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qualunquemente Lear…

King Lear, protagonista dell’omonima tragedia di Shakespeare, aveva deciso di dividere il suo regno in tre parti e di assegnarle alle tre figlie in ragione dell’amore che loro avrebbero dichiarato; le prime due si lanciarono in promesse spropositate e magniloquenti attestazioni mentre la terza, Cordelia, disse di amarlo “per quanto era in suo dovere”. Due sostanziose parti di regno andarono alle prime due mentre la terza sarebbe rimasta senza dote.

È considerata la tragedia dell’ingratitudine perché le figlie maggiori, Goneril e Reagan, a dispetto delle dichiarazioni di folle amore, avrebbero ricambiato la generosità del padre in modo tutt’altro che leale e l’unica a comportarsi in maniera corretta fino alla fine sarebbe stata proprio Cordelia, quella che meno si era sbilanciata; la mia personale perplessità è sul livello di conoscenza e comunicazione tra padre e figlie, se davvero si possa misurare l’amore  filiale e assegnare un’eredità solo in base al linguaggio.
Il grande insegnamento di questa tragedia è che si comincia a vedere chiaramente quando si va al di là dell’approccio sensoriale e si cerca la Verità profonda delle cose; succede a Lear, quando si accorge del vero amore di Cordelia, e al conte Gloucester, quando, ormai cieco, realizza cosa è davvero successo tra i suoi due figli. “Solo i ciechi vedono bene“, scriveva Victor Hugo.

L’altra sera, volendo muovere verso piú faceta prospettiva, mi è venuto in mente cosa avrebbe detto Lear a Cordelia se, piuttosto che essere re di Britannia, fosse stato Cetto La Qualunque:

“Ah, caina! Ah, bastasa!

Non ti sputo per non lavarti, non (CENSURA)!

Gonerilla i Regan sunnu ddu bravi figghioli, parraru ‘ngarbati

i a iddi ‘nciu lassu u regnu!

A ‘ttia sai chi ti rugnu, bastasa?

‘Na beata (CENSURA)!

Vatindi in Francia,

cu’ ‘ddu stortu chi ti difindiu, non mi ti viru cchiú innanzi all’occhi!”

La traduzione è probabilmente intuibile… Chi volesse, invece, una trattazione piú ortodossa, può leggere una vecchia tesina:

King Lear was first printed in 1608. This initial printing is now referred to as the First Quarto. Another Quarto version was printed in 1619, and King Lear appeared again in a 1623 Folio edition. The exact date of composition is not known, so scholars often try to base the point in time on references in the play itself. Although the text was not printed until 1608, the play was performed in December 1606. Because of this uncertainty and the textual references, the composition of King Lear may have taken place anywhere from 1604 to 1606.
The story of King Lear and his daughters was a familiar tale in Elizabethan England, where it was generally believed to be based on historical fact, having been taken from ancient British history. A legal case of the times also may be due credit for contributing to the drama. In an act that generated extensive publicity, two daughters attempted to have their father declared insane so that they might seize his estate. The younger daughter, Cordell, objected.
Shakespeare may have turned to other sources as well in exploring this ancient story.
According to Pratz, King Lear’s story seems to have a precedent even in the ‘Mahabharata’, the ancient Indian poem, at least for the story of Edmnund and Edgar.
In so far, Lear’s story appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, published about 1135; is repeated in Raphael Holinshed’s 1577 book, Chronicles of England, which includes an ending in which Cordelia and Lear both survive her sisters’ treachery. Cordelia succeeds her father to the throne, upon his death; but she is later imprisoned and commits suicide. The John Higgens 1574 edition of Mirror for Magistrates introduces the name of Albany and includes a story of Cordelia, in which she commits suicide— something, that does not occur in the older play. The Lear story is also retold in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem, The Faerie Queene, where Cordelia commits suicide by hanging.
The True Chronicle of King Leir is first entered into the Stationers’s register in 1594, although there is no record of its publication until the 1605 edition appears. This source, while containing the basic Lear story, is grounded in Christianity, something not contained in the story of the ancient Leir or in Shakespeare’s Lear.
Anyway, in base of the historical context, after a long period of political uncertainty, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have been horrified at Lear’s choice to divide his kingdom and so, create disunity: an idea of genius, for a dramaturge.
Of course, Shakespeare’s King Lear is a five-act tragedy, like the most part of Elizabethan theatre.
Act I: Scene 1
The scene opens in King Lear’s palace. A conversation between Kent, Gloucester, and Gloucester’s son Edmund introduces the play’s primary plot: The king is planning to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The audience also learns that Gloucester has two sons. The older, Edgar, is his legitimate heir, and the younger, Edmund, is illegitimate; however, Gloucester loves both sons equally. This information provides the subplot.
King Lear enters to a fanfare of trumpets, followed by his two sons-in-law — Albany and Cornwall — and his three daughters — Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Lear announces that he has divided his kingdom into three shares to be given to his daughters as determined by their declarations of love for him. Goneril, as the eldest, speaks first. She tells her father that her love for him is boundless. Regan, as the middle child, speaks next. Her love, she says, is even greater than Goneril’s.
Finally, it is Cordelia’s turn to express the depth of her love for her royal father. But when queried by Lear, Cordelia replies that she loves him as a daughter should love a father, no more and no less. She reminds her father that she also will owe devotion to a husband when she marries, and therefore cannot honestly tender all her love toward her father. Lear sees Cordelia’s reply as rejection; in turn, he disowns Cordelia, saying that she will now be “a stranger to my heart and me” (I.1.114). King Lear then divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, giving each an equal share.
Kent interferes by asking Lear to reconsider his rash action. Lear is not swayed, and in anger, he banishes Kent for defending Cordelia and for confronting the king.
At Kent’s departure, the King of France and Duke of Burgundy enter, both of whom are suitors for Cordelia’s hand in marriage. They are told that Cordelia will not receive a dowry or inheritance from her father. The Duke withdraws his suit, because a wife without a dowry is of no use to him. In contrast, the King of France claims that Cordelia is a prize, even without her share of Lear’s kingdom, and announces his intent to marry Cordelia.
Cordelia bids her sisters farewell, and leaves with the King of France. When Goneril and Regan are left alone, the two sisters reveal their plan to discredit the king.
This scene introduces most of the primary characters and establishes both the main plot and a subplot. In the opening conversation, Gloucester speaks of Edmund’s illegitimate birth in what can be described aptly as Elizabethan locker-room talk. Although Gloucester loves his illegitimate son Edmund and his legitimate son Edgar equally, Elizabethan society does not regard the two men as equals. Edmund realizes that his chances of a prosperous future are limited because he was born second and will not receive an equal inheritance under laws of primogeniture, which name the eldest son heir to his father’s possessions. Gloucester relates to Kent that Edmund has been away seeking his fortune, but now he has returned — perhaps believing that he can find his fortune at home.
Initially, Lear appears to be a strong ruler, a monarch who has decided to divide his kingdom. Lear’s choice will provide one clear benefit: Albany and Cornwall will be in charge of the outlying areas of his kingdom, which have not been easily governed. Lear plans to place Cordelia, with himself as her guest, in the center section. Lear recognizes that he is growing older and explains his decision to divide his kingdom by saying:
’tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburden’d crawl toward death. (I.1.37-40)
By delegating his royal authority to his daughters, Lear creates chaos within his family and his kingdom not unlike the civil distress experienced by Shakespeare’s audience, who had survived years of civil war and division and, consequently, would have been horrified at Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom. Moreover, Lear is depicted as a wise ruler — he has, after all, held the country together successfully for many years. He should have, then, the ability to detect his older daughters’ falseness. This flaw in Lear leads the audience to think him either mad or stupid; maybe, he cannot recognize Goneril and Regan’s deceit because he does not know them well enough.
Goneril and Regan’s expressions of love are so extreme that they are questionable as rational responses to Lear’s test. Cordelia’s reply is honest, but Lear cannot recognize honesty amid the flattery, which he craves. Of course, Lear is not being honest either when he asks Cordelia, “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I.1.84-85). Lear plans to reward Cordelia’s expected exaltation with a larger portion of his kingdom than that allotted to her sisters. The shares should be equal, but Lear clearly loves Cordelia more. Cordelia loves Lear according to the bonds of a blood relationship, as paternity demands.
Like Cordelia, Kent is honest with the king, providing a voice of reason. Kent sees Lear making a mistake and tells him so. The depth of Lear’s anger toward Kent suggests excessive pride — Lear cannot be wrong. Cordelia’s answer injures Lear’s pride; he needs her excessive protestations of love to justify giving her the choicer parcel of land. Lear’s intense anger toward Kent also suggests the fragility of the king’s emotional state.
The Duke of Burgundy cannot love Cordelia without her dowry, but the King of France points out that she is a prize as great as any dowry and correctly recognizes that Burgundy is guilty of selfish self-interest. France’s reply to Cordelia reveals that he is, indeed, worthy of Cordelia’s love:
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor, Most choice, forsaken, and most lov’d, despis’d! Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon, Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away. (I.1.249-252)
Goneril replies that Cordelia deserves to be banished. Additional foreshadowing is supplied by Goneril and Regan’s promise that if Lear becomes too much of a nuisance, they will have to deal with him accordingly. The first scene ends with Regan acknowledging that Lear isn’t just weak because of old age, but that he has never really known himself — or his daughters. Regan’s complaint reveals much about the relationship that Lear has with his daughters. Act I: Scene 2 Edmund enters the scene — set in the Earl of Gloucester’s house — talking out loud to himself. In this soliloquy, Edmund figuratively asks Nature why society sees him as inferior to his brother Edgar simply because he is not his father’s legitimate firstborn. Edmund’s soliloquy reveals his plan to undermine his brother’s position by tricking his father with a forged letter, which he presents to Gloucester in this scene. Edmund also succeeds in convincing Edgar that he’s looking out for his brother’s safety when he suggests that Edgar carry a weapon as protection from their father’s anger — a wrath, Edmund intimates, that’s directed toward Edmund. Edmund’s musings offer insight into his unhappiness. Edmund feels that each brother, equally loved, should share equally in his father’s bounty. But there is no equality under the current law, and Edmund’s ideal is not reality. Edmund asks why he is not as respected as his brother: When my dimensions are as well compact, My mind as generous, and my shape as true, An honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base? (I.2.7-10) Edmund rejects the laws of state and society in favor of the laws he sees as eminently more practical and useful — the laws of superior cunning and strength. Edmund’s willingness to seize what he wants invokes laws of nature, although not the natural laws familiar to Elizabethan audiences in a class-defined society. Instead, Edmund supports survival of the fittest, an animalistic nature not based on human morality and common decency. Edmund says that he will take what he deserves through wit, even if he is not entitled by birth. This resolve is an affront to the nature that Edgar addresses in his opening soliloquy; underestimating the force of nature will also prove critical to Edmund’s downfall. Edmund appears to be a villain without a conscience, selfishly driven to secure his own needs. He has solid economic and emotional reasons for his actions; he may also have overheard his father describe the “good sport at his making” (I.1.22). If so, Edmund’s actions reveal a desire for personal revenge. The cavalier attitude with which Gloucester dismisses Edmund’s paternity further reinforces the difference between Edmund and Edgar. Where Edgar is entitled to his father’s name, his title, and his property, Edmund is entitled to nothing but the coarse jesting that accompanied his conception. Gloucester ignores any possibility that his youngest son may resent this easy dismissal of both Edmund’s birth and his future prospects, but Edmund finds in his father’s thoughtless words a reason to destroy him. Edmund condemns his father’s age in the forged letter by suggesting that old men should step down and give control to those who are younger. Gloucester is referred to as an aged tyrant who desires to maintain control in order to keep his sons from receiving their inheritances. Just as Lear condemned the guiltless Cordelia, Gloucester now condemns the innocent Edgar, who has no knowledge of the false letter. The irony of the letter’s message — that the old should be displaced — proves true for Gloucester. He buys into Edmund’s trickery. Gloucester asserts that the sun and moon play a role in current events. Gloucester absolves himself of any responsibility for his actions by giving power to the stars. Relying on astrological signs makes it easier to accept that Edgar might betray his father: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us” (I.2.100-101). This reflection echoes Lear’s earlier statement about the astrological influences on man’s life: “By all the operation of the orbs / From whom we do exist and cease to be”
(I.1.110-111). Both fathers count on the stars to provide an excuse for their children’s actions. But Edmund has his own opinion of these astrological signs, of which he says: This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and teachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! (I.2.115-125). Edmund acknowledges that man is ultimately responsible for his actions. Gloucester’s reliance on the stars appears to support Edmund’s contention that his father is a witless old man. Edgar’s innate honesty and dignity make accepting Edmund’s duplicity easy; he cannot imagine that his brother would lie to him since Edgar would not lie to his brother. Edmund easily convinces Edgar that he should arm himself against their father, a man whom Edgar loves.
Act I: Scene 3
Set in the palace of Goneril and the Duke of Albany, this scene opens with Goneril asking her steward, Oswald, if Lear struck him for making fun of the king’s Fool. Oswald confirms the encounter. Goneril, enraged, instructs Oswald to keep Lear waiting when he needs something, and if the king is unhappy with this treatment, he should be told to move to Regan’s palace. Goneril then commands her servants to treat the king’s company with coldness since the knights’ lewd behavior is creating a disturbance in her household.
Goneril had promised that if her father proves to be a nuisance, she will deal with him accordingly. Now, Goneril does just that by refusing to respond to the needs of the king and his entourage. She is calling the shots now, and Lear is never to regain control again. He may see himself as king, but Goneril views him as a doddering old fool, one she refers to as an “Idle old man” (I.3.17).
Goneril reveals her true character: she defies the hierarchy of nature, which calls for daughters to respect and honor their fathers, and the love she had professed in order to gain control of half of his kingdom.
Oswald seems to be more familiar with Goneril than customary used in a lady/steward association. As Goneril gives him the authority to treat the king rudely, it is apparent that the steward’s position is not simply that of a servant. Oswald, in fact, runs the household, wielding a significant amount of authority over other servants.
Act I: Scene 4
The setting is a hall in Goneril’s palace. Kent, earlier banished by Lear, reappears in disguise as Caius. Lear enters and begins asking Kent questions about his identity and his intent. Kent’s responses are vague, but he asserts his loyalty and willingness to serve the king. Kent’s obvious admiration impresses Lear.
When the king asks to see Goneril, Oswald leaves without responding to the request. A knight reports that Goneril is unwell and unavailable. The knight also tells Lear that all the members of Goneril’s household are treating the king’s entourage rudely.
Goneril enters, complaining about the king’s Fool and his unruly knights, and demands that Lear reduce the number of knights in his service. In anger, the king declares that he will pack up his people and move to Regan’s palace, where he is sure to receive a warmer reception.
The king was not prepared to confront Goneril and her steward. At other times, Lear responds to problems with outbursts of cursing, even a physical attack when provoked; in this scene, on the contrary, Lear is almost out of control when he answers Oswald’s insulting address: “My Lady’s father! My lord’s knave, you whoreson dog, you slave, you cur!” (I.4.79-80).
Lear is helpless, at the mercy of his daughter and her servants. The once-omnipotent king has no effective means of dealing with these events, except with anger. Kings are used to making rules, not following them. And thus, Lear responds to Oswald’s insults with swearing and by striking him. Another response to his dilemma is expressed in self-pity. As he finally recognizes the precariousness of his new position, Lear strikes his own head and curses his misfortune (I.4.268-270).
The Fool enters the play for the first time, the same function of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy: he requires a careful study, because sometimes seems to be rubbing salt in Lear’s wounds, rather than acting as the king’s advocate ( only the foolish people say the truth, someone said). Anyway, he loves the king sincerely, just as Cordelia. In a particular meaning, the Fool looks for another fool in Kent, who is “fool” in the loyalty toward the king who has banished him from the kingdom, and also is his ally, even.
Goneril accuses Lear of not only failing to control his men but also encouraging their disruptive behavior. No doubt Goneril has suffered from this misconduct, which the king refuses to address. Instead of responding to these concerns, Lear replies by asking, “Are you our daughter?” (I.4.216).
As the conflict between father and daughter escalates, Lear turns inward and questions who he is. Can Lear be king when he has given away his kingdom? What Lear has relied upon as truth is no longer trustworthy; his reality has changed. His daughter is not obedient, nor does she treat him with the respect due a father and a king. Even her servants deny him the high regard generally granted to a sovereign.
In conversation with the Fool, Lear echoes Cordelia’s words from Scene 1 and finally realizes he has treated Cordelia poorly, admitting his mistake.
Albany has no real role in the disbursement of the king’s property. He attempts to calm the king, but Lear is beyond patience and refuses to listen to him, although he has admired him in the past. Albany obviously is concerned for the king’s welfare, but
he lacks the strength to stand up to his wife, Goneril, and thus, he cannot control her. Albany is Goneril’s opposite, gentle and kind as compared with his wife’s cruel and self-serving demeanor.
Act I: Scene 5
The setting for this brief scene is outside Goneril’s palace. Lear instructs Kent to go at once to Regan’s palace and deliver a letter. As Kent leaves, the Fool attempts to distract the king with silly remarks, but their content points ironically to Lear’s actions. The torment of the king is obvious as he laments his treatment of Cordelia. Lear expresses his first concerns, a premonition, for his sanity. Soon the horses are ready, and the king begins his journey to his second daughter’s palace.
In this scene, the king is clearly frightened and apprehensive for his future, although he continues to hope that Regan can be counted upon to provide him with sanctuary. Lear also expresses fear for his sanity: “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad. Keep me in temper, I would not be mad” (I.5.43-44).
This brief plea also contains a prayer to a divinity. Although the setting of King Lear predates Christianity, Lear still relies upon a god to guide and protect him. The Fool continues to remind the king of the mistakes he has made and the precarious position in which he has placed himself. The Fool appears cruel once again, but Lear finally begins to understand that his foolishness has led to this current state of affairs.
The king’s thoughts once again turn to remorse for his behavior toward Cordelia: “I did her wrong” (I.5.24). Because this comment is offered without context, it reveals that Lear has noted a flash of insight into his own conduct, actions that he has come to regret.
Act II: Scene 1
The setting is the Earl of Gloucester’s castle. As the scene opens, Curan, a courier, tells Edmund that Regan and Cornwall will be arriving that evening. Curan also mentions rumors of a feud between Cornwall and Albany.
Edmund expresses excitement over Cornwall’s visit because he imagines that he can involve the duke in his plans to discredit Edgar. As a means to that end, Edmund implies brotherly concern as he coaxes Edgar to slip away under the cover of night. Edmund suggests that Cornwall suspects Edgar of aiding his enemy, Albany. Edgar, innocent and unaware of any of this plotting, agrees to flee to protect himself. In another ploy to blemish Edgar’s reputation, Edmund engages his brother in a fake battle, intentionally wounding himself to draw Gloucester’s sympathy.
In response to Edmund’s explanation of his brother’s attack, Gloucester promises to find Edgar and bring him to justice. Gloucester also pledges to make Edmund his heir.
Regan and Cornwall enter. Without hesitation, they fall for Edmund’s story and join in condemning Edgar. Cornwall proclaims that Edmund shall join forces with him. Regan and Cornwall flatter Gloucester by asking his advice on an appropriate response to letters received from Lear and Goneril.
Curan’s report of strife between Albany and Cornwall helps illustrate that Lear’s division of his kingdom is a mistake. Scholars think that Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have expected such a conflict since the English know, all too well, that insurrection and conflict between petty lords requires a strong centralized government to maintain control. Curan’s disclosure is, at this moment, unimportant, except that Edmund sees the information as useful to his plotting.
Edmund, an opportunist, takes advantage of Curan’s report and accelerates his plans by calling Edgar out of hiding and creating a mock battle. By self-inflicting a minor wound, Edmund makes Edgar look like a villain. Gloucester is fooled easily by the staged sounds and blood of battle. With the physical evidence before his eyes, Gloucester believes Edmund’s story. Edmund also convinces his father of Edgar’s attack by carefully selecting his words:
Spoke with how manifold and strong a bond The child was bound to th’ father; Sir in fine, Seeing how loathly opposite I stood To his unnatural purpose, in fell motion, With his prepared sword he charges home My unprovided body, launch’d arm. (II.1.46-51)
Here, Edmund speaks as a hero, the so-called “good guy,” who stands up to evil at the risk of his own life. In Shakespeare’s time, the testimony of a legitimate son would weigh more significantly than that of an illegitimate son; but in this instance, Edgar is not available to present his position. Gloucester easily accepts the illegitimate son’s words, while rejecting a lifetime of evidence of Edgar’s worthiness, illustrating how out of step the world has become with nature. According to natural order, years of devotion and love should lead to trust, but with the events of Act I, fathers no longer trust their children’s love. Instead, fathers are easily fooled into rejecting the children who love them most. Cornwall’s acceptance of Edmund’s story and his welcoming of Edmund into his clique foreshadow the evil that will emerge from Cornwall and provide a hint to the audience that Cornwall is not the nice guy he appears to be. As for Edmund, Cornwall’s invitation offers him the chance to ally himself with Cornwall. Gloucester, playing the part of a gullible old man, has no real reason to distrust either Edmund or Cornwall — neither has proven untrustworthy in the past.
Act II: Scene 2
The setting is just outside Gloucester’s castle. Kent and Oswald arrive separately to deliver letters to Regan. Oswald does not immediately recognize Kent. The steward is confused when Kent denounces him and condemns his lack of integrity. When Oswald denies knowing him, Kent draws his sword and begins to beat the steward. Oswald’s cries for help draw the attention of the castle’s occupants, who come to his rescue. In answer to Cornwall’s query about the encounter, Kent attacks Oswald’s personality, his lack of honesty, and even his appearance. Cornwall defends Oswald and orders that Kent be placed in stocks.
Gloucester intervenes, reminding Regan and Cornwall that the king will consider their action against his messenger as an indignity, but Regan suggests that insulting Goneril’s steward is a more grievous offense. All exit but Gloucester, who apologizes to Kent for his mistreatment. When he is left alone, Kent reads a letter from Cordelia, which promises that she will somehow intervene on her father’s behalf.
Initially, Oswald appears to be the wronged party, while Kent is a rude thug, just looking to start a fight. Kent’s attack on Oswald is a reaction to the steward’s dishonesty and to his purpose in fulfilling Goneril’s orders. Oswald’s character is evil, and Kent’s reaction, while seemingly unwarranted, is in keeping with his own highly developed sense of morality.
Oswald, on the other hand, is Goneril’s toady, a henchman without honor, and he is willingly rude to the king. Oswald adds to this negative perception when he fails to defend himself against Kent’s attack. When his cries for help attract Cornwall, Oswald then lies that he has spared his attacker’s life because Kent is an old man. All of these events portray Oswald as weak and dishonest. Oswald is, as Kent suggests, a parasite who thrives off Goneril’s evil machinations and who makes her deceit easier to maintain.
Cornwall’s mistrust of Kent’s honest speech assumes that, by saying what he means, Kent must be lying. This response to Kent’s plain and truthful declarations indicates that Cornwall, who uses artifice as a substitute for honesty in his own speech, cannot recognize truth when he hears it. Cornwall assumes that, because he is willing to lie and often does so, that all other men must do the same.
Traditionally, the king’s emissary is the king in loco, and is accorded every respect and honor given the king, where he present. So, Kent must be treated as the king, since when the king is not present, his emissary represents him and deserves the same treatment that Lear would receive. Placing Kent in the stocks is the same as placing Lear in the stocks. This action is a serious insult to the king.
The scene ends with Kent reading a letter from Cordelia, but how Cordelia has learned of Lear’s difficulty in this short span of time is not evident. The audience is expected to simply accept the incongruity of the letter’s existence.
Act II: Scene 3
The scene opens on Edgar, alone in the woods. In his soliloquy, Edgar relates that he is aware of his outlaw status. Thus far, he has escaped capture by hiding in the “happy hollow of a tree” (II.3.2), but he knows that to remain free, he must mask himself.
Edgar lays forth a plan in which he will disguise himself as a Bedlam beggar, smearing dirt on his face and body, tying his hair in knots, and covering his body with a blanket. In this costume, he will be known as Poor Tom.
With Gloucester and Cornwall’s men pursuing him, Edgar hides in the hollow of a tree. Believing that no one will look closely at a deranged beggar, Edgar covers himself with dirt, signs of injury, and a blanket as his humble attire.
The choice to assume a mantle of madness provides Edgar with the perfect disguise, but the decision also parallels the loss of sanity that soon envelops Lear. The difference will be one of choice and invention: Lear will not be pretending. As Edgar clothes himself in madness, he becomes Poor Tom and ceases to be Edgar. The change is essential if Edgar is to move safely out of hiding while investigating the wrongful accusations against him. As Poor Tom, Edgar has a chance at survival. As Edgar, he is doomed.
Edgar ends his soliloquy with “That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am” (II.3.21): to survive under his new circumstances, Edgar must cease to exist.
Act II: Scene 4
Lear and his followers arrive at Gloucester’s castle. Kent hails the king, who promptly asks who has placed his messenger in stocks. Lear refuses to believe that Regan and Cornwall would imprison and humiliate someone in the king’s employ.
Regan and Cornwall decline speaking to the king, claiming fatigue from their journey. While Gloucester searches out the couple and secures Kent’s release, the king’s Fool presents a steady commentary on surrounding events — in prose and verse. Ushered to the scene by Gloucester, Regan greets her father with seeming affection, and Lear details the sorrow that Goneril has caused him. Regan urges Lear to restrain himself and behave as befits a man of his age. Regan also advises Lear to seek Goneril’s forgiveness, which provokes the king to anger and cursing. With Oswald and Goneril now present, Cornwall admits to Lear that he ordered Kent’s punishment.
Lear’s disgust and disillusionment are further compounded when Regan refuses to host her father and his full complement of knights. Goneril, conspiring with her sister, proposes that Lear dismiss his entire entourage. The king, angered by his daughters’ rejection, calls for his horse. Lear states that he would rather live outside under the stars or beg shelter in France than stay in the company of those who disrespect his proper place as father and king. Regan and Goneril instruct Gloucester not to stop their father from venturing into the night. Regan and Goneril remain unmoved and unconcerned that the old king is going forth into a severe storm.
In this scene, Lear is initially bewildered by Regan and Cornwall’s absence, since Lear sent advance notice of his arrival. This departure from accepted rules of hospitality truly upsets the king. Next, Lear is amazed to discover that Cornwall is responsible for placing Kent in the stocks. At several points, Lear is so angry he can hardly speak (II.4.92-93, 100-101) and he can barely compose a rational sentence. The suggestion that he return to Goneril’s palace infuriates Lear. He is most impassioned when he urges divine retribution against Goneril (II.4.159-160, 162-165). Although Lear had earlier made some small effort to regain control (II.4.55-56), he cannot maintain composure in Goneril’s presence.
In many respects, Lear is in denial, as when he seeks an excuse for Cornwall’s behavior: “may be he is not well” (II.4.102). And when Goneril appears, Lear first pleads with her for sympathy, and then indulges in self-pity: “Art not asham’d to look upon this beard?” (II.4.188-191). Even more pleading and self-pity is evident in his later address to both daughters: “You see here, you Gods, a poor old man, / As full of grief as age; wretched in both!” (II.4.270-271).
Anger has not moved either Regan or Goneril, and groveling will be similarly ineffective, but Lear desperately tries to regain some order in a life in which he has abdicated control. In many ways, Lear appears almost resigned, as he acknowledges that Goneril is “my flesh, my blood, my daughter” (II.4.219). But he also concedes that she is of “my corrupted blood” (II.4.223), and thus, he accepts responsibility for her actions. His choices as her father have determined her choices as his daughter. All of these emotional responses cannot change the reality of his new life, nor do they provide an effective way to deal with solving the problems created by his hasty actions in Act I.
Lear tries to retain the rights and demeanor of a king, although he remains king in name only. When he orders that Regan and Cornwall appear, he expects them to do so. But Gloucester’s response — “I have inform’d them so” (II.4.95) — indicates a new order. Regan agrees to speak to the king, but clearly on her terms. Lear wants to remain in charge of his destiny, even though the choices he makes are poor or filled with danger.
Lear ventures out into the storm of his own accord, although Cornwall makes certain that any prospect of return for sanctuary is met with locked doors. The king would rather face a dark and turbulent night, even if it means sleeping in the open, than keep the company of daughters who require that he give up his followers.
Regan initially appears to be a more sympathetic and gentle daughter. She greets Lear with politeness, but her deportment is deceptive. Regan has no real reverence for her royal father. Goneril has already revealed herself to be openly harsh and unyielding, but Regan is more competent at deception, easily assuming the mantle of respect and politeness that a gracious daughter is expected to display. And yet, the results are still the same. Her kindness is only a momentary deception. Like Goneril, Regan proves herself to be unyielding and cruel. Neither shows any love, tenderness, understanding, or gratitude toward their father who gave them his entire kingdom.
In this section, Shakespeare focuses on what loyalty means to several of these characters. Gloucester is depicted as an impotent old man, given to making peace and offering soothing remarks. He is loyal to Lear, but ineffectual in his loyalty. Kent is also loyal to the king and rejects the Fool’s advice to find a protector who is on the ascent and not the descent. It is possible to regard the Fool’s advice as a test of Kent’s loyalty. If this is a test, Kent easily passes. Kent is loyal to the king, as is the Fool, who declines to take his own advice — because he is a fool, he says. In fact, the suggestion that Kent should find a protector who is on the ascent is what Edmund has already done. Edmund sees Cornwall as the stronger of the sisters’ husbands, and so he links his prospects to those of Cornwall. But, unlike Gloucester, Kent, and the Fool, Edmund’s ultimate loyalty is to himself.
The coming storm signals the disarray in Lear’s life. He is a sad character, unable to slow the momentum of the events he has set in motion. Lear sets out into the storm in an effort to regain some purpose in his life before it slips away. Lear’s bewilderment at his circumstance, the loss of his daughter’s respect, and the loss of his kingship all serve to make Lear a sympathetic character. His attempts to retain dignity, rather than dismiss his knights — which represent the kingliness and power of his previous life — add to this sense of sympathy. He leaves into the storm, and rather than wait for his daughters to reject him one more time, he rejects them. In leaving, Lear attempts to seize some small control over his life. The storm is the perfect venue for Lear. Nature, which has established the natural order for king and father, has also made man a creature dependent on love for survival. The king’s daughters, who are unnatural in their lack of allegiance to their father and who have rejected the bonds of blood or social order, have deprived Lear of the love and respect that he feels he deserves and that he expects. In his moment of despair, Lear turns to nature for escape.
Act III: Scene 1
The setting is the heath in a raging storm. Conversing with a gentleman Kent learns that Lear and his Fool are out in the storm. Kent relates that Albany and Cornwall are pretending amicability. Kent also divulges that spies have been sent from France to observe the treatment of the king and the king of France has been apprised of this information and is moving with an invasion force to offer assistance to Lear. Kent instructs the gentleman to go quickly to Dover, and when there, to make known the treatment that Lear has suffered. Kent gives the messenger a ring for delivery to Cordelia. This signet jewelry will disclose Kent’s identity. Kent also mentions a possible crack in the alliance between Albany and Cornwall, although they have sought to keep the information private. Albany should not be as ruthless as Cornwall, but at this time, we have no reason to believe that Albany would spare Lear. If the two dukes are trying to conceal a possible rift, they may be working closely together — making Albany equally untrustworthy. Kent leaves to search for Lear.
The king’s appearance, reflecting the turmoil of a familial tragedy, is as ravaged as the natural landscape under the assault of the storm. It is clear from the description that the storm is fierce, but so too is Lear’s grief. However, Lear is not alone, and so, we also learn that the Fool shares his master’s fate, to be cast out into the storm. In the Fool’s earlier appearances, he functioned much as a Greek Chorus would, commenting upon the action and pointing out to Lear when he has erred. But in this scene, there is a new reason for the Fool’s existence. As he attempts to ease his king’s dilemma, it becomes clear that the Fool’s new purpose is to protect Lear until Cordelia can arrive to help her father.
Act III: Scene 2
The scene opens on Lear in the midst of wind, rain, and personal despair. Lear’s mood matches the intensity of nature’s turbulence as he rages against his daughters’ abusive treatment. The Fool attempts to reason with his king, noting that the shelter of a dry house, even one gained by losing face, is superior to a stay in the storm’s fury. But Lear will have no part of submission, especially before his daughters. Kent arrives and points to a nearby hovel, which promises some protection, while he returns to Gloucester’s castle to ask that they admit the king. The Fool, alone, remains on stage to proclaim a prophecy.
As Lear calls upon the storm to unleash its fury on the world, he also cries out for the destruction of ungrateful man: “Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once / That make ingrateful man!” (III.2.8-9). By destroying the molds that nature uses to
create men, the genetic code of life will be lost. In this instance, Lear is without hope; his despondency is so great that it approaches nihilism, a belief in nothing.
Lear continues to wallow in self-pity as he labels himself “A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man” (III.2.20). Lear willingly submits to the strength of the storm rather than seek shelter or fight for his sanity. He has fallen so far from the strong monarch who began the play that he has strength only to wish for utter destruction. And yet, Lear remains a sympathetic character, one who fears for his own mental balance — “My wits begin to turn” (III.2.68) — and one also who can express concern for his companion’s comfort — “How dost my boy? Art cold?” (III.2.68).
Lear is revealed as a complex man, one whose punishment far exceeds his foolish errors, and thus, Lear is deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The Fool’s final speech presents a contrast between the reality of the world he and Lear are experiencing and a utopian world, where justice and goodness replace evil.
Act III: Scene 3
The setting is Gloucester’s castle, where Gloucester and Edmund are conversing. In the previous scenes, Gloucester appeared weak and foolish, nothing more than a silly old man, easily tricked by Edmund; but in this scene, the earl proves that he is willing to sacrifice his own life for the king by disobeying Regan and Cornwall. Gloucester tells his son that when he asked Regan and Cornwall to leave, so that he might offer aid to Lear, they seized his house. Now Gloucester is little more than a prisoner in his own home, forbidden to even speak to the king. Gloucester also tells Edmund that he has heard of a plan to revenge the king’s injuries, unaware that he is divulging the plans to a traitor. This genuinely heroic behavior sets Gloucester apart from Edmund. An opportunist, Edmund takes advantage of his father’s trust, seizing the chance to win Cornwall’s favor; alone, plans to reveal the plan to aid the king.
Act III: Scene 4
Although Kent directs Lear to a hovel for shelter, the king refuses to protect himself from the storm.
The Fool runs from the hovel, exclaiming that a spirit has taken possession of the shelter. The spirit, who soon emerges, is Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, pitiful pauper. The king tears off his own clothing, making himself look more like the unclad Poor Tom. Gloucester enters the scene, carrying a torch. He has found both warm shelter and food for the king, but Lear declines, claiming that he needs to talk more with the Bedlam beggar. The disguised Edgar complains of the cold and everyone moves into the shelter.
Much of this scene focuses on Lear’s mental disintegration:
Poor naked wretches, wherso’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loo’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? (III.4.28-32).
These words are regretful, remorseful, empathetic, and compassionate for the poor, a population that Lear has not noticed before. Lear recognizes the parallels between their lives and his current situation. In a real sense, his pity for the poor is also a reflection of the pity he feels for his own situation. He finally feels compassion for the poor, only because he has become one of them.
Lear realizes that he has done nothing to aid the poor people in his kingdom. Instead, he has contributed their demise. He chastises himself saying:
O! I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just. (III.4.32-36).
Lear acknowledges that justice comes from man and heaven and the king, as a God representative, shares the responsibility for dispensing justice on earth. He recognizes that he bears responsibility for both his own problems and for those of others, who suffer equally.
The turmoil in Lear’s mind makes him oblivious to the weather storm that surrounds him, and his waning lucidity also provides an escape from the reality of his plight.
When Poor Tom emerges from the hovel, Lear sees a mirror image of himself. Lear identifies with Poor Tom because both men have lost everything. Lear imagines that Tom is also the victim of deceitful and cruel daughters. Lear’s identity with Tom is absolute when he removes his clothing to join Tom in near-nakedness. This inability to distinguish himself from Tom is a symptom of Lear’s madness. Paradoxically, Gloucester too fails to recognize his own son, Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom.
Although parallels can be drawn between Gloucester’s situation and Lear’s circumstances, one notable difference remains: Gloucester retains his sanity. Gloucester is aware of how easily he might lose his mind, and he fears it may happen yet (III.4.62-63), but he has an inner strength that Lear does not have, which permits him to survive.
Act III: Scene 5
The setting is Gloucester’s castle. Edmund betrays his father and wins Cornwall’s approval by releasing the details of France’s plan to aid the king. As reward, Edmund gains Gloucester’s title and lands.
In this scene, both Edmund and Cornwall pretend to be virtuous, as each attempts to justify his disloyalty. Clearly, Gloucester and Lear are both victims of two self-serving men — Edmund and Cornwall. Edmund, feigning regret for having betrayed his
father, laments that his nature, which is to honor his father, must now be subordinate to the loyalty he feels for his country. Thus, Edmund makes excuses for betraying his own father. Cornwall’s presence serves to reinforce Edmund’s choice, when he suggests that perhaps Edgar is justified to seek his father’s murder. Cornwall sees Gloucester’s actions as treasonous, and describes him as having a “reproveable badness” (III.5.6). This pronouncement from Cornwall endorses Edmund’s treachery toward his father, and also provides Edmund with a sort of self-righteous justice.
Act III: Scene 6
Gloucester sets out to find food, leaving the king and his party in a farmhouse next to the castle.
The Fool and Edgar take part in Lear’s mock trial of Regan and Goneril. Gloucester enters and reveals that he has learned of a plot to kill the king. The group prepares to take Lear to Dover, where friends can come to his aid.
Edmund’s gibberish about foul fiends certainly fits both Edgar and Lear’s circumstances, since both have been victims of deceit and wickedness. Once they all come in out of the storm, Lear abandons his plans for seeking physical revenge, and instead, decides to place Goneril and Regan on trial. The audience might consider a mock trial as further evidence of Lear’s madness; but a trial is typically a search for the truth — and, often, a search for the motive or reason for an action. Lear, like so many victims, needs to know why this tragedy has happened. Did he deserve such abuse from his daughters? Did his actions contribute in some way to their evil attitudes? To Lear, gaining a grasp of the truth may lead the way to restoring his sanity.
Lear appoints the disguised Edgar and the Fool as judges, and begins the trial of Goneril, whom Lear accuses of kicking him. But the blow Goneril gave to her father was not physical; her injury was to his heart and soul. Lear urges the judges to “anatomize Regan, to see what breeds about her heart” (III.6.74-75). Lear’s words are pointed and painful. Edgar cannot continue to participate, and even the Fool falls silent. Finally, Lear is so exhausted by the strain of the mock trial that he decides to pause for a much-needed rest.
This is the last appearance of the Fool. In his final line, he predicts his death: “I’ll go to bed at noon” (III.6.83). The play never reveals whether the Fool actually dies, since the lines in Act V Scene 3 — “And my poor fool is hang’d” (V.3.304) — refer to Cordelia’s death. The Fool has fulfilled his role, stepping in to take Cordelia’s place after her banishment and disappearing as she reappears.
Lear and his allies heed Gloucester’s warning that the king must flee to Dover. With the king and his forces gone, Gloucester is left alone to face Cornwall’s wrath. After Gloucester also exits, Edgar is left alone on stage. His soliloquy ties together the two parallel plots and points to the similarities between his situation and that of the king’s: “He childed as I father’d!” (III.6.108). The king has cruel children, while Edgar has a cruel father, but Edgar realizes his situation is insignificant compared with that of the king, who has lost both his rule and his mind.
Act IV: Scene 1
The setting is the heath. A blinded Gloucester is led by an elderly man, one of his tenants. The ailing earl laments that he treated Edgar badly and wishes for the opportunity to once again touch his son, since he can no longer see him. Gloucester hears Edgar’s voice and remembers Poor Tom from the night of the storm. In an act of humanity, Gloucester sends his tenant for some clothing so that the Bedlam beggar might be covered.
Gloucester is concerned that the Old Man might suffer for having given assistance, so he dismisses him and asks Tom to be his guide to Dover, where he seeks the highest cliff. Tom agrees to take Gloucester to the cliff.
Edgar’s opening soliloquy reveals his belief that having survived the worst that fortune can throw at him, nothing more terrible can happen; but in fact, Edgar’s acceptance of fortune is tested when the blinded Gloucester is led in. When he sees his father’s condition, Edgar is forced to admit that his situation has disintegrated even further. Gloucester is being led by a tenant, who refuses to leave although his own life is at risk. Their conversation supplies a paradox:
You cannot see your way. [Old Man] I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; [Gloucester] I stumbled when I saw. (IV.1.17-19)
These lines illustrate Gloucester’s failing. When he had his vision, he could not see the deceit fabricated by his younger son, and thus, vision has not helped him see his way in the past. Now that he has lost his vision but finally seen the truth, Gloucester can envision no way in which he can regain the elder son, who is lost to him. For Gloucester, the disadvantage of lost sight has become an advantage (IV.1.20-21), and his only wish is that he might “live to see thee [Edgar] in my touch” (IV.1.23).
In many ways, Gloucester’s response to his tragedy parallels Lear’s. Like Lear, Gloucester feels despair and questions gods who can “kill us for their sport” (IV.1.37). And like Lear, Gloucester finds his humanity in the midst of his tragedy. The blinded old man who asks that clothing be brought, so that Poor Tom might be covered, is a very different man from the Gloucester of Act I. In the play’s opening scene, the earl boasted about the good sport to be had at Edmund’s illegitimate conception. Instead of a thoughtless braggart, Gloucester is filled with compassion for Poor Tom (IV.1.63-70).
This compassion for his fellow man indicates that Gloucester regrets the behavior of his past, as he seeks to make amends by sharing with those he never noticed before. This action parallels the self-awareness that moved Lear to suddenly consider the poor and disadvantaged in Act III, Scene 4. Like Lear, Gloucester questions divine justice, feels despair, evokes nihilism (the belief that life is without reason or purpose), and discovers his own humanity. This scene demonstrates dramatically the parallelism between the primary plot and the subplot.
Act IV: Scene 2
The setting is just outside the Duke of Albany’s palace, where Goneril and Edmund are now present. Oswald enters with news that Albany is a changed man. The steward relates that Albany was pleased to learn of the proposed invasion by France and
displeased when he learned that Gloucester had been replaced by his younger son Edmund, who had betrayed his father. With this announcement, Goneril takes command of her forces and orders Edmund to return to Cornwall while she deals with Albany. As they part, Goneril gives Edmund a favor of her affection and a farewell kiss. After Edmund leaves, Goneril remarks on the favorable impression he makes compared with her weakling husband.
Albany enters and angrily accuses Goneril of being an unnatural daughter. He also accuses Goneril and Regan of being like tigers, who have attacked their aged father. A messenger enters with the announcement that Cornwall has died of the wounds he suffered after blinding Gloucester. Albany is aghast at the news of Gloucester’s torture and calls Cornwall’s death divine justice. Albany vows revenge against Edmund for leaving Gloucester at the mercy of Cornwall.
Goneril is attracted to the young, handsome, and obedient Edmund. Such qualities make him more attractive to her than her own husband. Goneril expects obedience from a man, but she also wants strength and a willingness to take what he desires — characteristics that match her own. The fact that Goneril is married does not appear to be a concern. The steward’s news that Albany’s political and personal alliances have changed only make Edmund more appealing to Goneril.
Albany’s initial remarks to Goneril reveal how much he has changed from the beginning of the play. Albany’s previous hesitation to confront his wife is now replaced by direct address of her wickedness: “You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / blows in your face.” His attack on Goneril’s integrity shows that Albany is a highly moral and humane individual, the antithesis of his wife, and an individual the audience has not witnessed earlier in the play. In his attack on Goneril, Albany’s view of nature is the opposite of his wife’s. Where Goneril has created chaos, Albany endorses nature’s design and a view of nature’s work within an organic framework:
That nature, which contemns it origin, Cannot be border’d certain in itself; She that herself will sliver and disbranch From her material sap, perforce must wither And come to deadly use. (IV.2.32-36)
Albany accepts that nature’s pattern is essential for survival. The hierarchy of father to child, king to subject, God to king, is essential to eliminating chaos of the world. Goneril has reversed that natural order in her treatment of Lear, and the resulting chaos and anarchy has turned man against himself.
Albany points out that the news that Cornwall is dead is evidence of divine justice, and this event should provide a warning to Goneril, but she ignores Albany’s words to focus on the greater concern — Regan as a widow is now available to marry Edmund. Goneril on the other hand, does have a husband, one whom she expects to control. Goneril is heir to one-half the kingdom, and she expects Albany to remember that this was her dowry; but he is stronger than Cornwall. And although Albany hesitated earlier to confront Goneril when he thought she was wrong, he is not the willing participant in evil that Cornwall has shown himself to be. Albany is genuinely shocked when he learns of Gloucester’s blinding, while Cornwall easily succumbed to this perversion.
With this new resistance to his wife, Albany joins the ranks of characters who have undergone dramatic change during the course of the play, growing and evolving into a stronger and more compassionate individual. As the highest-ranking nobleman remaining, Albany will have no choice but to defend England against the French invasion. But this scene signals that Albany’s loyalties will not be with his wife but with those who defend Lear.
Act IV: Scene 3
The setting is the French camp near Dover. Kent hears that the king of France has been forced to return to his own country. Kent asks a Gentleman if, upon reading his letters, Cordelia revealed any emotion, and learns that she did manage to keep her feelings under control. Kent responds by acknowledging the stars’ influence, which have made Cordelia so different from her sisters. Kent, who is still disguised, states that he will bring the Gentleman to Lear in Dover, and at the proper time, he will reveal his own identity.
The King of France must return to his own country because a French invasion of England would be far too offensive for an audience still sensitive about a Spanish intrusion in recent years. The reason for the king’s return is unimportant, and hence the vagueness in this scene’s opening lines. The critical point is that Cordelia could not have her husband present to cloud the reunion with her father or to intrude on the final scene of the play. While the Marshal of France has been left to command the forces, the point is understood that Cordelia, who is English, will lead the defense of her father.
At Kent’s request, the Gentleman reveals Cordelia’s response to news of her father’s treatment. Her tears and pensive retreat prove her compassion and establish that she is, indeed, the opposite of her sisters. Kent takes the difference one step further by pointing to the stars, which he says have made sisters so different from one another. Deferring to the stars effectively absolves Regan and Goneril of any responsibility for their actions and credits fate with determining one sister’s virtue and the other’s vice. This conversation is important in understanding the role of divine justice in the events that occur later. Albany believes in divine justice, but both Lear and Gloucester have questioned whether such justice exists. The role of fate in understanding God’s justice creates some complex issues to consider, since if Kent’s words are to be taken literally, Cordelia’s death lies with fate and not with divine justice. Divine justice, indeed any concept of God’s intervention, cannot co-exist with a reliance on fate to explain events.
Act IV Scene 4
The setting remains the French camp near Dover. Cordelia is now responsible for leading the French army in its defense of her father. Having learned of her father’s deteriorating mental condition, Cordelia quickly sends an officer to search for Lear. She
asks the doctor if there is any way the king’s mental acuity might be restored and prays that her father’s sanity is not lost forever. Within moments, a messenger arrives with news of the English army’s arrival, and Cordelia prepares to use the French forces to help defend her father. The opening lines of this scene, which describe Lear’s appearance, show how far from his royal state the king has descended. In Act I, Lear assumed the mantel of royalty with accustomed ease, and now he appears covered in weeds. Lear’s choice of weeds for raiment, rather than the equally available flowers in the fields, is significant. The king’s temperament is as wild and ungoverned as the weeds, which grow so freely, and which represent the unplanned chaotic state of nature. Royalty should be cautious, planning carefully for the possibility of insurgent “weeds” — or their human equivalents — gaining a foothold in the landscape. Lear’s physical self represents the results of the king’s unwise abdication of authority and his negligence in tending to his kingdom. Instead of appearing like a carefully designed English garden, Lear and his kingdom show signs of neglect, and both are now infested with a wild outbreak of weeds. Lear, covered in weeds, metaphorically represents the reality of his realm. With the messenger’s entrance, Cordelia’s role of savior is emphasized. She is present, not as the head of a French invasion, but as a rescuer and defender of her father. Act IV: Scene 5 The setting is Gloucester’s castle. Oswald reveals to Regan that Albany’s forces have been deployed, but with much reluctance. Regan is more interested in the letter that Oswald carries from Goneril to Edmund. Regan insists that the letter be given to her, because she is aware of Goneril’s amorous glances toward Edmund. Regan tells Oswald that Edmund is to be reserved for her, since she is now a widow. Regan also directs Oswald to kill Gloucester if he finds him. Albany’s reluctance to support his wife’s cause is clear as he reluctantly leads his army in defense of the kingdom. Oswald responds to Albany’s hesitation by asserting that Goneril is the better soldier, which subordinates Albany’s masculinity to his wife’s powerful will. Oswald, however, is not accustomed to thinking about the morality of issues. As Goneril’s servant, he accepts her orders without question. Ironically, Regan expresses concern that Gloucester be relieved of his misery, especially since she is directly responsible for that misery. Her “pity of his misery” (IV.5.12) indicates that she is cognizant of public opinion and interested in her subjects’ support of her actions. But, Regan does not devote much attention to this consideration; after all, she has already dispatched Edmund to kill his father. Instead, she is concerned with the letter that Oswald is carrying from Goneril to Edmund. Obviously, Regan suspects Goneril of having feelings for Edmund, and the attempts to force Oswald into surrendering the letter lack any subtly. Regan implies that she and Edmund have an understanding, and she hints that their relationship is more than casual. By the end of this scene, the audience knows that Goneril and Regan are no longer working partners; instead, they have become rivals, engaging in hidden truths and plots. The sisters’ competition for Edmund indicates that he is no longer simply the bastard son of Gloucester. Two royal princesses are vying for Edmund’s attention, thus legitimizing his new position. At the conclusion of their meeting, Regan, who has already sent Edmund to kill Gloucester, now tells Oswald to kill the old man. She clearly does not want to take a chance that Gloucester might survive to reveal what happened to him.
Act IV: Scene 6
The setting is the country near Dover. Edgar is leading his father to an area, which Edgar assures the suffering earl, is near the cliffs. After Edgar describes the harrowing view of the beach below the cliffs, Gloucester thanks his guide and gives him a jewel as reward for having fulfilled his service. Delivering a final prayer, Gloucester falls forward and loses consciousness. When Gloucester awakens, Edgar easily convinces his father that he has somehow survived the fall from the cliffs and that the poor beggar who was guiding him was really some kind of fiend. According to Edgar, instead of allowing his death, the gods have saved Gloucester. Accepting this explanation, Gloucester vows to be more accepting of the afflictions that he endures.
Lear enters. Gloucester recognizes Lear’s voice, whose simple babbling invokes Gloucester’s sympathy. Lear’s dialogue with Gloucester explores the role of justice, but at its end, the king dissolves into madness. A Gentleman and attendants arrive, having been sent by Cordelia to find Lear. But the king is frightened and runs from his rescuers. Before he leaves to follow Lear, the Gentleman tells Edgar that the battle is imminent, as both forces are nearby. As Edgar prepares to lead Gloucester to safety, Oswald enters. When he sees Gloucester, Oswald exclaims that Gloucester is the prize he sought and that he will kill the old man. Edgar interferes; the confrontation ends in a fight and Oswald is slain. The dying steward asks Edgar to take his letters to Edmund.
Edgar is still disguised as Poor Tom, but he is now better dressed — as a peasant rather than a pitiful soul covered only in a blanket. More importantly, the manner in which he addresses his father indicates compassion, understanding, and an acceptance of his father’s flaws. Edgar has forgiven Gloucester, and his voice reflects the sentiment. Shakespeare signifies the change by having Edgar speak in verse, so the audience is also aware that Edgar is not the same man he was earlier in the play.
Just before he intends to jump, Gloucester acknowledges the strength of the gods, whose justice he earlier questioned, and he prays that Edgar will be blessed. This scene is heart-rendering because Edgar does not reveal his identity. Instead, he permits the deception to continue so that Gloucester can be healed. When Gloucester awakens, he immediately questions if he actually fell, but then quickly resigns himself to his survival. Gloucester then accepts his afflictions and promises to endure until such time as the gods determine that he has suffered long enough.
Edgar states prior to Gloucester’s “fall” that he will not disclose his true identity so that his father might still be cured, but there is ample opportunity after Gloucester awakens to divulge the secret, and yet, Edgar fails to tell Gloucester the truth. Gloucester’s ignorance may be necessary for his continuing self-discovery. If Edgar reveals himself in Act IV, Gloucester’s opportunities for growth will be cut short, and a major element of the play is the manner in which each character evolves in response to the circumstances that test his/her beliefs, values, and strengths. Gloucester must continue to learn about himself; his movement toward self-truth would be halted if he resolves his conflict with Edgar at this point.
Lear enters once again with the exclamation that “I am the / king himself” (IV.6.83-84). Although he has no kingdom and is no longer the image of a king, the gods made Lear a king and only the gods can revoke his anointed state. When he hears Gloucester’s voice, Lear begins a lengthy monologue that reveals all that he has learned since his daughters betrayed him. Lear finally understands that flattery is a hazard to someone in a high position, and thus, he makes sense even in his madness. Lear believed what he knew to be lies because he accepted his older daughters’ flattery: “They flattered / me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my / beard ere the black ones were there” (IV.6.96-98).
His understanding of his complicity in the events that followed is a major step in accepting responsibility and in acknowledging that he is not infallible. Lear’s words — “Goneril, with a white beard!” (IV.6.96) — might be interpreted as meaning that Lear mistakes Gloucester for Goneril. But more likely, Lear is addressing Goneril and not greeting someone whom he thinks to be Goneril. By portraying her with a white beard, Lear is asserting that his eldest daughter has inverted nature by assuming the authority of her father, and thus, the white beard, which represents knowledge, becomes the guise of his eldest daughter’s rule.
Next, Lear moves to a digression on adultery and sexuality, which fits the notion that both Regan and Goneril have fallen victim to excessive desires — something that is closely aligned with excessive sexuality. Thus the reference to Centaurs, which symbolize the complexity of man’s intellectual ability joined to the baser desires of animals, accurately describes man’s vulnerability to his more animal instincts.
As he continues, Lear moves to another subject: justice. The king has learned that those who profess honesty are often not honest, and even judges can be corrupted and bribed, and so, he advocates a turn to anarchy and a change of the rules of justice. Lear fears that justice cannot or does not exist amid so much dishonesty (IV.6.154-165).
Lear’s knowledge that all men must accept their frailty and their humanity parallels Gloucester’s own earlier discoveries. Because of his own suffering, Lear has also learned that even he is not above God’s justice. At the end of his speech, Lear shifts to a desire for his sons-in-law’s deaths, and a clearer picture of his madness emerges. Lear sees himself as a victim of Fortune, a “natural fool of Fortune” (IV.6.189). Finally, consumed with fear, Lear runs away from the Gentleman and attendants who have appeared and are searching for him. The Gentleman reminds Gloucester and Edgar that Lear has one daughter who is in harmony with nature and who will redeem him from the misery created by Goneril and Regan. His speech also reminds the audience that the battle is drawing near. Lear’s appearance and demeanor have shaken Gloucester, and in response, he prays for the gods to save him from despair and promises that he will not try to kill himself again.
Oswald’s entrance in this scene results in his death. Although he is warned, he refuses to abandon his orders to murder Gloucester. Oswald is a servant for whom obedience and position are everything. At the beginning of Act IV Scene 2, Oswald was clearly confused that Albany rejected everything that Goneril had accomplished, and here, he expects the peasant who is accompanying Gloucester to simply move out of the way and allow the old man’s murder. His sense of obedience is so great that he even asks the man who has killed him to deliver Goneril’s letter to Edmund.
Act IV: Scene 7
The scene opens in a tent in the French camp. Cordelia is expressing her gratitude to Kent for the services he has tendered. Within moments, a sleeping Lear is brought into the tent, where Cordelia welcomes him with characteristic gentleness. As his senses return, the confused king asks if he is in France, and Kent assures Lear that he is in his own kingdom. Lear, Cordelia, and the doctor exit, leaving Kent and a Gentleman to discuss the most recent military developments.
Cordelia speaks with insight and appreciation when she tells Kent that his goodness is immeasurable. Although Kent’s plans are inexplicit and the reason is unclear as to why revealing his identity would interfere with those plans, his devotion to Lear has been evident all along. At the end of this scene, Kent says, “My point and period will be thoroughly wrought / Or well or ill, as this day’s battle’s fought.” (IV.7.96-97).
Kent’s destiny is irrevocably connected to that of the king’s, with the full meaning of these words manifest in the final scene of the play. Since his rescue, Lear has been sleeping, and he continues to sleep even as he is brought to Cordelia. When he awakens he thinks he is in hell, having been rescued by an angel:
You do wrong to take me at the grave; Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead. (IV.7.45-48)
The wheel of fire is a traditional metaphor for hell, deriving from the medieval period. Envisioning hell is not surprising for Lear, since Cordelia has only recently rescued him from a hellish existence on earth.
In the previous scene, Lear related many of the things he has learned during this painful period, but in this brief scene, he clearly shows that he has learned other equally important lessons. In his speech to Cordelia (IV.7.60-69), Lear makes no mention of royalty or of tests to determine the depth of love, as performed in Act I. Lear no longer sees himself as infallible, and he fully expects Cordelia to hate him. When he finally says “I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia” (IV.7.69-70), Lear is finally once again sane.
The music that greets Lear’s return to wakefulness signals a return to harmony and replaces the sounds of the storm and the thundering disharmony between Lear and his older daughters. With the inclusion of music, order has returned to Lear’s world, as he is reunited with Cordelia. The contrast between Cordelia and her sisters is especially dramatic in this scene. Cordelia has no desire for revenge, nor any need to make her father suffer for having misjudged her. Her virtue and purity make it easy to see why so many critics and scholars described Cordelia as Christ-like or representative of God’s goodness.
Act V: Scene 1
Regan, Edmund, and members of their army gather in the British camp near Dover. Regan quizzes Edmund about his feelings for Goneril. Edmund promises Regan that he will not be intimate with her sister.
Goneril and Albany enter. Albany states that he intends to defend the kingdom against the French invaders. Goneril asserts that the fight is not a domestic quarrel, but a defense against an outside enemy.
Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom, appears and hands Albany the letter he removed from Oswald’s body, the letter Goneril wrote ordering Edmund to kill her husband. Edgar leaves, and Edmund enters with news that the opposing forces are near.
The opening of this scene reveals that Regan remains very concerned about the relationship between Goneril and Edmund. Regan wants to know the truth or says she does, but she wants to know the truth only if it is what she wants to hear. And so, Edmund obliges with his version of the truth. His relationship to Goneril is only an “honour’d love” (V.1.9). Edmund adopts the language of nobility, just as he has since he first hatched his ambitious plot to rule the kingdom.
Edmund’s promise to not form a liaison with a married woman is unconvincing. Certainly, adultery is a sin, but that fact would not stop Edmund, who has demonstrated a propensity for far greater sins. When Goneril enters, her aside indicates how infatuated she, too, is with Edmund. Up to this point, having power has been most important to Goneril; now, quite suddenly, she is willing to lose the battle, and thus the kingdom, rather than lose Edmund. How far her infatuation will extend becomes clear in Scene 3. As soon as Goneril and Albany enter, he seeks to establish his position regarding the coming battle. Albany’s lines demonstrate that he is an honest and just man (V.1.24-27). The king and his supporters are not enemies of the kingdom, but the French invasion is of sufficient purpose to lead his men into battle. Albany’s intent is not to treat Lear and his defenders as enemies but only to defend the country against an outside invader. The others agree with Albany to appease him and ensure his cooperation.
The rift between Goneril and Regan becomes more evident, and their competition for Edmund more obvious in this scene. Regan does not trust Goneril and will not allow her to be alone with Edmund, even for a moment. Regan’s insistence that Goneril not remain behind with Edmund makes clear how far apart the sisters have moved from their earlier relationship.
In Act I, Goneril and Regan acted as one, both voicing agreement in their flattery of Lear. They again were united in Act II, when they joined together to reduce Lear’s forces. But with the inclusion of Edmund into their circle in Act III, they are now completely divided, each mistrusting the other. In turn, Edmund is busy with some plotting of his own. Edmund’s growing ambition leads to a hope that Goneril will kill Albany, and in turn, be killed by Regan, who will be free to marry Edmund. With Lear and Cordelia dead, Edmund will be left to rule as king. He has come a long way from the bastard son of Act I.
Act V: Scene 2
The setting is a field between the British and French camps. Cordelia, Lear, and their forces move toward the battle. Edgar enters, looking for a safe place for Gloucester to wait out the conflict. After placing Gloucester in a sheltered spot, Edgar leaves, and the sounds of battle are heard. In a few moments, Edgar returns and orders Gloucester to follow him to a more secure spot because Lear’s forces have lost, and the king and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. Edgar echoes a common belief of Shakespeare’s period when he says “Men must endure” (V.2.9). Patient suffering was a key part of seventeenth-century life, a fundamental belief of Christian doctrine. Within this context, the Book of Job was not just a part of the larger biblical text; it was instead, an element of every man’s life. Job’s trials were thought to be an actual historical account, written by Moses and designed by God to facilitate the acceptance of suffering as necessary for a later reward with God. In short, a belief in patience through suffering created the way to greater happiness and glory with God.
Job’s suffering increases with his willingness to suffer; and still, he only responds, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9). Even when Job can bear his suffering no longer, he refuses to curse God. Instead, he curses the day of his birth. Job’s patience with his loss and pain is tremendous, and clearly this serves as a model for Edgar, who has borne his trials with patience. Eventually, even Job begins to question why he must suffer, and in turn, he is chastised by God and reminded of God’s glory: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). The reflective man, willing to suffer, reminded by patience of the reward from God, finds an expression of his glory in Job’s text. Although the setting for King Lear is pre-Christianity, its influences are clearly seen in the way Edgar reminds his father that they must endure.
Act V: Scene 3
The scene opens on the British camp near Dover. Lear and Cordelia are led in as prisoners, with Edmund as their jailer. As the two are led off to prison, Edmund gives a note to an officer and orders that the note’s instructions be followed immediately.
Albany, Goneril, and Regan join Edmund. Albany demands that the two prisoners be turned over to him. Edmund resists, saying that Lear and Cordelia will be held in safekeeping so that their presence does not divide the soldiers’ loyalty. Albany orders Edmund and Goneril arrested for treason. Albany requests any man who is willing to support the charges against Edmund to appear. Edgar enters, and although he will not identify himself, he assures Albany that he is as noble as Edmund. With this statement, the brothers begin to fight, and Edmund falls. When Goneril announces that Edmund has been betrayed, Albany reveals the letter, which she does not deny. Instead, Goneril flees.
Edmund admits that the charges against him are truthful. Edgar reveals his identity and tells his brother of recent events, including the news that after disclosing his identity to his father, Gloucester’s heart proved too weak to survive the news. Edmund also reports that Kent has been in disguise, having been close enough to help his king during the recent period.
A gentleman enters with news that Goneril has killed herself, but not before poisoning Regan, who is also dead. When Albany discovers Goneril’s plan to have both Lear and Cordelia murdered, he quickly orders an officer to intercede, but it is too late. Lear enters with a dead Cordelia in his arms. Albany recognizes that Lear is king and will be served by his loyal subjects, but
within moments, the king dies, his body covering that of his youngest daughter. Albany informs Kent and Edgar that they must now rule the kingdom together, but Kent replies that he will soon leave the world to join his master. Edgar is left to speak of the sad weight of these events, which everyone must now endure. This final scene brings resolution to both the plot and subplot. The scene opens with Lear and Cordelia held prisoner by Edmund. Cordelia’s response to their capture evokes the same stoicism exhibited by Edgar and Gloucester: “We are not the first / Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst” (V.3.3-4). While bravely facing these events, Cordelia recognizes they are also at risk. Unlike Cordelia, Lear fails to recognize the danger in which the two captives now find themselves. Lear is merely happy to be with Cordelia, unconcerned that the war is lost and they are prisoners. He is seemingly unaware that they are in danger from Edmund. Lear has only visions of their happiness (V.3.8-15).
Lear asks for nothing more than to be with Cordelia. He will close out the rest of the world and even exclude his oldest daughters. When Cordelia asks if they will see daughters and sisters, Lear’s response is a resounding “No, no, no, no!” (V.3.8). His vision of the future excludes all others, except for Cordelia. But Edmund has other plans, as he makes clear after Lear and Cordelia are led to prison. Edmund orders his officer to stage Cordelia’s death as a suicide. Without hesitation, the officer accepts Edmund’s orders, seemingly unconcerned about killing the king and his daughter. Gaining Edmund’s favor will assure the officer continued employment when the war is over. This officer’s willingness to kill without question recalls Tyrrel’s similar actions in Richard III. Albany has undergone significant change from his initial, docile appearance early in the play. The audience has witnessed his personal growth, and in this scene, the culmination of change is clear when he assumes control following the battle’s conclusion. Although he is initially complimentary of Edmund’s success in battle, Albany is quickly angered at Edmund’s assumption of authority when the illegitimate son has the king and Cordelia arrested and imprisoned. Albany immediately reminds Edmund that he is a bastard, calling him a “Half-blooded fellow” (V.3.81). Regan’s defense of Edmund moves Albany to order Edmund’s arrest and to issue a challenge for someone to come forth and fight Edmund. Of course, the duel between Edgar and Edmund is really a conflict that replays the eternal battle between Good and Evil, with Edgar’s defeat of Edmund obviously signaling the triumph of righteousness over corruption. In the end, Edmund is defeated by being noble, by not being as ruthless as he should be — or was. The system of honor disarms him, and he agrees to a duel, although he recognizes that he does not need to agree to a fight with an unidentified stranger (V.3.140-144). When fatally wounded, Edmund even adopts the rules of social snobbery claiming, “If thou’rt noble, / I do forgive thee” (V.3.164-165). In this small measure, he proves himself worthy of Gloucester’s blood. As Albany has earlier prophesized, Goneril and Regan’s evil has finally destroyed them. The audience learns early in this scene that Goneril has poisoned Regan (V.3.97), and with Albany’s denouncement of Goneril’s plotting, Goneril kills herself. Although Gloucester had earlier attempted suicide, ironically only Goneril, who initially appeared so strong, succeeds at ending her own life. Albany’s order to rescue Cordelia and Lear is given too late. When Lear enters with Cordelia’s body, any immediate ideas about divine justice are destroyed. The deaths of Cornwall, Edmund, Regan, and Goneril have lulled the audience into a belief that the gods would restore order to this chaotic world. But Cordelia’s death creates new questions about the role of divine justice.
Famous quotes One might be surprised for all the everyday sayings that originally came from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “My love’s more richer than my tongue.” (Act I, Scene I) “Nothing will come of nothing.” (Act I, Scene I) “Love is not love When it is mingled with regards that stand Aloof from the entire point.” (Act I, Scene I) “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” (Act I, Scene IV) “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (Act I, Scene IV) “Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest.” (Act I, Scene IV) “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” (Act III, Scene II) “The worst is not, So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’.” (Act IV, Scene I) “You are not worth the dust which the rude wind Blows in your face.” (Act IV, Scene II) “When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools.” (Act IV, Scene VI) “Reason in madness!” (Act IV, Scene VI)
King Lear has always been interpreted as the tragedy of the ingratitude and ingratitude surely exists. My personal opinion, as a student, is that the largest King Lear’s drama is the incapability to read the hearth of his daughters since the beginning and to be not rational in the topic decision.
How could a father evaluate his daughters’ love just in base of their utterances?
Reagan and Goneril had been astute, Cordelia naïve or not able to express her feelings entirely.
Of course, Cordelia’s answer upsets Lear and touches him in his pride, also because she was the preferred one, the youngest. Perhaps he himself would have been latterly sorry for banning his daughter but, in that moment, his emotional state was fragile.

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