Act I, King Lear
King Lear is considered to be one of the best of Shakespeare's plays. In fact, it is considered to be one of the most magnificent tragedies in the world of drama. It is a tale of love, hate and betrayal. It deals with real feelings, and about the things that look like them, but are actually ambivalent to them. King Lear tells about parent-child relationships, and breaking the existing stereotypes. This play is filled with circumvention, double-talk and betrayal; it speaks of broken illusions and the dangers of flattery. King Lear is a story about love in its different forms.
The first act of King Lear tells about the destruction of the old order - be it personal, familial, social, natural, and divine. It may be even called a prophecy regarding the earth's last days - the time when children will betray and murder their parents to gain their inheritance, and when parents will be blind enough to not see the felonious intentions of their descendants.
The destruction of the familial order is the one most easily spotted in the play. There existed a persuasion among most of people who lived during the protagonists' period that the parent-child relationship is the most close and hearty. Everyone knew that parents had to love their children and that children had to respect and love them in return. For England during Lear's time, respect was the thing that children could not deny their parents regardless of their behavior. In line with this, contemporary people are unable to understand all the depth of this tragedy without having an insight in the culture and moral standards which during Shakespeare's time.
There existed a conviction that the parental authority was built on love and respect, regardless of whether the parent had some economical or social means of influencing their children or not. The idea that parents had to be cared for and respected just because they were to decide who got the inheritance was strongly disapproved in Lear's society. The notion of being a parent "of giving life to a human being" was one of the sacred things in the culture where the protagonist lived.
King Lear reflected the apprehensions people had of the coming future. At those times, people were sure that the apocalypse was near and that the times would come when children would scorn their parents. The behavior of the Lear's elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, is the reflection of those apprehensions. After being given the kingdom, they decided that they had to spare their father from the remains of power. The women wanted to have all of the power in the kingdom. Consequently, they treated their father unkindly and rudely.
Another vivid example of breach of this old order in the 1st act of the play is the relationship between Gloucester, the nobleman who served King Lear, and Edmund, his son. Edmund, who is a bastard, longs for social recognition and plans to get the inheritance his father is going to leave. Gloucester loves his son dearly, but this affection is not enough for Edmund. It is not parental love or guidance he wants to get from his father; he is much more interested in his father's properties and to be accepted by the society where his father lives. However, this society that was rejecting him because of his status for to receive them, Edmund is ready to embroil his father with Edgar, his stepbrother.
The next aspect of the breach of order in the 1st act is spotted in a social aspect. It was a weird idea for the citizens who dwelled in King Lear's country to let woman inherit a kingdom, or even a small part of it. Women were considered to be inadequate, capricious and foolish, and the idea to trust them a kingdom was unlikely for the people who lived in those times. In the play, the old king decides to let his three daughters inherit the three parts of his kingdom.
The criteria that Lear set to define which of his daughters is worthy of getting the inheritance was also unusual. In the consciousness of a middle-age person, a persuasion existed, which indicated that only the strongest, the bravest and the most intelligent person is worthy to rule. Moreover, the criteria that Lear chose to determine who would get his inheritance were wrong and incomprehensible for most people.
In line with this, it should be said that the actions of the earl of Kent, one of the Lear's noblemen, are also socially inappropriate. This man condemns Lear's decision towards his youngest daughter Cordelia:
...When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour's bound,
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state...
These words and his refusal to be silent are the indications of contempt towards King Lear and his orders. The vassals that rebel against their sirs are also indicating the breach of the old social order.
The indications of the destruction of the personal order are not so apparent, although they are still noticeable. The most significant breach of personal order in the 1st act is when Lear questions his own identity:
Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied--Ha! [sleeping or] waking? 'tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
A man who got used to being a king and a person who holds all of the power in the country who is expecting everyone to obey him suddenly finds that he cannot have the say in his daughter's castle. Lear is embarrassed and lost as his place in the world has dramatically changed.
The 1st act of this play also describes the destruction of the old natural order. There are numerous indications of it, but the most significant ones are that Lear's daughters do not love him, and that Gloucester's son, Edmond, is plotting against his father.
Loving parents is natural, and the fact that two of Lear's children planned to deprive him of power and to use it is an unnatural action. It is also natural for parents to love their children. However, Lear's actions towards Cordelia speak of very little love and affection. It is also natural that only the person who is the most worthy and capable of ruling the country should be trusted with power to do it. The sequence of actions in the 1st act of King Lear is unnatural as Goneril and Regan do not suit these criteria, but they still get to have power.
The last type of order which is destroyed in this story is the divine order. According to the persuasions of the protagonists' contemporaries, the children who were born outside of marriage were considered to be worse than those whose parents were married. Those kids were considered to be sinful since the moment of their birth as they were the fruits of the sins that their parents have committed. In the situation where the rightful heir and the bastard existed, it was apparent that it was the former who had the right to their father's inheritance. Edmund's actions to prevent Edgar from getting it were the breach of the divine order as they tried to influence the sequence of events, which was prescribed by the religious principles.
In relation to this, parental love and love for one's children are also the part of the divine order. The religious principles said that the members of the family should love each other, but the 1st act of the play showed numerous evidence of the opposite.
As mentioned above, the 1st act of King Lear tells about the destruction of the old. It is a tragedy about the time when all of the most important rules are broken, about the sufferings of people who lived in such a world, and about the results of this destruction.
Shakespeare, W. (2004). King Lear. Washington Square Press.