Although Kent directs Lear to a hovel for shelter, the king refuses to protect himself from the storm.
The Fool runs from the hovel, exclaiming that a spirit has taken possession of the shelter. The spirit, who soon emerges, is Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, pitiful pauper. The king tears off his own clothing, making himself look more like the unclad Poor Tom.
Gloucester enters the scene, carrying a torch. He has found both warm shelter and food for the king, but Lear declines, claiming that he needs to talk more with the Bedlam beggar. The disguised Edgar complains of the cold and everyone moves into the shelter.
Much of this scene focuses on Lear's mental disintegration. Once again, Lear deals with his personal tragedy in a variety of ways. For the first time, Lear focuses his attention on others' lives, those who are as wretched as the king himself:
Poor naked wretches, wherso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loo'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? (III.4.28-32).
These words are regretful, remorseful, empathetic, and compassionate for the poor, a population that Lear has not noticed before. Lear recognizes the parallels between their lives and his current situation. In a real sense, his pity for the poor is also a reflection of the pity he feels for his own situation. He finally feels compassion for the poor, only because he has become one of them.
With this extension of pity comes a new social awareness. Lear realizes that he has done nothing to aid the poor people in his kingdom. Instead, he has contributed their demise. He chastises himself saying:
O! I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III.4.32-36).
Lear acknowledges that justice comes from man and heaven. Lear is the anointed king, God's representative, and thus, shares the responsibility for dispensing justice on earth. He recognizes that he bears responsibility for both his own problems and for those of others, who suffer equally. Once again, Lear is revealed as a complex and sympathetic figure, one who defies easy definition.
With his new knowledge, Lear would be a more effective king. But because he has given up his royal position, he can take responsibility only for his present situation. His inability to right the wrongs he has inflicted upon his people contributes to his fall into madness. The turmoil in Lear's mind makes him oblivious to the weather storm that surrounds him, and his waning lucidity also provides an escape from the reality of his plight.
When Poor Tom emerges from the hovel, Lear sees a mirror image of himself. Lear identifies with Poor Tom because both men have lost everything. Lear imagines that Tom is also the victim of deceitful and cruel daughters. Lear's identity with Tom is absolute when he removes his clothing to join Tom in near-nakedness. This inability to distinguish himself from Tom is a symptom of Lear's madness. This scene reminds the audience that very little separates man from beast. The fragility of man is inescapable, because only a fine line divides civilized and uncivilized states.
Although parallels can be drawn between Gloucester's situation and Lear's circumstances (as both men are being manipulated by their children), one notable difference remains: Gloucester retains his sanity. Gloucester is aware of how easily he might lose his mind, and he fears it may happen yet (III.4.62-63), but he has an inner strength that Lear does not have, which permits him to survive.
Paradoxically, Gloucester fails to recognize his own son, Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom. This scene builds upon Scene 3 by showing Gloucester's determination to help the old king, but it also reveals a father in as much pain as the king. Gloucester is not aware that his own situation will turn disastrous soon.
taking contagious; infectious.
out-paramour'd having more lovers or mistresses.
plackets pockets, especially in a woman's skirt or a petticoat.
lendings things that one has let another have use of temporarily and on condition that they, or equivalents, be returned.
first cock midnight.
green mantle a surface covered with scum or froth.