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THE STORY, continued
ACT III, SCENE I
On the other hand, Kent's character is firmly fixed and will not vary. (Note that he is useful in many ways to the playwright. Again Shakespeare exploits his function as "news bulletin" reporter to clear the stage and prepare for the passion of the scene to come.) It is too soon to appreciate the change in Lear as he contends "with the fretful elements" (line 4), but a report of this behavior sets us up for what is to come.
The political situation is reviewed, too. We learn that there is underground activity between Cornwall and Albany, each of whom would like to run the whole show. But the unrest has produced a response from France that shows that interest still active. Indeed, French forces are reported to have landed in England and Kent would have them made aware of the king's current situation. He sends the king's courtier off to bear that message and adds a few words of his own for Cordelia. She will recognize him by the ring he sends.
Again Cordelia is recalled and reinforced as "goodness" striving against opposing forces. She has been absent from the stage, but have you forgotten what she represents? Is there a need to think any more about her pride? Her stubbornness? Just look at how she is absolved in absentia.
ACT III, SCENE II
NOTE: Here is the first great storm scene of King Lear. To get full value, to make its dramatic effect profound on audiences then and now, it took more than the sound of thunder offstage. It would take the powerful effects of speech and movement. The rhetoric thunder in Lear's words is undoubtedly greater and more moving than the artificial, but the combination must have been stunning. Properly acted, in these scenes the storm and Lear become united in force and fury.
As the storm rages, Lear enters with the Fool. What a difference from any of his previous entrances! Gone are the stately procession, the court attendants, the regal trappings. Only the Fool, the loyal court jester, is with him to mitigate the tremendous agony of Lear's burden. Joining the voice of the storm with his own voice of protest, Lear calls on the celestial powers to bring down the full force of the tempest against his two ungrateful daughters. Let them be the messengers of his revenge.
In another voice, calm yet impassioned, he asks the gods to witness his woeful condition.
When Kent arrives on the scene, he joins the Fool in a plea to bring Lear in to some kind of shelter. But Lear is still full of his inner turmoil and will not be moved. He continues to rant against the tyrannies of his enemies. Lear acknowledges himself as somewhat responsible, but he is "More sinned against than sinning." (line 60).
Kent's entreaties finally make their point and Lear, recognizing that he has been carried away by the storm and his own anger, suddenly notices the cold and the rain. Taking pity on the Fool, who has suffered from the elements along with him, he enters the hovel Kent has found. The Fool shares with the audience a paradoxical prophecy of the greater storm to come:
Then shall the realm of Albion
NOTE: Albion (another name for England) will also suffer the turn of Fortune's wheel and feel the trauma created by the inversion, the power struggle, and all the chaos unleashed by the "unnatural acts" we are witnessing.
ACT III, SCENE III
It's scoundrel time once again. The Gloucester/Edmund/Edgar subplot begins to accelerate.
As Gloucester and Edmund appear on stage, the father confesses to his illegitimate son that he does not like the "unnatural" behavior of Cornwall and Regan; an upsetting of order has resulted from their assumption of authority in his house, with the guests ruling the host. Hypocritical Edmund is quick to agree that it is indeed "savage and unnatural." But wasn't this the very thing he expressed a desire to do in the forged letter- if we assume that it represented his own wishes?
Gloucester makes the mistake of confiding that he has received a letter that presumably comes from sympathizers with the French invaders who are already mounting their forces somewhere in the land. The old earl plans to disobey Cornwall's orders and go to the king with such relief and comforts as he can provide. Gloucester asks Edmund to cover for him by saying that he is unwell and has retired for the evening. He'll take the risk under penalty of death for the sake of the master he has served faithfully.
Once Gloucester leaves, the treacherous Edmund reveals that he will betray this confidence to advance his own cause.
In this short scene, two character studies are engraved a little deeper as the tension builds.
ACT III, SCENE IV
The scene shifts back to the storm. You may wonder why it didn't just continue uninterrupted, since there doesn't seem to be a time change. Some modern productions attempt to run the storm scenes all together and they generally run into the problem Shakespeare avoided by separating them.
The intensity is so great and the passions are so tremendous that it is impossible to rise higher, or even to sustain the pitch. It takes all the playwright's skill to combine prose and poetry, song snatches, rhymes, even nonsense, to maintain the texture of these scenes and create the dynamics. Don't miss the sound of the words as you pay attention to their meaning; you are hearing an exquisite symphony of emotion and excitement, filled with crescendos as well as peaceful interludes.
At the doorway to shelter, Kent begs Lear to enter. But the old king gives a calm analysis of why he is not bothered by the wind and the rain. How can it compare with the turmoil within his mind and body? He knows that he has been mistreated by his daughters, who have turned him out in such a night; he knows how fierce the weather is. He sends the Fool inside; he will follow in a moment. First he wishes to pray.
In a supreme moment of introspection and exposure of his deepest understanding, Lear reflects on the earthly condition of his fellow suffering human beings. The other "poor naked wretches" (line 28) who have no shelter arouse a compassion we haven't seen before in him, and it inspires- compels- our sympathy. As he reveals an ability to care for others under such devastating circumstances as the storm and his own exile, we begin to care for him.
Lear even shows an understanding of how clothing determines the social order and shields us from a true vision of man's condition. When he says, "Take physic, pomp" (line 33), we know that he is reminding himself of his own past errors.
The breakdown that has been threatening now occurs when Edgar, disguised as poor Tom o' Bedlam, comes out and opens an escape hatch from Lear's world of sorrows to the safer world of madness.
Edgar plays the part of lunatic wanderer to the hilt and quickly becomes Lear's sounding board and counterfoil to repeated complaints of his daughters' ingratitude. Positioning the madman as a learned philosopher, Lear thrusts at him with questions the play itself is asking:
Is man no more than this?
We can see that Lear has now embarked on a voyage of discovery through the darkness in which his mind is wandering. In streaks of light and insight, he indicates new awareness. When he sees Edgar's wretched rags, he begins to take off his own clothes to identify with this creature of the lowest social order.
Even Gloucester's arrival cannot stop the progress Lear is making. And Gloucester's own blindness, his failure to recognize his own son- even granting that he is disguised- underscores the contrast of Lear's growing vision.
NOTE: Things are not what they seem. The more Lear appears mad, the more he is perceived so by Gloucester and Kent. But the more he is learning within his suffering heart and mind.
Gloucester, the prosaic, patient, well-meaning soul, rises a bit in our estimation by his attempt to be of assistance. But there's irony in his acknowledgment of Lear's driven condition provoked by his daughters, and his comparison of his own betrayal by his legitimate son. How ironic is his cry, "The grief hath crazed my wits" (line 161), in view of Lear's madness and sorrow.
As the storm rages outside, the group moves inward to shelter and momentary relief.
ACT III, SCENE V
Here is another break from the compelling passion of Lear's growing madness and the dark shadows surrounding him. We are given a close-up view of the utmost villainy at work. It is not enough for us to know that Edmund will betray his father; we get to witness it in this "meanwhile, back at the castle" interlude.
Having heard the news of Gloucester's "disloyalty," Cornwall acknowledges that Edgar might have been justified in wishing to have his father put away. As Edmund sighs and beats his breast at the pain he suffers in turning in his father, Cornwall gives him the happy news that a reward is at hand. As far as this "worthy arch and patron" (Act II, Scene i, line 59) is concerned, Edmund is now the Earl of Gloucester. Just listen to the hypocrisy that abounds in this scene as Edmund and Cornwall glibly toss off references to "loyalty" and "trust" and "love." If you didn't know better by now, wouldn't this sound like the most sincere conversation you could imagine? Since you have the facts behind it in your mind, how powerful is its "villainy" manifest?
ACT III, SCENE VI
As Lear stumbles down the road to darkest despair and madness, there are telltale moments of lucidity and passion. Having touched us with sublime humility and fiery anguish, we now witness the debasement of the monarch- the highest court of appeal at one time- as he indulges in a grotesque parody of the court of law.
Gloucester and Kent have managed to gather the three unbridled spirits and have brought Lear, Edgar, and the Fool into a shelter, perhaps a cottage.
NOTE: Picture the three of them prancing about the stage. Edgar is spouting gibberish to maintain his disguise as "poor Tom"; the Fool is trying to entertain his master, to alleviate the pain of his suffering with riddles; and Lear is mainly in the darkness of his tortured mind, but emerges now and then to give telling replies to the Fool's riddles.
With Gloucester gone to seek further comforts, Lear decides to hold a "trial" to judge his daughters' evil behavior. He appoints the "mad" Edgar as judge, the Fool as a member of the jury, and he will prosecute. With a stool standing in for the accused, he declares Goneril guilty of kicking "the poor King her father" (lines 47-48). Did we see this happen? Or can we accept it as an accurate metaphor for his treatment at her hands?
Regan is similarly accused, but the trial breaks down as Lear's mind turns to self-pity. He sees light long enough to tell those assembled that Regan's heart should be examined to see if there is any "natural" cause for the evil it contains.
But the madness is growing in him even as he grows calmer. For a moment he thinks that Edgar is one of his hundred knights, though strangely costumed. Isn't this an ironic fulfillment of Regan's earlier accusation?
At last he is persuaded to retire for the evening and goes to lie down. Perhaps thinking he is back in his own castle, he gives orders for the curtains to be drawn and supper, the evening meal, to be served in the morning.
To that the Fool replies: "And I'll go to bed at noon" (line 83). These are the Fool's last spoken words; after this scene he disappears. Why Shakespeare did this is one of the great questions, a subject of much critical speculation. You have seen the Fool in action. You have seen the function he served. Now you must decide how much of a loss he really is. Do you believe he could continue to provide any comfort for his master whose madness, if not his anger, has been relatively calm up to this point?
NOTE: It has been suggested that the Fool's line can be interpreted to mean that he will die now, at the zenith of his life. Do you believe this? If not, what other explanation can you offer for this, his final statement?
The trusted Kent, who has witnessed all this, assures the returned Gloucester that Lear's "wits are gone." But Gloucester has even worse news to report. He has overheard a plot to kill the king. They must clear out and take Lear to Dover, where he will be safe. (There, in the southeast of England, the French forces have landed.) Kent bemoans the fact that the rest Lear needed so desperately to help cure him of his madness is obviously not at hand.
The faithful Gloucester, Kent, and the Fool literally carry Lear away, much as he virtually departs from the mainstream of the action now. The wheels set in motion by his initial act and by Gloucester's misplacement of trust are now spinning furiously and will carry matters forward.
Edgar lingers for a moment to call the audience's attention to the pathetic nature of the scene they have witnessed, and to remind us that "Who alone suffers suffers most i' the mind" (line 102). It is a sad omen of what we are yet to see.
ACT III, SCENE VII
NOTE: The widely discussed violence of today's television and movies has nothing on the brutality of this scene, which is performed live before the audience. However, it is not gratuitous. It belongs, it is integral, and we are ready for it. Shakespeare needed an act of compelling intensity to prepare us for the greater catastrophe that Lear will experience: this physical act of violence serves that purpose. And what else could compare to the towering ferocity of the storm, the tumult of Lear's madness, and the manic insanity of the disguised Edgar? Would a mild reproach, a slap on the wrist, be enough? Kent was put into the stocks for simply drawing his sword on a servant; Gloucester's punishment must fit his crime, and it must be witnessed.
As soon as Cornwall has sent Goneril off to bring Albany up to date on the French invasion, he orders a search for "the traitor Gloucester" (line 3).
Like two harpies, the sisters call for punishment. Regan suggests hanging, but Goneril, who once told Lear that she loved him "Dearer than eyesight" (Act I, Scene i, line 56), cries: "Pluck out his eyes" (line 5). In this case, it is his sister-in-law's counsel that Cornwall will follow.
But before such sentence can be executed, justice will be mocked again. Gloucester is brought in and a hurried inquisition is held. He must suffer the indignation and torture of his accusers' abuse. As Regan plucks the old man's beard, we hear her echo a former accusation: "So white, and such a traitor!" (line 35).
Regan and Cornwall are determined to discover what they can before punishing Gloucester. They can hardly believe- or perhaps don't want to believe- the news that the king has been sent off to Dover. Why would Gloucester point him in that direction? In an ironic and sad preview of his fate, he tells them,
Because I would not see thy cruel nails
With that preparation, it is not surprising to see Cornwall execute the punishment, to see him physically put out Gloucester's eyes. Still, the horror is there, and to underscore it one servant tries to stop Cornwall. He engages the duke in a duel, but Regan rises to the challenge and runs a sword through the servant's back. Cornwall crawls toward the completion of Gloucester's punishment and puts out his second eye.
The blinded earl now begs for the comfort of his son Edmund and receives another form of punishment when Regan tells him that it was Edmund who betrayed him.
In his agony, Gloucester recognizes his former metaphoric blindness, which led him to cast Edgar out into the cold.
In the ultimate revelation of her savage disposition, Regan punctuates the cruelty we've just witnessed by ordering a servant to throw the bleeding Gloucester out "and let him smell / His way to Dover" (lines 92-93).
When he is gone, Regan discovers that Cornwall has been injured in his duel with the servant, and leads him offstage.
The extent of the wickedness is not lost on the observers on stage or on those in the audience. The remaining servants share our sympathy and compassion for Gloucester. They agree to give him medicines to ease his physical suffering but, as they indicate, only heaven can really help him now.
ACT IV, SCENE I
There is only brief relief from the horror just witnessed. In this scene Gloucester returns to the stage; his role becomes- like Lear's- essentially passive from now on. But at the same time, the emotional appeals that Shakespeare will direct through both these old men will also grow more powerful.
Edgar, still disguised, enters and reminds us that his lot in life is the lowest. He is, he says, at his very worst.
Gloucester stumbles in, aided by an old family retainer. When the blind earl tries to dismiss his servant, he is reminded that he cannot see his way. What does Gloucester reply?
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
Discovering his father in this condition and hearing his pathetic revelation, his plea to find his lost son, Edgar is in agony. Now Edgar realizes that there is no such thing as "worst." There is always more.
NOTE: Why doesn't Edgar just own up to who he really is? It wouldn't serve the play's development, but how can such an opportunity go by? Watch what happens and see if you can detect a reason to continue his disguise.
Gloucester recognizes the voice of the beggar he had met the night before, and mentions that ironically he was reminded of his son. Just another trick of fate, he comments, as he makes the most pessimistic observation of the play:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' gods,
Is that the ultimate "message" of the play? Is that the answer to everything that has happened and will happen? Or is man himself the determining factor for both good and evil? There is no cut-and-dried answer, but there are, as always, clues.
NOTE: The Wheel of Fortune has come around for Gloucester, much as it did for Edgar moments ago. It's natural for the old man to bemoan his fate. Recognition is important, but remember, the wheel is never stationary. It continues to move, and Gloucester has other discoveries yet to make.
The nonrecognition scene continues: it serves the drama for Edgar to remain unknown to his father. To make that acceptable, Shakespeare contrives a purpose. The old servant is let go and Gloucester now comes to depend on the beggar. Aware of his wretched condition, the earl wishes to provide him with clothes, to make him more "respectable" as relief from his suffering. In an obvious gesture of Christian charity Gloucester gives away his purse.
He asks the beggar if he is familiar with the Dover coast and the cliffs found there.
NOTE: One of the best-known features of the English landscape, this would strike a familiar note with the audience. It would also suggest what Gloucester has in mind. Imagine a character in a play today saying, "Take me to the Brooklyn Bridge." It wouldn't be too difficult to figure out what he was planning.
Edgar answers affirmatively. Gloucester asks to be led there and brought to the edge where "...from that place / I shall no leading need" (lines 77-78). Why wait for the gods? He will create his own destiny. Edgar takes his arm, and they depart.
This new twist of the subplot, leading it toward the main plot, serves another purpose. Have you noticed how Edgar has begun to gain importance? He has not yet initiated action, but his role as participant- and as gradual hero- constantly grows from here on.
ACT IV, SCENE II
A fresh complication of the main plot takes place, too, as new intrigue begins. The web being spun by the wicked daughters and the equally evil Edmund is developing knots. The pregnant suggestion of a rift between the forces of Albany and Cornwall is only one of the problems.
The first breach occurs as Goneril arrives home with Edmund at her side. She hears from Oswald, the faithful, fawning steward, that Albany has heard of the French landing in England, but it has not aroused him. Told of Gloucester's supposed treachery and Edmund's supposed loyalty, he was even less pleased.
Recognizing a problem in the making, Goneril sends Edmund off to rejoin Cornwall's forces as she professes her great passion for this earl-presumptive, sealing it with a kiss. Edmund hides behind a chivalrous farewell that tells us nothing of his true feelings for her.
Albany enters and we quickly see how he feels about Goneril and her recent actions. He recognizes her and her sister as "Tigers, not daughters," whose gross treatment of their father will not go unpunished. He, too, observes that the gods will not allow such offenses to continue- otherwise, chaos would result.
Goneril, not unlike Lear in his earlier rash state, lashes out at him and calls him a coward. He sees her as nothing but a beast.
NOTE: Remember where animals stood then in the "natural order." Not only were they at the bottom, they had their own ranking: at the very lowest are "monsters," the embodiment of evil.
A messenger interrupts this verbal battle to inform them of the death of the Duke of Cornwall from his recent wound. At the same time, Albany hears of Gloucester's blinding by his brother-in-law and the servant's attempt to intercede. In the final result, Albany sees justice served by the vengeful gods; Cornwall was punished swiftly for his heinous act.
Goneril is given a letter from her sister, who she realizes is now a widow and possible contender for Edmund. As she goes to draft a suitable reply, Albany learns that Edmund had come to the palace with Goneril and turned right around. Moreover, Edmund's betrayal of his father had led to the vile punishment.
In a final impassioned statement, Albany vows revenge, to finish himself what the gods have apparently only partially done.
The softer shades are disappearing from the palette as the evil characters grow blacker and the good ones lighter. Is there any room for doubt about Goneril now? And what about Albany? From here on we know what to expect of them.
Still we have to ask, why doesn't Albany join up with the forces against Regan and Edmund and even Goneril? Why doesn't he go over to the "good guys"? Could it be that he is reluctant to become involved in a civil war? Or does patriotism make him feel he must defend the country against foreigners? Albany is in a difficult position. It will be interesting to see how Shakespeare deals with the problem.
ACT IV, SCENE III
It's time for another news bulletin, a report by Kent and an anonymous gentleman.
We learn that although the French have landed, the King of France has returned home to deal with an urgent problem there. This easy removal of a problem here may strike you as a bit clumsy, but look what it sets up.
With France gone, we identify Cordelia as the virtual head of the invasion. That's not as bad as the possibility of foreigners beating the English in battle. We can root for Cordelia and her army, Lear, and the "good guys." Kent is told of Cordelia's reaction to the news of her father's situation. She grows even more virtuous in our eyes. (Remember, we have not seen Cordelia since the very first scene.)
Like just about everyone else, Kent looks to the heavens to discover the rulers of man's fate. How could three such different daughters be produced by the same parent?
Kent tells us that Lear is now in Dover. In lucid moments, the mad king remembers his harsh judgment of Cordelia and is now too ashamed to go to her. Kent will lead the gentleman to Lear to do the job of persuasion, while he attends to other matters.
ACT IV, SCENE IV
When we last saw Cordelia, she was leaving in disgrace. Now, as Queen of France, she enters with drums, fanfare, attendants, and all the splendor of her position. What a sight, and what a reward for our patience.
NOTE: This is the first we see, too, of those French forces we've been hearing about. If we are to believe that there is a battle brewing, we need some demonstration of a worthy foe. The grand entrance to this scene does just that.
We have high hopes for Cordelia, and we are not disappointed. Her very first words show compassion and concern for her father. She describes the report she has received of his appearance, dressed with roadside weeds as he wanders about madly singing away.
Cordelia asks a doctor if there is any hope. Is Lear too far gone? Can he be cured? The doctor's answer is brief. Rest and the healing power of "nature" are the only things that might be effective. Cordelia vows to find Lear and provide that relief.
Told that the British forces are getting closer, she resumes her role as leader of the French but joins her cause to her father's. In a firm statement she lets us know that the only purpose of this invasion is the restoration of Lear's throne to him. This is important- it gives us even greater justification for cheering on her side.
ACT IV, SCENE V
The nonmilitary conflict is heating up, too. Regan has received Goneril's messenger, Oswald, and is told that Albany is preparing his troops, even though Goneril "is the better soldier" (line 3).
But Regan is more concerned about Edmund. She tries to find out what is going on between him and her sister. Oswald, however, is uncooperative: he will not show her Goneril's letter to Edmund that he is carrying.
Regan goes so far as to tell Oswald that she is better suited, being a widow, to marry Edmund. There is no question of this woman's lust and passion for that evil man.
She gives Oswald a sign of her devotion to pass along to Edmund when he meets him. Moreover, should Oswald come across Gloucester, the vindictive Regan offers a reward for killing that traitor.
Oswald accepts the commission, and departs.
ACT IV, SCENE VI
After the interplay of two villains, each outdoing the other in hypocritical protest of sincere intention, the scene shifts to Edgar's gentle treatment of Gloucester.
Edgar convinces his father by word pictures that they have arrived at their destination. He leads him to the supposed edge of the cliff and stands aside while the old man prepares to make his final peace.
Gloucester gives away his last earthly goods, and consigns his fate to the higher powers. He could not go on without losing faith in the gods. With a final blessing on his lost son, he throws himself forward and faints.
NOTE: For all its pathos, the moment is also funny. The two-foot fall and the subsequent dialogue are lighter than anything we've had since the Fool departed. It's not broad comedy, but it does provide some relief from the heaviness of the tragedy that is building steadily. Simply because you're observing a grand tragedy, don't reject the value of comic elements. A little laughter will clear the air and pave the way for the tears later.
At the same time, it's worth comparing Gloucester's route with Lear's "journey" of despair. Gloucester has chosen suicide; Lear goes mad. Is one worse than the other?
Edgar convinces Gloucester that he is alive and that a miracle has occurred. Ironically, a man-made miracle has: the blind earl has regained hope and faith. He doesn't know that all this has been his son's doing, and Edgar perpetuates the deception by assuring him that "...the clearest gods... have preserved thee" (lines 73-74). That's good enough for Gloucester. He vows to suffer his affliction without complaint until he comes to a natural end.
We have not seen Lear for some time, although we have had a recent description of his condition. Now he enters and fits the description to the letter. He is covered with weeds, a "natural" king. There are traces of his former bearing and authority, but there is even greater humility.
Lear tells us that he knows he was surrounded by poor advisers when he was the absolute monarch. Then his clothing and royal trappings kept him from seeing true conditions. Now he has learned, he has gained vision and can suffer pain.
Gloucester recognizes the voice. It is the king.
"Ay, every inch a king" (line 106), replies Lear, who then begins a mad discourse in which he links lust and adultery to the violence that has taken place. Hidden in his mad prattling are tremendous insights, but also anger and resignation.
The pathetic scene of the madman, Lear, and the blind man, Gloucester, continues with the earl showing his continued devotion to his master. Lear offers a topsy-turvy commentary on his condition, which lands right side up every now and then. He knows the difference between his former condition as "something" and his present state as "nothing." He knows the difference between fancy clothes that hide villains, and nakedness that sometimes shows true worth. He does not want to seem to be what he isn't and he starts to undress.
Lear recognizes Gloucester, and he offers his own eyes to the blind earl. In his philosophical outlook, Lear can see that we create our own misfortunes. This is a bleak outlook. Why shouldn't "...we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools" (lines 179-80), he asks before he is overcome by his madness and turns to thoughts of revenge. He knows his enemy, including his sons-in-law, whom he would kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!" (line 184).
Lear sees himself as "The natural fool of fortune" (line 188). He compares his bodily pain to his mental anguish as madness again seizes him. With attendants in pursuit, this sad, tortured creature runs off, babbling.
One of Cordelia's men tells Edgar that the battle will soon take place, but the queen, Cordelia, will stay right there until her father is brought to her.
Gloucester repeats his vow to stay alive. For now, Edgar will find some shelter for him.
But first Oswald comes upon them. His immediate thought is for his "fortune," the reward Regan offered. Not only that, but Oswald believes he will rise in everyone's opinion if he slays this enemy.
But Oswald has not reckoned with the real Edgar behind the beggar's rags, who mocks the steward in a peasant's voice. He even uses a peasant's weapon, some sort of cudgel, to mortally wound the pretentious steward.
In a single gesture of decency before he dies, Oswald asks his opponent to deliver the letters he carries to "Edmund Earl of Gloucester." The impact of that declaration must have shaken both Edgar and his father. Just as important is the precedent set by this villain's dying act of goodness. We can expect to find it repeated in this play with its constant parallels.
Edgar reads the letter. He learns that Goneril has pledged herself to Edmund and hopes that the battle will take care of the problem of her present husband. If not, Edmund will have to rescue her in the only way possible.
But Edgar has developed his own sense of cunning, and he saves the letter for use as ammunition later. When the time comes, he'll take care of Goneril and serve his own interests.
As drums signal the battle approaching, Edgar leads the sorrowing Gloucester away as the old man laments the king's madness and his own grief.
ACT IV, SCENE VII
At long last, we see Cordelia reunited with her father. It is certainly an emotional scene, but it's more than a play for sympathy. As it unfolds, notice how carefully each step is taken, a striking contrast from the opening, banishment scene.
Cordelia's gentle nature and essential goodness are on display as she discusses with both Kent and the doctor Lear's condition. She is told that the king has slept long enough to risk waking him. Try to remember her posture in the opening scene. Questions of stubbornness, conniving, and the like melt away as she proceeds toward the moment of reunion.
To the accompaniment of gentle music and Cordelia's kiss, Lear awakens. At first he thinks he has died and gone to heaven or purgatory. Is this another miracle, like Gloucester's? He thinks that Cordelia is a spirit and, to the audience, she must indeed appear so.
Gradually he comes to his senses and he knows that he is in the presence of the daughter he has wronged. He kneels before her in a penitent gesture, but she asks him to rise and give her his benediction.
Lear's return to sanity is evident as he acknowledges that he is "a very foolish fond old man" (line 60). He knows that he is not completely out of the woods, but he can identify Cordelia.
Riveting the audience by the concentration of kindness taking place on the stage, Lear admits that he has wronged Cordelia, but she rebuffs the suggestion. Total reconciliation is at hand.
Lear is so humbled that all he can do is repeat that he is old and foolish, as the shining heroine, whom he always loved most, leads him off to further rest.
Moved by the scene he has witnessed, Kent prepares to join the fighting forces. He is told, meanwhile, that Cornwall is dead and that Edmund has taken his place at the head of Cornwall's troops. It is rumored that Edgar has vanished and was seen with the Earl of Kent in Germany! We might welcome this touch of irony as a bit of relief after the heavy sentiment just experienced on the stage.
Wearied from his struggles to support Lear and act as the needed go-between, Kent departs to face whatever the battle will decide.
ACT V, SCENE I
The long-awaited battle is about to take place. During the final moments of preparation for the British forces, Edmund strides forward, very much the master of the situation.
Edmund sends an officer to see what's happening with Albany's troops. Regan is more concerned with another situation: she tries to get Edmund to assure her of his faithfulness to her and his disinterest in Goneril. Her jealousy and desperation are apparent. Edmund gives her his pledge as Albany and Goneril enter with their troops.
NOTE: The two sides are again lined up on the stage, with Edmund somewhere between or perhaps traveling back and forth. Once more the arrangement of characters on the stage tells part of the story.
The depth of Goneril's lust for Edmund is revealed in an aside as they enter. She would rather lose the battle than lose her lover to her sister.
Albany uses this opportunity to clarify his position. He tells us that he fights to repel the French invaders, not to oppose the king. The three villains- Edmund, Regan, and Goneril- can hardly agree with him fast enough.
As they are dispersing to take care of final arrangements, Regan manipulates Goneril into coming with her to her tent, despite the older sister's awareness of the discussion that awaits her there.
As Albany lingers for a moment, Edgar, still disguised as a beggar, enters and asks for a word. Now is the time to turn over Goneril's treacherous letter to Edmund. He does so, but before Albany is allowed to open it, Edgar extracts a promise. He asks to be allowed to produce a champion to prove the truth of the letter.
NOTE: The rules of chivalry come into play here. Apparently, an accusation such as the one against Edmund could be challenged and decided by a duel with someone of equivalent rank. Even though he is unknown to Albany, Edgar has obviously piqued his interest enough to obtain his promise.
Edgar and Albany leave; Edmund appears alone on the stage. We learn that he has been, as we might expect, two-faced in his relationships with Goneril and Regan: he has sworn faithfulness to each. He'll let the battle decide if Goneril will become a widow and then he'll choose between them.
As for Lear and Cordelia, if they are captured, he has no intention of letting them live.
In these last moments before the battle, our questions about any of the characters in the drama should have been answered.
ACT V, SCENE II
In terms of spoken words, this is the shortest scene in the play. What takes place, however, is a strong thrust to Fortune's wheel.
With the sound of battle music playing in the distance, drums and colors accompany Cordelia, arm in arm with Lear, followed by her troops, as they cross through and depart for the battle.
A moment later, Edgar takes his father by the arm. He is leading Gloucester to peace, in contrast to Cordelia's unhappy mission. Securing a quiet place by a tree, he departs for the action on the field.
From offstage we hear the sounds of military horns sounding the charge, sounds of battle and, finally, retreat.
NOTE: From the brief period of time devoted to it, we can tell that the actual military conflict offstage is not as important as the events that led up to it on stage. We will see the results shortly.
Edgar returns to tell Gloucester that the French forces have lost. Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. They themselves must flee to avoid capture.
Gloucester's courage appears to desert him, but Edgar reminds him that the wheel can still spin in any direction. He still believes that it is the gods who decide these things and he trusts to fate.
ACT V, SCENE III
A work of the magnitude of King Lear demands a truly grand finale. Shakespeare has tantalized us by leaving all the loose ends dangling. And, except for Cornwall's premature death and the subvillain Oswald's dispatch to the netherworld, all the characters are still on hand. The good ones are capable of heroic acts; the villains await their just desserts.
A procession of grand proportions, equal to or greater even than Lear's first entrance, takes place as Edmund marches onto the stage, followed by his troops and the captive Lear and Cordelia.
His first act is to order the captives taken away to detention until their fate is decided. But before they leave, Cordelia confesses that she is saddened at this turn of Fortune's wheel, not so much for herself as for her father. But Lear does not share her view. He offers her a picture of prison as a welcome retreat from the cares they have recently shared. That they may face death doesn't enter into the picture of the happy life he paints for her. He is calm and perhaps still a little mad when he tells her that they will have nothing to do but watch the rise and fall of the "great ones" (line 18).
The minute they are gone, Edmund calls one of his officers into his confidence. A commission is given. It is the order to do away with the prisoners before they are formally judged and condemned.
As the officer leaves, a trumpet announces the entrance of Albany, Goneril, Regan, and more troops.
Albany has apparently read Goneril's love letter to Edmund, which he received from the disguised Edgar. But before he deals with that, he calls for the captives. When Edmund tells him that they are in custody, Albany rebukes him for his presumption in making that decision.
Now Regan steps forward and informs everyone that Edmund is acting on her authority. When that authority is challenged, the two sisters snarl at each other. They begin to fight over Edmund, although Regan confesses that she is feeling ill.
It doesn't matter, Albany tells them. In fact, he accuses Edmund of treason and names Goneril as his accessory. Unaware that Edmund's title is not really merited or secure, Albany extends to him the courtesy of a chivalrous defense and orders the trumpets to announce the call for a champion to challenge Edmund.
NOTE: The complicated rules of chivalry demand that the rank of the challenger be no lower than that of the defendant. In other words, you don't prove anything if you beat someone less "worthy." Is that really any different from today? Modern weapons are more sophisticated, but the value system has endured.
Regan cries out that she is indeed sick, and Goneril in an aside lets us know that she has administered the cause. As Edmund puts on a show of bravado, Regan is led offstage to Albany's tent.
A herald enters and reads the challenge. The trumpet is sounded three times and Edgar, armed and disguised, enters to present his qualifications. Without identifying himself, he claims nobility equal to his opponent. He accuses Edmund of crimes against the gods, against his father and his brother, against Albany; he calls Edmund a traitor from head to toe and vows to prove it in combat with him.
Edmund is so confident of himself that he accepts the challenge of his anonymous opponent. They fight. Edmund loses and is fatally wounded, but he does not die instantly.
Goneril rages at this trick that has cost her her lover. Albany silences her by flaunting her "love note" at her accusingly. Sneering at him and his charges, she rushes offstage. Seeing her desperation, Albany sends one of his officers to keep an eye on her.
As Edmund lies dying, he asks the identity of his opponent and acknowledges that the accusations were indeed true. Edgar, rapidly growing in heroic stature, identifies himself and offers some philosophic views on this outcome. He doesn't accept the gods as fickle- they are just. Something of a prig, he does sound a bit tactless when he attributes Gloucester's punishment to the adulterous act that produced Edmund.
But Edmund hasn't the strength for debate as he lies dying. He agrees, noting that "The wheel is come full circle" (line 175).
Albany welcomes Edgar, who tells him his recent history- how he came upon Gloucester and cared for him and never revealed himself until recently. Has this been some sort of penance? Some "mortification of the flesh" to ennoble Edgar further in our minds?
Edgar's final act of revelation came just as Gloucester came to his own end, dying between the contrasting emotions of joy and grief.
Edgar also reveals that he had come across Kent during the battle and discovered the service he had performed for Lear.
An attendant bursts in, shouting and clutching a bloody knife in his hand. Goneril has confessed to poisoning her sister, and has killed herself. The irony of the death of his two fiancees and his own doom is not lost on Edmund.
Another voice of impending death is heard as Kent enters "To bid my king and master aye good night" (line 235). This reminds Albany of Cordelia and Lear. Where has Edmund sent them?
As the bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought out, Edmund is prompted to do a good deed. He reveals that he has given a written order for the death of Lear and Cordelia but he has changed his mind. As an officer hurries off toward the prisoners, Edmund describes the commission he had given with Goneril's agreement: Cordelia was to be hanged and blamed as a suicide. The dying Edmund is then carried off.
Why has Edmund delayed revealing his plot against the captives? Did it take the sight of the dead Goneril and Regan to prompt him to act "Despite of [his] own nature"? Any credit he might receive in heaven fades in an instant as Lear now enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms.
The heartrending scene of reconciliation between father and estranged daughter was only a preview of the sorrow we now witness. Lear is powerful and yet pitiful in his anguish as he croons over Cordelia's body. Grasping at the tiniest hope, he calls for a mirror to see if he can detect the faintest breath. Even a feather. If it stirs, there is a chance. But she is gone and Lear can claim only the joy of having avenged her death by killing her murderer.
Kent is acknowledged, but no attempt is made to separate Lear from the body of Cordelia, still cradled in his arms.
A messenger enters and announces that Edmund is dead, but to Albany this is a trifle. The duke declares that he may have won the battle, but he restores absolute power to the rightful monarch, Lear.
But there is not much time left for Lear. His final words are on his tongue as he looks to Cordelia's lips for an indication of life. Who can forget how earlier he looked to her lips for an indication of her love?
The very simplicity, the short, one-syllable words of this last speech show how weak he has become. But he is hopeful to the last.
Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips,
NOTE: What does he see? Critics have argued this point endlessly. There is really no valid answer but your own. If you view the play as pessimistic, you will see a dark vision through Lear's dying gaze. But if you find optimism in its conclusion, you will see a happier sight. Maybe the truth lies somewhere between and, like Gloucester, Lear has died between the two extremes of joy and grief.
Crying that perhaps Lear has only fainted, Edgar rushes to his side, but Kent stops him. Do not disturb his final rest. Lear has suffered enough.
With Lear gone, Albany relinquishes the responsibility for ruling England to Kent and Edgar, but Kent refuses. He has borne the weight of too much sorrow and will indeed soon follow his master.
Edgar acknowledges in somber tones that we have all learned from the tragedy we have witnessed. Now we can only take up the burden of future survival.
Lear and his daughters all lie dead on the stage, surrounded by his nobles and the army that was really always his. Gloucester and Edmund have died offstage.
A death march is sounded as the bodies are taken up and the stage is cleared in a sad recession.
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