Act 2 scene 1

Synopsis of Act 2 Scene 1

In the Earl of Gloucester's Castle, Edmund hears that Cornwall and Regan are on their way; there is talk of war breaking out between Albany and Cornwall. Edmund continues his malicious plotting against his brother. When Edgar enters, Edmund advises him to flee for his life and, as Gloucester approaches, helps him to escape, whilst appearing to prevent Edgar's flight. However, Edmund betrays his brother by telling his father that Edgar had assaulted him when Edmund opposed Edgar’s supposed plot to murder Gloucester. Hearing this, Gloucester exiles Edgar and calls Edmund his ‘loyal and natural boy’. Cornwall and Regan then arrive to tell Gloucester of the conflict between Lear and Goneril. They praise Edmund and take him into their service.

Commentary on Act 2 Scene 1

  • Civil war is spoken about. Although it never actually occurs, the very thought suggests a breakdown in the kingdom's order, laws and in the relationships between those who wield power.
  • The parallels between the Lear/daughters story and the Gloucester/sons story continue to develop. The fact that Gloucester prefers to believe his illegitimate son (who has for so many years been away from home) over Edgar (who has never left home) shows him to be extremely credulous - as well as superstitious. Like Lear he is blind to the truth, only later being able to 'see' the truth when, ironically, he no longer has eyes.
  • The scene is full of ironies, particularly concerning the key concept of nature. Gloucester thinks of Edmund as behaving ‘naturally’; Edmund in turn, describes Edgar's purpose as 'unnatural'. The word 'natural' also meant 'illegitimate', so Gloucester is implying that the illegitimate son has more natural love for his father than his legitimate son.

This weaves itself perforce into my business: Edmund's mind works quickly. He is already thinking about how he can incorporate the news into his plan to turn his father against his brother.

Have you not spoken 'gainst the Duke of Cornwall? Again this shows what a skilful villain Edmund is. He understands well how these hints of treason will disorientate Edgar. Speed is a large factor here. One unjust hinted accusation follows so quickly upon another that Edgar's sensitive nature is overwhelmed and he does not try to defend himself.

In cunning I must draw my sword upon you: Edgar has to be very confused for Edmund's ploy to work. The real reason for Edmund drawing his sword on him is to make it appear to his father that he is on his father's side against the 'treacherous' Edgar - rather than plotting with Edgar against Gloucester. Edgar seems so confused by the barrage of accusatory words from Edmund that he simply defends himself from attack without questioning what his brother is doing.

'Gainst parricides did all their thunders bend: Parricide (patricide) is the crime of killing one's father. This was considered the most terrible of crimes and Edmund says here that the gods reserved the full extent of their wrath for such a murderer.

Let him fly far: There is dramatic irony here, since the audience is aware that Gloucester is saying exactly what Edmund wants him to.

The noble duke my master, / My worthy arch and patron: At first sight it may seem odd for Gloucester to describe Cornwall in this way. In Shakespeare's time people were acutely aware of their position in the social hierarchy. Although Gloucester is senior to Cornwall in terms of age, Gloucester is an earl and Cornwall is a duke (and husband of a princess). Earls were one step below dukes in the aristocratic pecking order.

Loyal and natural boy: A short but very telling phrase. There is the irony of calling Edmund 'loyal', of course. By referring to him as ‘natural’ Gloucester means that Edmund shows the sort of devotion which should 'naturally' exist between a son and his father.

Was he not companion with the riotous knights: Regan is quick to link two intolerable situations. She immediately dominates the scene and Cornwall does not dare to disagree with what she says.

which I best thought it fit /To answer from our home: This is another example of how Regan's mind works. 'From' here means 'away from' - i.e. she will not send a letter from her own home because she does not want their father to think that she is there to accommodate him. She needs to see Goneril so that they can have a common approach.

Which craves the instant use: At the end of Act 1 Scene 1 Goneril strikes a similarly urgent tone. Here Regan says that her demands need to be carried out at once.

Investigating Act 2 Scene 1...

  • How does this scene prepare the ground for the dissolution of the kingdom and the breakdown of order?
    • Why are these developments good news for Edmund?
  • Edmund tricks Edgar as easily as he does Gloucester. How does he do this?
  • How does this scene demonstrate that vision can be manipulated in order to produce blindness to the truth?
  • How does Gloucester now feel about Edgar?
  • How does this scene develop ideas about the way in which old age is perceived by the young?
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