The play King Lear has been described as Shakespeare’s most ambitious and brilliant work, and has been met with both strong condemnation and awe-inspired praise since it’s composition in 1606. The opening scene is heavily dramatic and eventful, detailing the splitting of Lear’s kingdom, his banishment of daughter Cordelia and servant Kent, and the worries of the character for Lear’s mental health. It is written and structured expertly, and presents the play’s most important themes, issues and relationships in the language that will dominate the play.
The play begins with a conversation between the Earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester and his illegitimate son Edmund. They discuss the imminent division of the kingdom and reveal that the king is to make a decision between two dukes: Kent suggests that ‘the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall’. The exposition here is minimal, as the first event of consequence in the play is Lear’s division of the kingdom, but this does allow us to see that Lear has changed. Gloucester admits that ‘It did always seem so to us… but in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes [Lear] values most’.
The purpose of this conversation is really to introduce the sub-plot. Gloucester introduces his son and refers to him as a ‘knave’ and ‘whoreson’, and jests about his conception; ‘there was good sport at his making’. This shows us the prejudice with which Edmund must live due to his illegitimacy, and provides the impetus for Edmund’s later scheme against his brother. Explaining key details of the plot and introducing the sub-plot in the first scene is effective, because it establishes immediately that the play is not entirely focused on Lear and provides a clear motivation for Edmund’s later actions.
The plot is more fully explained in Lear’s address to the court, where he summarises the significance of France and Burgundy – ‘long in court have made their amorous sojourn’ – and explains that his intent is to confer his responsibilities onto ‘younger strengths’ in a move to ‘unburdened crawl towards death’. The exposition is clear and makes sense in the context of the play, with Lear summarising the events that have transpired to draw attention to the gravity of the events that are about to happen, describing his will as a ‘fast intent’ and ‘darker purpose’. It has none of the intrusion of a narrator giving the plot explanation (as in Henry V and other Shakespearian plays).
In this opening scene the characters are established strongly.
Lear only makes his entrance on line 29. having been spoken of previously by members of the court. This allows his entrance to be dramatic in its interruption of a conversation -Gloucester stops abruptly whilst talking to Kent and declares that ‘the king is coming’ – and allows the audience to observe how the nobility react to his arrival. He is represented as a very powerful figure. He speaks commandingly and decisively, instructing Gloucester to ‘attend the lords of France and Burgundy’ and ordering his subject to ‘give me the map’. Gloucester obeys and refers to Lear as ‘my lord’. Respect is instant and the King is addressed with terms of reverence such as ‘lord’, ‘sir’ and ‘Royal Lear’ throughout the scene.
This is only excepted by Kent’s challenges after Cordelia’s expulsion, where he refers to Lear as ‘mad’ and ‘old man’. This communicates to the audience that Lear has made a grave error in divesting his power, and when combined with Kent’s reminders of his close and loyal relationship with Lear – ‘My life I never held but as a pawn, to wage against thine enemies’ – suggests that Lear’s behaviour is unusual, if such a trusted servant is willing to admonish him openly. The reader cannot judge Lear’s behaviour because it is the opening scene and we have no point of comparison, but we know that Kent considers himself the ‘true blank of [Lear’s] eye’ and if he is concerned then the audience must also call Lear’s behaviour into doubt.
The characters of the sisters, Cordelia, Regan and Gonerill are also well established during the opening scene. The first opportunity which the two older sisters are given to speak is in response to Lear’s question of ‘which of you shall we say doth love us most’; their replies are of unrequited love for their father; Gonerill claims that it is ‘A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable’, and Regan states that her love is so profound that she makes herself ‘an enemy to all other joys’.
This is contrasted sharply with Cordelia’s first line, a simple aside in which she reflects ‘what shall Cordelia speak? love, and be silent’. This outlines the differences in their personalities; Cordelia is blunt and honest – ‘I love your majesty according to my bond, no more, no less’- whilst the sisters are able to tailor their speech to suit their agendas, whilst concealing their real thoughts and feelings, masters of what Cordelia terms a ‘glib and oily art’.
Regan and Gonerill are not however portrayed as completely evil, as Shakespeare gives some example of Lear’s favouritism of Cordelia – he reserves her a share of the kingdom ‘more opulent than [her] sisters’ – and provides some motive for the animosity which the sisters feel towards the king. This makes them more successful characters as they are believable, and the audience can understand on some level the reason for their feelings.
Shakespeare has toned down their wickedness in this scene from the original source play, so we do not know whether they have rehearsed their replies to the love test.
The play establishes the world in which its events take place with success. The devaluation of the monarchy is clear when Lear offers a coronet for his sons-in-law to divide between them; the coronet is a weaker symbol of power than a crown.
Attention-grabbing dramatic events are essential to a good opening scene, particularly for a play, and Act 1:1 of King Lear moves at a reckless and impatient pace. The play begins with the casual mention of the division of the kingdom, a dramatic decision that would shock and intrigue an audience familiar with a feudal system of government.
The kingdom is divided in exchange for declarations of love. The test is tense, with Cordelia punctuating the speeches of her sisters with worried asides, and when Lear finally realises the extent of her response – that she loves him as a father, and as a king, but will reserve for her husband ‘half my love… half my care and duty’, he explodes with rage, divorcing her as if she were his wife rather than his daughter and stating ‘better thou hadst not been born than not t’have pleased me better’. This violent change of mind, expulsion of a daughter previously termed his ‘joy’, and subsequent banishment of long-time servant Kent cannot fail to capture the attention of the audience. The country and characters are divided in the very first scene.
Another important function of the opening scene is to introduce the themes of the play. In the very beginning refrain between Gloucester, Edmund and Kent, we see many elements that will reappear in the wider play: father-child relationships are subject to careful measurement, with Gloucester’s relationship with his two sons – ‘Who yet is no dearer in my account’ – measured in the same way as those between Lear’s relationships with his sons-in-law – ‘It appears not which of the dukes he values the most’. The words of measurement, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘weighed’ and ‘neither’ appear throughout the play and foreshadow the crisis caused by Cordelia’s use of ‘nothing’ in the rest of the scene.
Also, the theme of blindness and the difference between looking and seeing is evidenced in this first act, with Kent pleading with Lear to ‘let me still remain the true blank of thine eye’, and to ‘see better’. This prefigures the imposed blindness of Gloucester later in the play.
The opening of King Lear is highly successful in establishment of characters and in it’s depiction of dramatic events. The plot is clearly explained and the themes of the play are introduced skillfully. The opening works so well because it begins with the climatic event that will shape the entire course of the play, and sets a reckless pace that is sustained throughout the play, until Lear’s death.