Dividing the kingdom

Act 1 Scene 1 – Key Scene

King Lear has called his court together to formally divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He calls on each daughter to publicly declare their love for him. The eldest, Goneril, makes a speech declaring that words cannot express how much she loves her father, who is more dear to her than ‘eyesight, space or liberty’. This extract begins with the middle daughter Regan making her speech and trying to better her sister in declaring how much she loves her father. The youngest daughter Cordelia feels unable to compete and instead questions how her sisters can love their father so entirely when they have husbands to love.

Take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look

    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.

    I am made of that self-mettle as my sister,
    And prize me at her worth. In my true heart,
    I find she names my very deed of love:
    Only she comes too short, that I profess
    Myself an enemy to all other joys
    Which the most precious square of sense professes,
    And find I am alone felicitate
    In your dear highness’ love.

    Same stuff, same feelings.

    I am only happy because of my love for you.

    Then poor Cordelia:
    And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s
    More ponderous than my tongue.


    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.— Now, our joy,
    Although our last and least, to whose young love
    The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
    Strive to be interessed, what can you say to draw
    A third more opulent than your sisters’?

    Yours by inheritance.

    Admitted, given a share.

    How does Lear build up the expectation that Cordelia will say something even better than her sisters?

    Nothing, my lord.
    Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
    Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
    My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
    According to my bond,
    no more nor less.

    I love you because you are my father – a relationship that carries obligations and duties.

    How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
    Lest you may mar your fortunes.
    Good my lord,
    You have begot me, bred me, loved me:
    I return those duties back as are right fit,
    Obey you, love you and most honour you.
    Why have my sisters husbands if they say
    They love you all?
    Happily when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty.

    What do you think of Cordelia's response? What reasons can you think of for why she should and why she should not ask this question at this time?

    Pledge, promise.

  • Listen

    Read the scene aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out?

  • Watch

    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?

  • Imagine

    Explore some images from past versions of King Lear at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the opening scene feel right to you?