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. 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. Making Cornwall and Albany equal, in effect co-leaders, inevitably leads to discord. 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. Lear has rejected the daughter who genuinely loves him, and now, Gloucester has rejected the son who genuinely loves him. These events further support the idea that Lear's earlier actions have rejected the natural order of the world.
Regan and Cornwall's visit gives Edmund another opportunity to advance his plot. In this scene, Regan and Cornwall appear to be conscientious and reasonable people. Regan seems genuinely upset to learn of Edgar's betrayal. That Regan has come seeking Gloucester's advice also adds to her credibility because it creates the impression that she values the older man's guidance.
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. Since Albany attempted to intercede on the king's behalf in Act I, the audience expects Cornwall to emerge as a villain, and his alliance with Edmund emphasizes that both men are evil figures. 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.
briefness sudden action; a short duration or length.
bend 1 to turn or direct. 2 to cause to have a fixed purpose; determine; aim.
faith'd approved; endorsed.
ill affected unfaithful.