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The first scene of a play usually sets up the basic themes and situations that the remainder will work with. In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, the very first scene presents many of the play's basic themes and images. The recurrent imagery of human senses and of "nothing," the distortion of familial and social ties, the gradual dissolution of Lear's kingship, all make their first appearances in the first lines of Shakespeare's play.
Much of the imagery in King Lear's first scene presages what is to come in the play. Often characters refer to senses, particularly sight, whether as a comment on the necessity of sensing consequences before acting (as Lear does not), or as yet another of Shakespeare's comments (most apparent in Hamlet) on "seeming." The destruction of Gloucester's eyes and his subsequent musings ("I stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.19) etc.) are a more graphical presentation of this basic theme which originally appears in Lear's first scene. Goneril declares Lear is "dearer than eyesight" (I.i.56) to her (though she is the one who later suggests putting Gloucester's eyes out for his "treachery"). Regan goes further, proclaiming "I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense possesses" (I.i. 72-74). Crossed in his wrath by Kent, Lear cries "Out of my sight!" (I.i.157), only to be reproved with Kent's "See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye." (I.i.158-9).
Lear's dialogue with Cordelia on "nothing" introduces yet another theme in the play's imagery, echoing, among other scenes, some of his later conversations with the Fool (I.iv.130 "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?") and others. Indeed, King Lear is, in many ways, about "nothing." Regan and Goneril seem to offer much in the beginning, but after whittling down the number of Lear's knights, they leave him with nothing, and in the end their "natural" affection comes to nothing as well. Lear is progressively brought to nothing, stripped of everything -- kingdom, knights, dignity, sanity, clothes, his last loving daughter, and finally life itself.
One of the main signals of the growing chaos of Lear's world is the distortion of familial and social ties. King Lear exiles his favorite daughter, Cordelia, for a trifling offense, and those daughters he does favor soon turn against him.
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King Lear's storyline, and its effectiveness as tragedy, depend in part on the gradual stripping of kingship and dignity from Lear, a process that begins from the play's very first scene. The first two references to Lear, before his entrance, are to him as "the King" -- a personage too lofty even to name. Then Lear divides his kingdom, to "divest us both of rule, / Interest of territory, cares of state" (I.i.49-50), and we know he will soon find that unburdening himself of the cares of kingship leaves none of the prerogatives remaining. The "power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty" (I.i. 130-2) which he gives away are what produce majesty itself. Indeed, the "coronet part between" Cornwall and Albany confirms not so much the distribution of the kingdom and government as its division and destruction. The language of the scene itself reveals the beginning of Lear's fall. Throughout the first part of the scene he is "the King," "Sir," "dear Highness," "your Majesty," "good my liege" -- all the terms that respect his rulership. The far-seeing Kent first recognizes that Lear, though claiming "Only... the name, and all th' addition to a king" (I.i.135-6), deserves none of it, and his language shows it. Kent's pleas to his "Good my liege," and "Royal Lear," both cut off by the enraged monarch, give way to "old man" and the unadorned "Lear," only returning to "King" when the faithful advisor sees his cause is hopeless.
In its imagery and its portrayals of the beginnings of social chaos and the dissolution of Lear's kingship, King Lear's first scene foreshadows the more ample treatments the rest of the play will bring. As Lear realizes in horror what he has done, his Fool continually harks back to the insane partition of the kingdom that took place at the very beginning of the tragedy, and Lear, pursued by both Fool and conscience, descends into the depths of madness with Edgar/Poor Tom. He partially returns through the gentle ministrations of Cordelia and her physician, only to be utterly undone by Edmund's machinations. All Lear's grief seems to be caused by his mistakes in the first scene. Perhaps, as the victorious Edgar states, "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make intruments to plague us." (V..iii. 171-2) Yet Lear's sad saga is, as Shakespeare fully intended, truly tragic.