An Argument To Support The View That

‘everything About The Pl Essay, Research Paper

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. 1981.

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

Press. 1973.

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

Books Ltd. 1964.

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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