Questions to ask yourself as you read and think about Act 1.
- King Lear is King of England. What first impressions do the audience / reader have of him as a person and as a king? How would you describe his behavior in his decision to retire and divide up his kingdom, and the manner in which he does so? What can we infer about King Lear’s character from his actions in the very beginning of the play? Consider, perhaps, similarities between KING and FATHER. How do you think Shakespeare means for these first impressions to be quite disturbing?
- How do you feel about Lear’s “love challenge” with his daughters? How would you characterize this challenge / game in the context of the gravity that surrounds the division of the kingdom? Why do you think Lear bases his bestowal upon his daughters in such an odd manner? In particular, look at how Kent responds to King Lear’s actions (and don’t forget, Kent is a loyal subject and his closest friend), and the immediacy with which Lear banishes him from the kingdom.
- Why do you think that Cordelia decides to remain—for the most part—silent when it is her turn to take part in the love-challenge? Why does she decide to say “nothing”? What do you think is the significance of Lear’s response, “nothing comes of nothing.” Notice the repetition of the term “nothing” throughout the play.
- Although there is no clear answer to this, if you had to speculate, what do you think has gone wrong with King Lear before the play begins? Obviously, something is not right with Lear, but somehow he had to have reached this point when the play begins, dividing his kingdom between his daughters based upon a pretty foolish premise.
- How does Edmund respond to being called and known as “bastard” in his soliloquy at the beginning of scene 2 in Act 1? Read over the soliloquy a few times, and ask yourself how Edmund, in a sense, creates himself, turns himself into a particular kind of dramatic character so that, by the end of the soliloquy, the term “bastard” comes to mean something very different from a child born out of wedlock.
- How would you describe Edmund’s actions as Act 1 progresses? How does he essentially dupe and destroy his “legitimate” brother, Edgar? How would you describe Edmund’s personality in his abilities to maneuver his way towards gaining that which he desires?
- Describe King Lear’s behavior as a “retired” king and father. How does his behavior irk Goneril? At the same time, how does she use his annoying behavior as a means to move ahead in both hers’ and her sister’s conspiracy to destroy their father?
- What does it say about Kent that he disguises himself as a lowly servant and returns to the kingdom—despite his banishment—to serve King Lear? Consequently, what does it say about the nature of Lear’s character, which has been, for the most part, hidden, unrevealed to us?
- Describe the Fool. What is the Fool’s function in the play? According to the Fool, why has he been absent from Lear’s side for the past few days? In his own riddling way, how does the Fool speak mountains of wisdom to King Lear concerning Cordelia and the division of the kingdom? How does Lear respond to the Fools jests and taunts? Why do you think Lear desires and perhaps needs the Fool’s company, in spite of the Fool’s endless jibes at Lear’s expense?