By the start of Act III differences have emerged between reason and affection in the main and sub-plots. The exploration of the place of reason has been one of the main pre-occupations of Act II as its motivation in Goneril and Regan has a passionate momentum driven by will towards a deliberate destructive cruelty. Will, uncontrolled by natural feelings, can lead to chaos and extreme disorder in the microcosm and macrocosm. It can also be divisive once the wills of the characters lead in different directions – as does the lust the sisters later have for Edmund, which induces them to destroy each other, whilst he tries to manipulate the situation. He represents a cooler version of reason with which a modern audience may sympathise and his intents do not have the same extreme cruelty of intent, although they are equally, or more, abhorrent in outcome. His negation of natural feelings and bonds has more cause than theirs: he wants a place in what he considers an outmoded hierarchy; they have their place and claim more by force of will. The Act shows the isolation and suffering of Lear and Gloucester and is climactic.
Scene i is choric and functional. The speech of the unnamed Gentleman prepares us for the sight of Lear raging on the Heath and ensures that we react to it appropriately: to an outside, impartial observer he has dignity and a certain magnificence. The storm is described as ferocious and the mood of the drama is changed by the account as it fills in the stage directions and stresses the correspondence between Lear’s “little world of man” and the universe. He has now sunk lower than an animal (which would be indoors) and yet retains some majesty of image. His effective solitude and emblematic bare-headedness are emphasised as he endures emotional, mental and physical turmoil and the Fool “labours to out-jest/His heart-strook injuries.” Kent gives background information of covert planning for war between Albany and Cornwall: evil is divisive and dissatisfied as the spies sent by France are reporting. Kent does not know if the “snuffs and packings” [quarrels and plots] are because of the treatment of Lear or run deeper but France has alraedy established a foothold in England now that Albany and Cornwall are too preoccupied with internal machinations to notice an enemy in the land. The ending is forecast as we can guess who will win but, meanwhile, there will be a vague drift towards Dover, which becomes symbolic of renewal. Kent gives the Gentleman a recognisable ring and defines himself as more than he seems and of “Few words, but, to effect”, an accurate brief delineation. The play has many characters who seem less or more than they are. Their parting fits the non-realistic geography of the play as their hope to meet casually is unlikely. We feel that there might be a resolution but the violence of the storm is too radical for that to be easy and we are returned to its intensity in scenes ii and iv to keep us aware that tragedy is the expected outcome.
In scene ii Lear rants and rages in language with a semi-musical structure: rising rhythms are modulated by downward movements as he invokes the end of the world, even as far as the “germens” [seeds of matter]. (It is best to ignore modern exclamation marks to feel the motions of the lines.) Ingratitude and unkindness are his prime preoccupation and he is full of self-pity: “A poor, infirm, weak, and depis’d old man”: it is clear that the storm reflects his mind as he believes that the elements canot be accused of such intentional cruelty except that they are in liaison with his elder daughters. The Fool desperately tries to comment and mentions the sexual notion of the cod-piece as it is the married children who are hostile. The whole Elizabethan concept of a grand order in which the moral life of man is involved in a divinely controlled universe is cracking.
Lear is still far from self-knowledge as he thinks he can be, by force of will, “the pattern of all patience” [abilty to bear] and Kent stresses the extreme nature of this storm, the worst he has seen since manhood. The theme of Justice emerges as Lear hopes that unpunished villains of all kinds (perjurers, the incestuous, murderers) will be revealed in the tempest: his grand rhetoric might deafen us to the fact that it is he who has allowed such injustice to be common in his kingdom. His summary: “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning” is worth close scrutiny as it does have some accuracy. The full brutality of the sisters is apparent when they would not even let Kent inside the house and the three must make do with a nearby hovel. Lear shows his first signs of pity and care for others when he speaks to the Fool: “How dost, my boy? Art cold?” and feels that one part – he perceives love as divisible still – and he is becoming aware that necessity adds value to lowly things like straw. At the same time, he realises that his wits are beginning to turn: in madness truths become apparent. The Fool’s confused speech (a parody of some earlier verse) starts with an account of the actual state of affairs and moves on, at line 85, to a Utopia before returning, at line 91, to the chaos that the actual will suffer and finally back to the prophetic. This monologue has little of the mystery or piquancy of his usual utterances.
Scene iii gives us Gloucester’s opinion on the “unnatural dealing” he has witnessed as he stresses the pitiless natures of the sisters, akin to that of the storm. He knows that part of the foreign army is on British soil and is courageously intent on helping Lear even if he dies for it and yet he is metaphorically blind in trusting Edmund and failing recognise which one of his own children is “natural” in the true sense of the word, not that of “bastard.” Edmund will immediately show the letter to Cornwall and tell him of Gloucester’s loyalty to Lear: his ambition has changed and he is no longer content with merely Edgar’s inheritance when he spies the chance of more.
In scene iv Lear has to be persuaded to enter the hovel, not because it is too primitive but because he feels that storm is less harsh than his situation as regards his elder daughters. His verse is quieter but more painful as he refers to “this tempest in [his] mind” obliterating all other sensations and leaving only the agony of “filial ingratitude.” He is thoughtful now, even if self-contradictory, not raging, but his language becomes broken in syntax as he relives the recent happenings: first he threatens “I will punish home”, vows not to weep and then goes back to the fact they shut him out. Yet his self-pity blinds him to the truth about himself: he did not give away the kingdom with a “frank heart”. He is not mad at this point even though he is close to it and finally goes in, though insisting that the Fool goes first which can be played with Lear’s touching the Fool to propel him forward and realising how frail he is. this gives rise to his awareness of other “poor naked wretches” as he moves towards redemption by compassion for his impoverished subjects and accepts that he has “ta’en/Too little care of this.” He struggles to reconcile his new impression of humanity with a tenable concept of Justice, concluding like Gloucester that the “superflux” [extra wealth or superfluity] should be redistributed once the powerful have undergone hardship. The Fool runs out saying the hovel houses a spirit (we see his child-like side here) and when Lear gazes at the disguised Edgar he sees the physical presence of what he has just imagined and finally goes mad in his loss of reality and obsessive assumption that only ungrateful daughters can cause a man such grief and poverty. The irony is obvious: Edgar, the wholly good, is performing his role so well that it drives Lear insane, a distastrous outcome.
Edgar’s speech as Poor Tom is horrifyingly convincing as he gives a rendering of how it feels to be driven by a fiend over a nightmare landscape in dire conditions and Lear is drawn in, using once more, the fateful word “nothing.” Kent respectfully but unsuccessfully tries to lead Lear back to the facts: “He hath no daughters, Sir” and his loyalty is tested to the full by Lear’s repudiation of him as a “traitor” as he still believes that: “nothing could have subdu’d nature/To such a lowness as his unkind daughters” and draws attention to the almost cannibalistic nature (as some believed) of young pelicans sucking the life-blood of their parents. He also notices Edgar’s mortified flesh, possibly the pins and thorns he has stuck in himself. The three versions of madness: pretence (Edgar); professional (the Fool) and real (Lear) are set against Kent’s stoical sanity as Edgar pursues the theme of sexuality, striking Lear in a vulnerable spot, and also taking on himself some of his father’s sins of easy living and lechery. Man is compared to a series of animals as a particular sin, such as sloth, dominates a person’s entire being and exaggerates the power of will.
His performance is revelatory to Lear who is brought to question: “Is man no more than this?” as all the pomp and richness he once prized seem redundant. He thinks that the three of them are “sophisticated” [adulterated] and that Poor Tom is essential Man. Now accepting that he is nothing and that possessions are “lendings”, he tears off his clothes to be like the mad beggar. (Later, in Act V, he will also ask for a button to be undone in very different circumstances. but there again, the domesticated detail is telling. Yet this new vision is not yet correct but merely a stage in his progression towards wisdom. The Fool is almost entirely disregarded now that Lear has found a novel source of apparent enlightenment. Edgar’s act is tested as Gloucester enters, whose torch is compared by the Fool to a small spark in “an old lecher’s heart” – we are never allowed to forget what Gloucester’s act of lust has done to him. By now we feel that, whatever he and Lear did wrong, they did not deserve this.
In a realistic drama it might be appropriate to ask how Edgar came to have such detailed knowledge of the speech patterns of mad beggars, particularly when he has to play the role to his own father, and it is also not entirely credible that Gloucester would fail to recognise him. Poor Tom’s verses resemble those of the Fool in tone and form but sometimes are less pragmatic and more supernatural and, in his prose speech, man is depicted at his lowest and most disgusting: he “swallows the old rat and the ditch dog” and thus does not even have necessities such as human food. He speaks to his fiend and Gloucester never questions his identity, even saying, with dramatic irony: “Our flesh and blood, my lord, is grown so vile,/That it doth hate what gets it.” He is old, weak and foolish but cannot tolerate any more suffering whilst Lear has lost all contact with reality, believing Tom to be a philospher because he has been the trigger for realisation of some truths. Kent realises that “His wits begin to unsettle” and Gloucester can see the facts in Lear’s family whilst remaining blind to those in his own and to the identity of Kent, to whom he refers with further dramatic irony as “poor banish’d man.” There is heavier use of this device when he outlines the troubles in his family which are comparable to those in Lear’s thus underlining the universality of themes and the necessity for Edgar to remain disguised. Both fathers misjudge their children, failing to see which are good and which are evil, and fateful results follow from this lack of perception though Gloucester does not go mad, despite his sense that his wits are crazed.
Scene v shows Edmund arriving at the professed height of his ambition: to be Earl of Gloucester as Cornwall summarises the situation, rationalising that Gloucester was at fault and threatening revenge on him: “I now perceive it was not altogether your brother’s (Edgar’s) evil disposition made him (Edgar) seek his (Gloucester’s) death; but a provoking merit (revengeful zeal in Edgar), set a-work by a reproveable badness in himself (Gloucester.)” The evil characters frequently use convoluted language to dress their rationalisations and plans. Edmund’s replies are so exaggeratedly hypocritical that it would be recognised as such were Cornwall looking beneath the surface but he does not care whether the evidence is true or false.
Inside a room in a farmhouse, the friends have chosen a lesser evil to the storm in their necessity but Kent’s words are still heavy with irony: “The Gods rewards your kindness” rings especially hollow because we know that Cornwall plans revenge on Gloucester, that Edmund hopes to show his father comforting the King and that the Gods have been portrayed as actively malign. A savage parody of a trial ensues, contributing to the theme of Justice, absurdly enacted with Fools and madmen as judges in a handy-dandy, topsy-turvy world where evil becomes good. It also reflects the opening scene of the play and reminds us of the origins of the terrible situation. Kent questions Lear’s earlier boasting that he could maintain “patience” and the trial of the two elder daughters begins and Edgar weeps (another leitmotif) as dogs become the central trope.
It is Regan who most perplexes Lear, probably because she was calmer and less like his own fiery disposition than Goneril (here portrayed by a joint-stool): “Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?” He keeps recalling the knights, emblem of his humiliation and reduction. Before the re-entry of Gloucester the Fool speaks his last enigmatic words: “And I’ll go to bed at noon” and, when they all leave, is never seen again, having served his function and become dramatically superfluous as Lear’s shadow and pragmatic prompter. Lear is also off-stage for a while as they carry him in a regenerative sleep to Dover as quickly as possible. Edgar’s banal soliloquy contains a repeated truth, that worse troubles can make other difficulties seem bearable but we, as audience, suspect we are not at the end of the suffering and the very next scene overturns any stoical philosophy.
The blinding of Gloucester is preceded by hasty arrangements for war and the dismissal of Edmund, whom we have already seen to be squeamish. Since he is not present, we do not connect him with the physical bestiality of the act although he has been the cause. Cornwall is repellently cunning but ready to enjoy the sadism which anger will allow and the language becomes repugnant: “corky arms”. Plucking a beard is a sign of extreme disrepect and they accuse the old man of treachery: this mock trial is no more genuine than Lear’s mad one. By a terrifying prefigurement Gloucester says he could not bear to see them injure and blind Lear like animals.
He recalls the storm and how their behaviour was worse than brutes; “All cruels else subscribe” [all other cruel creatures would be compassionate in these circumstances]. At his use of the word “see” the torture begins and is horrifying; some critics have wondered if the scene is necessary but it shows how vicious humans become when they descend even lower than the level of animals. At line 69 one eye is gouged out and, at line 81 the other also (Regan instigated this at line 70 as she always goes one pace further) and finally they are trodden on. Dramatic irony of an unbearable intensity occurs when Gloucester calls on Edmund but there is hope in the noble sacrifice of the nameless servant. The scene is pitiless as the perpetrators show neither remorse nor mercy and Regan’s brutality is at its worst: “let him smell/His way to Dover.” The remaining servants perform the function of a Chorus at the end of the scene and there is an upsurge of loyalty and altruism at this lowest point. Gloucester’s suffering is, perhaps more physical than mental whilst Lear’s is the reverse. Yet Gloucester’s fate does not challenge the whole order of things: right and wrong remain in place whereas Lear’s narrative challenges the foundations of society and the universe.
Another somewhat flat and banal soliloquy by Edgar opens Act IV in which he expresses the idea of a cycle of Fortune in which it is best to be at the lowest point and know it than to be deceived higher up: he clearly believes he is at that base but has not encountered his blinded father and so this philosophy with its rather complacent tone is soon undermined. Gloucester is led by another kindly but anonymous character to whom he is thoughtful, advising him to save himself and not take risks helping an outcast. He emphasises the theme of sight/blindness: “I stumbled when I saw” and realises that wealth can make a person too complacent. Edgar hears himself spoken of with love and compassion but does not even now disclose his identity although there is no good reason for further secrecy apart from the exigencies of the plot. He constantly philosophises in choric mode with moral commentaries and Gloucester adds that a beggar cannot be without reason otherwise he would not have the wits to beg: he had half-recognised Edgar in the storm and, by this admission, Shakespeare is pre-empting audience criticisms that these estranged encounters are unconvincing.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the’Gods;
They kill us for their sport
are one of the many generalised utterances in the play that add to its universality and, in this case, bleakness. We recall that he has been pessimistic from the start as he repeats his earlier gloomy analyses: “‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen [symbolically the rulers] lead the blind [the people]”. Again Edgar challenges credence in feeling that he must “daub it [dissemble] further”. as his father develops the same idea that Lear expressed (III, iv 34): that the extras in life should be apportioned more fairly:
Let the superfluous [pampered] and lust-dieted man [fed to the full]…
… feel your power quickly
So distribution should undo excess
And each man have enough.
What constitutes “enough” in human terms is a major preoccupation in the play and Lear and Gloucester must find definitions for themselves.
From scene ii the plot quickens pace as we learn of Albany’s complete and dramatic change of heart and Goneril’s lack of empathy with him as she threatens to give him the female [distaff] role in future. Her lustful speech to Edmund contains sexual innuendo “stretch thy spirits”, “conceive” as does Edmund’s mention of “death”, a common Elizabethan euphemism for sexual climax: the passion these exchanges express will be a further cause of division. Evil characters have individual wills which cannot be reconciled and Goneril now feels that her husband is a fool usurping her bed, a reckless disparagement which makes her challenge him on arrival. Albany returns the challenge, fearing how far she might go as she has torn herself away from her natural origins (the imagery of trees emphasises this) and that this act could be disastrous. His speeches contain many more generalised statements: “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile/Filths savour but themselves” [to the filthy everything tastes filthy]. In a key speech he stresses the bestial actions of the sisters in driving Lear mad, condemns and is bewildered by Cornwall’s ingratitude and asks the heavens to intervene. The short line: “It will come” draws our attention to the prophecy that “Humanity must perforce prey on itself/Like monsters from the deep”; there can be no stopping evil once bonds are broken. Goneril is enraged and accuses Albany of those very weaknesses that Christianity regards as virtues, such as turning the cheek, and claims that his eye cannot distinguish between what a person may bear with honour and what he should fight against. Only a fool [Albany] would pity a villain [Lear] who is punished before he has a chance to do the wrong he intends. Through these tortuous words, she shows herself driven by a will which knows no restraints or obstacles.
Albany, (who at this moment knows only of the ill-treatment of Lear and not of the blinding of Gloucester), erupts against her, using the imagery of monsters or unnatural creatures and would tear her apart, were she not a woman as well as a fiend. She remains scornful of his effeminacy as the news of Gloucester’s torture and Cornwall’s death is told in factual language by the messenger. Albany philosophises that this shows a divine justice but we may feel that he is both wrong and ineffectual as retribution was in the hands of servants not the Gods. Goneril’s main concern is that, being a widow and a companion to Edmund at this moment, Regan will gain him and destroy her fantasies: her animal lusts have distracted her from her main objectives. At the same time the forces of good are uniting. (Note that the servant’s account of Edmund’s absence from the torture may not be entirely accurate: he did not necessarily volunteer to leave specfically in order that they could be the more sadistic).
The description of Cordelia and her behaviour in scene iii takes on an iconic quality, emphasised by the fact she is solitary (France having returned for no very good reason). The speech of the Gentleman is in elevated language with natural imagery of sun and rain to evoke Cordelia’s tears and smiles but the impression is not of falsity but of peace after a storm and reminds us opportunely that love is as common an emotion as hatred. The word “heav’d” recalls its use in the first scene when she found her love too weighty to bring to her lips and her syntax is broken as she pictures the sufferings of others. Eyes and tears are dominant tropes here. Kent’s memorable and generalised utterance:
… it is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions;
Else one self-mate and make [one and the same partner] could not beget
Such different issues
is untrue as Lear shares characteristics with his elder daughters as much as or even more than with his youngest. His account of Lear’s grief and remorse is dramatically functional as we need to be prepared for the change in him brought about by shame (the word is repeated) which is a necessary step on the road to self-knowledge. In realising his errors and wrongs, he has moved beyond seeing himself as good and feeling self-pity rather than pity for others. Kent also feels he must stay disguised for no cogent reason except that a dramatic ending to the play will be heightened by mulitiple revelations.