene One is designed to be a study guide to help you understand, follow, and appreciate Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Setting the Scene

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 sons-in-law will be favored: The Duke of Albany or the Duke of Cornwall. Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund. We also learn that he has a second son, Edgar, who is legitimate but who he loves equally.

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 both have expressed an interest in marrying Lear’s favorite daughter, Cordelia.

Lear then sets out his plan in a long speech:

"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
Unburdened 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 two great 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 answered. 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."

Dividing the Kingdom

Lear explains that he will divide his kingdom into three, and he will divest the largest part of his kingdom on the daughter who professes her love most fervently. Lear believes his favorite daughter Cordelia will be most eloquent in professing her love for him and, therefore, will 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 that she is "alone felicitate in your dear Highness’ love."

Cordelia, however, refuses to take part in the love test, saying "Nothing." She believes her sisters are simply saying what they need to say in order to get what they want. Instead of following suit, she states: "I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue."

The Ramifications of Cordelia's Refusal

Lear’s pride has been knocked as his favorite daughter refuses to participate in his test. He becomes angry with Cordelia and denies her dowry. Kent tries to make Lear see sense and defends Cordelia’s actions as a true manifestation of her love, but Lear angrily banishes Kent in response.

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 anyway, proving his true love for her and establishing her as a noble character by appreciating her for her virtues alone. He says:

"Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised,
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon."

Lear then banishes his daughter to France.

Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan become nervous in witnessing their father’s treatment of his "favorite" 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.