David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Cast of Characters and Act 1, Scene 1


Lear, King of Britain; King Lear is over 80 years old.

King of France.

Duke of Burgundy.

Duke of Cornwall.

Duke of Albany.

Earl of Kent.

Earl of Gloucester (pronounced Gloster).

Edgar, legitimate son to Gloucester.

Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester.

Curan, a courtier.

Oswald, steward to Goneril.

Old Man, tenant to Gloucester.



An Officer, employed by Edmund.

A Gentleman, attendant on Cordelia.

A Herald.

Servants to Cornwall.

Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughter; married to the Duke of Albany.

Regan, Lear’s middle daughter; married to the Duke of Cornwall.

Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter; at the beginning of the play, she is unmarried.

Knights of Lear’s train, Officers, Messengers, Soldiers, and Attendants.

Scene: Britain.

Note: Duke is a title higher than Earl.

— 1.1 —

In King Lear’s palace, the Earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester, and Edmund, who was Gloucester’s bastard son, were talking together.

The Earl of Kent said to the Earl of Gloucester, “I thought the King had more preferred the Duke ofAlbany than the Duke of Cornwall.”

The Duke ofAlbany had recently married King Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril, while the Duke of Cornwall had recently married King Lear’s middle daughter, Regan.

The Earl of Gloucester replied, “It always seemed so to us, but now, in thedivision of the Kingdom, it is not apparent which ofthe two Dukes he values most. The shares of the Kingdom for the two Dukes are so equally divided that the closest examination of the two shares cannot make either Duke covet the other Duke’s share.”

“Isn’t this your son, my lord?”the Earl of Kent asked the Earl of Gloucester, motioning toward Edmund.

“I have paid for his upbringing,” the Earl of Gloucester replied. “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him as my son that now I am inured to it and can brazenly say that he is mine.”

“I cannot conceive what you mean,” the Earl of Kent replied.

“Sir, this young fellow’s mother could very definitely conceive,” the Earl of Gloucester punned. “In fact, upon conceiving she grew round-wombed with a pregnant belly, and had, indeed, sir, a son for her cradle before she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault from what I say? Edmund, my son, is illegitimate.”

“I cannot wish the fault undone since the issue of it is so handsome,” the Earl of Kent diplomatically replied.

“But I also have, sir, a son by order of law — he is legitimate — about a year older than this son. My legitimate son is no dearer to me than my illegitimate son. Though this knave came somewhat saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet his mother was beautiful, there was good entertainment at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”

The Earl of Gloucester called his illegitimate son, Edmund, names such as “knave” and “whoreson,” but he used those names affectionately.

He asked his illegitimate son, “Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?”

“No, my lord.”

“He is my lord of Kent,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Remember him hereafter as my honorable friend.”

“I am at your service, my lord,” Edmund said respectfully.

“I want to be your friend, and I will do what I can to know you better,” the Earl of Kent replied.

“Sir, I shall make every effort to deserve your respect and earn your high opinion.”

“Edmund has been out of the country for nine years, and he shall go away again,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

Hearing trumpets blow, he added, “The King is coming.”

King Lear, the Duke of Cornwall, and the Duke of Albany entered the room. With them were the King’s daughters — Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia — and some attendants. One attendant carried a coronet, which someone below the rank of King was meant to wear. Events would show that the person intended to wear the coronet was Cordelia.

King Lear said, “Usher into the royal presence the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.”

“I shall, my liege,” Gloucester replied and then exited. Edmund went with him.

“In the meantime we shall express our darker purpose,” King Lear said, using the royal plural. “This purpose is dark because we have kept it secret from all of you; however, some of you already know part — but only part — of what I am going to do. Give me the map. Know that we have divided into three our Kingdom, and it is our firm intent to shake all cares and responsibilities from our age. As you know, I am over 80 years old. We will confer our cares and responsibilities on younger strengths, while we, unburdened, crawl toward death.”

King Lear had talked of his “darker purpose.” “Darker” meant “secret” or “hidden,” but many of the people listening to him, such as the Earl of Kent, believed that it was a bad idea to divide the Kingdom and that it would have dark and evil consequences.

King Lear continued, “Our son-in-law of Cornwall, and you, our no less loving son-in-law of Albany, pay attention. We have this hour a firm purpose to make known publicly our daughters’ individual dowries, so that future strife may be prevented now. Because you will receive your share of the Kingdom before I die, no one needs to fight over his share after I die.

“The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are great rivals for the love of Cordelia, our youngest daughter, who is still unmarried. Long in our court they have made their amorous sojourn, courting Cordelia. Today, the decision about whom Cordelia will wed will be made.

“Tell me, my daughters — since now we will divest ourself of rule, possession of territory, and the cares of government — which of you shall we say loves us most? I will give the largest dowry to that daughter whose natural affection for her father merits the largest territory.

“Goneril, you are our eldest-born; you will speak first.”

“Sir, I love you more than words and language can make clear,” Goneril said. “To me you are dearer than eyesight, possession of land, and freedom of action. You are beyond what can be valued as rich or rare. I love you no less than I love life with grace, health, beauty, and honor. I love you as much as a child has ever loved, or a father has ever found himself to be loved. My love for you is a love that makes language poor, and speech inadequate to express how much I love you.”

Cordelia was disgusted by the fulsomeness of Goneril’s praise, and she expected to hear the same kind of praise from her other sister, Regan. By pouring on the praise, these two sisters hoped to benefit by receiving bigger dowries.

Cordelia also worried. She thought, What should Cordelia do? Love, and be silent.

Cordelia loved her father, but she loathed fulsome praise that was used to manipulate a father in order to gain wealth. It is better to show one’s love though one’s actions rather than fake it through one’s words.

King Lear pointed to the map and said to Goneril, “Of all these boundaries, even from this line to this,with shady forests and with enriched open plainswith plenteous rivers and extensive meadows,we make you lady. This territory will perpetually belong to your and Albany’s descendants.”

He then said, “What does our second daughter,our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall, have to say? Speak.”

Regan replied, “Sir, I am madeof the self-same mettle that my sister is. Prize me at her worth. Value me as you value her.”

“Mettle” meant “nature” or “character.” However, it is a homonym for “metal.” Subsequent events would show that both Goneril and Regan were hard-hearted.

Regan continued, “In my true heartI find that Goneril names what my love really is — only she comes too short. I professthat I am an enemy to all other joysthatthe most perfect part of me can enjoy, and I find that I am made happy only in your dear Highness’ love.”

Regan’s quest for a bigger dowry had caused her to be even more fulsome in her description of her love for her father than her older sister, Goneril. If Regan, as she had said, really is made happy only in the love of her father, then loving her husband and being loved by him brings her no happiness.

Cordelia thought, Poor Cordelia!And yet I am not so, since I am sure that my love for my father is richer than my tongue. I love my father more than I can say.

Pointing to the map, King Lear said to Regan, “To you and your descendants forever after will belong this ample third of our fair Kingdom. It is noless in space, value, and pleasurethan that conferred on Goneril.”

He then turned to Cordelia and said, “Now, our joy, although you are the last of my daughters to be born and therefore the youngest, the King of France with its vineyards and the Duke of Burgundy with its dairy pastures strive for your love and wish to marry you. What can you say to drawathird of the Kingdom that is more opulent than your sisters’ shares?”

King Lear had planned from the beginning to give Cordelia a better part of the Kingdom than he would give to her sisters. Her sisters were already married, and an excellent dowry would help Cordelia to get an excellent husband. Besides, Cordelia was his favorite daughter. One of several reasons to divide up the Kingdom now — before he died — was to give Cordelia the best share. If the Kingdom were divided after his death, Cordelia, being the youngest, would get the worst share, or no share.

Cordelia remained silent, so King Lear told her, “Speak. What can you say to drawathird of the Kingdom that is more opulent than your sisters’ shares?”

She gave an honest, not a fulsome, answer: “Nothing, my lord.”

Shocked, King Lear exclaimed, “Nothing!”

“Nothing,” Cordelia repeated.

“Nothing will come from nothing,” King Lear said. “Speak again.”

“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” Cordelia said.

Ecclesiasticus 21:26 states, “The heart of fools is in their mouth: but the mouth of the wise is in their heart.”

Cordelia continued, “I love your majesty according to my filial duty — no more and no less. I love you as a daughter ought to love her father.”

“Cordelia! Mend your speech a little, or it may mar your fortunes.”

“My good lord,” Cordelia said, “you have begotten me, bred me, and loved me. I return those duties back to you as are rightly fit. I obey you, love you, and greatly honor you.

“Why do my sisters have husbands, if they say that all their love is for you? When I shall wed, that lord who takes my hand shall carry half my love with him, as well as half my care and duty. Half of my love will be for you, and half will be for my husband. To be sure, I shall never marry like my sisters have; they give you all their love and none to their husband.”

“Do you say this from your heart?” King Lear asked.

“Yes, my good lord.”

“Can you be so young, and so untender? Are you really this hard-hearted?”

“I am so young, my lord, and I say the truth. I am honest.”

“Let it be so,” King Lear said. “Your truth, then, shall be your dowry. I swear by the sacred radiance of the Sun, the mysteries of the underworld goddess Hecate, and the night; by all the operations of the astrological orbs from whom we exist, and cease to be, that here I disclaim all my paternal care, kinship, and common blood with you. From here on, I regard you as a stranger to my heart and me, forever. The barbarous Scythian, or that person who cannibalizes his parents and children to feed his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved as you, my former daughter. I renounce you; you are no longer my daughter. You are no kin of mine.”

The Earl of Kent began to object: “My good liege —”

King Lear shouted, “Peace, Kent! Silence! Come not between the dragon and his wrath. I loved Cordelia the most, and I thought to give all the rest I had to her in return for her tender loving care. Leave, and avoid my sight!”

The Earl of Kent did not leave.

King Lear said, “Now it seems that I will find my peace in my grave, as here I take her father’s heart away from her and give it away to someone else!”

He ordered, “Call the King of France!”

Everyone was stunned; no one moved.

King Lear said, “Who will carry out my orders? Call the Duke of Burgundy, too.”

Some attendants left.

Pointing to the map, King Lear said, “Cornwall and Albany with my two daughters’ dowries digest this third dowry — the one that should have been Cordelia’s. Let pride, which Cordelia calls plain-speaking, be her dowry and get her a husband. I do invest you, Cornwall and Albany, jointly with my power, first position, and all the magnificent trappings that accompany majesty.

“We reserve for ourself a hundred Knights, by you to be paid. We shall also reside with you, by turn, one month at a time. We retain for ourself the title of King, and all the honors and prerogatives that are due to a King. You two shall have the power and authority, revenue, and execution of the royal duties and responsibilities. Beloved sons-in-law, they are yours. To confirm what I say, share this coronet between yourselves.”

The Earl of Kent said, “Royal Lear, whom I have ever honored as my King, loved as my father, followed as my master, and mentioned in my prayers as my great patron —”

King Lear warned the Earl of Kent, “The bow is bent and drawn; stay out of the way of the arrow.”

The Earl of Kent replied, “Let the arrow fly even though the forked arrowhead invades the region of my heart. Kent shall be without manners when Lear is mad. What will you do, old man? Do you think that I will ignore my duty and be afraid to speak up when a powerful man bows down before flattery? An honorable man is bound by duty to speak out when majesty stoops to folly. Reverse your judgment; change your decision, and after you have thought things over carefully, stop this hideous rashness. I will stake my life that what I say is true: Your youngest daughter does not love you least, nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness. Cordelia may not be able to fulsomely express how much she loves you, but she loves you nonetheless. My duty is to speak truth to power.”

“Kent, on your life, speak no more,” King Lear threatened.

“My life I have never valued except as a pawn to wage war against your enemies, nor am I afraid to lose it in an attempt to keep you safe.”

“Get out of my sight!” King Lear shouted.

“See better, Lear,” the Earl of Kent said, “and aim your sight at me. I will not lead you astray.”

King Lear started to speak: “Now, by Apollo —”

“Now, by Apollo, King,” the Earl of Kent interrupted, “you swear by your gods in vain.”

“Oh, vassal! Unbeliever!” King Lear shouted, laying his hand on his sword.

Both the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall said to King Lear, “Dear sir, don’t.”

The Earl of Kent said to King Lear, “Do. Kill your physician, and give the physician’s fee to your foul disease. Revoke your decision. Or, if you do not, as long as I can shout from my throat, I’ll tell you that you are making a mistake and are doing evil.”

“Hear me, traitor!” King Lear shouted. “On your allegiance, hear me! Since you have sought to make us break our vow, something that we have never dared to do, and since with unnatural pride you have intervened between our order and its carrying out, something that neither our nature nor our high position as King can bear, I now demonstrate my power and give you your reward for your interference. We allow you five days to get provisions to shield yourself from the disasters and evils of the world. On the sixth day, you must turn your hated back upon our Kingdom. If, on the tenth day following, your banished body is found in our dominions, that moment will be the moment you die. Get out! By Jupiter, we shall never revoke your exile!”

“Fare you well, King,” the Earl of Kent said. “Since thus you will appear, freedom lives out of your country, and banishment is here.”

He said to Cordelia, “The gods to their dear shelter take you, maiden, who justly think, and have most rightly said!”

He said to Regan and Goneril, “And I hope that your deeds may show that your large and generous speeches were true, so that good effects may spring from words of love.”

He said to the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, “Thus Kent bids all you Princes adieu; he’ll shape his old course in a country new. I will stay true to myself — and speak the truth — in another country.”

The Earl of Kent exited.

The Earl of Gloucester returned to the presence of King Lear. With him were the King of France, the Duke of Burgundy, and some attendants.

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Here are the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, my noble lord.”

“My lord of Burgundy,” King Lear said, “we first address ourself to you, who with this King of France have been competing to marry Cordelia, our daughter. What is the least dowry that you would require to be paid immediately to marry my daughter, without which you would cease your quest of love?”

“Most royal majesty, I crave no more than what your Highness has already offered, and I am sure that you will not offer less.”

“Right noble Burgundy, when Cordelia was dearly beloved by us, we did regard her as being dear and valuable, but now her price has fallen. Sir, there she stands. If you like anything within her, who seems to be worth little, or if you like all of her, she is there, and she is yours. But be aware that I am displeased with her, and I will not give her a dowry. If you want to marry her without a dowry, then marry her. If you must receive a dowry in order to marry her, then do not marry her.”

“I don’t know what to say,” the Duke of Burgundy replied.

“Will you marry Cordelia although she possesses infirmities and imperfections, although she lacks friends, although she has recently earned our hatred, although her only dowry is our curse upon her head, and although I have sworn that she is no longer my daughter? Will you take her, or leave her?”

“Pardon me, royal sir,” the Duke of Burgundy said. “No choice can be made when such conditions exist. A true choice involves two viable options to choose between. Here only one viable option exists to be chosen.”

“Then leave her, sir,” King Lear said. “You have good reason — by the power who made me, I have told you all her wealth.”

King Lear then said, “As for you, great King of France, I have such friendship for you that I would not do anything to harm it such as have you marry a female I hate; therefore, I advise you to cease loving Cordelia. Instead, avert your liking to a worthier maiden. Do not love a wretch whom Nature is almost ashamed to acknowledge hers. Cordelia is unnatural.”

“This is very strange,” the King of France said. “Cordelia very recently was the main object of your love, the subject of your praise, the balm of your age. How can the best and dearest Cordelia in a moment of time commit an action so monstrous that it dismantles so many layers of your favor? Surely, her offense must be so unnatural that it is monstrous, or else the affection you previously felt for her was undeserved — but it would take a miracle for me to believe either of these things.”

Cordelia said to King Lear, “I beg your Majesty — even though I lack the ability to do what the glib and oily do, which is to speak and promise to do something without meaning to do what they say and promise; in contrast, when I intend to do something, I do it before I speak — that you make known that it is no vicious blot such as murder or other foul immorality, no unchaste action or dishonorable action, that has deprived me of your grace and favor. What has done that is the lack of things that I am richer for not having: an always-begging eye and such a fulsome tongue as I am glad I do not have, although not to have it has deprived me of your like for me.”

Cordelia deliberately chose to use the word “like” instead of “love.”

King Lear replied, “It would have been better for you never to have been born than to have failed to please me better.”

The King of France asked, “Is Cordelia’s fault only this — a natural tendency not to announce publicly what she intends to do?”

He asked, “My lord of Burgundy, what do you say to the lady? Love’s not love when it is mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point. Love ought not to be affected by a dowry or the lack of a dowry. Will you have her? She is herself a dowry. Will you marry Cordelia?”

“Royal Lear,” the Duke of Burgundy said, “if you give as her dowry that portion which you yourself proposed, then I will take Cordelia by the hand and make her Duchess of Burgundy.”

“I will give nothing as her dowry,” King Lear replied. “I have sworn that. I am firm in my decision and will do what I have sworn to do.”

The Duke of Burgundy said to Cordelia, “I am sorry, then. You have lost a father, and now you must lose a husband.”

Cordelia said, “May peace be with Burgundy! Since he loves status and money, I shall not be his wife.”

The King of France said, “Fairest Cordelia, you are most rich, being poor; most choice, being forsaken; and most loved, being despised! Here and now I seize upon you and your virtues. It is lawful for me to take what has been cast away.

“Gods, gods! It is strange that from their cold neglect my love should kindle to inflamed respect. Although the gods neglect you, I even more strongly love you. Your dowerless daughter, King Lear, thrown to my lot, is to be Queen of us, of what is ours, and of our fair France. Not all the Dukes of waterish Burgundy can buy this unprized precious maiden away from me.”

By “waterish Burgundy,” the King of France meant that the Duke of Burgundy was weak. Blood did not flow in his veins — only weak water did.

The King of France added, “Bid them farewell, Cordelia, although they have been unkind to you. What you lose here, you will find better elsewhere.”

“You have her, King of France,” King Lear said. “Let her be yours, for we have no such daughter, nor shall we ever see that face of hers again. Therefore, Cordelia, be gone without our grace, our love, or our benison and blessing. Come, noble Duke of Burgundy.”

Everyone left except for the King of France, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.

The King of France said to Cordelia, “Bid farewell to your sisters.”

Cordelia said, “With eyes washed by tears, Cordelia leaves you, the jewels of our father. I know you for what you really are, and like a sister I am very loath to call your faults by their actual names. Treat our father well. To your professed bosoms I commit him, but if I still were within his grace, I would recommend him to a better place. So, farewell to you both.”

Cordelia had committed her father to her sisters’ “professed bosoms” — the love that they had professed for him, aka the love that they had said that they had for him. She wanted them to treat him with all the love that they had publicly proclaimed that they had for him. She did not want them to treat him the way that they actually felt about him.

“Don’t tell us what our duty to our father is,” Regan said.

“Concern yourself with making your husband happy,” Goneril said. “He is the one who is marrying you as an act of charity. You have failed in your obedience as a daughter, and you well deserve to be treated by your husband with the same lack of love that you have shown to your father.”

“Time shall unfold what covered cunning hides,” Cordelia said. “Time at first covers faults, but eventually it reveals and derides them. Well may you prosper!”

“Come, my fair Cordelia,” the King of France said.

He and Cordelia exited.

Goneril said to Regan, “Sister, I have to talk to you about something that closely concerns us both. I think our father will depart from here tonight.”

“That’s very certain,” Regan said. “He will leave and stay with you; next month he will stay with us.”

“You see how full of changes he is in his old age,” Goneril said. “We have seen much evidence of those changes. He always loved our sister most; it is grossly obvious that he used poor judgment when he cast her off.”

“It is the infirmity of his old age,” Regan said, “yet he has always known himself only but little.”

“He was rash even when he was at his best and soundest,” Goneril said. “What can we look forward to now that he is old? He will have the imperfections that he has always had, but added to them will be the unruly waywardness that unhealthy and angry old age bring with them.”

“He is likely to continue to engage in such impulsive outbursts as that which led to Kent’s banishment,” Regan said. “That is the behavior that we are likely to see our father engaging in.”

“There will be additional formalities before the King of France leaves here,” Goneril said. “Please, let’s sit and put our heads together. If our father continues to exert authority with his customary impulsiveness, then his recent abdication of his power to us will be in name only — he will be a problem to us.”

“We shall think further about it,” Regan said.

“We must dosomething,” Goneril said. “A blacksmith must strike and shape iron while it is hot or he will lose his labor and opportunity. Like a blacksmith, we also must strike while the iron is hot.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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