King Lear, Act 4



The sexual innuendo between Goneril and Edmund confirm that Lear’s outrage against her in earlier acts is fully justified.

This is Albany’s big scene. He stands up to Goneril, but is he a moral force or a “moral fool” (58)? In the world that the play imagines, is he enough of a counterweight to oppose it or redeem it? It’s interesting perhaps that none of his speeches are memorable or quotable. Oddly enough he calls for “revenge”  — at l. 80 he is confident that the gods will “venge” crimes, and at l. 96 swears that he will “revenge” Gloucester’s eyes. But back in 3.7 it is Cornwall who is swearing “revenges” (8) for Gloucester’s reason and Gloucester expects to see “vengeance” overtake his daughters. What’s the relationship between revenge and justice?


The scene opens with a report (in prose) that the King of France has gone back home: that makes Cordelia’s approach look better, and lends color to her later claim that she acts out of “love” and not “ambition” (4.4.27-28). Kent’s report (in verse) of Cordelia’s tears assures us that she is not cold and unfeeling, as we might have thought in 1.1.

She is loaded with devotional associations  — holy water, heavenly eyes (31), and in the next scene her father’s “business” (24). Will she serve to redeem the time?


Why does Lear wear flowers on his head? As the notes tell us, some are supposed to have curative powers, others harmful ones. Are they a sign of his madness, or of fumbling attempts to cure it?

The scene prepares us for war between the “British pow’rs” and “great France.”  This makes it sound like an invasion.

At the end of the scene Cordelia speaks of her father’s “right”? What rights does an abdicated monarch possess?


We cut from Cordelia (and the French forces) to Regan (and the British powers), from Cordelia’s tears, pity, and love to Regan’s ruthlessness and self-seeking. The scene is also important politically, in that it clarifies the division between Regan and Goneril, along with their competing sexual interest in Edmund. The two sisters are also in effect competing to attract Oswald’s services. Oswald carries Goneril’s letter to Edmund, but won’t let Regan see it. Does she send her own letter to Edmund (“give him this”) or is she she saying, as my note suggests, “tell him that he’s a better fit for her”? She tries to win Oswald by promising preferment, and, having surmised earlier that Edmund was going to kill Gloucester, now tells Oswald to do it. Oswald’s ambiguous answer — that he will ” show/What party I do follow” — means both that he’ll make clear to Gloucester that he follows Gloucester’s enemies, and that he will in time show whether he follows Goneril or Regan.


On to 4.6., with two long and affecting scenes. Edgar, now no longer Poor Tom, but just a poor peasant, enacts a sort of morality play to try to cure his father’s despair. The strangeness of it, I feel, is the way it seems to toy with early modern stagecraft: the audience must become unsure what it’s supposed to understand. The usual way of setting a scene is through the verbal poetry. Here Edgar suggests that he and Gloucester are walking up a steep hill and hearing the sea. Gloucester resist this, but Edgar insists it’s because his blindness makes his other senses less acute. Then he describes vividly the supposed scene from a high cliff. Is that what we as audience are supposed to see? Meanwhile I understand them on the level mainstage. The Q text has Gloucester kneeling, then simply falling forward.  Is it comic, or almost comic? Edgar worries that just the thought of the fall might kill his father. Then he assumes yet another disguise, the attentive beach-dweller who comes to rescue the attempted suicide and assures him that he’s been miraculously saved. It’s a kind of ersatz morality play — comic, but somehow serious? — and carried out with imagined morality imagery. Edgar the imagined beach-dweller describes a monstrous fiend, who must be the personified Despair. Gloucester agrees with the “meaning” of Edgar’s morality and seems to recall Edgar’s earlier madman disguise. Edgar’s “Bear free and patient thoughts” ties up the “morality” with a convenient meaning. But what do we understand of it? As audience we’ve been tricked like Gloucester; Edgar’s scene-painting was not “real” in the usual way of the Jacobean stage. And yet Gloucester accepts it, presumably cured, at least for now, of his despair. Edgar had said, “Thy life’s a miracle.” Is it? Edgar had been the great optimist, until he saw his blinded father. Now he has enacted a kind of cure of what had seemed understandable despair. How do we take this?

Does he go back on this as he sees the mad Lear come in apparently crowned with weeds and wild flowers? And calls this a “side-piercing sight.” Lear of course is quite mad and sees Goneril with a white beard in blinded Gloucester, then the icon of Cupid, but also with some retention of the insights of the heath. And does he sneeze when he admits “I am not ague proof”? The misogynistic strain in Lear’s mind continues, and the insistence on adultery mocks Gloucester’s history, even though we know he’s wrong about Edmund’s being kinder than his own daughters. Hard to know what to make of Lear’s dark sexual imaginings. But his insistence that he must wipe the hand that Gloucester would kiss because it “smells of mortality” seems part of his new-found sense of his frailty (different from G. Will’s “low rent Lear”). The note in my Arden edition says that “glass eyes” refers to spectacles, which does make better sense than our understanding of glass eyes. Again, the lines about the hypocritical justice, the farmer’s dog as the “great image of authority,” and the rascal beadle seem rather amazingly to round upon kingship. His final recognition of Gloucester and his lines on the tragic recognition that he imagines in childbirth seem to me very touching. I recall seeing a video of Peter Brook’s 60’s (late sixties?) Lear in which Lear and Gloucester sit together on a fallen log as Lear (was it Paul Scofield?) “preaches” to G. But it ends very suddenly and strangely in the delicate stratagem of shoeing horses with felt and the “kill, kill, kill . . . ” What sort of stage business accompanies this? I can’t picture it, unless Lear tries to run off before he’s grabbed by the gentleman — and does run off at “sa, sa, sa.”

Edgar seems to play yet another role in regard to Gloucester at this point, but still doesn’t reveal himself. Oswald’s thought that Gloucester was “first formed flesh” to be killed by him and raise his fortunes seems another of those bizarrely horrid moments in the play. It does reconcile us to his death, which follows in Edgar’s fight with him. Momentarily Edgar had spoken in a Somerset dialect, another disguise, but then drops that as he read’s Goneril’s letter to Edmund. Edgar’s “Thee I’ll rake up” of Oswald’s body doesn’t have any stage business attached to it; the “murderous lecherers” nicely sums up Goneril and Edmund. But a modern text needs to have Edgar drag off the body of Oswald.

So on to what must be the most touching scene of the play, when Cordelia awakens the sleeping Lear. Which I’ll leave to you.


Some backward glances at 4.6.

Aren’t there three “scenes” in this scene rather than just two: 1) the cliffs of Dover, 2) mad Lear, and 3) the killing of Oswald?

In the first of them Edgar displays yet another talent, what you call scene painting. It has a plausible dramatic purpose: to persuade Gloucester that he stands on the edge of a precipice. But as you say it seems to be something more. There was a lot of discussion of the passage by 18th-century critics, Addison greatly admiring it, Johnson pushing back and noting that if you were really standing on a precipice you wouldn’t notice all the details. It does seem to be a demonstration of poetry’s power to imagine a scene. It made me think of the prologue to Henry 5. This part of the scene gives us Gloucester’s cure.

In the second of them, Lear’s sexual imaginings are lurid, but borne out by Goneril’s letter to Edmund, uncovered in the next part of the scene. Do we remember his “kill, kill . . .” (5x kill) when we hear the 5 x “nothing” at the end of the play? When Lear talks about shoeing horses with felt, I think he enacts quietly sneaking up on (“stol’n upon”) his sons-in-law rather than running, as he does as he exits.

In the third of them, Edgar in effect adopts a role assigned to him by Oswald, who calls him a “peasant.” The role also enables Edgar to insult Oswald — a mere peasant presumes to fight with a gentleman.

In 4.6 Gloucester is “cured” and in 4.7 Lear is “cured.” Each of them in effect awakes, or is restored from death. Again the scene is tripartite: 1) Kent and Cordelia and the doctor discussing the condition of the sleeping Lear, 2) Lear and Cordelia, and 3) Kent and the gentleman.

In the first, Kent wants to continue his disguise, just as Edgar continues his disguise. Cordelia calls for music because Lear is “untuned” and needs to be restored to harmony and temper. The fresh garments are yet another change of clothing in a play about poor naked wretches.

In the second, there seems something folkloric about Cordelia kissing Lear in order to awaken him to new life. When he awakes the change is remarkable. Not only is he restored to reason. The “rage” in him is “killed” — maybe echoing his “kill, kill. . .” in the previous scene. In the previous scene he is still madly claiming his rank. Now he kneels to his daughter and has cast aside any idea that he is or was a king: “I am a very foolish, fond, old man” and later “as I am a man” and “old and foolish.” Cordelia insists on treating him as a king who is now “in your own kingdom” but he will have nothing of it. One thing about this scene that has always puzzled me. Lear says he is 80 years old. How are we to work out the age of his daughters, one of whom just married, and two of whom are still very sexually active. (But notably not mothers.) Are the daughters supposed to be younger than their father by “a generation”? If so, they would be 50ish. I think they are usually played much younger. So either Lear had his children very late, or we aren’t supposed to focus on the math.

The third part oddly breaks the mood of the previous part. Maybe it’s necessary because we have to be reminded of the political-military situation. Maybe too because we need a reminder of the forthcoming reunion between Lear and Kent.

How shall we handle Act 5? The first two scenes are quite short. And the final scene is the longest in the play (328 ll. in my Signet edition). For purposes of commentary, shall we break it up? 


Yes, 4.6 has three sections that each seems a scene, even though they’re not textually distinct. Mad Lear and the fight with Oswald seem to take place in the same location.

4.7 is the awakening, and maybe the “repentance” of Lear. You’ll recall that I suggest in the essay this scene seems to resemble to the scenes of the mankind figure finally repentant, clothed in a fresh garment of penitence, and submitting himself to the figure of grace. It was a common enough scene that I suggested it was visible in Cordelia’s awakening of Lear, especially when he insists on kneeling before her and confessing his actual state (“foolish, fond old man”) and asking for whatever punishment she’ll exact. And he calls attention to his fresh garments. And the fact that it’s accompanied by music, presumably soft music, also gives it a sort of mythic — or folkloric –status. It all suggests a kind of restoration of Lear.

I guess I’ve assumed that his “four score and upward, not an hour more nor less” was just an imprecise fantasy, and I hadn’t thought about the problem of the daughters’ ages. But you’re right about the problem if we take him at his word. Maybe we can’t and just have to assume he’s aging himself in his imagination of approaching death.

At the end of the scene we learn of Cornwall’s death, which seems to set up the contest between the sisters over Edmund, and, in the next scene, Goneril’s interest in, claim on, Edmund. The scene develops the political situation, which seems to lessen in significance as the play develops.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell