Summary Guide: 'King Lear'

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King Lear Act I 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.
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