The ageing King Lear, no longer wishing to bear the burdens of kingship, announces that he intends to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters. Each must state how much she loves him - he will then judge which daughter loves him best. The winner of the 'love test' will receive the largest portion of his kingdom. Goneril and Regan flatter their father and are duly rewarded, but Cordelia, Lear's youngest and favourite daughter, is unable to do this. Her short but sincere speech angers the king, who disinherits her, leaving her without a dowry. Her share of the kingdom is then divided between her hypocritical and insincere sisters. Lear also banishes his loyal servant, Kent, who intervenes on Cordelia's behalf. The King of France is so impressed with Cordelia, however, that he takes her as his bride even without a dowry. King Lear announces that he will stay with Goneril and Regan on an alternate monthly basis and will keep a retinue of one hundred knights, which they are to provide for.
Cordelia leaves for France. Kent resolves to continue serving Lear in disguise.
Edmund, Edgar's bastard brother, plots to discredit him in the eyes of their father, Gloucester, in order to receive Edgar's inheritance. Gloucester falls for his cunning plan. Edmund warns Edgar to flee Gloucester's rage. Gloucester calls for Edgar's death. Aware of the grave danger he faces, Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, a Bedlam beggar.
Lear goes to stay with Goneril, where he soon finds himself unwelcome. She criticizes the behaviour of his knights and his Fool, and orders him to reduce the size of his retinue. Lear is appalled by the complete change in her attitude towards him. He curses her, and with his Fool leaves for Regan's court, sending Kent before...