With particular reference to Act 1, Scene 1, show how Shakespeare presents the character of Lear. Is he a blind fool or a tragic father?

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Sam Peacock

With particular reference to Act 1, Scene 1, show how Shakespeare presents the character of Lear. Is he a blind fool or a tragic father?

King Lear is a play that was written by William Shakespeare, in 1606. The play is a tragedy, one of many written by Shakespeare; the definition of a tragedy is a play in which characters must struggle with circumstances and in which most meet death and despair, and King Lear fits that mould beautifully. Throughout the play the characters have to deal with King Lear giving away his Kingdom, banishing his favourite daughter Cordelia, and ultimately turning mad. The play also sees problems for other characters, including Lear’s other two daughters – Goneril and Regan – and for Edmund, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent and other characters. The play ends with most of the characters dieing, including Regan, Goneril, Cordelia, Lear, Edmund, Gloucester, France, Cornwall and the Fool.

Act 1, Scene 1 begins with Kent and Gloucester talking about Gloucester’s bastard son. The scene is set in Lear’s palace; however, we do not see the main character, Lear, straight away, as Shakespeare introduces him to us through other characters. This adds to the audiences expectations of Lear, and builds up his importance.

To add further to his superiority, Lear’s entrance is supported by trumpets playing, and a servant at his side. Lear’s first line in the play is a command, which again highlights his status as a King, and the way Lear speaks using the royal ‘we’ helps him to assert his authority.

Before Lear is introduced to the audience, however, Kent and Gloucester have an interesting discussion, which not only introduces the King, but also gives the audience information in which they will soon be able to use to establish a huge link between Lear and Gloucester. This link is a valuable sub-plot of the play, which, further into the play, teams with the plot, but thus far the audience is unaware of this. This first conversation gives the audience chance to establish Gloucester’s relationship between Edmund and Edgar – his sons. The audience learn that although in the past he was ashamed to admit his bastard son, Edmund, Gloucester now loves them both equally.

It turns out that the purpose of the meeting, which involves Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and Kent, is to divide Lear’s land up equally between his three daughters – Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. This shows that he loves his daughters equally, as does Gloucester with his two sons, which is the first link of many regarding the sub-plot I have just mentioned in the previous paragraph.

With reference to the title, the fist part of the play sees Lear as being serious and reasonable, as he appears to know his own mind, and is being sensible about why he is dividing his land. This would appear different to different audiences. To a contemporary audience this would be seen as very foolish, as in Elizabethan times Kings were believed to have been chosen by God, and by taking his position as King and splitting it up between his daughters, Lear is tampering with the Great Chain of Being, and is going against God. Therefore, to a contemporary audience, this event is straight away building up the tension. However, a modern audience may not understand this, and it could, to them, seem that at this moment Lear is being neither a blind fool nor a tragic father.

It is important to note, that the division of Lear’s kingdom also means the division of his work. This means that Lear still wants his status as a King, he just does not like the work that it entails; by dividing his land he can stay King, but with a lot less work involved. Again, a mistake carried out by a greedy fool.

However, as Lear’s speech progresses, the audience also learn that this is Lear’s first foolish mistake, as he is demanding a test of love from his three daughters, in return for a share of his kingdom, and Goneril, who goes first as she is the oldest, competes in this game perfectly. It is important to remember that a ‘test of love’ in any situation will always be unsuccessful, as the winner will always be the most insincere, in a greedy attempt to win whatever the prize is, and the creator of the test will, of course, be so vain that they will not see beneath the truth.

Right from the beginning of Goneril’s speech, the insincerity becomes clear – although not to Lear. Goneril uses a lot of similes and comparisons, for example, “Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty”. It is ironic that Goneril introduces this simile, as blindness is actually a theme in the play, and Goneril know that Lear will see beneath her words. The length of Goneril’s speech also reflects insincerity, as to truly express love cannot be done in words.

Before Lear gives Goneril the results of her test, Shakespeare has used the ‘aside’ device to introduce Cordelia into the plot. Cordelia is obviously struggling with what to do, as she loves her father so much that she does not want to deceive him for the sake of greed. We know that Cordelia’s words are truthful, as Shakespeare’s use of the ‘aside’ device ensures that she is talking only to the audience. Shakespeare has introduced this technique here to make the audience sympathise with Cordelia. It is this significant connection with the audience that compels them to support and feel for Cordelia throughout the entire play, as if they have established, already, a bond with the character.

Once Cordelia has spoken of her anguish to the audience, an oblivious King Lear rewards his daughter Goneril for her, by giving her a large portion of his land, which he also points out on the map.

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It is then Regan’s turn to compete in this test of love and declare her love for her father. Her first line; “I am made of that same self metal as my sister”, is ironic, as Lear takes from this that Regan loves him just as much as Goneril does, (which Lear thinks is a great amount), but neither Regan nor Goneril love Lear that much; they are just after his land, and so by this Regan really means that she is just as shallow and as greedy as her sister, but she knows that Lear will not take ...

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