The setting is just outside the Duke of Albany's palace, where Goneril and Edmund are now present. Oswald enters with news that Albany is a changed man. The steward relates that Albany was pleased to learn of the proposed invasion by France and displeased when he learned that Gloucester had been replaced by his younger son Edmund, who had betrayed his father. With this announcement, Goneril takes command of her forces and orders Edmund to return to Cornwall while she deals with Albany. As they part, Goneril gives Edmund a favor of her affection and a farewell kiss. After Edmund leaves, Goneril remarks on the favorable impression he makes compared with her weakling husband.
Albany enters and angrily accuses Goneril of being an unnatural daughter. He also accuses Goneril and Regan of being like tigers, who have attacked their aged father. A messenger enters with the announcement that Cornwall has died of the wounds he suffered after blinding Gloucester. Albany is aghast at the news of Gloucester's torture and calls Cornwall's death divine justice. Albany vows revenge against Edmund for leaving Gloucester at the mercy of Cornwall.
Goneril is attracted to the young, handsome, and obedient Edmund. Such qualities make him more attractive to her than her own husband. Goneril expects obedience from a man, but she also wants strength and a willingness to take what he desires — characteristics that match her own. The fact that Goneril is married does not appear to be a concern. The steward's news that Albany's political and personal alliances have changed only make Edmund more appealing to Goneril.
Albany's initial remarks to Goneril reveal how much he has changed from the beginning of the play. Albany's previous hesitation to confront his wife is now replaced by direct address of her wickedness: "You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / blows in your face." His attack on Goneril's integrity shows that Albany is a highly moral and humane individual, the antithesis of his wife, and an individual the audience has not witnessed earlier in the play. In his attack on Goneril, Albany's view of nature is the opposite of his wife's. Where Goneril has created chaos, Albany endorses nature's design and a view of nature's work within an organic framework:
That nature, which contemns it origin,
Cannot be border'd certain in itself;
She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use. (IV.2.32-36)
Albany accepts that nature's pattern is essential for survival. The hierarchy of father to child, king to subject, God to king, is essential to eliminating chaos of the world. Goneril has reversed that natural order in her treatment of Lear, and the resulting chaos and anarchy has turned man against himself.
Albany points out that the news that Cornwall is dead is evidence of divine justice, and this event should provide a warning to Goneril, but she ignores Albany's words to focus on the greater concern — Regan as a widow is now available to marry Edmund. Goneril on the other hand, does have a husband, one whom she expects to control. Goneril is heir to one-half the kingdom, and she expects Albany to remember that this was her dowry; but he is stronger than Cornwall. And although Albany hesitated earlier to confront Goneril when he thought she was wrong, he is not the willing participant in evil that Cornwall has shown himself to be. Albany is genuinely shocked when he learns of Gloucester's blinding, while Cornwall easily succumbed to this perversion.
With this new resistance to his wife, Albany joins the ranks of characters who have undergone dramatic change during the course of the play, growing and evolving into a stronger and more compassionate individual. As the highest-ranking nobleman remaining, Albany will have no choice but to defend England against the French invasion. But this scene signals that Albany's loyalties will not be with his wife but with those who defend Lear.
Goneril's role, here, is in contrast to that of most Elizabethan women. In this period, women were totally subordinate to their husband's desires. The chain of authority was from God to king, king to subject (always male) and male to women and children. Elizabeth I refused to marry rather than be subject to any man's authority. Goneril, however, sees herself as the ultimate authority, and this contradicts the reality of this historical period.
cowish timid; cowardly.
answer any act in response or retaliation.
sliver to cut or break into slivers.
bending to turn or direct.
justicers legal officials; judges.