How does Shakespeare create a sense of unease in Act 1 Scene 1 of King Lear?

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How does Shakespeare create a sense of ‘unease’ in Act 1 Scene 1 of King Lear?

Throughout the opening of King Lear, Shakespeare introduces a number of key themes and ideas that later go on to set the nature, meaning and message of the play. Through a variety of techniques, such as the language used and the characterization and actions of the characters, the audience learns and are introduced to the traits of those partaking in the play. During this familiarization of the characters with the audience, Shakespeare creates a crucial type of ‘theme’ or feeling that pervades the opening scene of King Lear- unease. It is this unease that allows the audience to witness the patriarchal disharmony that forms the main basis of the play, and the mood of uncertainty, and also the way in which Shakespeare lets the characters set the scene and introduce key themes and ideas at the beginning of the play is typical of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

It is however first key to define what exactly ‘unease’ constitutes. There are a variety of types- there can be uneasiness within the topic of power and authority, that is, the question of exploiting and abusing the various degrees of power that could lead to a sense of unjustness, or unease. There can also be a sense of unease within the family, for example the way in which inter-family relations and conflict are dealt with, and the conversations and situations between the members of one family, a unit that by definition is supposed to be closely linked, can be seen as being uneasy, or generally uncomfortable. The audience themselves can too be subjects of unease- watching the opening of the scene they witness the slowly growing tension and conflict and feel the unsettledness of the situation.  However the degree of unease and specific events and themes of the scene are dependent on the audience themselves- each age sees the characters through its own eyes and this can bring about different reactions and viewpoints.  


It is from the very offset of the play that we are introduced to unease.  The first few lines of the play establish King Lear’s subplot- Gloucester and his assumed patriarchal dominance and even apathy over his son.  He brandishes him as “illegitimate” and a “bastard”, and that he “blushes to acknowledge him”.  Despite admitting that he loves him as much as his legitimate son Edgar, this instant introduction to family disharmony and hostility creates a sense of turbulence.  Indeed, the suggestion of an affair in the opening dialogue highlights the extent of commotion in Gloucester’s family.  The similarities between Gloucester and the play’s protagonist, Lear, soon become apparent when Lear enters onto stage for the first time.  Lear, whose dominance is first shown before his entrance when Gloucester hastily warns “The King is coming”, is mirrored by Gloucester throughout the plot, as their characteristics and actions are paralleled. Both are men who hold very prominent and major positions in English royal society, and both have children who they appear unreasonable ‘tyrants’ to, as well as the fact that both do not recognise the true nature of their children. It is in the opening of the play that the recurrent theme of sight and blindness gets mentioned and eventually later goes on to play a significant part of King Lear. 

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Lear does not waste any time in getting straight to the essence and plot of the play. Rather than any introductory small talk, Lear commands his lords to “Attend” (highlighting his unquestioned dominance) and in expressing his desires to split up his kingdom and allow his daughters to take control over it Shakespeare creates a significant effect- he puts forward the idea that Lear is a man possibly fairly unstable and mis-controlling his kingdom (as will later be explored splitting up the kingdom was not a particularly advisory thing to do in Shakespeare’s time). Therefore, by portraying Lear as ...

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