The courtiers were gathered in the great hall of the royal palace. The Duke of Gloucester had welcomed the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, who waited in a nearby apartment to be called in. They had come to woo the king’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, and King Lear was about to announce his decision. The elderly Gloucester had brought his son, Edmund, and they were chatting to the Duke of Kent while they waited.
‘I have always thought that the King prefers the Duke of Albany to the Duke of Cornwall,’ Kent was saying.
‘It always seemed so to us,’ said Gloucester. ‘But now, in dividing up his kingdom, it’s not clear which of the dukes he values more. Their share of the kingdom is so well balanced that neither can be said to be preferred.’
‘Is this your son, my lord?’ said Kent, acknowledging the handsome young man, who stood quietly beside his father.
‘I was responsible for his conception,’ laughed Gloucester. ‘I’ve been embarrassed to admit it so many times that I’m brazened to it now.’
Kent looked at the young man. ‘I can’t conceive of that,’ he said.
Gloucester laughed. ‘Sir this young fellow’s mother could! Whereupon she got pregnant and, sir, had a son for her cradle before she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?’
‘I can’t wish the fault undone, the result of it being so handsome,’ said Kent.
‘But I have a legitimate son, sir, about a year older than this one, though I don’t love him any more because of that. Although this rascal sprang so cheekily into the world before he was sent for, I have to admit that his mother was beautiful. We had great fun making him and the whoreson has to be acknowledged. Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?’
‘No, my lord,’ said Edmund.
Gloucester introduced him formally. ‘My lord of Kent,’ he said. ‘Remember him from now on as my honourable friend.’
Edmund bowed. ‘At your service, my lord,’ he said.
Kent offered his hand. ‘I have to honour you,’ he said as they shook hands. ‘And I’d like to get to know you.’
‘Sir, I’ll do my best to deserve that,’ Edmund said.
‘He’s been abroad for nine years and he’ll be off again soon,’ said Gloucester. Then he looked round because the room had become silent. ‘The King is coming,’ he said.
Trumpeters announced the King’s arrival with a flourish and in he came, followed by his daughters, Goneril, with her husband, the Duke of Albany: Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall: and the youngest, Cordelia.
Lear was old and frail and his walk was unsteady as he passed the assembled courtiers and went to the throne. His daughters and their husbands took their places around him. A long table with a map of the kingdom on it had been prepared for this occasion.
Lear nodded at Gloucester. ‘Fetch the Lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester,’ he said.
Gloucester bowed. ‘I shall, my liege,’ and he went out to where the visiting princes waited.
‘Meanwhile, we’ll explain our deeper purpose,’ said Lear. ‘Give me that map there.’
Servants lifted the table and brought it closer to him.
Lear addressed the court: ‘You should know that we have divided our kingdom into three,’ he began. ‘And it is our express intention to shake off all cares and responsibilities from our old age and give them to younger strengths, while we crawl unburdened toward death. Our son of Cornwall, and you, our no less loving son of Albany, we have decided to make public our daughters’ various dowries so that future strife can be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy, great rivals for our youngest daughter’s love, have been at our court as suitors for a long time, and are going to have their answers here today.’ He turned his head to where his daughters sat. ‘Tell me, my daughters – since we will now shed our throne, our lands, and the cares of responsibility – which of you shall we say, does love us most? So that we may extend out greatest generosity where natural affection most clearly lies. Goneril, our eldest child, speak first.’
Goneril stood up. She went to her father and kissed him. Then she half turned and spoke, both to him and to the court. ‘Sir, I love you more than words can express. Dearer than eye-sight, space and freedom. Beyond what can be valued rich or rare: no less than life itself, with all its grace, health, beauty and honour, as much as a child ever loved or father ever enjoyed. A love that takes the breath away and renders speech inadequate. Beyond everything, I love you.’
Cordelia watched with concern. What was she going to say when her turn came? Just love and be silent was all she could do.
Lear raised his hand and held it above the map. Goneril went closer to the table. ‘All of these lands, all the way from this line to that,’ he said, moving his hand over the map, ‘with its shady forests, fertile fields, all its rivers and wide meadows, we make you lady of. This is your and Albany’s descendents’ forever.’ He smiled as she kissed him and returned to her seat. He beamed at Regan. ‘What does our second daughter, our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall, say? Speak.’
Regan rose. She, too, went over to her father and kissed him. Then, also addressing the court, she began: ‘I am made of the same metal as my sister and value myself at her worth. I find that she has articulated the feelings of love that come from the depths of my own heart. I find, however, that she doesn’t go far enough in that I profess myself unable to take any pleasure in whatever the senses can offer and find that I get pleasure only from the enjoyment of your dear Highness’ love.’
Cordelia knew she wouldn’t be able to say the things her sisters had. She felt sorry for herself for a moment but then she pulled herself together: she was sure her love ran deeper than her tongue could express.
‘To you and yours forever,’ Lear was saying, ‘is this extensive third of our beautiful kingdom, no less in size, no less valuable, no less pleasant than that conferred on Goneril.’ He looked up, straight into Cordelia’s eyes. He smiled. ‘Now, our joy: although our last born, not our least: for whose young love the vineyards of France and the milk of Burgundy compete. What can you say to attract a third more valuable than your sisters? Speak.’
Cordelia stood up. All eyes were on her.
‘Nothing, my lord,’ she said.
Lear stared at her, puzzled. ‘Nothing?’
Lear’s eyes widened. His voice was slightly raised as he tried to control his growing anger. ‘Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.’
‘Unhappy as I am, I can’t express in words the things that are in my heart. I love your Majesty according to my duty as a daughter. No more, no less.’
Lear half rose. His other two daughters rushed to support him, helping him to his feet, where he stood, glaring at Cordelia. ‘What, what, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little or it might spoil your fortunes!’
‘My dear lord,’ she said, ‘You have conceived me, brought me up and loved me. I return those duties accordingly – obey you, love you, and honour you entirely. Why do my sisters have husbands if they say they love you exclusively? If it happens that I should marry, that man who has my hand in marriage will have half my love, half my care and duty. Certainly, I’ll never marry like my sisters to love my father totally.’
‘Is this from your heart?’ said Lear.
‘Yes, my dear lord.’
‘So young and so hard-hearted?’
‘So young, my lord, and honest.’
‘So be it,’ he said curtly. ‘Let your honesty be your dowry. By the sacred beams of the sun: the mysteries of Hecate and the night: by all the workings of the planets that govern our lives and deaths, I here disclaim my parental love, my kinship and blood relationship, and regard you as a stranger to my heart and to me forever. The barbarous Scythian, or those who eat their offspring to satisfy their appetites, will be as well received, pitied and given comfort as you, my sometime daughter.’
Kent went forward. ‘My liege,’ he said.
‘Silence, Kent!’ Lear’s eyes were burning. His face was red. ‘Don’t come between the dragon and his wrath! I loved her the most and planned to spend my retirement in her loving care. Get out of my sight! So my grave will be my only peace as I hereby separate her from her father’s heart. Call the king of France. No-one stirs? Call Burgundy! Cornwall and Albany, add this third to my two daughters’ dowries.’ He pointed to Cordelia’s portion on the map. ‘Let pride, which she calls frankness, find her a husband. I invest you jointly with my power, authority and all the trappings of majesty. Ourself will live with each of you in alternate months, attended by a hundred knights, maintained at your expense. We’ll retain only the name and all the respect that’s due to a king. The influence, taxation and all the other administrative matters, beloved sons, will be yours. To confirm that, this coronet is divided between you.’
An official presented a coronet on a purple cushion. Kent ignored the ceremony and tried again.
‘Royal Lear, whom I’ve always honoured as my king, loved as my father, followed as my master, mentioned in my prayers as my great patron…’
‘The bow is bent and drawn,’ interrupted Lear. ‘Get out of the way of the arrow.’
‘Let it loose, rather,’ said Kent, ‘even if it pierces my heart. Kent has to be impolite when Lear is mad. What do you think you’re doing, old man? Do you really think that duty will be afraid to speak out when power falls for flattery? Honour demands straight talk when royalty stoops to folly. Keep hold of your kingdom and rethink it rationally: put a stop to this appalling recklessness. I’ll stake my life on it: your youngest daughter doesn’t love you least, nor are those whose simple expression makes no hollow echoes empty hearted.’
Lear’s breathing was alarmingly laboured as his anger seemed to overwhelm him. ‘Kent! On your life! No more!’
‘I’ve never thought of my life as anything more than a poor pawn to be used against your enemies: nor do I fear to lose it in the interests of your safety.’
‘Out of my sight!’
‘See better, Lear,’ Kent said , ‘and let me be, as I always have been, watchful on your behalf.’
The old king looked as though he was going to explode. ‘Now, by Apollo……’
‘Now, by Apollo, King.’ Kent shook his head. ‘You invoke your gods in vain.’
‘Oh you slave! Criminal!’ Lear’s hand went to the hilt of his sword and his two sons-in law sprang up in alarm, with expressions of concern.
‘That’s right,’ said Kent. ‘Kill your doctor and give the fee to the foul disease. Withdraw your gift or while I still have enough breath to speak I’ll insist that you’re doing the wrong thing.’
‘Hear me, traitor,’ said Lear. ‘On your oath of allegiance, hear me! Since you have tried to make us break our vow, which we have never dared to do before, and because you have, with great arrogance, tried to come between our sentence and our power to make it, which we cannot tolerate, either personally or officially, to confirm our power, take your reward. We give you five days to make your plans to shield yourself from the harshness of the world, and on the sixth, to turn your hated back on our kingdom. If on the tenth day following that, your banished presence is found in our dominions, that moment is your death. Away! By Jupiter, this will not be revoked!’
Kent bowed. ‘Farewell, King. If that’s what you want, freedom lives elsewhere and banishment is here.’ He bowed to Cordelia. ‘May the gods shelter you, young woman. Your thinking is right and you’ve spoken the truth.’ He turned and looked at Goneril and Regan. ‘May your actions live up to your fine speeches so that some good may come from your words of love.’ He bowed to the courtiers. ‘And so, oh princes, Kent bids you all adieu. He’ll continue to be his old self in a new country.’ He walked through the shocked silent ranks of noblemen and left the great hall.
Everyone stood, awestruck, as the king returned to his seat and glowered at them all. A flourish of trumpets pierced the silence and Gloucester, accompanied by the two visiting princes, entered.
‘Here are France and Burgundy, my noble lord,’ said Gloucester.
The young princes took up their place and waited for the king’s verdict as to which one should have his beautiful daughter.
‘My Lord of Burgundy,’ Lear began , ‘we address you, who have competed against this king for our daughter, first. What is the minimum you will accept as a dowry before withdrawing your suit?’
‘Most royal Majesty,’ said Burgundy, ‘I want no more than your Highness has offered. I know you won’t offer less.’
‘Right noble Burgundy,’ replied Lear, ‘when she was dear to us we considered her valuable, but now her price has fallen. Sir, there she stands. If anything about that seemingly unremarkable object, or all of it, together with our displeasure, appeals to your Grace, she’s there, and she is yours.’
‘I’m speechless,’ said Burgundy.
‘Will you, with all her imperfections – friendless, newly disowned by us, our curse for a dowry, and estranged with our oath – take her or leave her?’
‘Pardon me, royal Sir,’ said Burgundy, ‘decisions aren’t made in such conditions.’
‘Then leave her, sir, because I’m telling you in the name of the God who made me, that’s all her wealth.’
Burgundy stared at Lear, then at Cordelia then at Lear again. He shook his head slowly. Lear turned to France.
‘As for you, great king,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t distance myself from your friendship by making such a mistake as to marry you to someone I hate. I therefore beg you to redirect your liking to something more worthy than a wretch who Nature is almost ashamed to acknowledge hers.’
‘It’s very strange,’ said France, ‘that she who just a moment ago, was your most precious possession, the subject of your praise,comfort of your old age – the best, the dearest – should, in a trice, do something so monstrous as to destroy so many levels of affection. It’s clear that her offence must either be so terribly unnatural as to make a monster of her or your former declarations of love for her are suspect. To believe that of her would take a miracle that I can’t imagine.’
Cordelia approached her father and knelt before him. ‘I would only ask your Majesty,’ she said, ‘as I lack the glib and oily art of saying things I don’t mean, favouring deeds before words, that you state publicly that it isn’t some vicious behaviour – no murder or nastiness, no unchaste act – that has deprived me of your grace and favour. Rather, it’s for lacking something that I’m all the richer for being without – an eye always alert for favours and the kind of tongue I’m glad I don’t have, though not having it has lost me your affection.’
‘Better you had never been born than not to have pleased me better,’ said Lear.
‘Is that all it is?’ said France. ‘A natural reticence that often stops one from speaking one’s thoughts? My Lord of Burgundy, what do you say to the lady? Love isn’t love when it’s confused with considerations that have nothing to do with it. Will you have her? She is a dowry in herself.’
Burgundy stroked his beard. ‘Royal King,’ he said, addressing Lear. ‘Just give me what you yourself proposed and I’ll take Cordelia by the hand – Duchess of Burgundy.’
‘Nothing,’ said Lear. ‘I have sworn. I am firm.’
Cordelia stood up and went back to her place. She waited for Burgundy’s response.
‘I’m sorry, then,’ he said. ‘As you’ve lost a father in this way, you must also lose a husband.’
She nodded. ‘Don’t worry about it, Burgundy,’ she said. ‘Since you’re in love with respectability and wealth, I won’t be your wife.’
France stepped forward. ‘Fairest Cordelia,’ he said, ‘ rich in being poor: most wanted in being forsaken, and most loved being despised. I hereby take you and your virtues for myself. If it’s lawful I will take up what’s been cast away. Ye gods, it’s ironic that my love should be fired up by their coldest indifference. Your dowerless daughter, King, thrown my way by chance, is queen of me, of all I have and of fair France. Not all the dukes of insipid Burgundy could buy this underpriced but priceless virgin from me. Bid them farewell, Cordelia, cruel as they are. You lose here, to find better elsewhere.’
Lear was glaring at them. ‘You have her, France. She’s yours, because we have no such daughter, nor shall we ever see that face of hers again: so be gone, without our goodwill, our friendship or our blessing.’ He rose shakily. ‘Come, noble Burgundy.’
He led the procession of courtiers, including Cornwall, Albany and Gloucester, leaving Goneril and Regan, staring after them.
‘Say goodbye to your sisters,’ said France.
Cordelia faced them. ‘Treasures of our father,’ she said, ‘Cordelia leaves you in tears. I know you for what you are, but because I’m your sister I’m reluctant to call a spade a spade. Love our father well. I commit him to your professed hearts. Alas, if I were still in favour with him I wouldn’t allow him near you. So farewell to you both.’
‘Don’t tell us what our duty is,’ said Regan.
‘You concentrate on pleasing your husband, who has taken you in as a beggar,’ said Goneril. ‘You have been disobedient and fully deserve what’s happened to you.’
‘Time will reveal what cunning deceit hides,’ said Cordelia. ‘Those who conceal evil are eventually exposed. Good luck to you.’
‘Come my beautiful Cordelia,’ said France, and he led her away.
Goneril and Regan turned away. ‘Sister,’ said Goneril. I need to talk to you about something that concerns us both. I think our father intends to leave tonight.’
‘That’s certain,’ said Regan, ‘and with you. Next month he’ll come to us.’
‘Look at how unstable he’s become in his old age,’ said Goneril. ‘We’re seeing examples of it all the time. He always loved our sister most. The poor judgment he’s shown in casting her off shows it all too clearly.’
‘It’s his age,’ said Regan ‘But then he’s never been able to control himself.’
Goneril nodded. ‘Even when he was at his best he was rash. So we can expect to see the effects, not only of his naturally unstable condition, but also the disorganised eccentricity that comes with feeble and bad-tempered old age.’
‘We’re likely to get more erratic incidents from him like Kent’s banishment,’ said Regan.
‘And look at the way he dismissed France,’ said Goneril. ‘I suggest we join forces. If our father is going to carry authority in the way he has been doing, this latest abdication will just be a problem for us.’
‘We’ll have to give it some thought.’
‘We must do something,’ said Goneril, ‘And immediately.’