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ACT I, SCENE 4
In this scene, Kent enters Goneril's castle in disguise; he has come to be of assistance to the King, if needed. Rather than leave the country as ordered, he has donned the garb of a menial servant. Lear enters with his retinue, having just returned from his hunting, and is impatient to be served. Since Oswald has been ordered by Goneril not to help Lear, Kent comes forward and offers his services to the King. He introduces himself and says he is an honest, trustworthy man. Lear takes a fancy to him and hires him as part of his retinue.
Lear grows angry at his treatment and wants to see Goneril. Even though a knight informs him that she is ill, Lear is still determined to confront his daughter. Lear asks Oswald a question and receives a rude reply. Incensed, he again strikes Oswald, who now speaks rudely to the king. The loyal Kent trips the steward, and the King thanks him and rewards him with some money. The Fool enters the stage and with wit and jests comments on Goneril's negligence of the king. In truth, he is also poking fun at Lear.
Goneril now enters, prepared to quarrel with her father. She complains about the knights' behavior and accuses Lear of encouraging them to act with insolence. Her language and manner wound the king. She also says that he needs to reduce the size of his retinue. Lear, totally amazed at his daughter's rude attitude, curses Goneril, calls her foul names, and speaks of her filial ingratitude. He orders his horses to be saddled, saying he will go and live at the house of his other daughter, Regan. Although he shows his anger, his heart is really filled with pain.
Albany soon arrives, but he quickly proves he is too weak to stand up to his wife, causing Lear's anger to increase. When Lear leans that Goneril has dismissed fifty of his men, he curses his daughter again, this time with extreme passion and vehemence. He then sadly remembers how he had rejected Cordelia for a "most small fault." Albany is disturbed by his wife's actions and tries to make her realize the enormity of what she has done. Goneril silences him and continues with her plans. She writes to Regan to gain her support, and sends Oswald with the message.
Kent's selfless loyalty and steadfastness to Lear are clearly seen in this scene. He refuses to leave the country as ordered; instead, he dresses as a beggar and comes to the home of Goneril, whom he fears will harm the King. He wants to be close to Lear in order to offer assistance and protection when it is needed. Kent's goodness shines through even in his rags. As he eagerly waits on Lear, the King senses something special about this poor man and includes him in his retinue.
Lear's anger continues to rage throughout the scene. He is demanding and imperious when returning from the hunt, and his knights are not any better; they have literally overtaken the castle and act in unruly ways. When Oswald refuses to serve Lear as suggested by Goneril, the King totally loses his temper, inspiring Goneril to more quickly carry out her plan against him. She is eager to get rid of her father, whom she considers to be a fool. In order to weaken Lear's power and encourage him to depart, Goneril dismisses fifty of his knights. The King is infuriated at her brazen action and suddenly realizes he has made a terrible mistake in disinheriting the gentle Cordelia while giving half the kingdom to the wicked Goneril. He cannot contain his anger for Goneril and curses her so cruelly that she seems victimized.
In his anger, Lear curses Goneril of sterility, invoking the goddess to "'suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful! / Into her womb, convey sterility! /Dry up in her the organs of increase, And from her derogate body, never spring a babe to honor her." Ironically, this curse against his daughter is really a curse on Lear himself, for Goneril's offspring would be the natural inheritors of the throne. By calling for Goneril's sterility, he is destroying his lineage and the kingdom.
During the scene, the foolish King calls for his Fool. As he entertains with wit and humor, Kent recognizes his keenness of insight as he jests with words filled with double meanings; he warns Lear that "this is not altogether a fool, my Lord." During the scene, the Fool takes license with his privileged position and does not restrain himself from castigating the King for his foolish actions; but he also seems to sympathize with the King. In fact, the Fool actually tries to warn Lear about what is going on although he does it with ambiguous language. He also acts as Lear's conscience and says to him, "Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav'st thy golden one away." Besides adding humor to the play, the Fool also clarifies events, points out personality traits, and speaks with wisdom; in the end, he helps the audience to understand that Lear is basically a good and just man who is characterized by bad judgements. In showing some sympathy for the plight of the King, the Fool, in the end, will be judged on the side of the good people in the play.
In giving away his crown, Lear has lost his identity and can no longer act in a way that is fitting for a King. When the Fool calls him "a shadow," it suggests that Lear is only a pale reflection of his previous, powerful self. The idea of nothing comes into play once again. The Fool asks, "Can you make no use of nothing?" Lear replies, "Why no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing." This is an echo of his reply to Cordelia when he angrily told her, "Nothing will come out of nothing." Ironically, Lear has made much trouble out of nothing.
Toward the end of the scene, Albany, the supposed master of the castle, appears. It is obvious that he is a weak man, easily cowed by his wife; he is powerless to make Goneril change, even though he points out that her intentions are evil and immoral. Goneril ignores his warning and begging words and proceeds with her plan. At the end of the scene, she sends off her letter to Regan, clarifying the scheme against Lear and asking for her assistance.