Act 4 Scene 6

Synopsis of Act 4 Scene 6

Still disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, Edgar leads his father onto a heath and persuades him that they are standing before the dizzying view from the top of a Dover cliff. Edgar then pretends to leave his father. Believing himself to be on the edge of the cliff, Gloucester hurls himself forward so as to commit suicide. Edgar then pretends to be a passer-by at the bottom of the cliff and declares that he had seen Gloucester at the top with a creature that resembled a devil. Gloucester accepts the idea that he has been saved by the gods from an evil desire, and he vows to accept his affliction patiently until the day he dies.
Lear now appears, covered with wild flowers and raving madly. When the King sees Gloucester he forgives him for committing the sin of adultery and tells him that eyes are not needed to recognize injustices. A Gentleman with a search party arrives to take Lear to Cordelia, but Lear runs off, challenging them to catch him.
When Oswald arrives, he attacks Gloucester and accuses Edgar of helping the ‘traitor’. However, Edgar fatally wounds him. As he dies, Oswald asks Edgar to deliver his letters to Edmund. Amongst Oswald’s belongings, Edgar finds a letter from Goneril proposing that Edmund should murder Albany and marry her instead.

Commentary on Act 4 Scene 6

  • This is the first really developed scene of Act 4 and its focus is Edgar:
    • Through him it begins to seem as if goodness and justice may be able to prevail against evil and malice. Edgar brings about a ‘miracle’ in Gloucester’s mind, making him re-evaluate the gods as ‘ever gentle’ rather than ‘cruel’
    • Edgar continues to be a very sharp contrast to Edmund: virtuous deceit for a good goal rather than evil deceit for personal advantage. Both sons lie to their father but for very different reasons
  • The similarities between Gloucester and Lear are further emphasised as the two betrayed and fallen fathers try to make sense of their lives 
  • The death of Oswald gives the audience some hope that morality may prevail.
Come on, Sir; here's the place: Edgar pretends to Gloucester that they are standing on the edge of the high cliffs of Dover facing France. He gives precise and evocative details making the deception sound very convincing.
The crows and choughs … gross as beetles: The birds are imagined as flying in the air below the observer, halfway up the cliff face.
samphire: This is an aromatic succulent, especially associated with Dover in Shakespeare's day. It grows on the face of cliffs making it particularly hazardous to gather.
for all beneath the moon / Would I not leap upright: Edgar pretends to be so near the edge of the cliff that he would fall over the edge even if he jumped vertically upwards.
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills: Gloucester considers the matter of Fate, the will of the gods which must prevail. However, there is a contradiction here as Gloucester believes that, by committing suicide, he has denied the gods a chance of extending his suffering any further. Once again, Shakespeare seems to be implying that it is human beings who are responsible for their destiny.
And yet I know not … Yields to the theft: Edgar is worried about the power of the mind. At this crucial moment he considers the possibility that the shock of Gloucester's imagined fall may kill him, since he is so prepared to die.
He had a thousand noses … enridg’d sea: Edgar wants his father to believe that the companion he had at the top of the cliff was not himself but rather a demon. If he can get his father to believe that he has been the subject of supernatural intervention, he hopes his father will give up any idea of suicide, as clearly contravening the will of the gods. 
Shakespeare’s audience would be very familiar with the picture of a man being tempted by a devil to throw himself from a high place – it was one of the temptations Jesus faced from Satan in the wilderness (see Luke 4:9-13), which he resisted.
father: This term was often used in Shakespeare's day to mean merely ‘old man’, and this is the sense in which Gloucester takes it. For the audience the phrase would also have had the more normal meaning.
No, they cannot touch me for coining: Lear says that as he is a king, he cannot be punished for making coins since he has the right to make coins as currency for his kingdom. The word ‘coining’ has another meaning: the procreation of children. Lear comes onto the stage with money in his hand, thinking he can use it to impress Edgar or Gloucester into serving in the army.
a clothier’s yard: This was a measurement used when measuring cloth. Lear wants the recruit to draw his bow to its full extent, i.e. a full yard.
Gauntletsgauntlet: Throwing down one's gauntlet (a cuffed glove) was a signal that one wished to challenge an enemy to single combat.
Goneril, with a white beard: The fact that Lear mistakes Gloucester for Goneril suggests that he cannot eradicate the thought of his daughter’s inhumanity.
‘Ay’ and ‘no’ too was no good divinity: Despite the play’s pagan setting, Lear quotes an idea familiar to Shakespeare’s audience as being mentioned by Jesus and in one of the letters of the New Testament: ‘but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.’ James 5:12 
Ay, every inch a king: Lear resumes the role of King for a moment but his thoughts then run on to more personal matters and he meditates on the frailty of the human condition. In particular he dwells on human sexual behaviour in considerable detail.
Behold yond simpering dame: Lear is thinking of women who pretend to be respectable in order to conceal their real sexual desires.
Down from the waist they are centaurs: Centaurs were creatures from Greek mythology, half man, half horse. That is, they were animals from the waist down. He goes on to suggest that the lower part of the body belongs to the devil because it is associated with the desires of the flesh.
A ruined piece of nature … wear out to nought: Gloucester feels that since Lear’s former greatness has been reduced to nothing, then the universe itself must pass away. The fate of one individual human being is thus seen to have universal implications.
I remember thine eyes well enough: These words emphasise both Gloucester’s suffering and Lear’s madness. Cupid was usually depicted as the blindfolded god of love who aimed his arrows of desire at the hearts of both men and gods, causing them to fall in love.
A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: Because appearances can be deceptive, Gloucester’s blindness, in Lear’s opinion, is actually an advantage.
scurvy politician: The term ‘politician’ was used to mean a cunning trickster who sought his own advantage by any means, regardless of morality.

this great stage of fools: Shakespeare here uses the image of the stage to represent the whole world. He did this famously in As You Like It (‘All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.’).
Adam and EveThou hast one daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse: The ‘general curse’ is a reference to original sin which every human being has inherited as a result of the transgression of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their expulsion from Paradise. See Adam and Eve.
Her army is moved on: Cordelia is looking for her father and has left the French army.
A proclaimed prize: There has been a public proclamation that Gloucester should be hunted down as an outlaw and killed as a traitor. Oswald thinks it will be to his advantage if he can kill him.
Now let thy friendly hand: Gloucester thinks of Oswald’s hand as being friendly since it will bring him the death he desires – despite his recent decision not to attempt to take his own life again.

Chill not let go, sir: Edgar uses a West Country dialect here in order to make his disguise completely effective.
Leave, gentle wax; and, manners, blame us not: Edgar breaks open the wax seal of a letter which has not been addressed to him. He justifies this by saying that any means are justifiable for obtaining information about one's enemies.
Here, in the sands: Because Gloucester thinks they are on the beach, Edgar makes this reference in an attempt to reassure his father.

Investigating Act 4 Scene 6...

  • Why does Edgar seek to delude his father into believing that he is standing at the top of a high cliff?
    • How does the language that Edgar uses make the deception seem real?
  • How does Gloucester restate his belief in a universe ruled over by gods who are on the side of justice and order?
  • How does Edgar relate Lear’s madness to the current moral degeneration of Britain?
  • How does Edgar show that he forgives his father, despite Gloucester’s cruel and unjust treatment of him?
    • In what ways does Edgar's behaviour parallel that of Cordelia?
  • What role does Oswald play in this scene?
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