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Two lords, Gloucester and Kent, are at King Lear's palace in Britain, talking about Lear's plan to divide the kingdom.
The men speculate as to why King Lear has decided to give the same amount of territory to both of his sons-in-law, even though everyone knows he likes one of them better.
However, he's not going to base his decision on how much he values his sons-in-law, which means it's going to be a tough race (the men are otherwise well-matched).
Gloucester introduces Kent to his illegitimate son, Edmund. Embarrassed, Gloucester cracks some jokes about his affair with Edmund's mother, who was apparently quite fun, but a little too fertile for everyone's good.
Gloucester asks Kent "Do you smell a fault?", which is a reference to his sinful affair with Edmund's mother and also a dirty pun – "fault" is slang for female genitals so, basically, Gloucester is insulting his son and his son's mother. (And yes, Edmund is standing right there the entire time.)
We also learn that Edmund has been hidden away for nine years, and Gloucester notes he will soon be going away again.
Then King Lear enters and makes a formal announcement of his plan to divide the kingdom between his three daughters and their husbands.
(Uh oh. Anyone who's seen the play Henry IV Part 1 and remembers the rebels' plans to divide Britain into three territories knows that this is a big no-no. Plus, King James I (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) who attended one of the first performances of Lear, was trying to unite England and Scotland under his rule when he was crowned King of England in 1603, so the very idea of the division of Britain would have been troubling to Shakespeare's contemporaries.)
Lear says he'll still officially be king, meaning he'll retain all of his power and revenues but he just doesn't want to do any of the work anymore. Further, dividing up the kingdom now will avoid any nasty disputes after his death. (Yeah right. So he thinks.)
There's another matter Lear means to clear up, too: the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are at his court right now, competing for Cordelia (Lear's youngest and unmarried daughter). He plans to hand her over in marriage to one of these men today, but, first things first…
Lear's all set to carve up the kingdom, leaving his children to manage his affairs and his wealth.
But here's the catch: Lear wants his daughters to say how much they love him. He says he'll give the most to the daughter who says she loves him most.
Lear's eldest, Goneril makes a ridiculous and flattering speech about how she loves her father as much as life itself.
Regan, the second daughter, declares Goneril is a good kid, but actually Regan is the one who loves her father more than life, so there. She declares his love is the only thing that gives her happiness (as in, Lear's the apple of her eye, the cream in her coffee, and he's richer than her husband, the Duke of Cornwall).
Cordelia, Lear's youngest and favorite daughter, listens to her sisters' empty speeches and thinks this love contest is stupid. Words of love are no substitute for actually feeling love, and her love is richer than her ability to flatter.
So when Cordelia's turn comes, she refuses to play Lear's game. He asks her, "What can you say to draw a third [of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters? Speak." She replies, "Nothing."
Lear can't believe what he's hearing. "Nothing will come of nothing," he tells her. "Speak again." (In other words, you'll get absolutely nothing from me unless you speak up, kiddo.)
Brain Snack: "Nothing can come of nothing" is a variation on the famous phrase "ex nihilo nihil fit" – that's Latin for "from nothing, nothing comes," which is an ancient Greek philosophical and scientific expression. It's the opposite of the biblical notion that God created the world (which is a whole lot of something) out of nothing (Genesis 1.1).
Cordelia has made up her mind. She loves her father, and says she loves him according to her bond to him (which is actually a pretty big deal), but she's not going to make a big insincere public speech about it. She says "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth," meaning her words are never sufficient enough to express her love for Lear.
When Lear warns Cordelia that she'd better say something or she won't get her piece of the kingdom, Cordelia lashes out at the premises of the game. "Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / they love you all?" she asks pointedly.
Cordelia promises that when she marries, half her love will be reserved for her husband; she won't claim that all her love belongs to her father.
Lear is furious. It seems to him that his favorite child has betrayed him, and he says if she loves truth so much, truth can be her dowry, as she'll not be getting any piece of this kingdom pie.
Lear then swears by Heaven and Hell that he is casting Cordelia out. She is no longer part of his family, and he thinks of her as fondly as he thinks of the kind of people who eat their children.
Everyone is shocked. Kent, one of Lear's trusted advisers, tries to intervene on behalf of Cordelia but Lear orders Kent "out of [his] sight." Kent responds by saying "See better, Lear." (Yep, that's a significant part of the play's infamous "blindness" motif, which you can read more about in "Symbols.")
Lear admits Cordelia was his favorite and that he planned to spend his old age with her – he was banking on her "kind nursery," which means that he was hoping Cordelia would play the role of mommy or nursemaid to him as he grew older. (Gosh, Lear's really serious when he says he wants to retire.)
Lear gives his crown to Cornwall and Albany (Regan's and Goneril's husbands, respectively) and announces that he'll spend months alternating between his other two daughters' houses, accompanied by 100 knights.
Lear divides Cordelia's part of the kingdom between her sisters.
Kent can't handle this tomfoolery, and he tells Lear he's acting rashly. Kent reasonably contends that Cordelia's honesty means more than the other girls' flattery.
The two argue for some time, and Kent declares that, although he has spent his whole life devoted to Lear, he can't abide by this madness. Kent declares Lear is up to evil.
Lear, even more enraged, gives Kent six days to leave the country, on pain of death.
Kent valiantly takes his leave, declaring he's headed to freedom instead of banishment.
Kent bids Cordelia good luck, and again praises her for her honest words. He also says he hopes Goneril and Regan's big speeches amount to more than big fat lies. Kent exits.
Lear makes sure his rejection of Cordelia is complete by calling in her two suitors: the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. Lear informs them that Cordelia is no longer his daughter, and that she therefore has no money or property to her name – much less a piece of the kingdom.
"Still want her?" Lear asks.
Burgundy says no thanks – not unless Lear ponies up the giant dowry he previously promised.
The King of France, on the other hand, marvels at how quickly Lear turned from loving to hating Cordelia, and says she must've done something pretty awful to deserve such censure.
Cordelia proclaims her only wrong is what she lacks, which is a flattering tongue.
France decides to marry her, saying Cordelia's behavior has only increased his respect for her.
Lear says something like "Fine, take her," informing Cordelia that he hopes to never see her face again.
Cordelia offers a tense goodbye to her sisters. She's basically says, "I know how awful you are, but I won't say it," which, of course, says how awful they are. Cordelia claims her sisters don't really love their father as they stated.
They sweetly reply that they hope Cordelia's new husband will dislike her as much as their father now dislikes her.
Cordelia wishes her sisters well, declares time will reveal them to be schemers.
Left on their own, Regan and Goneril discuss what they should do about their silly old father, besides trash talk him.
They say he was never the most rational and stable guy to begin with, and old age is only making his condition worse – Lear, they say, is going senile. There's no other explanation for why he would banish his favorite daughter and one of his best friends (Kent) on a whim.
They worry about what he might do next and decide they need to come up with some kind of plan for dealing with him, since it seems that Lear will only continue to act like a tantrum-throwing baby as he gets older and more "infirm."