King Lear, Act 3


In my edition, Act III has seven scenes. I’ll comment on scenes 1, 2, and 3. I’ve read the play many times and taught it several times, but I’m trying to read the lines with fresh eyes.

3.1  I had never noticed before that the scene begins the way Hamlet begins: “Who’s there . . .?” This play is maybe not, as Mack suggested, “in the interrogative mood,” but it;s an important question. Lear asks at one point who can tell him who he is. And in the treacherous world of the play it’s important to know who other people are, and whether they are friend or foe. (The “face” of “division” in the kingdom is “covered/ With mutual cunning.”) In this scene Kent says to the Gentleman “I know you” — and that’s reassuring, maybe an important moment in the restoration of some order.

Interesting that the Gentleman responds that he is “one minded like the weather most unquietly” — which is precisely like Lear himself.

Then the Gentleman — Kent may know who he is but I don’t think we do, but he seems to be somebody who knows Cordelia — has an extraordinarily long (12 lines) and powerful speech, giving us the first account of Lear on the heath. It’s one long sentence, and it seems rhetorically charged. Is it like the Pyrrhus speech in Hamlet?

Kent’s long speech then sets the conflict between Lear and his daughters into a wider political context: division in the kingdom, invasion by a foreign power.


Initially there is a kind of antiphonal response between Lear and the Fool : he rages, and the Fool makes jokes, but tries to get the King to take shelter. In the previous scene Lear had called down curses from “nimble lightnings” on his daughter, and now calls down greater curses from “thought-executing fires” on the entire world. It’s not just a “thankless child” but “ingrateful man.” But Lear seems deranged: he thinks of the lightning and thunder as his agents, doing his will; then he is their “slave” and they are allies of his pernicious daughters. Later in the scene they are “dreadful summoners,” the punishers of crimes. But Lear still thinks he is “more sinned against than sinning.”

“The art of our necessities is strange” gives another spin to the idea of “need” from the previous scene.

In his rant Lear seemed to forget the Fool, but then remembers him, and is even “sorry” for him. In a sense they have changed places. At the beginning of the scene the Fool had tried to get Lear to take shelter. Now at the end of the scene Lear seems to take charge: “Come on, my boy . . . Come, your hovel.”

The scene ends with a strange speech from the Fool, what he self-consciously, apparently addressing the audience, calls his “prophecy.” It seems to be a kind of exit line: ” . . . before I go.” (But in fact the Fool does not exit the play until the next scene.) It consists of seven rhymed couplets. The first two seem to refer to times when things are not as they should be, perhaps a corrupt present. The next three refer to some utopian future. The sixth predicts “confusion” for Albion — as if in confirmation of Kent’s speech at the beginning of the scene. But the seventh seems to be a throwaway joke.

The anachronistic reference to Merlin seems another meta-theatrical moment, the Fool separating himself from the action being presented on the heath.


We cut to Gloucester and Edmund. Gloucester is still blind to Edmund’s savagery, thinks he “knows” him but in fact does not. Gloucester’s news picks up what Kent was saying in 3.1 about “division” and a foreign “power.” He also takes up a theme from his earlier scene with Edmund (1.2) , where he warned of “strange” things happening. Previously we thought Gloucester a superstitious old man, but now we see that he is right to be worried. Gloucester has now chosen sides — he will incline to the king. He also undertakes to deceive the Dukes. Edmund closes the scene with an aside to the audience, echoing the closing aside from the Fool in the previous scene.


One small point backwards into 3.2, just to amplify your point about Lear’s change of roles with the Fool: his concern for him, as his “wits begin to turn,” seems the first time he has shown concern for another: “How dost, my boy? Art cold?” And when they come to the hovel, Lear’s urges him to go in first. Lear has matched himself to the storm as he grows crazier, but the storm seems to prod him as well.

This seems to go along with his strange awakening to the needs of the “Poor naked wretches” whom he prays for just as he’s encouraged the Fool to enter the hovel. The realization that he’s taken too little care of their plight and his self-directed “Take physic pomp” seem an extraordinary thing for a king to say on stage. (Was this really played before James?) And it’s a kind of pat lead to the entry of Poor Tom, just as Lear has come to a sense of a reality of the naked wretches.

Edgar is playing a role, of course, but he does it so well, with all the crazy stuff from Harsnett, that we may take him for a wretched beggar. One interesting thing about the Poor Tom’s role is that it seems to come in part from morality interludes; he advises to “obey thy parents, keep thy word,” etc. etc., then says he has been a serving man who did all the things that lead to perdition, a kind of almost comic list of morality play sins. Lear responds with his mad insight that Poor Tom is utter humanity, striped down to the most basic level: “thou art the thing itself.” And this stimulates Lear to want to throw off what makes him “sophisticated,” to make himself like Tom. (And the request for help with his button will be repeated at the very end — whatever that may mean.)

Is it another pat entry that the Fool says a little fire in a wild field will be like an old lecher’s heart just as Gloucester enters, the old lecher who spoke about “good sport” at Edmund’s conception?

Lear’s identification with Poor Tom seems at once crazy and touching, making Tom his “philosopher.” And of course it continues into the following scenes as he imagines the reasons for Tom’s madness and makes him the justicier in his mock trial. 


A few retrospective glances at 3. 4:

“In such a night as this . . .” is a weird echo of the lovely line near the end of Merchant of Venice.

At l. 36 Lear introduces (or reintroduces) the idea of “justice”: his action of taking physic will somehow “show the heavens more just.” We are going to hear a lot more later about whether justice prevails in Lear’s world.

We have not seen Edgar since 2.3, and here he takes as his disguise “the basest and most poorest shape.” It’s clear that such a shape is well suited for Lear’s imaginings of “unaccommodated man,” but is it really a disguise that suits Edgar’s needs? As you suggest, Edgar seems to shift registers: from Bedlam beggar to moralizer (from morality plays). At l. 85 he shifts into a surprisingly continuous account of his errant ways. Where did Edgar, simple and earnest when we first meet him, learn all this demonology? Are we to assume that he has read Harsnett? Interesting that although Lear invites him to be his “philosopher,” Edgar refuses the invitation to play that role.


We quickly switch to Edgar’s brother, now successfully manipulating Cornwall. (We’ve also switched from verse to prose, maybe to emphasize the change of scene, maybe to signal that it’s really just an expository interlude.)


At  l. 2 Gloucester’s “comfort” picks up Edmund’s “comforting” of just seven lines before, but for E. it has a legal meaning while for G. it is more humane and sympathetic.

At l. 5 Kent’s apparent throwaway line — “The gods reward your kindness” —  keeps us thinking about whether or not the gods do in fact reward kindness in this world. This leads directly to the “arraignment” that Lear proposes. He is still obsessed with the ingratitude of his daughters, even though back at 3.4.21 he had tried to stop thinking about them: “let me shun that./ No more of that.” Obviously he cannot forget them. At first neither Fool nor Edgar play along. Why not? Maybe because, like Edgar, they pity the king, and cannot keep up the “counterfeiting.” But Edgar tries to keep up with the king as his madness leads him to talk about dogs, and then anatomizing, and then suddenly imagines that Edgar is one of his knights.

The Fool speaks his final line, perhaps because his work is done, and he has been supplanted by Poor Tom. But in fact he apparently does not leave the scene for another 15 lines or so. Gloucester’s arrival reminds us of the political plotting going on while the king is raving. After Gloucester, Kent, and Fool escort Lear off the stage — is it odd that they just abandon Edgar, the poor naked wretch? — Edgar remains, and has a long speech, in rhyming couplets, signalling that he has dropped his disguise and that he, like the king earlier, has begun to look beyond his own suffering. He still thinks that Gloucester has disowned him, the way Lear’s daughters have in effect unseated the king: “he childed as I fathered.” His “philosophical” apothegms make him seem the voice of the play. As a dramatic character, he now has a double mission: to reconcile with his father and to help the king escape danger.


A few further comments on 3.7 and 4.1, and I will proceed to 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, and 4.5.

Edmund is dismissed from the scene because the punishments of Gloucester “are not fit for your beholding.” Maybe that’s compassion, but since Cornwall is speaking maybe not: maybe Cornwall just wants a free hand. Later,  in 4.2, we are told that Edmund left the house “on purpose” so that “their punishment/ Might have the freer course.” Sounds like both Cornwall and Edmund were complicit.

Lear still seems to have 35 or 36 knights. First we have heard of them for a while. Where are they lodged? Who’s in charge?

Regan wants to hang Gloucester, Goneril to “pluck out his eyes.” Goneril seems to have remembered that back in 1.4 Lear had spoken of “plucking” out an eye so he would not have to see his daughter. That word “pluck” echoes horribly through this scene (line 58) and the next (lines 78, 85.)

Yes, the stage business would be difficult. The blinding takes place on stage, yet maybe we are not supposed to “see” the actual scooping of vile jelly. Gloucester is bound to a chair that faces forward, and then perhaps the chair is tipped all the way back so that it lies on the floor, with Gloucester now looking up.

The sisters and Cornwall and Edmund have, without trial, declared Gloucester a traitor — the word appears five times in 35 lines. Their only evidence is the report that Gloucester has received “letters” from France.

When the servant resists Cornwall, he does “better service” just as Kent in resisting Lear in Act 1 was a good servant.

The blinding of Gloucester, after the cruelties Lear suffers, raise questions about justice. Clearly Goneral, Regan et al are unjust. But what about the gods? In 3.7 it is suggested by one character or other that the gods are “kind” (3.7.16, 3.7.93), that they will avenge injustice, and will “help” Gloucester. But in 4.1 Gloucester himself concludes that the gods kill men for sport. (We get more about the heavens — they send “plagues” to Poor Tom (4.1.66) but in 4.2 Albany thinks they are “spirits” who will tame offenses (44) and “justicers” (79).

Gloucester’s “superfluous” recalls Lear’s “superflux.”

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell