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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.
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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