begins with the introduction of a plot concurrent to that of Lear
- that of Edgar, Edmund
. Although the twenty-eight lines tell us little about Edmund
himself, much can be drawn from them as to Gloucester
's to his bastard
Whilst he claims that Edmund is just as dear to him as Edgar, he evidently regards Edmund as someone not to be taken too seriously. He seems more concerned that 'was his mother fair', and that 'there was good sport at his making' (1:1:18). Gloucester further devalues Edmund next to Edgar calling him a knave and a whoreson. Although these are spoken in a jocular tone, they also convey a lack of respect for his son. Edmund is clearly accustomed to his father's constant barracking, and the few words from him in this scene are filled with practised subservience, even addressing his father as 'my Lord'. Edmund's two speeches to Kent are positively servile, although his 'Sir, I shall study deserving' seethes with repressed rage at constantly being put down by all and sundry, (as encouraged by Gloucester) and sounds ominous.
Gloucester quite possibly seals his own doom in two speeches in this early part of the scene, 'I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to't' (1.1.8-9) Saying directly in front of one's son that one feels ashamed to acknowledge him, combined with the threat that 'He hath been out these nine years, and away he shall again.' (1.1.27-8) makes Edmund's later behaviour far more understandable.
Shakespeare prevents any such suspicion by forcing the audience to sympathise with this poor maltreated wretch, whilst keeping us unaware of his evil machinations, only revealed to us in scene two.
Lear's second line reveals the folly that will hound him throughout the play. 'we shall express our darker purpose' (1:1:31): he had not told his Earls everything of his plan to divide the Kingdom. With the entry of King Lear and the King of France, the assembled company speak in verse, as opposed to the previous gathering between a father, son, and a friend, and the final section of the scene, both of which are in prose.
Lear further elucidates the extent of his scheming when he says 'Know that we have dived...' (1:1:32); the use of the past tense indicates that the outcome of the competition to come is predetermined.
Lear is unconsciously deeply ironic when he says 'We have this hour a constant will to publish/Our daughter's several dowers, that future strife/May be prevented now.' unaware of just how much future strife there'll be because of this 'constant will', and how much of the strife will be his own. It is as his two daughters later remark; 'He hath ever but slenderly known himself.'
Lear's journey to self-knowledge and acceptance of his own folly is one of the principal themes of the play, but in truth Cordelia is not entirely blameless. Her pride is arguably vain and unnecessary: she was not required to destabilize and old man, but merely to indulge his whimsical vanity and to humour him. It is possible to say that Cordelia is every bit as hubristic as her octogenarian father. Personally, I have difficulty finding fault with integrity as a character trait. Thus my blame falls upon Lear for having placed Cordelia in such a position. Like the Fool in 1:4, she hates having so to hurt her father, but feels that it's absolutely necessary.
Lear's ensuing rage is explicable on several counts. Firstly, he believes he is feeling 'How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/ To have a thankless child' , a line which is, ironically enough, thrown by Lear at one of the supposedly thankful children later in the Act.
That the party for whom the most opulent share in the kingdom had been reserved should refuse to compromise her principles to gain it infuriates Lear. Cordelia's refusal to lower herself to her father's base level in line with her sisters also serves to expose the ridiculous charade for what it truly is; an exercise in the satisfaction of Lear's extraordinary vanity by rewarding 'the glib and oily art' of flattery. It's quite probable that this exposure by his youngest and most prized daughter of his moral bankruptcy is what angers Lear more than anything.
In this scene, Shakespeare uses a variety of contrasting religious imagery. Classical references litter the play as it was written in a period steeped in the legacy of the Renaissance. Lear refers to 'The mysteries of Hecate…' (1:1:104), swears 'by Jupiter' and Kent swears 'by Apollo'. Lear also talks prophetically of 'The barbarous Scythian' (1:1:110). This reference to cannibalism is telling, as the two main families will variously destroy each other over the course of the play.
In contrast to these pagan and classical references, Christian thought underpins the scene. Very broadly, Christian thought holds that one must first become 'nothing' in order to become more meaningfully 'something'. A rich man must renounce all his worldly goods in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Similarly, Cordelia, disowned and dowerless, ('Let it be so, thy truth be thy dower.' (102)) is only then taken by France;' 'Tis strange that from their cold'st neglect, / My love should kindle to inflamed respect.' (249-250) and he also says that Cordelia is 'most rich being poor'. Only after becoming nothing does Cordelia become something - a wife and a queen. Kent is also a Christian figure; 'Now by Apollo, King, / Thou swear'st thy gods in vain.' (133-5). He show his Christianity both now and later, stepping where he's nothing to gain on Cordelia, and in 1:4, where he shows his loyalty and unconditional love for Lear despite his folly and the fact that Lear has contravened all his grounds for true service as he sets them out in 1:4:12-5.
Shakespeare briefly introduces the theme of sight and blindness, one of the play's chief recurring motifs. Lear orders Kent 'Out of my sight!' but Kent tells him only to 'See better, Lear' (1:1:151-2). Earlier Lear says 'The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.' (157) Kent then refers back to this saying '… let me still remain/ The true blank of thine eye.' (152-3). This draws together the 'bow' quotation; the 'true blank' referring to a target, and 'Out of my sight!' as Kent asks to remain Lear's counsellor. Lear replies appropriately enough; 'Now by Apollo-' (153) Apollo being the god of clear sight and archery. Kent finishes this run of word-play by talking of curing foul disease, of which Apollo is also a God.
The register of Kent's speech drops sharply after line 137, saying '…Lear is mad. What would'st thou do, old man?' (140). This, to the King, in public, is disrespect of a remarkable order. So soon after Kent has said 'Royal, whom I have ever honoured as my King,' (133-4) this is especially surprising. Interestingly, Kent does not go so far as to break the protocol and speak frankly to Lear in prose, although he is agitated enough for enjambements to occur in his verse, one sentence running of the end of one line and into another, quite frequently in his speech from line 138 to line 148. In his final speech in the scene, Kent has regained his composure sufficiently to speak in well measured rhyming couplets, with the metre of each fitting qith its twin. After only a short pause has recovers himself and exits graciously, highlighting Lear's apoplectic rage in a speech that has announced the banishment of reason.
When Lear and his entourage leave and Cordelia is left to bid her sisters farewell, it is interesting to note that although the group comprises three sisters and a fiancé, the continued presence of the King of France maintains the verse in the scene, even from the disdainful and antagonistic pair of Goneril and Regan. This taboo on speaking prose in the presence of a King seems to be something that no-one is willing to break, even when inflamed to heights of passion and impertinence, as Kent was. The sisters do not want for ire; 'Prescribe not to us our duty … You have obedience scanted,/ And well are worth the want that you have wanted.' (270-3) and France seems eager enough to leave with Cordelia before their dialogue descends into further spleen.
When equals are finally together again, as at the beginning of the scene, (Kent and Gloucester- two Earls) the two sisters of equal status may converse in frank and open prose. This is rather refreshing following the two hundred and forty-six lines of verse that precede the episode. Regan and Goneril acknowledge to each other the absurdity of Kent's banishment and Lear's unfair treatment of Cordelia, although neither would step in on either's behalf as they'd nothing to gain by doing so. Plain, pragmatic and scheming in contrast to their flattering verse, they foresee the impending disaster if 'our father carry authority with such disposition as he bears,' (294-5) and say that 'we must do something, and I'th'heat.' (297)