Act 4 scene 2

Synopsis of Act 4 Scene 2

Goneril discovers that her husband Albany no longer tolerates her schemes and instead has aligned himself with Lear. He is pleased to hear about Cordelia's invasion and deeply disturbed to hear about Edmund’s treacherous treatment of his father. Goneril finds her husband pathetic and sends Edmund with a message to Cornwall to muster an army hastily. She and Edmund exchange loving farewells, accompanied by hints of a murder plot against Albany. A messenger delivers the news of Cornwall’s death at the hands of one of Gloucester's servants. Horrified by the blinding of Gloucester and Edmund's treachery, Albany vows revenge.

Commentary on Act 4 Scene 2

The audience now sees the development of a different side to Albany. He attacks Goneril, saying that her immoral behaviour has rendered her worthless as a human being. In the face of evil, he has turned from a nonentity to a man of some moral stature. However, he thinks the death of Cornwall is a sign that the gods are just, another example of transferring to higher powers outcomes which have been the sole responsibility of human beings. Edmund now takes the place of Gloucester as the link between the two plots.
His answer was, ‘The worse’: Already we can see that Albany's attitude has changed. He has become assertive rather than compliant to Goneril’s wishes.
the wrong side out: Oswald is here thinking about clothes, when the wrong side of a garment is mistaken for the right side. Gloucester, of course, meant that it is Edmund who is the traitor rather than himself.
Our wishes on the way / May prove effects: Edmund and Goneril have been discussing the removal of Albany in order to pursue their own love affair.
Distaff imageand give the distaff / Into my husband’s hands: The symbol of the male warrior is the sword, whereas the symbol of the wife at home is the distaff (as used in spinning). However, Goneril is now assuming the male role by going into battle.
mistress: Used in two senses here – both as lover and as commander of the army.
A fool: This is how she refers to her husband now.
She that herself will sliver and disbranch / From her material sap: The image is taken from a family tree whose many branches all derive from the same roots.
Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep: The crime is so unnatural (monstrous), so bound to upset the natural order, that it will inevitably lead to cannibalism unless the gods intervene.
That bear’st a cheek for blows: This is a reference to words of Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 5:39): ‘But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.’ To Goneril, her husband is weak and ineffective, unable to defend himself against attack.
Fools do those villains pity: Goneril is probably thinking here about Lear, who has been prevented so far from meeting up with the forces from France.
To let these hands obey my blood: Albany cannot bring himself to strike Goneril, despite the strength of his emotions, because it would be against the natural order for a man to strike a woman.
that harmful stroke: Cornwall was mortally wounded. Albany feels that some sort of universal justice is now being delivered and that the crime of Gloucester’s blinding is being avenged.
my Gloucester: This is how Goneril now refers to Edmund. She wishes to leave her husband to marry him.

Investigating Act 4 Scene 2...

  • How does Goneril continue to violate the laws governing human relationships in this scene?
  • How does Albany show that his eyes have been opened to the cruelty of Goneril and Regan?
  • How does Albany show his belief in divine justice and natural order?
    • What risks is he willing to take to restore moral order?
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