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