Comments on Act 1 Scene 1
King Lear was written sometime between 1603 and 1606 and was first performed in December of the latter year. Shakespeare’s sources for this story include Holinshed’s Chronicles of England (revised ed. 1587) which borrowed from the 12th century History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
An anonymous play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, was produced a decade before Shakespeare’s tragedy. The major differences in King Lear and the earlier play are the addition of the Fool and the Gloucester subplot taken from another source. In the anonymous Leir, none of the daughters is married at first, and the love test concerns their willingness to accept husbands of their father’s choosing. In the earlier play, neither Cordelia nor Lear dies at the end.
Based on Geoffrey’s history which mixes fact with legend, King Lear reigned in Britain prior to the founding of the Roman Republic, placing it around 800 BC. Shakespeare never specifies a date but carefully avoids specific references to Christianity; the characters invoke pagan gods. Since 1838 when the British actor William Charles Macready performed a restored text in a setting resembling Stonehenge, many productions have set the play in the time of the ancient Druids, including the 1983 video with Lawrence Olivier. This style of staging places the action within a harsh, primitive, cruel world, as opposed to earlier productions set in royal palaces.
In the 2009 production starring Ian McKellan, at Lear’s appeal to “the sacred radiance of the sun” the others at court fall to their knees in a sign of reverence.
In the play we learn nothing about the recent past: how long Lear has reigned, what kind of king he was, how long his queen has been dead, why a man of 80 has daughters young enough still to have children, how long Goneril and Regan have been married. In the earlier King Leir he begins with a speech bemoaning the recent loss of his wife, but Shakespeare hardly mentions her.
King Lear begins at a moment of crisis, defined as a crucial decision which affects the course of action to follow. This plot strategy is unusual for Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which the turning point of the play more often falls toward the middle: Hamlet avoids killing Claudius (a fatal error) and then murders Polonius accidentally in Act 3; Julius Caesar is assassinated in Act 3; Macbeth kills Duncan late in Act 2.
By placing the turning point at the beginning, Shakespeare focuses on the rash judgment of Lear, whose decision to divide up the kingdom would have appeared dangerous folly to Jacobean audiences (especially those who recalled Matt. 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself cannot stand”). They would have found it especially disturbing that Lear apparently intended to hand over a third of England to the king of France, if he married Cordelia. Lear’s intentions may be good, “that future strife may be prevented now” (1.1), but soon there is noticeable rivalry in the kingdom: “Have you heard of no likely wars toward, twixt the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany?” (2.1)
Edward Rocklin suggests that the crisis of the play is triggered by one word. “If Lear’s purpose is to elicit public testimony of each daughter’s love, he need only have asked ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us?’ Each daughter could have professed her love and received her share of the kingdom. … But Lear asks ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ … introducing the disastrous premise that love can be quantified” (King Lear: New Critical Essays, 2008, 299). The older sisters pick up the cue and describe their love in monetary terms, but Cordelia cannot bring herself to speak of her affection in this crude manner, buying her father’s love with words.
Marianne Novy comments on the pitfalls of a patriarchal society: “As king, Lear is the source of all money and property; in their dependence on him the daughter resemble wives in a patriarchal marriage who can get money only by begging it from their husbands. … It is this power imbalance behind Lear’s offer that makes deception both more likely and more impenetrable.” (Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, 1984)
In the first moments, we are introduced to Gloucester and Edmund. We learn of Edmund’s illegitimate status, foreshadowing the secondary action beginning in scene two.
King Lear was first performed at Whitehall on Dec. 26, 1606 before James I. Critics note some details which reflect the changing times with a new Scottish king on the throne. Kent’s first words, “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” might remind the first audience that James’ two sons were dukes of Albany and Cornwall. The union of England and Scotland brought the term “Britain” to the forefront, and in this play Shakespeare uses the adjective “British” for the first time in his plays. Edgar as Poor Tom changes the popular rhyme to “Fie, foe, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man” (3.4).
Lear’s entrance on stage sets the tone for the interpretation of this role. Sir Henry Irving (19th century British actor) entered the throne room with great pomp and circumstance, raising his heavy sword victoriously in response to the shouts of his royal guard. Lawrence Olivier (1983 video) preferred a more subdued entrance, leaning on Cordelia’s arm to support his 80 years. Ian Holm (Royal National Theatre 1997) marched vigorously onstage with no sign of diminished energy, ready for the business at hand, barking orders and impatiently drumming his fingers on the table. The question for the actor: is Lear a majestic presence, a feeble old man, a cantankerous hot-head, among many other possibilities?
In the 2004 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Corin Redgrave as Lear entered by himself, tottering weakly on walking sticks, which took the court by surprise (has his health failed so since we last saw him?), until with a mischievous smile, he stood upright and threw the sticks away, a practical joke which everyone applauded. This king was accustomed to being the life of the party who expects laughter at his antics: fumbling through legal papers to assign parts of the kingdom, pretending to forget Cornwall’s name. At Cordelia’s curt response, Lear laughed at her jest, saying “speak again” as if asking his daughter to tell him another joke. When he realized she was serious, he was less angry than hurt at her ruining his fun.
Following Cordelia’s rejection, Donald Sinden as Lear (RSC 1977) screamed out his order (“Call France, call Burgundy”) in sudden panic when he sees his preconceived plans going awry. He then had Kent (before his intervention) write down his edicts over the new division into two parts as if he were just inventing them, having been thrown off course by Cordelia’s response. (Sinden won best actor for this role, and received knighthood.)
Peter Ustinov (Stratford, Ontario, 1979) played up Lear’s senility, forgetting names (“our dearest Regan, wife to … er, Cornwall”), not paying attention when others spoke to him, sometimes searching for words. Lear “has to live with the decisions he made during lapses of concentration, and he is usually too stubborn by nature to reverse those decisions” (Leggatt 70). Ustinov’s Lear was physically weak at times, staggering when rising to confront Kent, experiencing chest pains when banishing Cordelia.
Lawrence Olivier, who played the role at the age of 75, described Lear as an easy role for him: “he’s like all of us really … just a stupid old fart. … a selfish, irascible old bastard — so am I … My family would agree with that … ‘he’s just [playing] himself.'” He had previously played the role in 1946: “When you’re younger, Lear doesn’t feel real. When you get to my age, you are Lear in every nerve of your body” (Leggatt 139-40). In the first scene he clearly enjoys the game he is playing with his daughters, eating up the public flattery with relish, chuckling at Regan’s claim that Goneril comes too short in her praise. He dearly loves Cordelia and expects much more from her than her sisters. When she says, “Nothing” in response, he holds up his hand to an ear as if he had misunderstood her, giving her another chance to “mend your speech a little.” When he realizes that she is serious, he reacts like a spoiled child, almost crying yet angry, tossing his crown to the floor for the others to “divide.”
The 1997 National Theater production (recreated for TV the next year) opened with no throne but a long conference table, as if Lear were chairman of the board discussing the family business. Ian Holm as Lear walked around the table, asking “which of you doth love us most?” and pausing at Cordelia’s seat to kiss her on the head. While Goneril makes her speech, he stood behind Regan and wrapped his arms around her. However, anger, not affection, characterized Holm’s Lear. He barked out a laugh at his joke “crawl towards death” but when others laughed with him, he silenced them with a hard look.
In an RSC 2002 production, a physically impressive Lear lifted Cordelia onto the table for Burgundy and France to consider, as if she were a slave at auction (“Sir, there she stands”).
The map business can be an impressive affair. In Olivier’s production attendants roll out a large map made of animal hide on the floor; Lear walks across it like a giant on his lands as he marks out the areas with his sword. In the 1993 Royal Shakespeare Company production Lear’s map of Britain covered the entire stage and as the play progressed, it became ripped apart until little remained by the end.
In Ian McKellan’s Lear (RSC 2009) Goneril and Regan respond nervously to his question of love, afraid that they might say the wrong thing. In contrast, Cordelia answers confidently at first, believing she understands her father, but then is amazed and shocked by Lear’s angry response to what she perceives as a reasonable answer to his question. Moments before he was chuckling at his own jokes (“while we crawl toward death”) and in a good humor with everyone. Hiding in a corner, Cordelia seems terrified by the sudden change that has come over him. Later her sisters, although stubborn in their unwillingness to pamper him, share this shock in witnessing his failing mental state. Goneril even cries to hear her father’s hateful curses of sterility (1.4).
In this opening scene we see Lear bring his kingdom to ruin mostly for personal vanity. The egos of powerful people have caused great suffering in the world. In a 2014 National Theater production, director Sam Mendes created allusions to modern totalitarian despots such as Joseph Stalin with stage designs resembling bleak Soviet architecture and a granite statue of Lear in a trench coat. Lear was surrounded by his black-clad personal militia armed with assault rifles. In the background jet planes and helicopters flew overhead, suggesting ongoing military action. Later in Act 3 Gloucester was first subjected to waterboarding before being blinded.
Japanese director Suzuki Tadashi set the play in a nursing home. A senile old man reading the play began to fantasize that he is Lear. His nurse humored him by reading the part of the Fool. As she continued to read, obviously for the first time, she laughed at inappropriate places such as Regan’s cruel comment to blind Gloucester, “Let him smell his way to Dover,” creating a disturbing framing effect in these scenes.