The setting is the heath in a raging storm. Conversing with a gentleman — a character conveniently placed to enlighten Kent and the audience — 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 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 leaves to search for Lear.
The previous scene opened with the lines "Who's there, besides foul weather?" (III.1.1), and now in this scene, we are presented with an image of Lear on the heath, his despair and rage clearly equaling the fury of the storm. 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 plight, it becomes clear that the Fool's new purpose is to protect Lear until Cordelia can arrive to help her father.
This scene answers the lingering question from Act II Scene 2: How does Cordelia learn so quickly of her father's tragedy? Kent tells the gentleman that spies have been sent from France to observe the treatment of the king. Kent's story is somewhat vague and suggests an improbable timeframe because word of the past few days' events could not have traveled to France so rapidly. However, Shakespeare often manipulates time in his tragedies to move the play along purposely. In this case, the expectation of an invasion and the prospect of Cordelia's arrival provide hope that Lear's situation will soon improve.
Kent also mentions a possible crack in the alliance between Albany and Cornwall, although they have sought to keep the information private. The audience has heard hints that Albany might 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.
snuffs disputes; squabbles.
plain to complain.
out wall outside; exterior.