Opening Lines (in lieu of an abstract):
I wish here to consider a very minor episode in King Lear that has always bothered me, without attempting to make too much sense out of it, even the kind of non-sense with which I am usually comfortable. First, however, a feint at non-sense making sense. King Lear begins with an assertion of balance and symmetry, seeming to assure us the comprehension (in both senses) that follows from these:
Kent. I thought the King had more favored the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
Glou. It did always seem so to us, but now in the division of the kingdom
it appears not which of the two he values most, for equalities are so
weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of neither’s moiety.
Despite any prior familiarity with the story, it is difficult, reading these lines, to avoid the idea that the kingdom is being equally divided between two sons. The statement of symmetry here is brought home by Gloucester’s final phrase, which, even though one may have some difficulty parsing it, clearly indicates, in its strangely rhyming equal parts (as well as by the words “equalities” and “weighed” that precede it) that a balance is being effected. Students never have any difficulty understanding this, although they are unlikely to be able to articulate what the words actually mean. The idea is further reinforced (and simultaneously undermined) by the scene that follows, in which we hear again of two sons who are theoretically equal—except of course that they are not: “But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet who is yet no dearer in my account,” 1.1. 19-21. All of these assurances of balance and equity inevitably create some discomfort when Lear finally enters and declares his “darker purpose” in one of greatest enjambments in literature: “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom” (1.1. 34, 35-6).