At this point, Goneril storms on stage, irritated. She blows up at Lear, criticizing the Fool and all of Lear's knights for disturbing the peace in her house. Goneril scolds Lear, telling him he must return to his usual self. Lear, incredulous, jokingly demands whether anyone present recognizes him (i.e., as their former king). "Who is it that can tell me who I am" (1.4.236) But Goneril cuts him off, demanding that he reduce the number of knights with him from 100 to 50. Lear flies into a rage cursing her as a detested kite" (or bird of prey; 1.4.274) and pleading the gods either make her infertile or to send her a "child of spleen" (296) so that she herself can know "how sharper than the serpent's tooth it is/ to have a thankless child" (302-3). Lear and his knights exit, preparing to depart for Regan's house. As they go, Lear tries, in vain, to stop crying at the loss of his daughter: "Old fond eyes,/ Beweep this cause again, I'll pluck you out" (317-8). Lear shouts that when Regan hears of Goneril's unkindness she'll "flay" Goneril's "wolvish visage" (325). He rushes out.
Lear seems to think that he was king by virtue of being himself, rather than by virtue of his power, and that therefore he could give up power but still demand respect. Now he is discovering that in giving up power he has given up his former identity. Lear curses Goneril using animal terms ("kite," "serpent's tooth," "wolvish visage"). The implication in Lear's use of these insults is that Goneril is an animal because, like an animal, she lacks the tender familial bonds of love that make humans unique. The fact that his curse focuses specifically on the idea that Goneril be without children—or, like him, have only thankless children—stresses how hurt and angered he is by his daughters' ingratitude.
King Lear Act 1, Scene 4
For the second time thus far in the play, Lear enters the picture. He meets up with Kent and scolds Kent for no good reason. Kent, however, retorts with rather insulting responses, pointing out the king's look of "authority." Kent says he simply wishes to serve the king and flatter him.
Still acting like a tyrant even though he's retired, Lear demands his dinner and Fool at once. He also demands his daughter, who is in question now because she is not there to meet him exactly at the moment he arrives. A knight approaches the king with notice that Goneril is not feeling well, so she cannot greet him, and Oswald is not interested in meeting with the king. Lear gets frustrated by this report of poor treatment from the staff. A knight raises a point: perhaps the staff is acting so rudely because they resent the banishment of dear Cordelia.
Topic Tracking: Age 6
But the king has no time to deal with this, for he must address another problem first: Oswald. He goes to slap Oswald for his rudeness, and Kent pitches in by tripping Oswald, earning praise from Lear. The Fool enters.
The Fool, witty as ever, disrupts the tension in the scene and adds his own commentary. The Fool tells the king that the king himself became the fool once he gave up his coronet. Why did he do so, when he is obviously capable of handling the duties of the king? He reminds the king that he reversed the natural order of birthright when he gave his daughters the crown:
"That lord that counseled thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me,
Do thou for him stand:
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear;
The one in motley here,
The other found out there."Act 1, Scene 4, lines 138-145
Topic Tracking: The Natural Order 3
The Fool, who loves Cordelia, can get away with these comments. He has a special position in the king's court.
Harping on the issue, the Fool asks Lear, "Can you make no use of nothing"? (lines 123-24), and Lear replies that: "Nothing can be made out of nothing."
Lear threatens the Fool with a beating, just as Goneril enters the scene. But the Fool isn't done yet. He has more to say about this idea of nothing: "I am a fool," he says to Lear. "Thou art nothing." (lines 184-5).
Goneril walks in to tell Lear his knights have been overly abusive. Lear mocks her and acts like the Fool. Yet Goneril has had enough. She berates him and says he should be wiser than that.
Topic Tracking: Age 7
Goneril informs him further that his knights treat the court as though it were a pub or even a brothel. But Lear doesn't listen to her--instead, he curses her much in the same way he cursed Cordelia. Then Lear gets nasty, asking the gods to take his side and make Goneril sterile forever, so she can never know what it's like to have a child. And if she were to have a child, Lear says, cursing his own daughter, the child shall turn against her.
Topic Tracking: The Natural Order 4
Albany cannot believe that he has just witnessed such a scene, but Goneril stays calm. Little does Lear know that she has ordered half his entourage to leave within the next two weeks. Angry as ever, Lear tells Goneril that he doesn't need her because he has one special and kind daughter, Regan, who would take his side any day.
Albany tries to interject with a rational voice of reason, but it's no use. Goneril is infuriated at this point. She summons Oswald and has him go to Regan with her side of the story so that Regan might support her. Now it's war. She ignores Albany's constant warnings that the king is not someone to reckon with.