Edgar is a somewhat unsatisfactory character particularly if the reader tries to view the play as realistic. He is at one end of the spectrum of good and evil, being loyal, loving, self-effacing and obeying the duties of the bonds which control him. Yet he is a wooden mechanism and changes personality according to the demands of the sub-plot, which is largely his brother’s creation. Most of this blank verse soliloquy is uninspired and lifeless in its rhythms, being functional rather than revelatory: it prepares us for his later disguised appearance as Poor Tom and also for Lear’s madness.
It adds to the theme of reduction whereby a man may be taken down the Chain of Being to the level, almost, of a beast and provides a variant on madness. Edgar’s is a pretence; the Fool’s is his trade although he is not wholly normal in the adult sense; Lear’s will be true, if temporary, insanity. Edgar’s reduction in status is also deliberate whereas that of Lear and Gloucester is involuntary. The poetry becomes more alive when he describes the local madmen and impoverished surroundings: if this were realistic drama one would have to ask what kind of present Lear was making when he gave the kingdom away and if his own description of it as fertile was a calculated lie. These considerations do not arise in a production which embodies the more abstract spirit of the overall conception. The image of the mad beggars mortifying their flesh is memorable and we recall it when Lear is on the heath and compare him to these wretches (of whom he also becomes aware.) The speech tallies with the idea that people become something other than their former selves and the key word “nothing” re-appears.
In scene iv Lear arrives at Gloucester’s, having visited Regan and found her absent, but his surprise is short-lived as the sight of Kent in the stocks cannot be misinterpreted: it is a flagrant insult to himself. The formalised exchange of declarations: “By Jupiter”/”By Juno” emphasises Lear’s attempt at refusing to recognise reality and he assumes that there must be more reason for the disrespect of his offspring. Kent describes the meeting between himself and Oswald “a reeking post” who interrupted his delivery, which we did not see. The next part of his explanation when Regan and Cornwall leave in haste (“presently” meaning “instantly”was also off-stage action but, by line 37 we arrive at action that we have witnessed and realise that his account is not entirely true in its understatements about his own faults of behaviour. He was consciously provocative, giving Cornwall no choice but to punish him even if the method was unnecessarily cruel and debasing. The Fool’s jingle points to the fact that rich fathers bearing “bags” of wealth will find their children “kind” and that Fortune – here referring generally to the Gods or Fate – sells herself for money and he puns on the word “dolours” [pains and Spanish coins].
Lear cannot remain blind to the truth and physical symptoms of emotion grip him: he feels his heart being choked by grief and anger. The anonymous Gentleman has the insight to perceive that Kent’s story must be inaccurate in some way: the outsiders, such as France, often have the wisdom to look beneath the surface. Kent asks the crucial question about the Knights and it is another sign of the non-realistic nature of the play that he calls the emblematic fifty “so small a number.” The Fool also is aware that this is a central issue and goes on, in prose, to recommend that servants should leave a master on the decline, advice which he cannot, practically or emotionally, follow himself. The leitmotif of the wheel recurs before he moves into verse, presaging the literal and metaphorical storm to come and admitting he will not leave Lear: his is a self-refuting, self-seeking philosophy. “Wise” here is equated with self-seeking but the Fool is a fool in that respect.
Lear re-enters, having gone into the house alone, presumably because he did not want anyone else to witness a humiliation he knew would happen and he sees clearly that he has been given nothing but excuses: “Mere fetches.” Gloucester tries to soften the situation and placate Lear by claiming that Cornwall is both fiery and obstinate (see II,ii 150). Lear erupts because his will has been opposed and we note that he no longer refers to Regan as his daughter but loses himself in self-pity: “dear father” does not accord with what we have seen. He then tries once more to explain their neglect by hoping that Cornwall is unwell but he is obviously thinking aloud and does not believe what he is saying: Kent’s plot is successful at underlining what must be the truth as the sight of a servant in the stocks is a clear visual emblem of disgrace. Lear’s wrath rises again – his is a choleric disposition – and threatens to choke him but the Fool gives, as examples of folly, the “cockney” [meaning of this is uncertain] who attempted to make live eels go back into the pie and whose brother greased the hay of the horses with the result they would not eat it.
The image of eels connects to Lear’s sense of rising passion and is physically uncomfortable.
Lear expresses his last feeble hope that Regan will be kind to him but his reason is specious: if she were not he would have to acknowledge that his wife was adulterous. This would be another breaking of bonds but we also note that there is no detailed sense of a marriage: the threat is abstract and empty. Lear is so precoccupied that he has no attention left to give to Kent’s release but the imprisonment in the stocks has served its purpose. He turns to Regan and abuses Goneril using a variant of the word “nothing”, “naught”, a cognate of “naughty” which meant “wicked”. The key word “unkindness” is connected to animal imagery and he again stresses the pain in his heart: dramatic irony sharpens our perecption that his hope is futile, that Regan will not believe “With how deprav’d a quality” she has behaved. Regan intends to outdo her sister although she uses tortuous language and syntax to half-disguise her meaning: “You less know how to value her desert/Than she to scant her duty.” She holds off full confrontation, knowing that Goneril will soon arrive to support her but her speeches are banal, lacking emotion and imagery as she justifies her sister’s actions and begs him to return and apologise. Her attitude to his age is patronising and cruel as she accuses him of lack of “discretion” and Lear cannot fail to recognise her intents; his only outlet now is to play with the idea that “Age is unnecessary” and act out a fulsome request for the bare essentials of human life: ” ‘raiment, bed and food.’ ” This speech is thematic: the drama defines what is and what is not necessary to maintain the identity of a person as human. rather than bestial. A human being requires certain necessities but also some extras of choice, in Lear’s case, his knights. They are not strictly necessary but represent a need nevertheless.
When Regan refuses to listen and accuses him of “unsightly tricks”, he describes the behaviour of Goneril in violent terms, mentioning first the removal of fifty of his knights and drawing attention to her formidable facial expressions, finally cursing her again and wishing lameness upon her. His curses continue to be truly terrible as he begs the natural world to blind her and make her ugly: it is as though he cannot accept the sexuality of his daughters, which he believes has taken their loyalty and love away from him. Now that he has opened himself to Regan he must believe that she has a “tender-hefted nature” [womanly, gentle] but he mistakes her calmness for warmth just because her eyes are less angry. She is resolute as he foolishly hopes she will not diminish his train of knights and close the door on him: she goes on to do exactly that. The multiple nature of bonds is stressed: “offices of nature, bond of childhood, effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude” – these are, in turn, dutiful bonds of child to father, courtesy of subject to King and gratitude for the gift of half the kingdom. Yet, even as he pleads with her, he recalls the image of Kent in the stocks and realises that his hopes are void; Regan will not proceed far without Goneril but, once she arrives, she will go even further than her sister does. There is relief in her speech rhythm when she responds to the recognisable trumpet sound. Regan’s attitude shows that she was party to putting Kent in the stocks and Lear’s last “good hope” is feebly expressed. Goneril enters without Albany, whose absence excuses him from the worst cruelty to come. She and Regan hold hands as an emblem of unity and Lear is forced to recognise that his position is desperate. His last hollow plea must be that of an old man as he is reduced from his stature as King and father.
His apostrophe “O Heavens” is probably a reaction to Regan’s taking Goneril’s hand as he feels that only the Gods may now be on his side: his view of old age is that it deserves consideration and respect (referring to his beard by synechdoche) but Goneril calls it “dotage” [weakness and folly requiring submission] and refuses to admit she has done wrong. Lear experiences the sensation of his heart and sides trying to burst and keeps recalling Kent in the stocks as evidence that he is hearing correctly. Regan picks up the idea of age as weak and goes further, requiring a diminution of the train of knights and a return to Goneril, backing this with the lame excuse that she is not prepared, when she has left deliberately. Lear threatens a downward movement to the level of an animal and a choice of going out into the wilderness to experience the hardships of necessity. Later he has no choices left. The past keeps haunting his mind as he aligns France and Oswald as people who have displeased him, although he knows they are not similar. He feels and fears the onset of madness but tries to avoid it by claiming that Goneril is not his flesh and blood but is like a diseased boil on his person; his imagery is rich and passionate but he then refuses to waste more energy on his eldest daughter and hopes he can stay with Regan. The storm is prefigured:
I do not bid the thunder-bearer shoot,
Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove.
We observe that he has just done the latter but
his wrathful mood does not recognise contradictions. Regan repeats herself in her customary bare and banal language and asks him to be reasonable: she applies her reductive rationality to the question of the knights, claiming that they are a unnecessary complication. Her points are made by use of the interrogative mood as she knows her questions to be unanswerable on the level of common sense alone, the only response being that the knights would be allowed if the daughters loved him. A cold and hostile downward reduction starts with cold arithmetic until, despite Lear’s reminders that he gave them everything, Regan, characteristically pushing matters to their end, asks why he needs even one.
This is a dramatised vignette of reduction and the aside is telling: “And in good time you gave it” [not before you should have abdicated]. Lear still connectes love with money and feels that Goneril must love him twice as much if she will allow twice as many followers; he seems to understand her fierce attitude better than Regan’s apparent milder and one as it is more akin to his own temperament.
His next long speech is vital to an understanding of the play: he picks up Regan’s word “need” and commands: “O! reason not the need” [need is not to be subjected to reason; human need cannot be defined]. Even the lowliest form of human life has some small extra or superfluity to keep the person human. “Allow not nature [human nature] more than nature [animal/base nature] needs” and a man becomes a beast. He points out that the women have “gorgeous” though clearly skimpy garments, not necessary or appropriate for merely keeping warm. There is an anacoluthon at line 268 when he breaks his syntax to beg for “patience” [ability to bear the situation] and descends to self-pity, hoping that he will not weep but will be able to vent his feeling in “noble anger.” His calling upon the Gods makes us ask ourselves what they, or any other supernatural powers, are doing to help him as he thinks they are intervening with actively evil intent. At this point, he perceives himself as good although he moves beyond this later. More broken syntax reveals that he has no power left to threaten:
No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things …
His rage is impotent and his rhetoric empty.
Lear’s mind is the centre of the play and, as he feels the onset of madness, the storm can be heard commencing: it echoes his internal tumult as the small world of man, the microcosm, corresponds to the large world of the universe, the macrocosm. The women blame him for his plight and rationalise that they will entertain him but no followers, thus removing his supeflous though needful human extra. Gloucester is sympathetic but weak and mentally blind as he cannot see that the same is happening in his own family; Regan adds one specious reason after another to justify their actions, suggesting that Lear has brought this on himself and needs th chastisement, and it is she who orders the doors to be closed.