How does Shakespeare create a sense of unease in Act 1 Scene 1 of King Lear?

Categories: William Shakespeare

Throughout the opening of King Lear, Shakespeare introduces a number of key themes and ideas that later go on to set the nature, meaning and message of the play. Through a variety of techniques, such as the language used and the characterization and actions of the characters, the audience learns and are introduced to the traits of those partaking in the play. During this familiarization of the characters with the audience, Shakespeare creates a crucial type of ‘theme’ or feeling that pervades the opening scene of King Lear- unease.

It is this unease that allows the audience to witness the patriarchal disharmony that forms the main basis of the play, and the mood of uncertainty, and also the way in which Shakespeare lets the characters set the scene and introduce key themes and ideas at the beginning of the play is typical of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. It is however first key to define what exactly ‘unease’ constitutes. There are a variety of types- there can be uneasiness within the topic of power and authority, that is, the question of exploiting and abusing the various degrees of power that could lead to a sense of unjustness, or unease.

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There can also be a sense of unease within the family, for example the way in which inter-family relations and conflict are dealt with, and the conversations and situations between the members of one family, a unit that by definition is supposed to be closely linked, can be seen as being uneasy, or generally uncomfortable.

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The audience themselves can too be subjects of unease- watching the opening of the scene they witness the slowly growing tension and conflict and feel the unsettledness of the situation.

However the degree of unease and specific events and themes of the scene are dependent on the audience themselves- each age sees the characters through its own eyes and this can bring about different reactions and viewpoints. It is from the very offset of the play that we are introduced to unease. The first few lines of the play establish King Lear’s subplot- Gloucester and his assumed patriarchal dominance and even apathy over his son. He brandishes him as “illegitimate” and a “bastard”, and that he “blushes to acknowledge him”.

Despite admitting that he loves him as much as his legitimate son Edgar, this instant introduction to family disharmony and hostility creates a sense of turbulence. Indeed, the suggestion of an affair in the opening dialogue highlights the extent of commotion in Gloucester’s family. The similarities between Gloucester and the play’s protagonist, Lear, soon become apparent when Lear enters onto stage for the first time. Lear, whose dominance is first shown before his entrance when Gloucester hastily warns “The King is coming”, is mirrored by Gloucester throughout the plot, as their characteristics and actions are paralleled.

Both are men who hold very prominent and major positions in English royal society, and both have children who they appear unreasonable ‘tyrants’ to, as well as the fact that both do not recognise the true nature of their children. It is in the opening of the play that the recurrent theme of sight and blindness gets mentioned and eventually later goes on to play a significant part of King Lear. Lear does not waste any time in getting straight to the essence and plot of the play.

Rather than any introductory small talk, Lear commands his lords to “Attend” (highlighting his unquestioned dominance) and in expressing his desires to split up his kingdom and allow his daughters to take control over it Shakespeare creates a significant effect- he puts forward the idea that Lear is a man possibly fairly unstable and mis-controlling his kingdom (as will later be explored splitting up the kingdom was not a particularly advisory thing to do in Shakespeare’s time).

Therefore, by portraying Lear as a man who is potentially irresponsible and capricious, a man who separates power from responsibility, Shakespeare clearly creates a feeling of disruption, as if the whole situation is just ‘not meant to be’, ergo unease. The love-test, an ‘exam’ ordered to by Lear on his daughters to display the extent of love they feel for him, is not only a symbol of Lear’s total egoism and craving for pure omnipotence, but is also fairly bizarre, and creates effects in the scene that are significant to answering the question.

In fact, Lear’s abuse of his power could symbolise the beginning of his ‘madness’, a theme that will continually crop up later in the play. Perhaps not clearly seen when reading the bare text of the play but certainly evident upon viewing a performance it, the reactions of the daughters certainly do not seem realistic. Gonerill and Regan’s two highly over-exaggerated comments of their unconditional and unmatched love of their father certainly makes it apparent that what is being said is not genuine- it is rather a feigned act only constructed to try to impress, and ‘win’.

The way in which Regan speaks the line, with uncertainty and a clear lack of knowledge on what to say- she bases her speech on her sisters’ “I am made of that self-mettle as my sister”,- reinforces awkwardness and clear tension, possibly unwillingness, in the scene. It is also important to take setting into account- the girls are forced to praise their father in front of a court full of nobles, as if it were a type of exhibition of self-gratitude demanded by the King.

This therefore from the very start of the play brings to the audience’s attention that there is a feeling of competition within the family, and not one of total harmony. It is during the exam that real ‘unease’ and family conflict is born. Cordelia’s refusal to praise her father- “Nothing my lord”- is a disruption of events that were previously becoming rhythmic following the obedience of Gonerill and Regan. Cordelia breaking the rhythm and going against the wishes of her father gives birth to the disharmony that will later dominate the novel.

King Lear’s ruthless reaction, as evidenced by the violent imagery of his language, “the barbarous Scythian…property of blood”, and declaration of losing love for his once-favourite daughter, again paints a portrait of a man hell-bent on power, his actions bordering on social insanity. Kent, a conservative and noble figure throughout the play, keeps the formality of the occasion by using words such as “liege” and “royal”.

However he soon drops the formality of the language and almost shockingly refers to his leader as “old man”, and refers to him saying ‘thou’, a 17th century informal term that then would have caused great offence. The sudden switch in language and ensuing disrespect towards a figure of comparative all-powerfulness is significant in displaying the general dissonance within the palace, and opening scene. Suspense and tension slowly builds during Lear’s defence of Cordelia (Lear’s stern warnings of “The bow is bent” and “On thy life, no more”), comes to a climax upon Kent’s banishment.

This signifies the descending of the scene from a competent King firmly in charge of his kingdom, to absolute chaos, and also shows the instability and unjustness of Lear- the banishment of two people who were most dear to him suggests rashness, irresponsibility and tyranny. Lear calling in France and Burgundy, and their ensuing conversation borders on the humorous. Lear asserts his dominance with his insults toward his daughter within his very presence- “infirmities she owes…cursed…. adopted to our hate” and is juxtaposed for effect with the extremely respectful and accommodating language he uses towards his lords.

The discussion and debate upon who shall ‘claim’ Cordelia creates the effect that Cordelia is a powerless, almost insignificant object scrutinised prior to being ‘owned’ by a man. The fact that the 3 men are discussing the value of land and wealth over the essence of relationships and love also highlights the attitudes of the time, and therefore creates a sense of unease about Cordelia’s future. This all probably reflects Elizabethan society in the 17th century, a period of time when women were massively supressed and dominated, despite the country being ruled by a woman at the time.

It does also create a type of unease and a definite feeling of injustice- the audience is made to feel sorry for Cordelia having been so dearly punished and now put ‘up for sale’ due to a mere assertion of her integrity. Upon Cordelia’s exit from the stage, a sense of ambiguity is established. “I know what you are”, a message from Cordelia to her siblings, raises the question of impurity within the two daughters and confirms their fakery during Lear’s ‘test of love’; with this statement we assume Goneril and Regan are deceitful and are both liars. Prescribe not us our duties” highlights the frosty exchange between the two sisters, and signifies a further sense of family conflict, and the audience are left wondering whether “Well may you prosper! ” is a genuine wish or said in sarcastic scorn. It is this type of vagueness in the sisters’ exchange that raises questions about what the actions of the three sisters will be further on in the play. Regan and Goneril’s plot against their father at the culmination of the scene introduces the audience to the deviousness and evil of Goneril and Regan.

Their very hostile statements against their own father- “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” highlight their subversiveness, and we see the pair both feel, and project unease: they feel anxious about their father treating them in the way Cordelia was treated, and instil a degree of uncertainty about the future of the kingdom after their decision to “do something, and in the heat”. Even to the modern day audience this appears fairly shocking- two daughters plotting to rise against their father in a violent way.

It is however interesting to take into account what emotions this would have evoked out of a 17th century audience. Typical renaissance models of feminity required women to be quiet and submissive i. e. - the dominated. However Lear’s daughters subvert all the accepted codes of feminine behaviour and set out to destroy their family- there is no doubt that this agent of chaos would have stirred unease in a Jacobean audience.

However it is not only this aspect of the opening scene that would have drawn emotions from the Jacobean audience. The Jacobean period had very much been a time of social, religious and political change; the traditional assumptions of gender and class were under scrutiny, the patriarchal and gerontocratic aspects of life, that is, not passing on their power before death, were being challenged.

It has been said that King Lear is a reflection of the anxieties about the period, therefore it is not hard to guess what the audience would have been feeling watching a reflection of the reshaping of the establishment they were so accustomed to. One thing that Queen Elizabeth and James did do however was acknowledge God as the ‘supreme ruler’ of the land, and saw it as a grave sin to divide their country.

So Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom up, an act of perceived instability, would have shocked, and possibly angered, Jacobean audiences, who at the time were especially worried about the future of England in this period of transition in society, and Shakespeare does very well in evoking the breakdown of that whole way of life. It is in the opening scene that Shakespeare establishes the plot (and subplot) that introduces a variety of themes- primarily patriarchal and family relations, political relations, and status and wealth.

It is through the exploration of these themes that aspects such as conflict, confusion, and instability arise, the product of which is the pervading feeling of unease- the feeling that life, not only family life but also the typical English life, is not quite as harmonious as it should be, and it is in this gradual introduction and development of unease in Act I that Shakespeare sets the tone for the discordant events that will come later in the play.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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How does Shakespeare create a sense of unease in Act 1 Scene 1 of King Lear?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

How does Shakespeare create a sense of unease in Act 1 Scene 1 of King Lear? essay
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