Summary and Analysis
The setting is the country near Dover. Edgar is leading his father to an area, which Edgar assures the suffering earl, is near the cliffs. After Edgar describes the harrowing view of the beach below the cliffs, Gloucester thanks his guide and gives him a jewel as reward for having fulfilled his service. Delivering a final prayer, Gloucester falls forward and loses consciousness. When Gloucester awakens, Edgar easily convinces his father that he has somehow survived the fall from the cliffs and that the poor beggar who was guiding him was really some kind of fiend. According to Edgar, instead of allowing his death, the gods have saved Gloucester. Accepting this explanation, Gloucester vows to be more accepting of the afflictions that he endures.
Lear enters. Gloucester recognizes Lear's voice, whose simple babbling invokes Gloucester's sympathy. Lear's dialogue with Gloucester explores the role of justice, but at its end, the king dissolves into madness.
A Gentleman and attendants arrive, having been sent by Cordelia to find Lear. But the king is frightened and runs from his rescuers. Before he leaves to follow Lear, the Gentleman tells Edgar that the battle is imminent, as both forces are nearby. As Edgar prepares to lead Gloucester to safety, Oswald enters. When he sees Gloucester, Oswald exclaims that Gloucester is the prize he sought and that he will kill the old man. Edgar interferes; the confrontation ends in a fight and Oswald is slain. The dying steward asks Edgar to take his letters to Edmund.
Edgar is still disguised as Poor Tom, but he is now better dressed — as a peasant rather than a pitiful soul covered only in a blanket. More importantly, the manner in which he addresses his father indicates compassion, understanding, and an acceptance of his father's flaws. Edgar has forgiven Gloucester, and his voice reflects the sentiment. Shakespeare signifies the change by having Edgar speak in verse, so the audience is also aware that Edgar is not the same man he was earlier in the play.
Just before he intends to jump, Gloucester acknowledges the strength of the gods, whose justice he earlier questioned, and he prays that Edgar will be blessed. This scene is heart-rendering because Edgar does not reveal his identity. Instead, he permits the deception to continue so that Gloucester can be healed. When Gloucester awakens, he immediately questions if he actually fell, but then quickly resigns himself to his survival. Gloucester then accepts his afflictions and promises to endure until such time as the gods determine that he has suffered long enough.
Edgar states prior to Gloucester's "fall" that he will not disclose his true identity so that his father might still be cured, but there is ample opportunity after Gloucester awakens to divulge the secret, and yet, Edgar fails to tell Gloucester the truth. Gloucester's ignorance may be necessary for his continuing self-discovery. If Edgar reveals himself in Act IV, Gloucester's opportunities for growth will be cut short, and a major element of the play is the manner in which each character evolves in response to the circumstances that test his/her beliefs, values, and strengths. Gloucester must continue to learn about himself; his movement toward self-truth would be halted if he resolves his conflict with Edgar at this point.
Lear enters once again with the exclamation that "I am the / king himself" (IV.6.83-84). Although he has no kingdom and is no longer the image of a king, the gods made Lear a king and only the gods can revoke his anointed state. When he hears Gloucester's voice, Lear begins a lengthy monologue that reveals all that he has learned since his daughters betrayed him. Lear finally understands that flattery is a hazard to someone in a high position, and thus, he makes sense even in his madness. Lear believed what he knew to be lies because he accepted his older daughters' flattery: "They flattered / me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my / beard ere the black ones were there" (IV.6.96-98).
His understanding of his complicity in the events that followed is a major step in accepting responsibility and in acknowledging that he is not infallible. Lear's words — "Goneril, with a white beard!" (IV.6.96) — might be interpreted as meaning that Lear mistakes Gloucester for Goneril. But more likely, Lear is addressing Goneril and not greeting someone whom he thinks to be Goneril. By portraying her with a white beard, Lear is asserting that his eldest daughter has inverted nature by assuming the authority of her father, and thus, the white beard, which represents knowledge, becomes the guise of his eldest daughter's rule.
Next, Lear moves to a digression on adultery and sexuality, which fits the notion that both Regan and Goneril have fallen victim to excessive desires — something that is closely aligned with excessive sexuality. Thus the reference to Centaurs, which symbolize the complexity of man's intellectual ability joined to the baser desires of animals, accurately describes man's vulnerability to his more animal instincts.
As he continues, Lear moves to another subject: justice. The king has learned that those who profess honesty are often not honest, and even judges can be corrupted and bribed, and so, he advocates a turn to anarchy and a change of the rules of justice. Lear fears that justice cannot or does not exist amid so much dishonesty (IV.6.154-165).
Lear's knowledge that all men must accept their frailty and their humanity parallels Gloucester's own earlier discoveries. Because of his own suffering, Lear has also learned that even he is not above God's justice. At the end of his speech, Lear shifts to a desire for his sons-in-law's deaths, and a clearer picture of his madness emerges. Lear sees himself as a victim of Fortune, a "natural fool of Fortune" (IV.6.189). Finally, consumed with fear, Lear runs away from the Gentleman and attendants who have appeared and are searching for him.
The Gentleman reminds Gloucester and Edgar that Lear has one daughter who is in harmony with nature and who will redeem him from the misery created by Goneril and Regan. His speech also reminds the audience that the battle is drawing near. Lear's appearance and demeanor have shaken Gloucester, and in response, he prays for the gods to save him from despair and promises that he will not try to kill himself again.
Oswald's entrance in this scene results in his death. Although he is warned, he refuses to abandon his orders to murder Gloucester. Oswald is a servant for whom obedience and position are everything. At the beginning of Act IV Scene 2, Oswald was clearly confused that Albany rejected everything that Goneril had accomplished, and here, he expects the peasant who is accompanying Gloucester to simply move out of the way and allow the old man's murder. His sense of obedience is so great that he even asks the man who has killed him to deliver Goneril's letter to Edmund.
cock a small boat propelled by oars, esp. one used as a ship's tender.
idle having no value, use, or significance; worthless.
conceit a flight of imagination; fancy.
bourn a limit; boundary; a domain.
welk'd r idged or twisted.
gauntlet 1 a medieval glove, usually of leather covered with metal plates, worn by knights in armor to protect the hand in combat. 2 throw down the gauntlet to challenge, as to combat.
trick a personal habit or mannerism.
fitchew lewd woman; prostitute.
squiny to squint.
benison a blessing; benediction.
ballow a short, thick stick or club.