The play begins in King Lear's palace where the Earl of Kent and Gloucester are discussing the King's plans to divide his kingdom. King Lear, an elder man who rules Britain, wishes to "retire" from his responsibilities as king, but retain his royal title. He plans to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters: Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. In order to determine which share each of the daughters should get, he proposes to make his gifts dependent upon how each of his daughters tells how much they love him. Goneril, who is married to the Duke of Albany, and Regan, who is married to the Duke of Cornwall, acknowledges their love for the King. This is most pleasing to the King, causing him to give each of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, a large portion of his kingdom.

          He then turns to Cordelia, his favorite daughter, to hear her answer and is expecting to hear a more powerful response. To his surprise Cordelia's expresses only her basic love and duty to her father. This causes the King to become enraged at her. Cordelia's response to King Lear has caused him to cast her off completely and will be given to either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France.

          While King Lear is still enraged Kent, who is devoted to the King, suggests that he reconsider what he has decided to do. This causes King Lear to ban Kent from his kingdom too.