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King Lear Commentary - Act I.

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King Lear Commentary provides a comprehensive description of every act with explanations and translations for all important quotes.

Act I. Scene I. - A Room of State in King Lear's Palace.

King Lear: "'tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburden'd crawl toward death."

King Lear gives his kingdom to daughters Regan and Goneril whom he believes truly love him. Angry that Cordelia his youngest daughter apparently does not, he banishes her, and Kent who tries in vain to make King Lear reconsider. Cordelia leaves and is taken by the King of France as his Queen...

The play begins with Kent setting the scene. We learn that King Lear is to divide and give up to his daughters his kingdom and that in doing so, he will not favor the Duke of Albany any more than the Duke of Cornwall as was expected. We learn that Gloucester, an ally of the King is embarrassed of his bastard son Edmund (Lines 12-26). Lear, The Duke of Cornwall, The Duke of Albany and Lear's three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia with Attendants arrive. Gloucester and Edmund depart to "Attend [meet, greet] the Lords of France and Burgundy," leaving Lear to outline his future plans (Line 36). Lear explains that he will shake away the problems and duties of his kingdom by giving it away to his children:

Meantime we [I, King Lear] shall express our darker purpose. Give me the map there. Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom; and 'tis [it is] our [King Lear's] fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburden'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. (Lines 38-50)

Crucially, Lear wishes to be told how much his daughters love him before he divests (gives away) his rule, kingdom and cares of state:

"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 [does] love us [King Lear] most? That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge" (Tell me my daughters since I will now divest my rule, assets and responsibilities of state, which of you shall say you love me most that my largest bounty or reward may extend or go where nature meets with merit or is deserving), (Lines 50-55).

Lear first asks his eldest daughter Goneril to answer. She replies that she loves him more than words can express: "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;" (Lines 57-63). Cordelia is silent. Lear, gratified (happy, satisfied) gives her a large territory, which he outlines to her on the map present (Lines 65-69).

Next, Lear asks Regan to pledge her love for him. She describes herself as being "made of that self metal [same character] as my sister," adding that "I profess [call / declare] / Myself an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense possesses… In your dear highness' love" (Regan explains that her sister falls short of her love for him; she claims to be an enemy of all other joys but her love for her King), (Lines 71-78).

Cordelia in an aside (speech intended only for the audience / a private speech revealing her innermost thoughts) is worried. Yet she says she is not, because her love is greater than her tongue (her love is greater than her ability to talk about it).

Cordelia in an aside says: "Then, poor Cordelia! And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love's / More richer than my tongue" (Lines 79-80).

Next Cordelia, whom Lear describes as his youngest daughter and whose hand in marriage is valued by both the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy is asked to speak.

When Lear asks Cordelia to match her sisters sweet words, she replies with the words "Nothing, my lord" (Line 89). Incredulous (amazed), Lear tells his daughter, "Nothing will come of nothing:" asking her to "speak again" (Line 92).

Cordelia explains that she cannot heave her heart into her mouth. Lear tells his daughter to "mend [change] your speech / a little, / Lest you mar your fortunes" (least you ruin your own wealth or fortune), (Line 96).

Cordelia explains that while she loves her father, she cannot love her father totally as her sisters have said since she must also love her husband.

Lear, unhappy, decides in anger to let her honesty be her dower and gives her nothing, disowning her in the process and giving her third of the kingdom to both Goneril and Regan. With one hundred knights as company and protection, Lear intends to stay at the castles of Regan and Goneril, switching hosts every month (Lines 89-140).

The Earl of Kent tries to intervene but his continued questioning of the King's wisdom earns him banishment (Lines 122-163). Gloucester returns with the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. Both have sought Cordelia's hand in marriage. Upon learning of Cordelia's fall from grace, The Duke of Burgundy decides not to marry Cordelia and leaves (Lines 208-215, 244-250).

Cordelia makes an important speech, revealing her character when she says to Lear that she lacks "that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not; since what I well intend, / I'll do't before I speak-" (that art to say what you do not mean since I will do something before I'll say it), (Line 227) a pointed attack on her two faced sisters, Regan and Goneril.

Cordelia upon learning that she is now to be dowerless and learning that the Duke of Burgundy is now no longer interested in her, says "Peace be with Burgundy! Since that respects of fortune are his love (since all he loves is fortune), / I shall not be his wife" (Line 252).

The King of France, understanding the value of true integrity takes Cordelia now dowerless to be his Queen. Cordelia accepts and reluctantly leaves her father, hoping her sisters will treat her father well (Lines 270-277). Regan replies "Prescribe not us our duties" (do not proscribe or tell us our duties / we know them), (Line 278).

Goneril and Regan now plot. Both are concerned about Lear's rash actions and agree to "further think on't" (think about it further), (Line 311).

Act I. Scene II. - A Hall in the Earl of Gloucester's Castle.

Edmund: "Edmund the base / Shall top the legitimate:-I grow, I prosper; / Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"

Edmund the loved but illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester plots to have his elder brother Edgar's reputation ruined. Edmund tricks his father Gloucester into believing that Edgar wanted to kill him...

Edmund enters with a letter. He is annoyed that he is deemed less worthy than his brother Edgar merely because he is illegitimate (Lines 1-22).

With his letter he intends to change his fortunes: "if this letter speed, / And my invention thrive, Edmund the base / Shall top the legitimate:-I grow, I prosper; / Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" (if this letter is quick and my imagination and invention thrive or grow, Edmund the base or lowly shall topple the legitimate, Edgar: I grow, I prosper; now gods, stand up for us bastards!), (Line 19-22).

Gloucester now arrives and Edmund answers to Gloucester that he is reading a letter. Intrigued, Gloucester wants to know what it is about.

After some delay, Edmund lets Gloucester read the letter (Lines 50-60). It suggests that Gloucester be killed and that the two brothers share Gloucester's fortune. Allegedly Edmund found it "thrown in at the casement of my closet" (thrown into my closet), (Line 66).

Enraged, Gloucester asks Edmund to find his traitorous brother. Edgar now arrives and Edmund suggests he leave immediately since Edmund fears his father is quite displeased with him. Edmund suggests Edgar flee. Edgar does so. Now alone, Edmund scoffs at how "My practices [manipulations] ride easy!" or are so easy to achieve with "A credulous [gullible] father, and a brother noble," (Line 201).

Act I. Scene III. - A Room in the Duke of Albany's Palace.

Goneril conspires to have her guest and her father, King Lear driven out of her house.

Goneril and her steward Oswald discuss Lear's behavior. When Goneril asks if Lear hit one of her gentlemen for chiding his fool, Oswald confirms that the story is true. Goneril claims Lear continuously wrongs her, "By day and night he wrongs me;" (Line 4). She tells Oswald to make excuses should Lear ask for her, and tells him if he offends Lear he will do well by her (Line 9).

Goneril: "If you come slack of former services, / You shall do well; the fault of it I'll answer" (Line 11). With Lear arriving, she instructs Oswald to make an excuse for her not seeing him (Lines 12-16). She tells Oswald to "let his [Lear's] knights have colder looks among you;" (give the knights cold looks), (Line 22), earlier arguing that if Lear is unhappy, he may go to her sister "Whose mind and mine, I know, in that are one, / Not to be over-rul'd" (who like me, is not easily overruled or pushed about), (Line 16).

Goneril belittles (insults) the foolishness of Lear giving away his powers, describing him as that "Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away!" (an idle old man that would still try to control that which he has given away), (Line 18).

She argues that in Lear, "Old fools are babes [babies] again, and must be us'd / With cheeks as flatteries, when they are seen abus'd" (old fools are like babies again, and must be used with cheeks as flatteries when they are abused), (Line 20).

Act I. Scene IV. - A Hall in the Same.

King Lear: "How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!"

The disguised Kent earns King Lear's respect by defending his name. Goneril offends King Lear and dismisses fifty of his knights. Lear starts to realize Cordelia was not so disrespecting. Lear decides to leave Goneril for Regan where he is sure to be treated properly...

Kent enters disguised. Upon meeting Lear he is allowed to follow the King since Kent argues that "I can keep honest counsel [give honest opinion], ride, run, mar a curious tale in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly;" (Lines 34-36). Lear asks Oswald for his daughter. The steward (Oswald) ignores Lear infuriating him. Lear sends one of his knights after Oswald to get a straight answer, the particular Knight returning without Oswald and commenting that Lear is not being accorded his normal respect (Lines 56-85). When Oswald is asked by Lear who he is, Oswald replies "My lady's father" not the King and Lear hits Oswald in rage (Line 87-104).

Kent earns the infuriated Lear's respect by tripping the disrespectful Oswald (Lines 86-104). The Fool now enters and in his first statement, criticizes Lear's foolishness with his daughters (Line 110-118).

At one point Lear angrily asks, "Dost thou call me fool, boy?" to which the Fool, always wiser than he appears, replies, "All thy [your] other titles thou [you] hast [have] given away; that thou [you] wast [were] born with" (Lines 164-165).

The Fool continues to tell truth in riddle until Goneril arrives (Lines 119-208). Goneril scolds Lear for the riotous behavior of his knights, "Men so disorder'd, so debosh'd, and bold, / That this our court, infected with their manners, / Shows like a riotous inn:" (men so disordered and bold, that this court, infected by their presence looks like a riotous inn), (Lines 265-267).

Albany arrives, defending his Lady. Calling Goneril a "Detested kite!" (Line 286), Lear realizes his folly in punishing Cordelia, saying to himself, "How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!" (how ugly and nasty was I to Cordelia), (Line 290).

Lear now makes the famous expression of the pain of thankless children when he exclaims, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child!" (Act I, Scene IV, Line 312).

Lear curses Goneril, hoping that she will become sterile or worse (Lines 298-313). Lear later learns that Goneril has dismissed fifty of his followers and decides to go to Regan whom he is sure "is kind and comfortable:" (Line 330). Goneril fears the power of Lear with one hundred knights and tells Oswald to dispatch a letter to her sister.

Act I. Scene V. - Court before the Same.

Lear instructs Kent to deliver several letters to Gloucester. The Fool teaches Lear several riddles (Lines 8-52).

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