In these scenes, the tragedy of the play begins to unfold. It is now becoming clear to everyone that Lear has made a mistake in handing over his power to Goneril and Regan. Lear’s major error is that, in stepping down from the throne, he has also given up all of his formal authority to those who do not actually love him. He no longer has the power to command anyone to do anything, even to give him shelter or food—his daughters, each of whom is now a queen over half of Britain, wield special authority over him.
Goneril and, as we soon discover, Regan enjoy being in power and conspire to destroy Lear’s remaining influence. Their plan to whittle down Lear’s retinue from a hundred knights to fifty may not seem devious, but they will soon purge his knights altogether. This gradual diminishment of Lear’s attendants symbolizes the gradual elimination of his remaining power. Knights and servants are part of the pomp that surrounds a powerful king, and Lear rightly sees his loss of them as representative of his daughter’s declining respect for his rank.
Goneril, of course, says that the reason she demands this reduction is that the knights have been loud and destructive in her castle—they are, she claims, “men so disordered, so deboshed and bold” (1.4.217). To be fair, it is difficult for us, as readers, to know how true this assertion is. Lear claims, “My train are men of choice and rarest parts, / That all particulars of duty know,” yet we have already seen Lear make imperious demands and lose his temper in a seemingly unjustified way (1.4.240–241). At this point in the play, the audience may still be unsure about whether or not to sympathize with Lear, especially given his capricious decision to banish Cordelia. Still, we know that Goneril has been talking, in private, about how best to control her aging father.
Lear seems to begin to question his own identity. When he realizes that Goneril plans to frustrate his desires, he asks, “Doth any here know me? This is not Lear. / . . . / Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (1.4.201–205). It is as if Goneril’s insistence that Lear is now senile makes Lear himself wonder whether he is really himself anymore or whether he has lost his mind. Driven to despair at the end of Act 1, scene 5, he says, “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!”—a foreshadowing of his eventual insanity (1.5.38).
In Act 1, scene 4, we meet Lear’s Fool. Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature a clown of some sort, and King Lear arguably has two such clowns: the Fool himself and Edgar in his later disguise as Tom O’Bedlam. Many kings and queens during the Renaissance had court fools to amuse them. However, in addition to wearing funny costumes, singing, performing acrobatic tricks, and juggling, fools also made puns and rude jokes and offered their take on matters to their sovereigns.
Lear’s Fool cleverly combines this sort of foolishness with a deeper wisdom. The license, traditionally granted to official “fools,” to say things to their superiors that anybody else would be punished for enables him to counsel Lear, even though he seems only to prattle nonsensically. Moreover, Lear seems to have a very close relationship with his Fool: the Fool calls Lear “nuncle” and Lear calls the Fool “boy.” He is always speaking in riddles and songs, but in these scenes his meaning can be understood: he advises Lear to be wary of his daughters. In telling Lear, “I / am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing,” he hints at the dangerous situation in which Lear has put himself (1.4.168–169). His ostensibly silly singing—“The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had it head bit off by it young”—clearly warns the king that his daughters, each like a traitorous “cuckoo,” plan to turn against the father who raised them (1.4.190–191).