King Lear Overview and Act by Act analysis

King Lear is the bleakest of the four main tragedies but it is also, in many ways, non-realistic: the characters are less rounded (apart from Edmund) and it is geographically and historically vague.  There are a large number of generalised utterances – some from the mouth of the Fool – and we soon become aware that the play has a universal application in many of its themes. This sense is reinforced by the presence of a sub-plot which runs almost parallel to the main plot and echoes it. The primary themes concern: blindness and sight, metaphorical and literal; Nature and bonds; correspondence between man and the universe, microcosm and macrocosm; kindness in its varied meanings; age and youth in family relationships; reduction of man to beast; good and evil; self-knowledge; plain and elaborate speaking; mental and physical suffering; Fortune’s Wheel; madness; justice; the Gods. The Acts progress towards the denouement in this manner: Act I shows despotism, ceremony and the first rebuff; Act II is Lear’s total exclusion and stripping of dignity; Act III has extremes of suffering in both plots; Act IV seems to lead towards possible reconciliation and peace with a note of redemption; Act V reverses this leaving exhaustion and death.

Act I
Scene one.  A balanced understanding of this scene is vital in a production of the play and in a study of the text.  It contains most of the potential conflicts coiled like a spring but is frequently misrepresented. In it many of the characters are introduced and both plots set in motion.

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There is a prose opening which clearly reveals in the very first line that the coming division of the kingdom is a charade: Lear had previously favoured Albany, Goneril’s husband, but he has portioned the gift so that Albany’s share is exactly the same as Cornwall’s, husband of Regan. It therefore follows logically that he must be expecting Cordelia to make the most loving speech and receive the largest share. This is why his wrath is so great when she does not perform. as this hidden plan is exploded. Edmund is presented immediately as Gloucester’s younger, bastard son and therefore lower down the line of inheritance by two factors. He is clearly handsome [“proper”] but is spoken about crudely: “there was good sport at his making” and as if he were not there, with a ribald pun on “conceive.” He responds politely but the actor may convey his displeasure at the fact he has been out of the country for nine years and will be sent away again. We realise that he knows little of what has happened but must act hastily if he has plans.

The entry of King Lear and his entourage is ceremonious, calm and authoritative: he has set the note of pomp and ritual which turns into a trap when matters do not go according to his scheme.  He wants drama, protestations of love and a witnessed decision on land and power so that there will be no disputes later. It is as though he needs an early obituary and the phrase “unburthen’d crawl towrd death” is slow and lingering to match the sense as though an animal were wounded, language which has no place in a formal occasion.  Yet, in his arrogance,  he is breaking the Chain of Being by abdicating and offending against sense by thinking he can reserve any power whilst others take on “all cares and business” as well as land. Those who are listening carefully will recall the word “darker” in his second line and realise that the secret must be the larger portion for Cordelia. Another slip of language occurs when he makes it clear that the winner of the contest will be the one who says she loves him most, not the one who demonstrates it by actions. The lines: “that we are largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge” in their very wording make it impossible for the plain-speaking Cordelia to respond, as she could say nothing with the express purpose of drawing wealth.

Goneril makes the speech that Lear awaits, full of rhetorical language and hyperbole and covers her tracks by adding that she loves him beyond what she has managed to express. Cordelia, in an aside, reveals that this must be hypocrisy and that she must remain silent in her genuine love for her father. Yet there is a sense that the ceremony does demand a certain insincere speech-making, much as a funeral does, and her honesty at this stage can seem stubborn. The landscape of the kingdom is rarely detailed in the play but here it is rich and fertile unlike the wild heath later, again a factor in our sense that the drama is non-realistic.  Regan’s language is more materialistic, using the word “prize” straightaway and yet she must go one better, a characteristic she demonstrates throughout the play. She claims to have no pleasure in anything other than her father’s love; by the professed rules of the contest, she should now receive more land as she has said she loves him more than Goneril but the sham is revealed as she is handed an exactly equal portion, as Gloucester knew would be the case.

The rhythm of Lear’s discourse softens and relaxes as he comes to the part of the ceremony he longs for, the granting of the largest parcel of territory to his favourite, Cordelia: “Now our joy/Although our last and least .” She is young, small in stature and is to be married to either France or Burgundy. It is as though Lear knows the sincerity of her love but wants to hear it in an oration, yet he phrases the request in a fatefully impossible manner:
what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters. Speak.

The precise terms and grammar are crucial: “to draw” means strictly “in order to draw” and Cordelia can say nothing in order to obtain benefit. The vehicle for truth in the play is asked to do what truth cannot do and there is an ironic screw: the demand is impossible for the one person who truly loves him and could assure him of this but the question is phrased in such a way that she cannot answer. Her youth, knowledge of her sisters’ true characters and inexperience cause her to reply “Nothing”, a blunt refusal which echoes throughout the drama as the word becomes a leitmotif, showing how terrible events can start from nothing if bonds are broken. With lack of understanding Lear repeats his demand in equally impossible terms: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again”, once more underlining the fact that any speech will have a motive, one which is alien to Cordelia. Lear is angered by the disruption of his plans and hampered by a lack of understanding of his daughters.

Cordelia’s language is ponderous and the word “heave” suggests the weight of her love and her difficulty is bringing it to her lips. However, the statement is full of significance when she says “according to my bond; no more or less”.  The unfortunate bluntness disguises the importance of the claim as the bond is triple: daughter to father; subject to king and young person to old. She is expressing a profound love and duty if only Lear could hear it. He does not and repeats his demand in the same format with the word “Lest” which contains a threat. Now Cordelia speaks at greater length, spelling out the triple bond: “Obey” refers to him as King; “love” indicates his role as father and “honour” denotes the attitude of youth to age. She does say what is needed but without ornate diction and is too private and restrained for the public occasion Lear desires. She also goes on to argue, rationally but inappropriately, that her sisters cannot love him as they claim they do since they have husbands. She states honestly that she will not give all her love to her father when she is a wife but she also shows her immature perception of the nature of love: it is not a finite quantity to be divided in half on marriage. In this she resembles her father in his mathematical and material view of an infinite emotion as she is like him also in stubbornness. Lear gives her another chance but fails to appreciate the profundity of what she has said because she has refused to be flowery in language. There follows a dual view of her behaviour, emphasised by repetition:
So young and so untender?
So young, my Lord, and true.

Cordelia’s initial answer “Nothing” is to the precise paraphrased question: “What can you say in order to bring advantage to yourself?” and yet Lear fails to realise this and, at this reiterated refusal, bursts into choleric rage against his favourite: he disowns here, swearing by the goddess of the lower world and patroness of magic and witchcraft, Hecate. His language is violent and draws analogies from the most unnatural behaviour of cannibalism of one’s offspring: he is now breaking the bonds of Nature which hold mankind together in a system of order and, once those ties are severed, there can be no brake on the chaos to ensue. His mood has changed totally and we see him as proud, fickle and autocratic. When his faithful ally, Kent, intervenes, realising the enormity of what Lear has said, the King reveals that his anger seems to be external to him and stems from extreme disappointment with his earlier favourite daughter: the rhythm slows and the diction is simple, almost monosyllabic:
I lov’d her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.

He had staked his all that his youngest daughter would care for him as a mother and be kind, a word with profound meanings of being naturally loving as kin to him. Clearly the court is transfixed and silent as no-one obeys his order to bring in those waiting outside. The decision he now makes to divide Cordelia’s larger portion between the other two is sudden and uses the imagery of eating family again in the word “digest”. He does notice the element of pride in Cordelia’s plain speaking and the audience wonders if a little adulatory language, which would not have been hypocritical in her case, would have saved the ceremony from distintegration and if she was more angered by her sisters than determined to be honest. Lear’s folly is blind when he gives away “power,/ Pre-eminence, and all the large effects/That troop with majesty”. To the acute listener, nothing real is left and his decision to spend a month with each remaining daughter accompanied by one hundred knights is fateful and accompanied by use of the royal plural “Ourself”, which he has just abandoned, in effect. When he claims to retain “The name and all th’addition to a king” whilst handing over “the sway/ Revenue, execution of the rest” the division is impossible: the title he hopes to keep is hollow power indeed.

Kent now draws attention to the triple bond which attaches him to Lear: a King, surrogate father and a master/patron but Lear interrupts him with another image, of archery, suggesting that his wrath is beyond his power to control. Kent bravely and bluntly tells Lear the truth, refusing to flatter and stressing his own duty to speak: he uses the word “plainness” which recalls Cordelia and by this time flowery language is associated with evil and plain language with good intentions, even if these lead to tragedy. He calls Lear “old” and “mad” and accuses the two elder daughters of “flattery” which has led him to “folly.” The key words of the drama are accentuated here and common sense is set against them when Kent advises Lear: “Reserve thy state” and be aware that Cordelia “does not love thee least” just because her language is not hollow or insincere. The characters in this play are given few differentiating characteristics and Cordelia is marked by her low-pitched voice which here also means that her speech is not flighty. Lear’s anger rises to threatened violence but Kent is also stubborn, picking up the image of sight and swearing back by Apollo: the Gods are important in the play and are frequently pagan although there are some Christian references. Lear accuses him also of pride whilst showing his own arrogant refusal to go back on his word, which he claims he has never done, banishing him in clear and foolishly decisive fashion on pain of death. He picks up Kent’s own word “revoke”, showing how much he has been stung, but Kent turns to Cordelia with gentle affection and appreciation of her truthfulness and to Goneril and Regan with suspicion and foreboding, leaving on a final rhyme. He knows the daughters even if Lear does not.

When Gloucester enters with France and Burgundy, we realise that he has missed this dramatic collapse of Lear’s plan and is unaware of what has happened. Cordelia must now be married off and new bonds forged for her. Lear turns first to Burgundy and offers Cordelia in materialistic and negative terms. Her small stature is mentioned, almost as an emblem of how little is available, and he is fair in setting forth the terms, including in it the key-word “nothing.” Burgundy’s discomfiture would be comic in other circumstances: “I know no answer” and Lear stresses the unnatural feelings he has now towards his daughter: hated, a stranger and with no dowry except his curse. When he addresses France, his rhythms and language are less formal and more persuasive: clearly France is a favourite also and he does not want to “match [him] where I hate”. He is wholly wrong to disconnect Cordelia from Nature as a system of bonds, since she made her plea on exactly those grounds of natural behaviour and affections. France, like Kent, shows reason and sense: although he missed the catastrophic ceremony, he realises that there must be an error, that the youngest and most loved daughter could not have committed in a short time such a “monstrous” [unnatural] sin as to undo “So many folds of favour”. His speech shows deep awareness of the bonds of Nature and the horror of the opposite, repeating cognates of “monstrous”. Clearly Cordelia creates a powerful impression of virtue in others and he will loyally stick firm to his rational opinion of her.

This unleashes Cordelia’s tongue and the sudience wishes she could have spoken with such emotion earlier as she now does to defend her character. She claims to be a woman of action not words but incapable of dire sins: she is still sure of the justification of her own refusal to speak and cannot see that it was only a ceremony. Her language is firm, fluent and forceful as she professes to be “richer” in not having a “still-soliciting eye” and remains glad that she does not have a smooth tongue: this underlines the fact that she could not cadge wealth but was angered by her sisters – she is honest but stubborn. Lear is petulant and unnatural is wishing she has not been born and France views her action with proportion and scorn for Lear: “Is it but this? A tardiness in nature …” Fairly, he offers her again to Burgundy, defining love as an emotion removed from financial considerations, taunting his rival’s materialistic attitude: “She is herself a dowry”. Burgundy now reveals that Cordelia’s larger share was part of the bargain and that Lear has broken his vow, an act he said he would never commit. By irony, Lear uses the very word that angered him: “Nothing: I have sworn; I am firm.” He is obstinate, contradictory and proud, once again refusing any chance to repair broken bonds.

France’s speech of acceptance contains oxymorons and paradoxes which emphasise the disparities in the situation: rich/poor; choice/forsaken; lov’d/despised, calling on the gods and stating that he loves Cordelia more now she is the victim of their “cold’st neglect” and she will become Queen of France. His language is full of antitheses such as “unpriz’d precious” and he makes an enjoyable dig at Burgundy’s weakness (and diluted wines?) although his word could also refer to his many streams and rivers. Lear makes a dramatic withdrawal in simple, monosyllabic diction: “nor shall ever see/That face of hers again” whilst stressing the broken bond by which she is no longer his daughter and the triple bond which he is negating by another quasi-banishment: “grace [as a king], our love [as a son-in-law], our benison” [as a young man would receive from an old one]. If anyone displeases Lear, he or she can no longer be a part of his world. France’s behaviour is correct and ordered by decorum when he tells Cordelia to bid farewell which she does through her tears and sarcasm to the “jewels”; again monosyllables stand out: “I know you what you are.” She repeats Kent’s sentiments on leaving and does not wish her father harm. Regan is brief and cold: “Prescribe us not our duty” but Goneril is a little more verbose, though callous.

When the others have left, the scene turns to prose which frames the ceremony as the play opened in that more mundane register. It also signals an informality in which Goneril takes the lead, stressing her father’s faults and showing no sympathy for age. Although she is rationalising for the cruelty to come, there is truth in her observation that Lear has shown changeable, irrational and ill-judged behaviour in casting off Cordelia. Regan emphasises the lack of self-knowledge he has always shown: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” which becomes a vital theme in the play.  Goneril’s language is like a chilling text-book of geriatrics: “the imperfections of long-engraffed condition [habitual flaws of character], but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.” Clearly he has always been apt to change his opinions and moods on a whim. They notice the oddity of Kent’s banishment and are agreed for the moment: “let us hit together” although Regan is more cautious; “We shall further think of it” and Goneril more rash and impatient: “We must do something, and i’th’heat.” Here their plain-speaking is not a virtue since it cloaks evil intent and expresses hostility and suspicion. The wicked characters tend to recognise good but scorn it and turn it to their own ends as they are sharp to see the weaknesses of others.