King Lear By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act IV: Scene 1

Summary

The setting is the heath. A blinded Gloucester is led by an elderly man, one of his tenants. The ailing earl laments that he treated Edgar badly and wishes for the opportunity to once again touch his son, since he can no longer see him. Gloucester hears Edgar's voice and remembers Poor Tom from the night of the storm. In an act of humanity, Gloucester sends his tenant for some clothing so that the Bedlam beggar might be covered.

Gloucester is concerned that the Old Man might suffer for having given assistance, so he dismisses him and asks Tom to be his guide to Dover, where he seeks the highest cliff. Tom agrees to take Gloucester to the cliff.

Analysis

Edgar's opening soliloquy reveals his belief that having survived the worst that fortune can throw at him, nothing more terrible can happen; but in fact, Edgar's acceptance of fortune is tested when the blinded Gloucester is led in. When he sees his father's condition, Edgar is forced to admit that his situation has disintegrated even further. Gloucester is being led by a tenant, who refuses to leave although his own life is at risk. Their conversation supplies a paradox:

You cannot see your way. [Old Man]
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; [Gloucester]
I stumbled when I saw. (IV.1.17-19)

These lines illustrate Gloucester's failing. When he had his vision, he could not see the deceit fabricated by his younger son, and thus, vision has not helped him see his way in the past. Now that he has lost his vision but finally seen the truth, Gloucester can envision no way in which he can regain the elder son, who is lost to him. For Gloucester, the disadvantage of lost sight has become an advantage (IV.1.20-21), and his only wish is that he might "live to see thee [Edgar] in my touch" (IV.1.23).

In many ways, Gloucester's response to his tragedy parallels Lear's. Like Lear, Gloucester feels despair and questions gods who can "kill us for their sport" (IV.1.37). And like Lear, Gloucester finds his humanity in the midst of his tragedy. The blinded old man who asks that clothing be brought, so that Poor Tom might be covered, is a very different man from the Gloucester of Act I. In the play's opening scene, the earl boasted about the good sport to be had at Edmund's illegitimate conception. Instead of a thoughtless braggart, Gloucester is filled with compassion for Poor Tom (IV.1.63-70).

This compassion for his fellow man indicates that Gloucester regrets the behavior of his past, as he seeks to make amends by sharing with those he never noticed before. This action parallels the self-awareness that moved Lear to suddenly consider the poor and disadvantaged in Act III, Scene 4. Like Lear, Gloucester questions divine justice, feels despair, evokes nihilism (the belief that life is without reason or purpose), and discovers his own humanity. This scene demonstrates dramatically the parallelism between the primary plot and the subplot.

Glossary

daub it further disguise it further.

horse-way horse path.

superfluous extravagant; prodigal.

bending overhanging; prominent.

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