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ACT III, SCENE 4
This scene returns to Lear and his sufferings. With Kent and the Fool, the King finds a hovel that can provide some protection. He tells the Fool to enter first, thinking of others before himself. He also thinks about the contrasts between this modest hovel and the splendor of his court; amazingly, he now seems to despise all of the pomp and regality that he endured as the King. It is obvious that Lear's outlook has undergone a significant change. He states that physical sufferings pale in comparison to the keener sufferings of his emotional anguish. He knows that he can endure the fury exhibited by nature's storm, but he is totally undone by the filial ingratitude that he feels. His daughters' cruelties to him are almost unbearable.
As Lear is about to enter the hovel, a pitiful creature wrapped in a filthy blanket emerges shrieking. This creature is Edgar; he is disguised as Poor Tom, a lunatic beggar. Although he recognizes the King, he does not show it; instead, he continues to act mad, muttering wild fancies. Tom pleads for charity and speaks of "the foul fiend" torturing him. Ironically, Lear sees a similarity between himself and the loathsome beggar before him. He is sure that the beggar, like him, has given away all his wealth to his daughters, who turned on him and reduced him to this pitiful state. Certain that Tom has evil daughters, he curses them with the plagues. Lear next contemplates the sorry state of humanity, comparing it to a bare animal that has no protection. As if to prove he is bare and vulnerable, Lear makes an effort to undo his clothing. The Fool, however, restrains him.
Gloucester enters the scene; he is shocked and deeply moved at the pitiful plight of the King. He knows that it is filial ingratitude that has driven Lear into this state of misery. Since he has suffered filial ingratitude himself, Gloucester identifies closely with the King. He thinks about Edgar, whom he had loved deeply and foolishly banished.
Wanting to lend a helping hand, Gloucester offers Lear and his companions shelter; but initially Lear refuses. Finally, with Kent's aid, Gloucester succeeds in leading the king away, but not until he promises Lear that Poor Tom can accompany them.
In this scene, Lear clearly expresses the nature of his torment. Although he feels miserable from the storm outside, it is nothing when compared to the storm that rages inside him. He feels totally betrayed by his daughters, Goneril and Regan, and is totally disgusted by their ingratitude. In spite of his deep emotions, Lear tries to restrain himself, for he is very fearful of insanity; he tells himself to "weep no more" and claims that he will endure.
Lear is a changed man. His cruel treatment at the hands of his daughters has made him capable of empathizing with "poor and naked wretches" to whom he had earlier been indifferent. Because of his own misery, he has a new understanding of humanity and a true sympathy for all those who suffer. He even condemns himself for having done nothing to aid them when he had the power to do so. He also condemns himself for the cruelty he has shown to his own daughter, Cordelia.
Not recognizing Edgar in disguise, the King sees him as a man reduced to the barest minimum, leading an animalistic existence. In fact, Poor Tom becomes for Lear the symbol of ultimate injustice. Identifying with this mad fool, he is certain that Poor Tom has been mistreated by evil daughters, whom the King openly curses. He then chastises himself for have begotten such evil daughters himself. To make himself more like near-naked Tom, Lear even tries to undress himself, stopped only by his own Fool.
As Gloucester arrives on the scene, the Fool notes, "Here comes a walking fire." In truth, Gloucester has proven in the past he is a man who burns hot and cold. Now he seems genuinely concerned about the King and has come to offer him aid. He wants to lead Lear to shelter, warning that "his daughters seek his death." Gloucester's concern springs out of his own unhappiness. Like Lear, he has banished the wrong offspring and suffers at the hands of Edmund, just as Lear suffers at the hands of Regan and Goneril. He can truly empathize with the King's misery, for he is miserable himself, as shown when he says, "Thou sayest that the king grows mad; I'll tell thee, friend, I'm almost myself. /The grief has half- crazed my wits."
It is ironic that Gloucester's words are overheard by Edgar, his supposedly banished son; father does not recognize son in his disguise as an insane beggar. It is also ironic that Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear, three wealthy characters who have hit rock bottom, are taking refuge together in a hovel. The small space that unites them in their exile also protects them from the outside world, where the storminess of both Nature and humanity seems bent on destroying them.