Act 4 scene 1

Synopsis of Act 4 Scene 1

In a soliloquy, Edgar expresses the advantages of being in a humble condition – that is, until he sees his blinded father. As the Old Man leads Gloucester to his son, Edgar grieves to see his father in such a condition. Still keeping his disguise as ‘Poor Tom’, Edgar sees just how much Gloucester has been changed by his suffering. Gloucester then engages Edgar to lead him to a high cliff near Dover, from which he plans to throw himself.

Commentary on Act 4 Scene 1

  • Edgar comments that his life is even worse than he first believed after being confronted by his father's suffering. 
  • The theme of ‘seeing’ in a metaphorical as well as a physical sense is made explicit when Gloucester says, ‘I stumbled when I saw’. However, despite the fact that Gloucester now has a much clearer view of Edmund’s evil, he still does not recognise Edgar. This lack of recognition produces a series of intensely powerful dramatic ironies
  • Once again, there are very significant parallels between the two plots in this scene – for instance, when Gloucester prays that people with an excess of wealth should share it with the poor, just as Lear had done in Act 3 Scene 4. 
The lamentable change is from the best … returns to laughter: Edgar recognises that the worst kind of change is when what is best becomes worse. Inevitably any change away from the worst must be for the better. His soliloquy speculates about what truly constitutes the worst that is possible in the human condition.
I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw: The two basic meanings of the verb ‘to see’ (to receive images through the eyes/to understand) form an essential part of the speech. Gloucester now realises that it is very easy for human beings to misinterpret the evidence of their senses. When he still had his eyes he could not see the evil which confronted him, allowing himself to be deceived by Edmund.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport: Gloucester blames some higher power for the calamity that has beset him and which is responsible for the suffering of humanity in general. There is an irony here, since his suffering springs from his own blindness and Edmund’s evil. Although it is easy to blame the gods, Gloucester also believes that he is free to make his own decisions, such as his desire to commit suicide. When he is saved, it is not by the gods but by the intervention of his son Edgar. Throughout the play invocations to the gods are used to project very human feelings.
when madmen lead the blind: Gloucester here thinks about his own suffering as symbolic of what is happening in the state as a whole. The vulnerable are governed by the insane.
Five fiends hath .. : Edgar reels off a list of demons with rather exotic names. He associates each with a particular form of evil.
There is a cliff: This is situated near Dover, the place where Lear and Gloucester will eventually meet. The fact that the forces of France and Cordelia have landed in Dover makes the location a symbol of hope and possible relief from suffering.

Investigating Act 4 scene 1

  • How does Edgar convey to the audience the idea that there is no limit to destruction and suffering in this world?
  • Gloucester says, ‘I have no way and therefore want no eyes. / I stumbled when I saw’. What is the thematic importance of these words in the play as a whole?
  • What factors have combined to make Gloucester give up on living?
  • How have Gloucester’s ideas about what it is to be human changed?
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