King Lear: Act 1 Scene 1 Summary and Questions

The play begins with Gloucester and Kent, two noblemen discussing King Lear and his impending decision to divide up his kingdom. We are also introduced to Gloucester’s son, Edmund, who he explains is a ‘bastard’ who does not live in his home. He does admit that he loves him.

Lear, who is the king of Britain at that time enters and informs the others that he is going to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. He intends to retire and spend his old age visiting his children and not having to worry about ruling. He devises a ‘love test’ in order to see which daughter loves him more. He asks each of them to tell him how much they love him.

Goneril goes first and tells Lear that she loves him, ‘more than words can wield the matter.’ She continues with a form of insincere flattery that is designed to fool Lear. Regan, the second daughter behaves in a similar manner and it is clear from Cordelia’s aside that she has issues with the test.

When it is her turn to speak, Lear asks Cordelia what she can say to match her sisters and she replies, ‘nothing.’ She tells Lear that it saddens her that she ‘cannot heave my heart into my mouth.’ She is telling him that love can not be expressed in words but through actions. Lear is taken aback with her lack of tenderness and banishes Cordelia telling her that she is no longer his daughter.

Lear then divides the kingdom among his remaining two daughters, with Cordelia getting nothing. Kent, a loyal servant to Lear tries to make him see sense. Lear warns him to stop interfering and when he once again tries to make Cordelia’s case, Lear banishes him from the kingdom also.

The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are waiting outside for Lear to pick a suitor for Cordelia. Lear informs them that Cordelia has lost all her titles and land, which causes Burgundy to remove his offer of marriage. France, impressed by Cordelia’s honesty and independence, decided that he still wants to marry her and make her his queen.

The scene ends with the scheming Goneril and Regan plotting the downfall of their father, in a bid to remove any remaining power he may have.

Questions:

  1. Do you think the ‘love-test’ is an appropriate way to gauge love? What does this test tell us about Lear?
  2. What are your first impressions of Lear from scene 1? Explain with reference to the text.
  3. What is the difference between Edgar and Edmund? Do you think that this is fair?
  4. What three things does Goneril say are less valuable to her than her father’s love?
  5. Cordelia claims that there is a contradiction in her sisters’ claims about how much they love their father, what is it?
  6. What type of people are Goneril and Regan from what you have witnessed in scene 1?
  7. Shakespeare has created a major conflict in the opening scene, how does this capture the attention of the audience? Do you think the audience would want to keep watching?

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