The Fool’s semi-symbiotic attachment to Cordelia is not evident on his entry although he is anxious and distressed. His role is variously interpreted by actors, some playing him in traditional garb (to which there are many references) and others in white or more normal clothing. He is child-like and semi-innocent, although clear-sighted, expressing his perecptions and truths in riddles, rhymes and jingles which add an extra dimension to the speech patterns in the play. His presence is enigmatic and mesmerising and the fact that his utterances are frequently general adds to the universal quality of the situations. He uses sarcasm and scorn to tell Kent that he is the fool for following someone “out of favour”: “and [if] thou canst not smile as the wind sits [do what is required by those in power]” his speeches represent the voice of practical worldly wisdom advising keeping close to the great.
We notice that he cannot follow his own advice even though he repeats Kent’s idea from scene i (we recall that he was not present then and so he is thinking for himself), that Lear did Cordelia a good by banishing her from this turbulent society. The Fool is another plain speaker and Lear half wants and half fears his comments: he reminds his master (Nuncle was the customary appellation of a Fool to his superior) of his folly in giving away his living. With sharp wit, he recommends two coxcombs to Lear as he is doubly foolish. Although he did not hear the words in the first scene that truth and honesty are banished, he repeats the idea in his memorable image of the bitch stinking by the fire when the good are excluded. His prose is bare and his poetry is unlike any other verse. In his rhyme “Have more than thou showest ..” his view is that of the materialistic self-seeker but he cannot live by his precepts. The common sense advice is to hold back something to gain more but he risks his all to remain with Lear, even through the threat of whipping.
The crucial word “nothing” is reiterated in the next lines of dialogue, reminding us of the first scene and how far matters have deteriorated since. The rhyme about the sweet and bitter fool stresses the idea that people can change places as they do throughout: fathers become like babies, daughters become cruel mothers and kings become poor animals. The Fool points out that Lear was born a fool and Kent notes that his statement is not altogether foolish. All the good and loyal characters agree but the evil will soon become disunited, since their selfish ends cannot lead to union for long. Generalised social satire intrudes when the Fool punningly claims he cannot have a monopoly of folly as lords and ladies will be foolish also. He keeps pressing home Lear’s fateful errors, playing on the idea of a half egg and a regal crown and knowing that he is not speaking like a fool when he says that giving away a kingship is like carrying one’s donkey on one’s back, not using one’s advantages. He uses domestic examples and fables to back his words. Perhaps he did not always use songs as much as Lear notices the excess of them: a king playing bo-peep suggests self-inflicted mental blindness and is a mention of a folk-song/nursery rhyme in a context of fatalism. It is this type of combination, the manner of comedy within tragic matter which makes him almost indefinable. Only a Fool, he is closer to Lear than most and he stresses the impossibility of his position: whipped for truth-telling or lying or keeping silent. Although Goneril should be “kin”, she is also a “paring” when Lear has stripped himself of his central power.
One of Goneril’s few individualised characteristics is her temper, the emblem of which is a frown. The Fool compares Lear to a zero which has no value without a meaningful figure before it, which he has no longer. The register of the scene changes as Goneril speaks blank verse in a formalised and possibly practised complaint about the behaviour of Lear’s retinue. She is in an elevated state of wrath and her language is convoluted, probably deliberately, so that her insinuated threats are not immediately direct. It is again high-flown speech but for evil purposes. Her tone is clear even if the words need to be paraphrased to see their full meaning: she says that, if he is encouraging or failing to rebuke promptly rowdy conduct in the knights, she will punish him in order to bring about “a wholesome weal” [a sound state] and that those chastisements might be so brutal that they would be shameful in other circumstances but would now be considered necessary. There is more imagery of unnatural cannibalism amongst a family in the Fool’s next riddle about the hedge-sparrow and then a sense of sudden darkness descending. Lear still uses the royal plural to ask: “Are you our daughter?”: different interpretations are possible. He might mean that her behaviour cannot be that of a kinswoman or it might be that he is starting to lose a sense of reality since he goes on to question his own identity. If daughters do not behave like daughters, who or what is he? The simple language in monosyllables: “Who is it that can tell me what I am?” stresses that his mind is disturbed by his ill-treatment by a family member. Fathers can become the children of their offspring and he pretends not to recognise Goneril.
She continues in blank verse and becomes more direct: whilst saying the opposite of her earlier analysis to Regan, she now states that his conduct is new and arrives at her main point. The knights are a disgrace to her palace. It is important that we do not know if her claims are true as the evil lies in her desire to rob her father of his remaining emblem of dignity and is stressed when she threatens to diminish his retinue for him if he will not. She reminds him constantly of his age in scornful terms and it is that lack of respect from her youth which triggers a violent explosion of rage and another hasty decision. Disowning her also as a “bastard” he vows he will leave for Regan’s court: if he believes himself abused he will turn to someone else and the audience can see already that there will soon be no-one left to offer succour.
Lear has now come to realise, in part and after the event, his errors: “Woe, that too late repents” and turns to Albany who has just entered; he always preferred this son-in-law. He still does not realise that he cannot command gratitude, though its opposite pains him deeply and causes him once more to use imagery of monsters since his daughter has behaved unnaturally.
His view of the knights is that they are perfectly trained and well-behaved but we should not decide who is right as the point is that they are symbolic. Now he realises how small was Cordelia’s flaw and feels that he was “wrench’d”, losing his love for her temporarily. He visualises his anger (and folly) as coming from outside and attacking his “frame of nature”, his personal system of values, bonds and affections which has a place in the moral and ordered universe. Although this drama is partly about families, we never see them in practice: there is no sense of a Lear family life before the events of the play, merely somewhat stylised figures in set relationships which adds to the generalisability of the theme.
It is not entirely true that Albany knows nothing of the happenings, but he is weak rather than proactively evil and Lear accepts this. His curse on Goneril is truly terrible: he appeals to Nature, a concept here akin to Mother Nature, asking Her in horrific detail to make Goneril sterile or make her bear a “Disnatur’d torment”, a child like herself, who will have no natural love, will break bonds and cause deep grief, described in grotesque physical terms. At the repetition of the idea that they should thank him, we realise again that his gift of the kingdom had ties and requirements, one of which was permanent gratitude. Albany represents the common man in his bewildered reaction to the scale of the turmoil.
Now we realise the time-scale: a mere fortnight has elapsed since the first scene and Goneril has just halved Lear’s retinue of knights. The neat arithmetic – which is continued later – reinforces the fact that they are unrealistic in a non-realistic drama: there is no attempt to show Lear hearing of their diminution and we have to assume, if indeed we ask at all, that he heard whilst off stage. In this play is it important to notice who is present and who is absent for each scene and the frequent mention of Cordelia often reminds us how much she is away. Lear weeps and tears start to become a leitmotif as some characters are able to shed them in a redemptive fashion and some are not – they also reinforce the theme of seeing, blindness and eyes in general. He has now cursed two of his offspring, this time with wounding and “untented” words too deep to be cleaned. With ironic prefigurement of horrific actions to come he threatens to pluck out his own eyes and turns in his emotions to Regan whom he hopes in vain is “kind and comfortable” [charitable as a kinswoman and ready to comfort him].
Albany feebly intervenes but Goneril sends the Fool, whose mischief she perceives, after Lear: he goes with a familiar parting pun: “take the Fool with you” can mean “take me with you” or “take the nomenclature Fool with you.” Goneril rationalises sarcastically that Lear does not need servants and, in a common-sense world, she is right but they represent to her father the last vestiges of dignity. She frequently claims to understand others: “I know his heart” but she is not as certain that Regan will support her, sending a letter and instructing Oswald to add his own reasons for her behaviour. Her attitude to the milder Albany is cutting and destructive as she claims that he is much criticised for lack of wisdom. He protests weakly and refers to her piercing eyes: characterisation in this play is achieved through a few minimal and salient attributes. From this point he is off-stage until Act IV sc. iii and so our attitude to him is softened as he is not connected with much of the brutality.
In line one of scene five, Gloucester is the town not the man and, confusingly, is where Cornwall and Regan live. The geographical difficulites tie in with the universality of themes: similar events could hapen anywhere and to anyone. The characters are acting in haste though Lear demands that there are no additions to what he has said in his letter. The Fool knows that Regan will behave with cruelty and keeps striking the note of Lear’s error but Lear seems to be barely listening. When he says: “I did her wrong” he is arriving at his own acceptance of his ill-treatment of Cordelia as the observation does not follow from the Fool’s rebukes which concern giving away material posessions. Lear is subject to self-pity: “so kind a father” but his view is not ours and his lines run parallel to those of the Fool whose gibes concern reality (the seven stars are not eight, to which Lear gives distracted attention). As Lear feels the onset of madness, the Fool cannot penetrate his mind, particularly as he is making many of the points which are causing the imbalance.
Act One presents the tensions which are released in the next four acts. These are within actions, characters and relationships but also a conflict between two systems: a frame of Nature in which Man has pride of moral place in the inherent bonds assumed in the Chain of Being (which he must continue to earn through his behaviour) and a framelessness in which virtuous action has no meaning or significance. There are two possible reactions: the Fool’s sad resignation and Edmund’s cold attempt to manipulate the hierarchical system with energy. Yet Lear is about to escape through madness, an extreme form of foolery.
Between Acts I and II are some confusing movements around the country: Lear leaves Goneril and wants to go to stay with Regan and so sends Kent there to prepare her with a letter. Goneril also writes to Regan, dispatches Oswald with the missive and, as a result, Regan and Cornwall move out and go to Gloucester’s house. Kent does reach Regan before Oswald does and both of them are taken by Regan and Cornwall to visit Gloucester’s residence. In scene iv Lear arrives at Goucester’s, having presumably failed to find Regan and Cornwall at their home and, later, Goneril arrives to join them, as she had said she would.
Therefore the first scene in Act II is a conversation at Gloucester’s house between Edmund and Curan detailing part of this (that Cornwall and Regan will arive that evening) and reporting rumours that Albany and Cornwall are ready for war against each other. The point here is that, although the evil characters are united for a while against the perceived enemy, Lear, they will soon divide because they have other selfish ends. The good characters stay together despite all tribulations because they have the same objectives: co-operation and succour to others within the frame of Nature. Edmund is a more rounded character than most and is quite easily unsettled: his use of the word “queasy” here alerts us to this fact and also to his trait of being readily disturbed by the sight of blood. He trusts to Fortune or luck as well as skill. This small incident is the one promised to his father of overhearing a conflict of interests and it is hastily performed with the fight being somewhat rushed and unconvincing, although he shows his opportunism in using the new information about Cornwall as evidence that Edgar is in danger.
He cries out in broken shouts and at the end of it he has to cut himself, although he is squeamish and has to convince himself that “drunkards/Do more than this in sport.” He skilfully plays on Gloucester’s superstitious nature and tries to distract his father from meeting Edgar by pointing out his wound; it is as though he (almost comically) cannot resist using the injury after having plucked up the courage to perform it. He takes a huge risk in claiming that Edgar wanted to murder his father and that only Edmund’s intervention stopped him as it is so unlikely and Gloucester does know his elder son’s virtuous character. Edmund uses the language of morality, stressing bonds and natural family relationships, for his evil ends, although the tone is not yet that of full tragedy, particularly when he yet again demonstrates his cut arm. Edmund succeeds and has power over the situation: he has manipulated Gloucester’s affections which should be seated beyond the reach of another man’s reason.
It was a commonplace that reason should control emotion but Gloucester foolishly thinks he has rational proof without subjecting it to tests. We now learn that Cornwall is Gloucester’s chief patron (hendiadys is used here) which explains why, later, the old man is comparatively powerless. Gloucester will put out an order of death on his elder son, another example of unnatural breaking of bonds and a father turning with violence against a child for no true reason. Edmund’s favourite and most astute tactic is pre-empting and here he claims that Edgar had said that Edmund would not be perceived as trustworthy and that he, Edgar, could make the claims look like “suggestion, plot and damned practice” intended to secure land and position – which they are. This is cunningly clever and appears to Gloucester as another proof, the letter now having been established as fact in his mind. He also disowns a child: “I never got him.” Cornwall will have the final word on his plan yet Gloucester does not yet know why he is coming.
He calls Edmund “natural” a word which has already accreted many levels of significance: a system of the universe; the essential qualities of an object or person; the part of the world unaffected by man; and the proper behaviour of a character. We now realise how much Edmund has achieved and that he is not, perhaps, as evil and cruel as those machinating in the main plot as he is scheming to take what he believes is rightfully his. Both Regan and Edmund are opportunists, claiming that the apparently villainous Edgar kept company with the disgraced knights and it was they who planned Gloucester’s death to obtain his money. In this way she prepares for a further reduction in the number of knights. Finally Gloucester shows that he has noticed the wound that Edgar is supposed to have given Edmund, a flimsy proof of ill intent. The evil characters use moral words to attempt unity: “virtue and obedience”, “Natures of such deep trust”, as Cornwall has seen that he can use a personality like Edmund’s: “you shall be ours.” Edmund’s nature is clearly the opposite of trustworthy: the scale of moral values is inverted. The young man has been in the country for a very short period and has already used the hierarchical bonds of society to climb up its structures. Regan interrupts in convoluted and vague language, intended to bewilder Gloucester and conceal her evil purposes but, more clearly, asking for his attention and advice.
Scene two follows from another off-stage action: Kent had delivered his letters to Cornwall’s palace and had been interrupted by the arrival of Goneril’s letter in the hands of Oswald and been ordered to follow with him to Gloucester’s house. Having seen this evidence of trouble to come, he provokes an incident that will have consequences that cannot possibly be misunderstood: his public punishment and disgrace. He uses outrageously insulting prose language, with vigorous disparaging epithets, against Oswald, being willing to appear in the wrong provided it will do good in the end, adding to the theme of “seeming” in the play, but for moral purposes.
He treats Oswald like a lowly servant whom he will fight if he protests and proceeds to incite him to a physical conflict which will draw attention and lead, after a brief investigation, to the stocks. He continues with his extreme language and justifications, claiming that Oswald and others are mere bond-breaking sycophants, turning “With every gale and vary of their masters”, emphasising again the idea of the dangers of flattery, since it increases the master’s egotism. Cornwall shows some degree of patience with Kent’s offensive behaviour, particularly when his only reason for disliking Oswald is: “His countenance likes me not” [does not please me]. Acutely, Cornwall observes that Kent’s avowed plainness is exaggerated because someone has praised him for it previously and accurately notes that such blunt people can be as crafty as the fancy speakers. Kent now switches to flowery speech to be even more provocative and pretends to be pleasing Cornwall: different modes of utterance are a theme during the drama.
Oswald gives a reasonably accurate summary, apart from omitting his own rudeness to Lear, and Cornwall finally decides to punish Kent, who points out that this is also an insult to Lear as it is “too bold malice/Against the grace and person of [his] master.” We note that Regan, characteristically, pushes things one step further, insisting that Kent stay in the stocks all night. Cornwall also uses Kent’s actions as evidence that Lear’s knights are unruly. Gloucester tries to intervene, foreseeing turmoil and hoping that they will leave it to Lear to correct his own servant: the theme of reduction enters as he underlines the fact that this disgrace befits only the “basest and contemned’st wretches” and that the “King must take it ill.” Regan’s cold and banal nature is shown with her instruction: “Put in his legs” – she enjoys power and physical cruelty. Gloucester briefly characterises Cornwall as obstinate, although we have seen he did show a sense of justice but the old man has little influence except the hope of persuasion, as Cornwall is his superior.
In the stocks, an outcome Kent desired as it will bring matters to a head and cannot be misconstrued because it is an unmistakeable emblem of Lear’s fallen greatness, he reads a letter from Cordelia. A note of hope enters although, as he points out: “Nothing almost sees miracles” [when we are at our lowest any small hope seems miraculous], and we note the recurrent leitmotif of “nothing.” The concept of Fortune’s wheel ends the scene: Fate is blind and people are attached to her wheel moving round from high to low and high again with little reason or sense. It is a dominant image throughout of the irrational bleakness of life without a benevolent Providence but we feel that the drama may not yet have reached its lowest point.