When I read the opening Act of King Lear, it seemed to me that what is taking place is a contest to see which of the King’s three daughters loves him more. The reward for their love would be a portion of the kingdom doled out on the basis of that love. However that doesn’t make complete sense based on the way that the scene progresses. If this were the case it would seem that King Lear would wait until all of the daughters have spoken before determining which daughter gets what portion of the kingdom. However, this is not what happens. After each of the first two daughters halfheartedly professed their love for their father the King immediately showed them what portions of the kingdom they were to inherit. This caused me to think that the King had already made up his mind about what daughter would get what portion of the land. After all, there is only one piece of the kingdom left by the time it is Cordelia’s turn to profess her love for the King. Upon closer reading I found that there are other clues that support this idea.
In the very beginning of the play Kent and Gloucester are having a conversation concerning the events about to unfold in Act 1, Scene 1:
Kent: I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
Gloucester: It did always seem so to us, but now in the division of the kingdom it appears not which of the Dukes he values most, for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety. (1.1.1-6)
Kent appears to be surprised that the Duke of Albany did not get a greater portion of the land than Cornwall. Gloucester agrees with Kent’s sentiments, and adds that judging based on the way the kingdom has been divided it is not clear which of the Dukes the King favors because the kingdom has been so evenly divided that even under close examination one cannot tell who has received the better part. This seems to imply that the way that the kingdom would be divided had already been determined and was public knowledge at the very beginning of the play.
Next, when King Lear himself enters, his speech provides further evidence that the division of the kingdom did not depend on the speech of the daughters but had already been determined.
King Lear: Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answered. Tell me, my daughters,--
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first. (1.1.34-52)
In this passage the King explains in the beginning that the kingdom has already been divided and will now be dispersed accordingly. One third will go to Cornwall, one third will be given to Albany, and the third portion will be given to the person who will marry the King’s third daughter, Cordelia. The person who would marry Cordelia would be either the King of France or the Duke of Burgundy, both of whom had been courting her for some time. By the Kings own words it is evident that his mind was already made up about how the kingdom was to be divided. The only variable that was to be determined was which prince would marry Cordelia and this passage suggests that was to be decided at this time.
Further evidence in Act I Scene I come from King Lear’s response to Regan’s love declaration.
King Lear: To thee and thine hereditary ever
Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
Than that conferred on Goneril. (1.1.77-80)
This passage seems to suggest once again that the kingdom had been equally divided beforehand based on the King’s qualification that Regan’s portion of the kingdom was equal to Goneril’s inheritance in space, vale and desirability.
It would seem that all of this evidence appears to indicate that the “love contest” in Act I Scene I of King Lear was no contest at all. This would explain the strange way that the King doles out the kingdom. This also explains why Both Kent and Gloucester seem to indicate that the division of the kingdom had already been decided and that the kingdom had been so precisely divided that it could not be determined who the king favored more. Finally, this is in agreement with the King himself who indicates that all of this, with the exception of Cordelia’s betrothed, had been decided and that the kingdom had been divided equally.
There are still some difficulties that must be addressed with this idea. One of those difficulties being the intention of King Lear’s question “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.49) Another problem is what is meant by the “bounty” that is to be extended to the one determined to be the one who love’s the king most? (1.1.50)
Finally, one additional difficulty in this scene is the King’s question to Cordelia, “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?” (1.1.83-84) It would seem either way that Cordelia’s portion was not intended to be determined by her speech. If the kingdom had been divided beforehand then obviously her portion was already determined. On the other hand, if the division of the kingdom was in fact happening at that moment then Cordelia’s portion still could not depend on her speech because the other two daughters have already received their portions of the kingdom by the time that it was Cordelia’s turn to speak.
While it could be said that Cordelia could still receive a greater portion than her sisters as the question seems to suggest, this would indicate that the King had decided beforehand to give her a greater portion and thus her portion was still not determined by her speech. If the division of the kingdom was in fact predetermined, this adds greater surprise to the King’s actions when Cordelia does not deliver a satisfactory declaration of her love as expected.
Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of King Lear." Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 582-737.