“Where Nature doth with Merit Challenge.” (I.i)
That line pretty much sums up the looming theme of the play and the exposition. It sets up the exposition which takes the first act. It is valid for the account of Lear and Glouster’s fates–background of which is set up in this act by this very line–which, though Glouster hardly recognizes it (the agent being Edmund), Lear brings his Fate upon himself.
Comparing that with other expositions of Shakespeare, first, with Macbeth, there’s this similarity of the king in a fervor, here his victory, and in Lear, his haste to “shake all cares and Business”, which in both cases proves catastrophic for the individual and the land. Another example is Othello, where the two plotters appear first as the evil genius behind the apparent unfolding of the events, like the weird sisters at the start of Macbeth. So does Lear begin, presenting the background speculating the King’s actions, with the puppeteers in this case being Edmund and the two elder daughters of the King. And finally, there’s The Tempest that can be read parallel with this play, the only differences being what makes one a comedy while the other a tragedy.
As to the exposition, Lear is irrationally unfair; Glouster a blind man. Lear, an unwise king; Glouster, an oblique father. And these are the men who form the center of the action; the others are relative to them in each of the parallel yet intertwined, in fact intersecting stories. Tracing the echoes that repeat throughout the act, the themes and the mental status of all the key persons involved are overlapping. The bastards, going by their own words, are Edmund, Lear, Glouster, Kent and Cordelia. Because as it unfolds, the first, who’s by Nature so, proves to act his part; and the rest, who are unnaturally so, as they are driven to such a state of pity which has begun to appear by the end of the first act for all of them– Cordelia gifted with Lear’s Curse (triggering his perils), Kent banished, Glouster divided on Edgar and Lear by the end of the act, driven out of Albany’s.
Details, Actus Primus
So then, where’s Shakespeare here? What’s he doing? Is he the musical youth akin the opening of Twelfth Night? Does he pose an apology for his predicament as in the scene involving Peter and his mechanicals or the classical invocation at the start of Henry V? No, he’s none of these here. The beginning is rapt, tightly written, hasty and brief. And this is in quite contrast with what the affairs of retirement should look like, should be like. This is as if it’s war time akin the urgent conference in Othello. Going by theology, by any standards, these are inauspicious omens. Further, it starts with a question of choice and a tone of black humor, which continue as it proceeds with time. ‘Sons’ are the first subjects—the two dukes are talked of and there’s then the contrasting shift to lowly Edmund. These lines serve to establish a question and then the Glouster-Edmund relationship. Glouster despises of his Bastard yet has grown it seems, to love him (being ‘braz’d’ acknowledging his nostalgic fair fault). It’s a brisk opening then, attracting rapt attention and ‘Curiosity’ in ‘moieties’.
The next event, as breathed by Glouster, is the King’s arrival followed by his subsequent revelation of his ‘darker purpose’. This may sound demonic at the first, but it need not; privacy is grey, should be, and this is Lear’s Folly—Love’s a private affair and putting it to auction (and that too for such a heavy currency of Word) publicly is practicing ‘Foppery’ out of which Bastards ‘grow’. It is sad wonder that so astute a king who doesn’t let his thoughts out abjectly fails when it comes to his own daughters. He’s eventually become a cuckold if you go by Shakespearean standards. Later he regrets his weakness of course, but then it’s just too late—the wheel’s turned. Put to a comparison, Lear sounds like the Scottish Lord, when the latter declares “So fair and foul a day I have not seen” with the milky gaiety of Duncan at the victory.
A notoriety canopies these men as they stand here; in Lear, it’s his aristocratic Pride that he accuses his daughter of—well if he’s sound there, so should it strike him that uncanny he be with the situation and that it is but his regal blood
mirrored; the king must be cunning, as he’s made to realize later in all manner. One striking feature here is that Glouster’s away, so it can be assumed as one player less on Lear’s side and the former’s equal disaster. Besides that, there’s something amiss, this gloom, it’s like that ominous feeling as if there’s someone lurking behind The Curtain, or under The Trap?
This is an organic post, it’ll keep evolving, Reader, you shall know when it shall have matured. Check later for more. The Author.