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Lear: Act One Scene One

King Lear's first scene is notable in its length and structure. At over 300 lines, with more characters on stage than in all but the last scene of the play, and being divided into three sub-scenes, this first scene is almost a play in itself.

It begins, as do so many of Shakespeare's plays, with a few minor characters whose dialogue introduces some of the play's central themes. Although it is true that Kent and Gloucester are not trivial characters, they are not the central characters in the play. And while Edmund is more important, he does not appear until the 26th line and speaks only briefly. But in those first 25 lines, Kent and Gloucester introduce the themes of the King's divided affections, the division of kingdom, legitimacy and bastardy, the double meanings and misunderstandings of language, and a parent's competing preferences for their children — all that in what comes across as small talk.

The second and much longer section of scene one introduces Lear, his daughters, the men in their lives and others. And this is the scene in which Lear's “darker purpose,” itself a double meaning, leads to his fateful decisions that propel the rest of the plot into a spiralling descent. Kent seems to speak for the audience in attempting to dissuade Lear from the path he lurches toward. This section introduces the themes of nothingness, Nature and madness that recur through the play. Lear's dialogue teems with talk of demons, “the mysteries of Hecate,” the “barbarous Scythian and the night,” the “dragon and his wrath.” Lear refers to “the operation of the orbs,” which foreshadows all the allusions to astrology that are later mentioned in the play. Lear's unhinged nature and Nature's turbulent storms are all foreshadowed here.

Finally, the third section of the first scene reveals Goneril's and Regan's true natures, which are duplicitous and evil. By the end of the scene we know the foundation on which this play will be built.

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I thought the King had more affected the Duke

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Meantime we shall express our darker purpose

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Sister, it is not little I have to say

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