What impression do you gain of King Lear in act one and what is your response to him?

It is very difficult to write about King Lear in act one, because despite his nasty performance in scene one, he is actually one of the main characters, and as such needs to gain some degree of sympathy from the audience. This transition in the audience's feelings towards Lear, from antagonism to sympathy, is subtly achieved by Shakespeare during the course of the play.

At the start of act one, it is clear that Lear loves Cordelia most of his three daughters, which explains his rage and disappointment when she refuses to participate in his ridiculous 'love trial', and the behaviour of Goneril and Regan later in the play, which I believe stems at least in part from accumulated resentment of their father's favouritism.

In this sense, Lear is both directly and indirectly responsible for his own downfall, and eventually the demise of his family. It is demonstrated perfectly later on in the act that his poor understanding of people has not improved when he says that because Goneril will allow him fifty followers as opposed Regan's twenty-five.

'...thou art Twice her Love.'

This continued attempt to quantify his daughter's love for him comes only a few pages after he curses Goneril in the worst ways that he can think of:

'...If she must teem,
Create her Child of Spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnature'd Torment to her.
Let it stamp Wrinkles in her Brow of Youth...'

This particularly shocking reversal of Lear's opinion of his daughter is very hard for the audience to understand, because it implies that Lear thinks of love in purely mercenary terms, and has no constancy in his feelings. In this sense, it is hard to decide whether or not Lear actually deserves the unfaltering love of his one good daughter, Cordelia.

Personally, for me to feel that he does deserve the loyalty and love of Kent and Cordelia, I think that he would have to go through a very startling transition by the end of the play; simply being reduced in stature and learning self pity would not be enough for me to sympathise with someone with such a misunderstanding of love.

Despite Lear's stupidity, self importance and general nastiness, he manages to start to gain some of the audience's sympathy by the end of the first act, simply because of his wretched situation and the inevitability of his downfall. The audience gets glimpses of what lies ahead partly through Lear himself, who has a habit of intentionally and unintentionally saying prophetic things, but mainly through his fool who, despite his name, probably has the greatest insight of all the characters. This is one of the great ironies of the play.

Typical of Lear's prophetic remarks is this line in scene 5:

'- O let me not be Mad, not Mad, sweet Heaven;...'

This is, of course, exactly what happens to him. The Fool predicts that Regan's attitude to her father will be the same as her sisters, long before Lear actually gets there and eventually realises this.

'She will taste as like this as a Crab does to a Crab...'

This contrasts with Lear's extreme naivety which perpetuates as far as act two, scene two, line 353; although to give him the benefit of the doubt, he is probably speaking from a kind of desperation as much as anything else.'

'No, Regan, thou shalt never have my Curse...
...Her Eyes are fierce, but thine
Do comfort and not burn.'

Although many people may feel that Lear deserved to be thrown out of his daughter's house at the end of scene one (or indeed deserved more given the banishment of Kent and Cordelia and his unpleasant curses on various people), he is undeniably greatly diminished in both the number of his followers, and his perceived status. Already people are referring to him as an 'Idle old Man' or 'My Lady's Father' instead of 'the King'. Although it is easy to understand this since he is no longer really King, Lear does deserve some sympathy due to the condition he makes in scene one.

'...onely we shall retain
The Name and all th' Addition to a King;'

In general, the more you consider Lear's position at the end of Act one, the more evidence emerges that he is indeed '...a man more sinned against than sinning.' This is part of Shakespeare's efforts to gain the audience's sympathy.

It is interesting, though, that despite Lear's abdication, those people in the play who are thought of as being on his side continue to call him 'the King' right until the end of the play. This provides an obvious method of discriminating between the 'goodies' and the 'baddies' for the audience. The first person to refer to Lear as 'King' after his abdication is Gloucester in scene two, whose loyalties lie fairly clearly with Lear from the start, although this costs him his sight.

'And the King gone to night? Prescrib'd his Powre...'

At the end of the play in act five scene three, Kent refers to Lear as his 'King and Master', thus perpetuating the 'Name' that Lear was so keen to retain.

On the subject of other people's attitudes to Lear, it is interesting that the Fool is the only character who has any degree of familiarity with him, consistently calling him 'Nuncle', and showing less respect for Lear than any other character. In return Lear affectionately calls his fool 'my boy'.

Although there are signs that this relationship is becoming strained in scene four when Lear warns 'Take heed, Sirrah, the Whip', it is telling that the whip is never used, nor any other rebuke for the Fool, who has been telling Lear some fairly stinging home truths about himself.

My interpretation of this is that Lear's relationship with the Fool is probably closer than that which he enjoys with his daughters. I suspect that their relationship with each other developed through years of camaraderie of the kind that Lear and his men enjoy, and his daughters dislike, if anything of what his daughters say is to be believed.

'Here do you keep a hundred Knights and Squires,
Men so Disorder'd, so Debosh'd, and Bold...'

Lear's attachment to his men is also indicated by his statement in act two scene two, that is really the crux of his dispute with Goneril and Regan.

'O reason not the Need. Our basest Beggars
Are in the Poorest Thing superfluous.'

What Lear means is that he doesn't actually need his followers, but that he likes having them with him. The close relationship between Lear and his fool allows the Fool to act as an advisor and conscience for Lear, although eventually the Fool disappears, his common sense probably triumphing over loyalty and telling him that it would be prudent not to be (like Kent) '...taking one's part that's out of Favour.' It would also be inappropriate for the Fool to be around at the end of the play after Lear's demise, since his role as Lear's conscience is redundant.

To conclude, the immediate impression of Lear that I gained in act one wasn't very favourable because of the way that he treats other people, but he gradually began to gain my sympathy by the end of the act, because of his situation and the inevitability of his downfall. Closer analysis of the opening half of the play revealed much more about his character and relationships with the other characters, and provided me with more cause to sympathise with him.

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