King Lear By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 4

Summary

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.

Analysis

As in Act I, Scene 4, the audience is permitted to observe Lear's intense, unstable reactions to adversity. He 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.

Glossary

nether-stocks tights or stockings.

meiny attendants, collectively; retinue or household.

fetches tricks; dodges.

remotion 1 the act of removing. 2 inaccessibility.

offices the function or characteristic action of a particular thing.

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