King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, was written around 1605 at a time when Shakespeare had already achieved both reputation and success in London. King Lear was not Shakespeare’s first tragedy therefore the audience knew what to expect. Act one, scene one is the most important scene as it sets the tone for the rest of the play. Captivating his audience from the beginning was crucial. This he was able to do, by creating a feeling of suspense and eagerness to discover the outcome. He builds a foundation for the action and images to follow. An atmosphere is created, characters are introduced and several omens are presented. Shakespeare’s creative use of imagery gives the audience a hint of what is to come in the following scenes.
At the beginning of the play, when the Earl of Kent and Gloucester are speaking, it is evident that it is daytime. This is when the king would usually make business transactions. A royal atmosphere (one of affluence) is created. Lear is about to share his land and this makes the audience aware that he possesses a considerable amount of wealth.
Immediately, one is able to determine that Lear is the tragic hero of the play. At the time the play was performed, James 1 was the King of England. He reinforced the ideology of ‘divine right’ whereby the king serves as God’s representative on earth. The audience would be aware of the political climate and therefore aware of what was fit or unfit for a king to do. Evidently, Lear splitting his kingdom into three would seem absurd to Shakespeare’s audience. He abdicates and becomes ‘director’ rather than ‘king’. It would definitely be seen as a form of blasphemy by the predominantly protestant British nation as he violates his duty towards God and the state. Another unthinkable deed that he does is the act of disowning his favourite daughter because she fails to flatter him with frivolous sycophancy. He also banishes a loyal follower. As King Lear is a tragedy, the audience would be anticipating the fall of this character as a direct result of his hamartia. Also, the irony of the situation would be observed as Lear does the very thing that he claims to be trying to prevent – trouble and strife.
Shakespeare clearly establishes the cult of the heroin – the daughter which Lear banishes. He does this by contrasting her with her sisters. Goneril and Regan appear to possess the same qualities ‘I am made of that self mettle as my sister’. They flatter their father with the ulterior motive of gaining material possessions. They manipulate him into believing that their love for him is beyond measure “I love you more than word can wield the matter.” Others are able to discern their dishonesty. Kent expresses his feelings about the situation before he leaves “And your large speeches may your deeds approve”. He insinuates that they are unable to act in the same manner that they spoke. Goneril and Regan release their inner venom towards the end of the scene when neither of them is enthusiastic about taking care of their father. Meanwhile, Cordelia is appalled by her sisters’ dishonesty. She refuses to be like them and chooses to ‘love and be silent’.
Her father disowns her as a result of her this. She foresees the actions of her sisters “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides”. Her forgiving nature is observed as even though her father has disowned her, she cares for him deeply “I would prefer him to a better place.” She knows that he will not be content with her sisters and this hints that he will have problems relating to accommodation later on. At this point the sympathies of the audience are towards Cordelia and repelled from her two sisters.
The idea of legitimacy is also presented. At the beginning of the Scene, Gloucester claims to love his illegitimate son as much as his legitimate son. “Who [Edgar] is no dearer in my account”. Edmund, the legitimate son was away for nine years and has just returned. The insertion of this subplot makes the audience curious as to what will happen between Edmund, Edgar and their father. Conflict is expected as the genre of the play is tragedy. Clearly, if Gloucester had followed the standards set by society and confided more in his legitimate son, he would not have had such a tragic end. Also, there is the question of legitimate and illegitimate love. Cordelia’s love for her father is pure and true while her sisters’ love towards him is untrue and tainted. Therefore, legitimacy may also be viewed as an image.
Another image is that of blindness. Blindness, a central theme in the play is alluded to several times. Goneril mentions that her love for her father is ‘dearer than eyesight’ which is ironic as Lear is blind to the true love that she possesses for him. After Lear disowns Cordelia, Kent urges him to ‘See better’ after Lear exclaims ‘Out of my sight!’ King Lear is blind to his eldest daughters’ immense greed and the amount of love that Cordelia possesses for him. This serves to his demise. Also, Gloucester is physically and emotionally blind towards his legitimate son Edgar later on in the play.
The image of war is also presented. When Kent tries to convince Lear that his actions were wrong he exclaims “The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft”. This is symbol and a hint as to what will happen in the concluding scenes when there is a war between Cordelia and France against her sisters. It is ironic that King Lear says this as the only bow that is bent and drawn is the one held by his daughters against him.
Act one, scene one clearly establishes a foundation for the rest of the play to follow. Death and destruction are expected as a tragic hero makes a terrible (and somewhat ridiculous) mistake. Lear was overconfident in assuming that his daughters would take care of him if he shared his kingdom and he will suffer immensely as a result of this.