Act 3 scene 4

Synopsis of Act 3 Scene 4

Lear, Kent and the Fool approach the hovel. Lear declares that the storm is easier to suffer than the cruel treatment he has received but sends the Fool inside. Lear realises he has taken too little care of the plight of the poor when he was King. 
The Fool reappears, terrified of Edgar, disguised as Tom O’Bedlam, who raves about being pursued by devils. Lear sympathises with him, supposing that he too must have been betrayed by his daughters. Edgar states that the devils who afflict him are punishment for sins he has committed, claiming he slept with his mistress, amongst other misdemeanours. Lear identifies with this ‘sinner’ and strips off his own clothing. 
Gloucester appears, looking for the King, and is surprised to discover Lear in such lowly company. He offers everyone shelter and confides to Kent that Lear's daughters seek the King's death.

King Lear in the storm by Benjamin West 1788Commentary on Act 3 Scene 4

As Lear becomes more insane he appears calmer in the way he speaks. Despite Kent’s protestations, Lear continues to expose himself to the storm. The storm reflects nature devoid of morality; Lear by contrast shows moral consciousness which distinguishes humankind from the rest of nature. Edgar’s pretended madness is also contrasted with Lear’s real lunacy. When Gloucester enters, the two strands of the plot come together.
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude: To Lear, the storm outside and the storm in his head are as one: the tempest in his mind dominates all his senses.
But I will punish home: Whilst thinking about the ingratitude of his daughters and wishing to have retribution, Lear also knows that such thinking is dangerous: ‘That way madness lies.’
Nay, get you in: By asking someone far inferior to a king to enter the hovel before him, Lear overturns the normal order of precedence.
Take physic, pomp: Lear now recognises that, before he suffered, he virtually ignored the poor and defenceless. Pomp is associated with people wearing rich clothing.
Hast thou given all to thy two daughters: Seeing Edgar dressed as a madman intensifies Lear’s own madness. He assumes that Edgar’s lunacy must, like his own, spring from the ingratitude of daughters.
Bless thy five wits: These were not the same as the five senses; instead, to Shakespeare’s original audience, they would have been common sense, imagination, fantasy, estimation and memory. Edgar’s impersonation of a beggar includes calling down blessings on someone who would give him a charitable donation.
star-blasting and taking: The destructive influence of the stars is again referred to. ‘Blasting’ is withering and ‘taking’ means ‘exercising a malignant influence’.
Death, traitor: Kent has dared to disagree with Lear – which is why the King has called him a traitor. Lear now seems to be obsessed with the idea that only by having ungrateful daughters can a man like Edgar have fallen into such suffering.
Judicious punishment!: Lear thinks the punishment is ‘just’ since his own flesh was responsible for the creation of such daughters.
Pelicanpelican: It was a widespread belief in Shakespeare's day that the mother pelican feeds her offspring with blood taken from her own breast, and that this blood had the power of reviving her young if they died. The mother pelican therefore became a symbol of parents who love their children too much, giving them more than they can reasonably expect. Lear feels that he has given his daughters nothing less than his lifeblood.
Obey thy parents … proud array: There are many references to the Ten Commandments in the Bible (see Exodus 20:1-17). Those specifically referred to here are:
  • the third Commandment, ‘Do not swear/take the name of God in vain’
  • the fifth, ‘Honour your father and your mother’
  • the seventh, ‘You shall not commit adultery’
  • the ninth, ‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour’
  • and the tenth, ‘You shall not covet’.
hog in sloth: In medieval bestiaries (books about animals) each animal was given a unique characteristic, to teach humans moral lessons. For instance, the pig served as a warning against laziness and the fox was the epitome of stealthy cunning.
to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies: Most men cover their bodies with material that has been derived from animals: wool, leather, silk etc. However, Edgar is a poor naked wretch who has no such defence against the elements. Therefore, he becomes a symbol of humanity at its most basic, his bare skin his only defence against the storm.
Off, off, you lendings! By ‘lendings’ Lear means things which are not essential to the basic human being. Here he refers to his clothes, objects which do not belong to the blood, bone, skin and muscle which constitute a human body. He tears off his clothes because he wants to become like the naked beggars he has been talking about.
Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart: A torch is of little use to a human body in the midst of a raging storm. In the same way the sexual desires of an old lecher can do very little to inflame his whole being when the rest of his body is cold and unresponsive.
Flibbertigibbet: A restless, unstable person.
the first cock: This was commonly taken as the first sign that dawn was breaking.
who is whipped from tithing to tithing: Vagrants were commonly whipped from parish to parish in an attempt to make them return to the place that they had come from.
stock-punished: Punished in an humiliating fashion by being placed within the stocks.
The prince of darkness is a gentleman: Edgar warns against judging by appearances (as Gloucester still is doing) by saying how the Devil himself can appear as a gentleman.
Our flesh and blood … doth hate what gets it: Gloucester appears to be thinking not only of his son Edgar, whom Edmund has framed as a treacherous criminal, but also of Goneril and Regan.
First let me talk about this philosopher: The word ‘philosopher’ could mean both somebody who thought about metaphysical topics and a scientist who studied the natural world and who, therefore, would understand the nature of thunder.
Ah, that good Kent! / He said it would be thus: There is obvious dramatic irony here, since Kent is in disguise and Gloucester fails to recognise him.
Now outlawed from my blood: To be condemned as an outlaw was equivalent to being sentenced to death. Such a conviction meant that the outlaw lost any right to inheriting property.
Child Rowland to the dark tower came: The word ‘child’ in this context means a probationary knight. Rowland was the hero of an old French legend and nephew to Charlemagne. These lines spoken by Edgar appear to come from an old ballad.
I smell the blood of a British man: These words are traditionally spoken by the Giant in the fairy-tale of Jack and the Beanstalk (or Jack the Giant-Killer). The more usual version of the line is, ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman’. However, Shakespeare sets this play in ancient Britain, rather than England, and so uses the form he does.

Investigating Act 3 Scene 4

  • What exactly has driven Lear to this state of madness?
  • What insights into the lives of the poor does his madness give him?
    • Why did he lack these insights when he was king?
  • What is Lear’s reaction to Edgar?
    • What kind of contrast does he offer to his daughters?
  • What is the dramatic effect of Gloucester failing to recognise his own child?
    • How does this parallel the Lear/Kent relationship?
    • How do these examples develop the theme of blindness in the play?
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