King Lear : Act One

Let's get started! There's an awful lot of play to get through here...

Gloucester is like that dad who always manages to embarrass his offspring by saying something incredibly inappropriate in public. Here he says, right in front of Edmund, "yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making." Or, in other words, "his mom was super-hot and good in bed."

In case you missed it... Edmund is, in fact, a bastard. This is an important plot point.

Retiring from public office because you feel you're too old and feeble to take care of business? Not a bad move. Dividing your kingdom up between your three daughters to prevent any internecine squabbles? Understandable. Forcing your three daughters to participate in a public popularity contest to find out which of them loves you the most? Ehhhh...

Cordelia's "nothing" is the shot heard round the world as far as King Lear is concerned. All the subsequent trials, tribulations and tragedies could all have been avoided if she had just gritted her teeth and said "Oh Daddy, I love you best of all!" But noooooo, she has to be all principled and reasonable. 

If she hadn't said "nothing", Lear would have gone and lived with her. She would have taken care of him as his dementia set in, everyone would have lived happily ever after, and the audience would have been able to go home after fifteen minutes. 

I can't remember where I stole the "loyal rear" gag from - undoubtedly some actor's reminiscences of a not-uncommon verbal pitfall similar to the famous "Good Hamlet, cast off thy coloured nightie" trap in Hamlet

Of the three truly decent guys in King Lear, two of them are in this scene: Kent and the King of France. We never see the King of France again, but you have to admit he's a sweetheart. Cordelia should have just gone off with him and never looked back. 

Goneril and Regan are collectively known as the "bad daughters" or the "bad sisters", but of course there is very likely more to them than that. Let's face it - their father has not shown himself to be particularly reasonable and loving, so it's a good chance they have every right to be worried about the prospect of him coming to stay with them long-term. 

Shakespeare writes great villains, and Edmund is no exception. He is charming, witty, cynical and so very much smarter than the people around him. He also starts off with a legitimate (ha, see what I did there?) grievance - being denied any share of inheritance simply because of his birth. He then goes a bit overboard in redressing that grievance, but you can't deny that he's thoroughly entertaining as he does so.

Also, Gloucester and Edgar? Both super-gullible. 

So, this is a really short and boring scene. Don't blame me. Blame Shakespeare.

We get the first inklings here that Lear is not exactly the best house guest. He smacks around Goneril's servants and his entourage of knights are rowdy and presumably not wiping their boots on the mat when they come indoors. So naturally Goneril devises a strategy to "encourage" him to leave.

This is also the first time we meet Oswald, Goneril's steward. He's a self-important toady who will spend the rest of the play getting beaten up and delivering messages to people. I like him. Don't ask me why.

I love Kent in disguise. In some productions he grows a beard. In some productions he shaves his beard. In some productions he wears a hat. He's always recognizable. 

This is the first time Oswald gets beaten up. If you're playing the "Oswald Drinking Game", take a drink.

And here is our introduction to the Fool! Fools in Shakespeare are often much wiser and insightful than the other characters around them, and Lear's Fool is no exception. He basically spends most of this scene haranguing Lear about how stupid it was for him to banish Cordelia and split his kingdom between Goneril and Regan. Because he's the Fool, he gets away with it. 

He also, miraculously, gets away with not being very funny.

When you deconstruct it, Goneril has a pretty valid complaint. Lear is no longer king, so why should he get to bring a hundred of his closest drinking buddies over to his daughter's house to party every night? The problem is... Lear doesn't understand that he's not king anymore. He split up his kingdom and gave away his power, sure, but that doesn't mean he's not still king, right? RIGHT? 

The Fool doesn't help things in this bit, what with his constant interruptions and seemingly nonsensical singing. 

"Who is it that can tell me who I am?" is one of the hot-button lines in Lear. While he's deliberately overplaying the moment to shame his daughter here, it is a dire foreshadowing of when his mental state and sense of self begin to crumble in a very real manner. Also of interest is the Fool's reply: "Lear's shadow."

Thwarted by Goneril, Lear proceeds to unleash an unparalleled stream of parental invective. Seriously, what parent curses their daughter with sterility or a monstrous offspring just for being asked to stop being such a nuisance? Way to go, Lear. You're not winning the "Father of the Year" award anytime soon.

I've drawn Goneril as being taken aback by Lear's curse, but of course that depends on the production. Some productions have a hard-as-nails Goneril who couldn't be bothered less by her father's curses. Others have a Goneril who is totally devastated by the torrent of emotional abuse. Your Goneril may vary. 

This is the first time Oswald gets to deliver a message. If you're playing the "Oswald Drinking Game", take another drink.

This is probably the first scene where we see that Lear's irrational and angry behavior is, perhaps, the sign of something more serious lurking beneath the surface. He speaks in fits and starts, not completing his sentences and rambling. Of course, the fact that the Fool is bombarding him with a series of nonsensical jokes doesn't help matters.

Speaking of jokes, I am really fond of the "Why are the seven stars no more than seven?" joke. I don't know why, but it always makes me laugh. This is probably indicative of my underdeveloped sense of humor. 

TO BE CONTINUED...