The setting is the French camp near Dover. Kent hears that the king of France has been forced to return to his own country. Kent asks a Gentleman if, upon reading his letters, Cordelia revealed any emotion, and learns that she did manage to keep her feelings under control. Kent responds by acknowledging the stars' influence, which have made Cordelia so different from her sisters. Kent, who is still disguised, states that he will bring the Gentleman to Lear in Dover, and at the proper time, he will reveal his own identity.
The King of France must return to his own country because a French invasion of England would be far too offensive for an audience still sensitive about a Spanish intrusion in recent years. The reason for the king's return is unimportant, and hence the vagueness in this scene's opening lines. The critical point is that Cordelia could not have her husband present to cloud the reunion with her father or to intrude on the final scene of the play. While the Marshal of France has been left to command the forces, the point is understood that Cordelia, who is English, will lead the defense of her father.
At Kent's request, the Gentleman reveals Cordelia's response to news of her father's treatment. Her tears and pensive retreat prove her compassion and establish that she is, indeed, the opposite of her sisters. Kent takes the difference one step further by pointing to the stars, which he says have made sisters so different from one another. Deferring to the stars effectively absolves Regan and Goneril of any responsibility for their actions and credits fate with determining one sister's virtue and the other's vice. This conversation is important in understanding the role of divine justice in the events that occur later. Albany believes in divine justice, but both Lear and Gloucester have questioned whether such justice exists. The role of fate in understanding God's justice creates some complex issues to consider, since if Kent's words are to be taken literally, Cordelia's death lies with fate and not with divine justice. Divine justice, indeed any concept of God's intervention, cannot co-exist with a reliance on fate to explain events. Of course, it is important to remember that Shakespeare sets his events in the pre-Christian era, while both Shakespeare and his audience exist in a Judeo-Christian world. This creates a paradox and adds to the tension of the text.
imports to mean; signify.
smilets small smiles; half-smiles.
question communication; an asking; inquiry.
sovereign above or superior to all others; chief; greatest; supreme.
dog-hearted ferocious; cruel; pitiless.