The setting moves back to Gloucester's castle. Cornwall is dispatching Goneril with a letter to Albany, telling him of the invasion by the King of France. Cornwall orders that Gloucester be found and brought to him.
Edmund is told to accompany Goneril so that he is not present for Gloucester's punishment. Before Edmund and Goneril can leave, Oswald enters with news that Gloucester has warned the king and aided his escape to Dover.
As soon as Gloucester appears on the scene, Cornwall orders him bound to a chair. Regan viciously plucks at Gloucester's beard, calling him a traitor.
Intensifying the torture, Cornwall gouges out one of Gloucester's eyes. When a servant tries to stop the torment, Regan draws a sword and murders the steward. Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's other eye.
When the old man calls out to Edmund for help, Regan reveals that it was Edmund who betrayed his father. At this, Gloucester finally understands that he has misjudged Edgar. After throwing Gloucester out to find his own way to Dover, Regan helps Cornwall, who was wounded in the fray, and both leave for Dover.
The full impact of this scene cannot be felt in a reading of the play text. The brutality of Gloucester's blinding must be seen and heard on stage for the audience to fully appreciate the evil being manifested by Cornwall and Regan. Both Goneril and Regan are especially cruel and bloodthirsty, as they call for Gloucester's punishment: "Hang him instantly. [Regan] / Pluck out his eyes [Goneril]" (III.7.4-5).
Having heard these two vultures call out for his father's blood, Edmund must have understood how harsh a punishment Gloucester is about to endure. And yet, Edmund willingly and easily leaves on his errand. This scene illustrates Edmund's wickedness; he must appreciate the true measure of Cornwall's evil and his father's vulnerability in the face of Cornwall's anger.
Cornwall's villainy in this scene is not unexpected. His anger earlier in Act III builds to the brink of losing control; in this scene, the audience sees Regan's husband refusing any attempts at civility. He has become the beast that is lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization. Cornwall appears to recognize that he lacks the authority to put Gloucester to death:
Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a court'sy to our wrath, which men
May blame but not control. (III.7.24-27)
Still, Cornwall argues that he is provoked and must gratify his wrath. When Gloucester is brought to him, Cornwall makes no attempt to control himself. Although Gloucester reminds Cornwall that they are guests in his home, neither Cornwall nor Regan has any interest in maintaining the rules of hospitality. Regan's plucking of Gloucester's beard reinforces the point that she has no basic respect for age or rank. Gloucester is an earl and an elderly statesman, and Regan's pulling of his beard further rejects the structure of nature, which provides that the older members of a society be revered for their age and wisdom. Gloucester recognizes the insult saying, "'tis most ignobly done" (III.7.35).
Gloucester has faith in divine justice, just as Lear has implored the gods for justice. Nonetheless, justice appears to be lacking at several points throughout King Lear, and the plucking of Gloucester's eyes is certainly one instance. Gloucester has made many errors in judgment, but in this case, as with Lear, the punishment is surely in excess of his mistakes. When Regan reveals Edmund's treason, Gloucester is quick to recognize his folly, much quicker than Lear.
The plucking out of Gloucester's eyes is so brutal that not even Cornwall's servants can stand by without acting. Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall's brutal natures have been evident all along, with each act of wickedness building upon the previous. And so, the audience is not totally unprepared for these events. But in spite of the hints, no one can be ready for Cornwall ripping out Gloucester's eyes and stomping them under his boot. This is a scene of particular brutality, matched only by the bloodthirsty brutality of certain scenes in Shakespeare's Latin plays, especially Titus Andronicus.
Interestingly, Regan shows some real humanity, though briefly, when Cornwall is wounded. Her solicitous question — "How is't my Lord. How look you?" (III.7.92) — reveals that she is not totally self-serving or incapable of love and compassion — virtually the only instance where Regan appears human.
questrists seekers; pursuers.
ruffle to disturb, irritate, or annoy; to take away the smoothness of; wrinkle; ripple.
dearn gloomy; bleak.