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Summary Act 1


Earls of Kent and Gloucester are speculating as to whom the King will allot the greater share of the kingdom’s wealth, when Kent is impressed by Gloucester’s son, never mind that Edmund is an illegitimate son whose mother Gloucester disparages. Anon, King Lear appears with his daughters and sons-in-law. He orders Gloucester to attend to France and Burgundy and then addresses the assembly at large as to his intentions going forward: As age is catching up to him, the King will retire, transferring his authority and wealth to his daughters and sons-in-law. All that remains is the allotment of the King’s authority and wealth which will depend on the respective daughters’ testimonies of love. And thus the daughters--Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia--offer their father their testimonies of love. Satisfied with Goneril’s and Regan’s, Lear offers them each a substantial tract of land. Alas, Lear finds Cordelia’s testimony lacking and urges her to do better. Cordelia refuses to flatter, however, and the upshot is that Cordelia is disowned and her allotment of land divided up and taken possession of by Goneril and Regan. As Lear orders an attendant to go fetch France and Burgundy, the Earl of Kent objects to Lear’s decisions. The King demands Kent to be quiet but Kent persists, compelling Lear to exile Kent for life. As Kent departs Gloucester appears, bringing with him France and Burgundy. Burgundy is told that Cordelia is his to wed if he doesn’t mind wiving a dowerless bride. When Burgundy rejects the offer, France is told that the offer is so poor that the courtesy of extending France the same offer wouldn’t even be bothered with, to which France objects, claiming Cordelia as his wife and France’s Queen. Indifferent, Lear, accompanied by Burgundy, departs from the scene.

Before leaving for France, Cordelia advises her sisters to take good care of their father even if their avowed love for him is something less than heart-felt to which Goneril and Regan rebuke Cordelia for presuming to advise them. They urge Cordelia to be diligent with respect to her own affairs, and then they make it their business to make sure that the King doesn’t give back to France the lands he had confiscated from Cordelia.


Edmund has determined to change his fortunes by whatever means necessary, arguing that the world’s biases, favoring the elder child and the child of legitimate birth at the expense of the younger child and the child of illegitimate birth, do not apply to him. His plan to supplant Edgar, his older step-brother, takes shape when his step-father, Gloucester, believes that the letter incriminating Edgar of scheming against Gloucester, that Edmund feigns to hide, is in fact authentic. Having persuaded Gloucester to let him--Edmund--provide the proof that would either certify or discredit the letter’s authenticity, Edmund then engages Edgar who is told that his father is furious with him, and that it might be a good idea if Edgar were to let Edmund act as the go-between between the two until the father’s anger subsides. Edgar agrees to the plan.


Goneril instructs her steward, Oswald, to be less than dutiful to the King and to spread the word to the rest of her servants to do likewise. She is displeased at how the King and his men are discourteous to her own men, and would like to teach her father a lesson. Anticipating that the King might bolt to seek lodgings elsewhere (and possibly garner grass-root support), Goneril prepares a letter addressed to Regan, urging her to join Goneril in opposing the King with a united front.


Lear is waiting to be served dinner when Kent, disguised as Caius, offers his services to the King. Lear conducts an impromptu interview. Satisfied with the replies, he hires Caius for the duration of the dinner and promises Caius that if Caius’ worthiness proves to be no worse after dinner then Lear will keep him a while longer. Presently, spotting Oswald, Lear, addresses him only to be ignored by the slave. A Knight is sent to fetch Oswald, and another man is sent to fetch Lear’s personal Fool. The Knight returns to say that Oswald refused to do his bidding, and--moreover--that there’s a general sense of neglect with respect to the duties owed the King. Lear suspects the Knight‘s surmise to be true, and to get to the bottom of it he orders his daughter to be fetched. Presently, Lear spots Oswald again and this time he manages to detain him. Oswald is asked a question but the answer is so impertinent that, thanks to Caius, Oswald is beaten and chased away. At this point, Lear’s Fool emerges to accuse Caius of being more foolish than the Fool himself. Asked to explain, the Fool refers to Lear’s folly which has rendered Lear’s daughters omnipotent at Lear’s expense. Ergo, the Fool concludes, it is the height of folly to ally oneself with Lear in opposition to Lear’s daughters. The Fool is thus beguiling the time when Goneril appears to rebuke her father for letting and even encouraging a general sense of riot and disorder to pervade and disgrace the majesty of the palace. Moreover, she announces that her father is welcome to stay if and only if he agrees to reduce the number of men in his attendance by half. Incensed, Lear gathers his followers to seek hospitality elsewhere but not before invoking the gods to curse Goneril.


As Lear prepares to leave Albany Palace (Goneril), he dispatches Caius to Gloucestershire with a letter to be delivered to Gloucester in advance of his arrival at Gloucestershire. Caius is told that Regan must be kept ignorant of the letter and of its contents. With the Fool at his side, to beguile the time, Lear departs for Gloucestershire.  

William Shakespeare