Act 3 scene 6

Synopsis of Act 3 Scene 6

Lear is brought by Gloucester to a place where he can get some rest. After Gloucester leaves, the now mad King conducts an imaginary trial of Goneril and Regan, with the Fool and ‘Poor Tom’. 
Lear finally falls asleep just as Gloucester returns and warns them to flee immediately. He explains that the daughters are plotting Lear's death but that safety awaits him in Dover. Kent and the Fool leave, carrying the sleeping Lear. Edgar, left behind, expresses the idea that his own fate does not seem so bad when compared with that of the mad King.

Commentary on Act 3 Scene 6

A symbolically significant scene as the imaginary trial develops further a consideration of the nature of humanity (as begun in Act 3 Scene 4). Lear’s new view of humanity (which elevates human need above those of utilitarian requirement, in order to distinguish it from animal nature) is now connected to the way in which justice is dispensed. 
Lear sees in Edgar a reflection of himself: driven to extreme suffering by the cruel ingratitude of daughters. The scene ends with an explicit joining of the two plots as Edgar comments, ‘He childed as I fathered.’
Medieval illustration of hellTo have a thousand with red burning spits: Lear devises punishments for his ungrateful daughters. He refers to devils with kitchen roasting spits, red-hot and hissing in order to inflict torments on the damned. Such images would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience from doom paintings in churches (though many were painted over as the Reformation gathered pace).
I will arraign them straight: The King now changes his mind; instead of instant punishment, Lear chooses instead the path of law and order as a means of bringing justice to bear on the crimes which have been committed against him. He tells Edgar and the Fool to join him in judgement, as if they were officers of the court.
Want’st thou eyes at trial madam: Edgar pretends that he is addressing one of the King’s evil daughters and that he can see a devil staring at her. He asks whether this is the kind of attention she wants.
Bring in their evidence: Lear means the witnesses against them, such as would be called in the trial of his daughters.
Thou robed man of justice … the fashion of your garments … let them be chang’d: There is a series of puns on the impressive clothing of lawyers, ironic since Edgar is almost naked.
his yoke-fellow of equity: The Fool has now been promoted to a position of power in this imaginary administration of justice.
Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool: The Fool is making fun of normal courtroom procedure in which everyone appearing before the court has to give their name, whether well-known or not. A joint stool was a low three- or four-legged stool common in lowly cottages.
thy horn is dry: Beggars wore a horn around the necks and blew it in order to announce their approach to a town. They also used the horn as a receptacle for drink that they were often given as alms.
You, sir, I entertain for one of my hundred: That is, one of the hundred knights Lear wanted to keep as his retinue.
And I'll go to bed at noon: These are the last words that the Fool speaks in the play.
a plot of death upon him: As Gloucester speaks, French forces are already in the vicinity of Dover in order to fight against Albany and Cornwall on behalf of the King.
A litter: A stretcher or cart to carry a body.
When we our betters see bearing our woes: Edgar here philosophises on the theme of suffering being lightened when it is shared with others. The plainness of his words emphasises that he has cast off his disguise of madness and that he speaks here with deep sincerity.
He childed as I fathered: Edgar suggests that to receive cruelty from one's own children is just as bad as having a father who is cruel.
Lurk, lurk: Edgar tells himself to remain hidden from view and to wait.


  • In what ways does the imaginary trial demonstrate both Lear’s madness and his improved insight into human nature – particularly the nature of Goneril and Regan?
  • Both Kent and Gloucester are willing to put themselves at risk out of loyalty to Lear. What role does this loyalty have both our in understanding of Lear and of the play as a whole?
  • How are parallels between the Lear/Cordelia and the Gloucester/Edgar situations developed in this scene?
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