Act I, Scene I
Kent, Gloucester and Edmund enter. The two elder men are discussing how the King intends to separate his kingdom. Kent then goes on to ask Gloucester if Edmund is his son. Gloucester confides in Kent that Edmund is his son, explaining that he is illegitimate and he has been hidden from the world for nine years and will be hidden away again. Gloucester explains that Edmunds mother was "fair" and that "there was good sport at his making", setting the old nobleman up as something of a rogue.
King Lear, his daughters, their husbands and his court entourage enter. Lear asks for a map to illustrate how he intends to divide his kingdom. Her refers to this process somewhat ambiguously as "our darker purpose" implying from the outset that there is something amiss in it. It is revealed that Cordelia is about to choose either the King of France or the Duke of Burgandy as a husband. Lear, who is ageing, must now divide his kingdom between his daughters, therefore giving them to "younger strengths". However, we are made suspicious of how seriously he is taking the act as he asks, quite seriously, "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" He turns the contest for land into an exercise in hyperbolic flattery.
Goneril speaks first, followed by Regan: both making elaborate and over-effusive statements of love. Goneril states that she has a "love that makes breath poor and speech unable" (an assertion tinged with irony given how loquacious she is being). Regan ups the ante with more absurdly high praise leaving Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved daughter to tell us in an aside that "I am sure my loves / More richer than my tongue". She gives the only response that an honest girl can give when asked for praise "more opulent" still than that of her sisters: "Nothing". Lear retorts sternly, "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again". She refuses ("I cannot / My heart into my mouth") and is threatened by Lear. She finally admits that she loves him as much as a daughter should love her father. Lear is hugely angered by this and disowns Cordelia, swearing that she shall never have a share of the kingdom or any kind of dowry ("thy truth then be thy dower").
Despite Kents attempts to intervene on Cordelias behalf, Lear maintains that Cordelias portion of the country will be apportioned to her two sisters who will share the government equally. He will only keep one hundred men and "the name" of King and reside with his elder daughters on alternate months. It is quite apparent from this that the king is in no way ready to give up the kingdom and that this is merely a game to prove his worth in advancing age.
Again Kent interferes on behalf of good logic. His voice is heard above the raging Lear informing the king that "duty shall have dread to speak / When power to flattery bows majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom". Kent asserts further that Lear is "mad", and tells him to "see better" (morbid premonitions given the plays later themes of blindness and insanity) and that Cordelia is the most sincere of the three sisters. Lear is greatly angered and banishes Kent from his kingdom: he has ten days leave before he will be killed if he is found. It should be noted now that Lear has banished his favourite daughter and his best servant because he did not like to hear of his own foolishness.
The King of France and the Duke of Albany are brought back in and Lear explains to them that Cordelia no longer has a dowry. Burgandy immediately withdraws his offer of marriage, whereas France shows more interest, asking why her dowry has been withdrawn considering previously she was Lears favourite. On finding out he states that he loves her all the more and will take her as his queen.
Cordelia leaves, indicating to her sisters that she knows their intentions ("I know you what you are") and that they must look after her father well. Goneril states that it is not her place to talk of duty to their father. Goneril and Regan end the scene showing their awareness that their father may become bad tempered and hard to handle and that they should join forces in order to combat this.
Act I, Scene II
We are introduced to Edmund properly here. Alone, it is apparent what a resentful twisted character he is. He believes that although he is a bastard he is the better of the two bastards: more energetic and a
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