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King Lear: Everything About The Play Hangs On First Two Scenes Essay, Research Paper

King Lear: Everything About the Play Hangs on First Two Scenes

An argument to support the view that “everything about the play [King Lear]

hangs on the first two scenes not just the plot but the values as well.”

“King Lear, as I see it, confronts the perplexity and mystery of human

action.” (Shakespeare’s Middle Tragedies, 169) As the previous quotation

from the scriptures of Maynard Mack implies, King Lear is a very complex and

intricate play which happens to be surrounded by a lot of debate. “The folio

of 1623, which was, as is well known, edited by two of Shakespeare’s fellow

actors” (Notes and Essays on Shakespeare, 242), contains not only historical

errors, but errors which pertain to certain characters speaking other

characters lines. Amidst all the controversy one fact can be settled upon by

all; King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies. While being a great

play, the bulk of the plot in King Lear comes mainly from the first two scenes

where most of the key events happen. Along with the plot there is also

extensive amounts of setup that occur within the dialogue which key the

audience in on the morals and values of the characters. Marilyn French is

completely accurate when she states that “Everything about the play hangs on

the first two scenes not just the plot but the values as well” (Shakespeare’s

Division of Experience, 226).

The opening scenes of King Lear do an immaculate job of setting up the

plot and forming the basis for all the events which occur in the later scenes

of the play. “The elements of that opening scene are worth pausing over,

because they seem to have been selected to bring before us precisely such an

impression of unpredictable effects lying coiled and waiting in an apparently

innocuous posture of affairs.” (Shakespeare’s Middle Tragedies, 170) Not only

do the opening scenes impress upon us what events could happen in the future,

they seem to give us the whole plot in a neatly wrapped package. After the

first two scenes are over the audience is basically just along for the ride,

waiting to see how the events given to us in the opening scenes unfold. “As we

look back over the first scene, we may wonder whether the gist of the whole

matter has not been placed before us, in the play’s own emblematic terms, by

Gloucester, Kent, and Edmund in that brief conversation with which the tragedy

begins.” (Shakespeare’s Middle Tragedies, 171) In the first scene Lear, having

realized that death is closing in on him, decides to divide his land between

his daughters. This is one of the most pivotal points in the play as the

effects of this action are enormous. Lear ends up casting aside Cordelia, who

is the only daughter he has who truly loves him, and gives all his land to his

other two, power hungry, daughters. The other pivotal point in the first scene

which has a huge affect on the rest of the play is the inclusion of the talk

about Edmund. Edmund realizes that, due to his illegitimacy, he can never

amount to anything. “The first action alluded to is the old king’s action in

dividing his kingdom, the dire effects of which we are almost instantly to see.

The other action is Gloucester’s action in begetting a bastard son, and the

dire effects of this will also speedily be known.” (Shakespeare’s Middle

Tragedies, 171) The consequences of these two actions are what the whole play

revolves around. The division of Lear’s kingdom causes Reagan and Goneril to

realize that “Lear had lived long, but he had not learned wisdom.” (Notes and

Essays on Shakespeare, 262) As they begin to realize just how easy they can

take advantage of him, Lear begins to see this as well and is furious, at first,

then his madness starts to set in. Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, plays a

very important role in the plot of the play as well. His struggle for power

and notoriety causes much havoc throughout the play. He deceives both his

brother and his father just so that he can advance his title. While the extreme

outcomes of the two actions noted are not known until after the first two

scenes of the play, they are the two most important pieces of plot information

that are given throughout the length of the play. The fact that the two most

important pieces of plot information are structuralized in the two opening

scenes of the play add a profound amount of credit towards Marilyn French’s

opinion that everything about the play hangs on the first two scenes.

The plot of King Lear is not the only part of the play that rests on the

first two scenes. An enormous amount of the dialogue is specifically used to

reveal the values and morals of each character. It is very important to know

the values that each character has in order to have a greater understanding of

why the play unfolds the way it does. For example, it would be hard to believe

that Goneril and Reagan could be so contemptible to their own father, without

the incident in the first scene where both Goneril and Reagan show that they

are morally corrupt, by making exaggerated claims of love and devotion to their

father. The first scene plays a huge role in disclosing the views of Lear,

Goneril, Reagan, and Cordelia while the second scene exposes Edmund for what he

really is. The views of King Lear himself are more apparent in the first scene

than the views of any other character. When the play starts out, Lear is very

much in control of his kingdom “but the very first scene gives us a hint of how

Lear is going to lose contact with his natural relation to his environment.”

(The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery, 134) Armed with the foreknowledge

that Lear is self-destructing it becomes easier to understand why he would make

such obviously rash decisions. Along with his rashness, it is shown that Lear

asks questions, only willing to receive the response he wants. When Lear asks

Cordelia “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?”

and she replies “Nothing, my lord.” He inevitably becomes enraged and disowns

her simply because her answer to his question was far from what he had expected

to hear. “Lear determines in advance the answers he will receive; he fails to

adapt himself to the person with whom he is speaking. Hence his complete and

almost incomprehensible misunderstanding of Cordelia.” (The Development of

Shakespeare’s Imagery, 134) Lear’s values permit him only to see one side of

every situation, which is his side. This trait of Lear’s is what causes the

onset of his madness and is thus a very important part of his psyche to

consider. Since Lear feels that he has to be in control of every situation,

when the time finally comes that he realizes he no longer has control of

anything, he snaps. “More and more Lear loses contact with the outside world;

words become for him less a means of communication with others than a means of

expression of what goes on within himself.” (The development of Shakespeare’s

Imagery, 134) While it can be shown that Lear’s values are what eventually

drive him to the verge insanity and beyond, the first scene does more than

outline Lear’s values. As discussed earlier, the first scene also brings to

light the underlying values and immorality in both Reagan’s and Goneril’s

personality. Another important set of values that is expressed in the first

scene is that of Cordelia’s. By not trying to outdo her sisters outlandish

proclamations of love she shows that she truly loves her father and that she

values her love for her father more than anything. This value that is

expressed in the first scene of play becomes very important when she accepts

her father without condition at the end of the play regardless of the fact that

he was so uncaring towards her.

Shakespeare has, without a doubt, written some of the most powerful

plays ever to grace the stage of a theatre. King Lear is no exception. At

first glance, the play seems to be completely ridiculous, in that no human

beings would possibly act the way the characters in King Lear act but there is

more to be offered by the collection of eclectic characters than can be seen at

first glance. The first two scenes offer a great insight into the characters

behaviour by revealing their values through carefully crafted dialogue. Aside

from showing the true colors of the characters, the opening scenes serve to

create an atmosphere for the plot to be outlined in great detail without giving

away how it will unfold. The first two scenes of King Lear are pivotal in

influencing every aspect of the play including the plot, and the values of the

characters contained within the plot.

Works Cited

Clemen, Wolfgang. The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. New York, NY, USA:

Methuen & Co. 1977.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare’s Division of Experience. New York: Summit Books.


Hales, John. Notes and Essays on Shakespeare. New York, NY, USA: AMS Press. 1973.

Lerner, Laurence. Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.


Shakespeare, William. King Lear. As reprinted in Elements of Literature.

Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1990.

Young, David. Shakespeare’s Middle Tragedies – A Collection of Critical Essays.

Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1993.


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