Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scene 4
The setting remains the French camp near Dover. Cordelia is now responsible for leading the French army in its defense of her father. Having learned of her father's deteriorating mental condition, Cordelia quickly sends an officer to search for Lear. She asks the doctor if there is any way the king's mental acuity might be restored and prays that her father's sanity is not lost forever. Within moments, a messenger arrives with news of the English army's arrival, and Cordelia prepares to use the French forces to help defend her father.
The opening lines of this scene, which describe Lear's appearance, show how far from his royal state the king has descended. In Act I, Lear assumed the mantel of royalty with accustomed ease, and now he appears covered in weeds. Lear's choice of weeds for raiment, rather than the equally available flowers in the fields, is significant. The king's temperament is as wild and ungoverned as the weeds, which grow so freely, and which represent the unplanned chaotic state of nature.
Royalty should be cautious, planning carefully for the possibility of insurgent "weeds" — or their human equivalents — gaining a foothold in the landscape. Lear's physical self represents the results of the king's unwise abdication of authority and his negligence in tending to his kingdom. Instead of appearing like a carefully designed English garden, Lear and his kingdom show signs of neglect, and both are now infested with a wild outbreak of weeds. Lear, covered in weeds, metaphorically represents the reality of his realm. With the messenger's entrance, Cordelia's role of savior is emphasized. She is present, not as the head of a French invasion, but as a rescuer and defender of her father.
rank growing vigorously and coarsely; overly luxuriant.
century a military unit, originally made up of 100 men.
simples a medicinal herb; a medicine made from a plant.