Act I, Scene 1
Kent and Gloucester discuss which of the King’s son-in-laws will likely inherit the kingdom. At first, it seems he preferred the Duke of Alban, but now it’s hard to tell.
Kent turns to Edmund and asks Gloucester if that’s his son. It’s not. It’s his wife’s son though. Gloucester uncomfortably rags on Edmund for a while about his illegitimate status. Unfortunately, his legitimate son isn’t much better.
King Lear comes in and is a man with a plan. He’s tired of doing the boring day to day stuff of ruling a kingdom, so he has decided to divide his land between his three daughters as their dowry. But first, he wants to know which of them loves him the most.
Goneril, the oldest, goes first and says she loves her father more than words can express, more than riches, more than life, more than any child has ever loved a father. Her love for Lear renders her speechless. This appeases Lear and he gives her a bountiful third of the kingdom.
Reagan echoes her sister’s sentiments, but goes on further to say that she shuns all joy except loving her father. She gets a third of the kingdom equal to that of her sister.
Finally, it is Cordelia’s turn to speak. She has been fretting about what to say because her language is not as flowery as her sisters’. In the end she says nothing. That obviously doesn’t satisfy Lear, so he tells her to try again. She explains to him that she loves him according to her duty as a daughter. He’s still not happy, so she goes on to ask how she could ever love her husband if all her love went to her father. This sends Lear over the edge and he immediately disinherits her.
Kent cannot take Lear’s cruelty. He tries to make him see that Cordelia does not love him least and he is making a huge mistake. This brings Lear to the brink of violence, but Kent will not back down. Eventually, Lear banishes Kent from the kingdom.
Lear brings in the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, Cordelia’s suitors. First, he asks Burgundy what he will accept for a dowry. Burgundy only wants what was promised to him. Lear explains that Cordelia has nothing to her name, so Burgundy withdraws his affection. Lear doesn’t even want to ask France to consider his worthless daughter. France doesn’t understand what horrible, unnatural crime she could have committed to have Lear cast aside his favorite daughter.
Cordelia stands up for herself and explains that she didn’t commit murder, or give up her chasteness. She just isn’t as honey-tongued as her sisters. Lear wishes she had never been born. France asks Burgundy if he will reconsider, but he won’t without the dowry. With that, the King of France takes Cordelia for his bride because her virtuous nature is worth more than any riches. Lear doesn’t seem to care and leaves with all his attendants.
Cordelia flat out tells her sisters she knows they were lying with all that love stuff and begs them to take good care of their father. They tell her to mind her own business because she did this to herself.
Once Cordelia leaves, Goneril and Reagan make plans for their father. They remark on how he falls into fits of rage and poor judgement. They recap everyone who was sent away: Cordelia, France, and Kent, just in case we forgot. They have a feeling the King will become an annoyance for them, so they set off to make a plan.
Act I, Scene 2
Edmund muses about his illegitimate status. He hates to be considered the lesser because his brother is legitimate. He has concocted a scheme to pit Gloucester against his son.
Gloucester comes in and Edmund tries to hide the letter he was reading. Gloucester asks what it says and Edmund tries to say nothing. He is unconvincing and eventually hands the paper over. Gloucester is shocked to see that his son Edgar is plotting to betray Gloucester and take control over the lands himself. Edmund tries to convince Gloucester that it is all just a ploy by Edgar to test Edmund’s loyalty. However, Edgar has often said that sons are the perfect age for ruling and the aging fathers should be in their care. Gloucester can’t believe what he is hearing. Edmund promises to get to the bottom of it. Gloucester remarks on all the strange happenings going on between fathers and their children. He blames the stars.
Edmund thinks that they shouldn’t blame so much on the stars. His stars would indicate that he is rough and lecherous, but he’s not.
Edgar comes in and Edmund tells him Gloucester is mad. Edgar can’t figure out why. The two sons assume that someone is trying to set him up. Edmund tells Edgar to lay low and walk around armed. Edgar is thoroughly concerned and does what Edmund says.
Edmund’s plan is working.
Act I, Scene 3
Goneril tells Oswald, her steward, to make her excuses to Lear. She doesn’t want to talk to him. He most recently hit one of her men, but has been growing exceedingly difficult to deal with. He complains or gets angry about any little thing, and his knights are starting to get rowdy. She can’t take it anymore and if he doesn’t like it, he can go to Reagan’s. Reagan is of the same opinion as Goneril: they will not be walked all over in their own house. They hear Lear returning from the hunt and leave.
Act I, Scene 4
Kent has disguised himself, so that he can continue serving Lear. Lear returns from the hunt and demands dinner. He sees Kent and wonders what he wants. Kent first goes on about what sort of man he is and what he can do. Lear decides he likes Kent and decides to keep him around at least until after dinner.
He calls for his fool to keep him occupied until dinner. Oswald comes in and Lear asks for Goneril. Oswald immediately leaves. Lear sends a knight to talk to Oswald. The knight comes back and explains that Goneril is unwell. Lear wants to know why Oswald didn’t come back when he called. The knight doesn’t know, but gets the feeling the Lear is less than welcome at his daughter’s house. Lear suspected as much and demands to speak with his daughter again.
Oswald comes back in. Lear asks if he knows who he is. Oswald responds that Lear is his lady’s father. Lear calls him names and hits him. Oswald tries to stand up for himself, so Kent pushes him out of the room. Lear pays Kent.
The fool enters and offers to give Kent his hat. They ask why and he, in a roundabout way, explains that Kent must be a fool to want to serve Lear. The Fool thinks Lear was foolish to give up all his lands and banish his daughter. Lear starts to feel testy, so the Fool launches into a nonsensical speech. He jabs at Lear again for having nothing and tries to differentiate between a sweet fool and bitter fool. In the process, he identifies Lear as a fool. Lear questions this and the Fool explains that Lear has given away every other title. Lear disagrees and the Fool chides Lear further for putting his daughters in the more powerful position.
Lear threatens to have the Fool whipped for lying. The Fool, exasperated, explains that Goneril has him whipped for speaking true, Lear has him whipped for lying, and sometimes, he is whipped for not talking at all.
Goneril enters. Lear asks why she has been frowning so much lately. The Fool points out that Lear didn’t have cause to notice until he gave away his power. The Fool asserts that he is above Lear because he is a fool, but Lear is nothing. He agrees to be quiet because Goneril is glaring at him. He doesn’t though. He gets a few more jabs in.
Goneril won’t take this disrespect anymore. It’s one thing for the Fool to taunt her, but Lear’s other men regularly disrespect her and the peace of her home. She had hoped that by mentioning it to Lear, it would be remedied. However, he has made it clear he doesn’t care and even approves of the behavior. She won’t ignore it any longer.
The Fool chimes in about Lear getting his head bit off, but everyone seems to ignore this. Lear starts to get frustrated. Goneril attempts to appeal to his wisdom, but it doesn’t work. Lear expresses his sense of betrayal at how everyone is treating him. The Fool repeatedly chimes in with jokes, but nothing of substance. Goneril explains that her home is being treated more like a tavern or a brothel than a palace. Lear decides to leave.
Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, comes in wondering what all the fuss is about. Lear starts tearing in to Goneril and curses her. He wishes that she will never have a child, and if she does that it will be horrible to her. He leaves briefly, but returns to rant and rave some more. He insists that all of the men he has with him are good men and wouldn’t act like that. He finally departs with his entire retinue.
Goneril looks to her husband to help her and comfort her. He states that he can’t really be impartial since he loves Goneril. She doesn’t find this stance particularly helpful. She recalls Oswald. After he confirms he wrote the letter to Reagan, she tells him to go and deliver it right away.
She chides her husband for being too mild mannered.
Act I, Scene 5
Lear sends Kent with a letter to Gloucester. Lear and the Fool discuss the nature of their situation and life in a very roundabout way. Basically, the Fool thinks Lear is being silly and rude. Even Lear admits he may have forgot himself and been rude. He rides off to Reagan’s.
Act II, Scene 1
Edmund gets word that Reagan and Cornwall are on their way. Apparently, there could be some trouble brewing between Cornwall and Albany.
Then, Edmund calls in Edgar and convinces him he has to flee. He spins a tale that now the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany are angry with him. Edgar is convinced. Edmund draws his sword to be convincing to their father and Edgar flees.
Edmund wounds himself and cries out for help. Gloucester runs in and immediately sends men after Edgar. Gloucester asks Edmund what happened. He explains that he wouldn’t go along with Edgar’s plans to murder Gloucester, so Edgar stabbed him. Gloucester believes him and swears to pursue Edgar.
Reagan and Cornwall enter and are shocked to hear that Edgar planned to kill his father. Once they learn (from Edmund) that Edgar frequently consorted with the King’s knights, they are less surprised. They commend Edmund for his service and promise to take him into their own care.
Reagan finally reveals that she is at Gloucester’s to help sort out the situation away from her own home. Both Goneril and Lear have written to her with drastically different accounts and she is not sure what to make of it.