'King Lear': Act 1, Scene 2-5 Analysis

In Depth Analysis of 'King Lear', Act 1 (Scenes 2-5)

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

We look closely at Act 1, Scene 2-5, and serve up the perfect study companion for anyone studying this classic play.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2

Enter Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. Edmund speaks of his bitterness in relation to being a ‘bastard’. Society would have treated him differently to his brother but Edmund acknowledges that Gloucester loves him and his legitimate brother equally.

Having said that, Edmund is scheming to take Edgar’s land in an attempt to demonstrate to the world that he too can prosper; that an illegitimate can be as powerful and successful as a legitimate person.

Gloucester enters and is shocked and confused by Lear’s behaviour. Edmund has a letter which he quickly hides; Gloucester asks to see the letter. Edmund ‘reluctantly’ gives the letter to his father. Edmund falsely claims that the letter is written by his brother Edgar. Gloucester reads that ‘Edgar’ wants to inherit Gloucester’s fortune as soon as possible and split it between him and his brother:

‘This policy of reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times, keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them.’

The letter is suggesting that Edgar is planning to kill off his father in order to inherit his fortune. Gloucester asks Edmund to find Edgar in order to find out what his intentions are.

Edmund persuades Edgar that he has offended his father and advises him to go into hiding. Edgar believes someone is trying to do him wrong. Edmund’s manipulation of his father echoes the treatment of Regan and Goneril towards their father in the previous scene. Gloucester’s willingness to believe in his son’s wrongdoing reflects Lear’s treatment of Cordelia.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 1, Scene 3

Enter Goneril and her steward, Oswald. Goneril explains that her father has continued to act erratically, she wants to put a stop to this and orders Oswald and the other servants to put on a ‘weary negligence’ when her father asks them for anything.

She wants to provoke her father and writes a letter to Regan presumably to make complaint about their father’s behaviour.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4

Enter the Earl of Kent in disguise. Posing as a servant called Caius, Kent asks King Lear for a job. Lear agrees to take him on as long as he continues to like him after dinner.

Lear has noticed that the servants are neglecting his needs and he discusses this with one of his knights. The loyal knight acknowledges that Lear is being neglected: ‘your highness is not entertained with that ceremonious affection as you were wont.’

The knight mentions Cordelia and how she is missed but Lear avoids the subject.

Oswald is disrespectful to Lear and Kent trips him up in retaliation. Lear is grateful to ‘Caius’ and agrees to take him on. The Fool then enters and mocks Lear. Lear complains to Goneril who launches her attack on her father blaming him and his knights for degenerate behaviour.

Albany enters unaware as to what is going on, he is shocked by Lear’s passion and distress. Lear hopes that Goneril is sterile or gives birth to a child that betrays her. Lear threatens to take back the power he has given his daughter. He refuses to cry and insists that Regan will take him in and help him.

Analysis: King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5

Lear sends a letter to Regan to announce his arrival. The fool continues to goad Lear. Lear does not include the previous scenes events in his letter to his daughter. Lear acknowledges his poor treatment of Cordelia and feels that Goneril’s ingratitude is driving him mad; he wonders whether he should reclaim the throne by violent means.