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Scene i: Set in the royal court, the first scene of Shakespeare's King Lear pivots upon the refusal of the aged monarch's youngest daughter, Cordelia, to follow the suit of her sisters Goneril and Regan in professing love for their father, and Lear's wrathful decision to disown Cordelia. Nevertheless, Act I, scene i of Lear begins with a parallel subplot about the bastard Edmund's treachery toward his father Gloucester and his brother Edgar. At the start of the scene, we first see the loyal gentlemen Kent and Gloucester discussing Lear's intention to leave the realm to his daughters and their sons-in-law. The dialogue is interrupted by the appearance of Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester. In due course we learn that Edmund is not only a bastard but also an inveterate villain, the male counterpart to Lear's "evil" daughters, Goneril and Regan. Trumpets blare as a majestic Lear arrives with his retinue and announces that his "darker purpose" is to hand over his kingdom to his three daughters. He proceeds to ask each of them to express their love for him in words. Goneril tells her father that he is dearer to her than "eyesight, space and liberty" (l.56); the second daughter Regan answers that she is "an enemy of all other joys" (l.73). But Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, responds that she can add nothing to what her older sisters have said. Cordelia refuses to go beyond her own heart and conscience; she loves her father, but not to the exclusion of all else. Lear becomes infuriated, and then disinherits and disowns his youngest daughter. The goodly Kent's efforts to restore Cordelia only provoke Lear's wrath and lead to the nobleman's banishment. When two suitors for Cordelia's hand in marriage, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France appear, Lear tells them that they must take her without a dowry. The Duke of Burgundy refuses but the King of France takes the fair and true Cordelia with him. In the scene's final exchange, Goneril and Regan reveal themselves as the coming villains of the tragedy, with the bastard Edmund lurking in the background
Scenes ii, iii, iv, & v: Here Shakespeare returns to the subplot, as Edmund devises a scheme to set his father against Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son. He shows Gloucester a phony letter in which Edgar tries to enlist Edmund into a murder plot against their father. Edmund then cunningly plans for Gloucester to overhear an exchange between the two brothers. This in place, the play returns to Lear's now regal daughter Goneril as she discusses her plans with the steward Oswald to reduce Lear's remaining powers by treating him and his followers (100 knights) with disdain. Having disguised himself, Kent becomes a member of Lear's rump court at Goneril's and scuffles with the surly Oswald. Goneril tells her father that she will cut the number of his court in half. This causes Lear to leave in anger for Regan's castle and what he thinks will be better treatment. Goneril's husband, the Duke of Albany, criticizes her harshness toward Lear, but she sends a letter to her sister, encouraging Regan to adopt the same contemptuous stance toward their father. Act I concludes as Lear sends a disguised Kent with a letter to Regan's manor and Lear's jester, the Fool of the play, makes fun of his master for giving power to such cruel, faithless, and deceptive daughters
Scenes i, ii, iii, & iv: Edmund advances his plot against his brother. With Gloucester nearby, he makes it seem that Edgar is conspiring to kill his father, by causing Edgar to take flight and then wounding himself. Gloucester is deceived and vows to execute his traitorous son Edgar. Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, visit Gloucester's castle and enlist Edmund into their service. Outside of that castle, Kent first insults and then fights Oswald. As punishment for the assault, Kent is placed in the stocks. Edgar has escaped from his father's search party by taking the disguise of a madman named Tom O' Bedlam. Lear arrives at Gloucester's castle seeking Regan and is irate at seeing his messenger (the disguised Kent) humiliated. Kent is set free, but Regan then abuses Lear in the same way as her sister, saying that there is no need for Lear to support any retinue of knights. When Goneril arrives it is plain that the two daughters are intent upon stripping Lear of both his remaining powers and his dignity. Lear is beside himself with rage. He leaves the castle and plunges into the stormy night, followed only by Gloucester and the Fool.
Scenes i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi & vii Kent learns that Lear has been wandering about madly in the storm, shouting epithets and curses at his daughters, his fortune, and nature itself. He finds Lear in a disheveled state and urges him to take shelter. At his castle, Gloucester tells Edmund that he has been commanded by Cornwall not to offer any aid to Lear. He also says that Cordelia and the King of France have heard of Lear's plight and are mounting an army to invade England. Edmund decides to tell Goneril and Regan about this so that they will punish Gloucester, allowing Edmund to inherit his father's estate. Back on the wind-torn heath, Lear remains in a torrential rage even while Kent and the Fool urge him to take shelter in a lowly hovel. There they encounter Edgar in his Tom O' Bedlam disguise; a mad Lear sympathizes and identifies with Edgar disguised as the mad Tom. Gloucester arrives and offers to provide Lear with shelter after revealing to Kent that Goneril and Regan now plan to kill their father. At Gloucester's castle, Lear, Kent and his fool conduct a mock trial of Goneril and Regan. But when Gloucester returns, he warns the trio to flee from his daughters' grasp. Goneril and Regan arrive and Gloucester himself is placed under arrest. When he chastises them, the Duke of Cornwall puts out his eyes. In reaction, one of Gloucester's loyal servants attacks Cornwall and injures him badly.
Scenes i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi & vii: The blinded Gloucester is reunited with Edgar, still disguised as Mad Tom, and the son agrees to lead the father to the cliffs of Dover where Gloucester plans to commit suicide. Goneril and Edmund are informed by Oswald that Cordelia and an army from France are about to invade England. Goneril instructs Edmund to raise an army in response; they then exchange tender farewells and reveal their plan to murder Goneril's husband, the Duke of Albany. But when Albany arrives he rails against the brutality of his wife and Edmund and then vows to exact revenge for Gloucester's blinding. In another plot twist, Goneril expresses her fears that Regan (whose own husband Cornwall has died) also harbors sexual intentions toward Edmund. Lear learns that Cordelia has landed in England, but he refuses to see her because he is ashamed of himself and his treatment of her. A battle between Cordelia's French army and the forces of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and a reluctant Albany begins to take form. Meanwhile, on the Cliffs of Dover, Edgar (as Tom) tricks his father into thinking that he has jumped off the steep precipice and been rescued from death by the gods. Oswald appears on the scene and attempts to kill Gloucester, but is himself slain by Edgar. Cordelia and a distraught Lear are finally reunited. But Lear is so mad that he cannot recognize her at first, mistaking his daughter for a spirit. At the end of this act, Lear nevertheless seems to be making some recovery under the care of Cordelia and a kindly doctor.
Scenes i, ii, & iii: A jealous Regan argues with Edmund about his relationship with Goneril. Edgar appears in disguise and tells Albany about his wife's plans to kill him and marry Edmund. Through Edmund, we learn that Albany (as the commander of the English army) intends to be merciful toward Lear and Cordelia after the battle against their French forces has been won; Edmund, for his part, plans to kill them both along with Albany. But with virtually no fanfare, we learn that Cordelia's forces have been defeated, and that both she and her father have been taken captive. When we see him next, a deranged Lear is not disturbed by this turn of events. He envisions spending his remaining days in prison talking with Cordelia. This outcome is foreclosed by Edmund when he sends his henchman to strangle Cordelia. Edgar removes his beggar's clothes, dons fighting armor and attacks Edmund, mortally wounding his bastard brother. We learn that the jealous Goneril has poisoned Regan and then committed suicide herself. An effort is made to stop Edmund's men from killing Cordelia, but it is already too late. Albany says to Lear that he will return the kingdom to him. But Lear, carrying the dead Cordelia's corpse, lapses into utter madness and dies broken-hearted. In the parallel sub-plot, after realizing Edgar's true identity and worth, a saddened Gloucester also dies.
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