Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
A messenger, Curan, approaches Edmund and tells him that the Duke of Cornwall and Regan are headed to Gloucester's castle. Curan also indicates that he has heard there is an impending war that will take place between Albany and Cornwall.
Goneril has written to her sister Regan, telling her that she and Cornwall should leave their palace and go to Gloucester's, apparently to protect themselves from Lear and his contingent of knights. But Edmund intends to use the notion that a conflict exists between the Albany-Goneril and the Cornwall-Regan houses to advance his plot against his brother, Edgar. When Edgar enters, Edmund asks him if he has spoken against the Duke of Cornwall. Edgar, of course, has no idea of what Edmund is talking about. When Edmund hears Gloucester approach, he pretends to be in the middle of a fight with Edgar, who then flees the scene in fear of his father. Edmund wounds himself on the arm in order to make it look as if Edgar has attacked him. Gloucester is now even more convinced that Edgar has villainous intentions, and orders his servants to pursue him. Edmund says that Edgar had attempted to persuade him to kill their father. Gloucester, aware that the Duke of Cornwall will arrive shortly, decides he will enlist the duke's aid in tracking down and arresting Edgar.
When Cornwall and Regan arrive with their attendants, Regan insinuates that Edgar was “companion to the riotous knights” of Lear, about whom her sister has warned her. Edmund uses this opportunity to further impugn his brother, and Regan states that Goneril has indicated Edgar is conspiring with the knights to kill Lear. Gloucester, Cornwall, and Regan all appear to have complete trust in Edmund, congratulating him for having “shown a child-like office” (in other words, the proper duty of a child) to his father in revealing Edgar's alleged treachery. Regan explains that she, her husband, and their attendants have come to Gloucester in the middle of the night because of the problem between Lear and her sister Goneril. She tells him it would be best to attempt resolving this situation not at their own palace but here at the home of Gloucester, who tells her that she and her husband have his full support.
Kent, still in disguise, arrives at Gloucester's castle at the same time as Goneril's steward Oswald. Oswald does not recognize him from their previous quarrel at Goneril's, where Kent defended Lear against him. Immediately, Kent picks a fight with Oswald, insulting him volubly and reminding him that it was he, Kent, who tripped him up and beat him the other night. Kent then draws his sword against him, but Oswald refuses to fight and shouts for help. Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester, and servants appear. Regan identifies Oswald and Kent as the messengers, respectively, from Goneril and Lear. Though Kent seems determined mainly upon verbally attacking Oswald in extended and extravagant speeches, Oswald finally tells everyone that Kent had attacked him physically after the king struck him and that Kent is now continuing his unreasoning hostility to him. Cornwall orders his servants to bring out the stocks and put Kent in them. Despite Gloucester's trying to defend Kent and telling Cornwall that Kent doesn't deserve such a punishment, and that the king would not take kindly to his messenger being treated this way, Kent is put in the stocks on the orders of both Cornwall and Regan. Regan justifies the punitive measure by saying that her servant, Oswald, has been treated even worse. Gloucester, though he feels sorry for Kent, has been overruled and can do nothing to help him.
When Kent is left alone in the stocks, he soliloquizes that he has a letter from Cordelia, who has evidently been informed of Kent’s “obscured course”—that is, his having been banished and now living in disguise. He consoles himself with the thought that Cordelia will be able to correct the wrongs that have occurred and believes that the wheel of fortune will eventually turn in his and Lear's favor.
These scenes illustrate a contagion of delusion and miscommunication. The innocent Edgar is flummoxed and does not even attempt to defend himself to his father against Edmund's accusations, but flees the scene, convincing Gloucester even more thoroughly of his alleged guilt.
The two parallel plots—Lear's conflict with his daughters and Gloucester's conflict with his sons—are interwoven, as representatives of both are brought together in these scenes, and their different delusions and deceptions are intensified. Edmund succeeds in using the plight of Lear to gain additional supporters in Cornwall and Regan. It is interesting that these two, who presumably have nothing to gain by concerning themselves with the plot against Gloucester that Edmund has fabricated, immediately believe everything Edmund says and become reflexively allied with him. It may simply be that Cornwall, Regan, and Edmund are similarly and equally “evil” and therefore are inclined to flock together. Later it becomes clear that Regan has her own personal motive for supporting Edmund. But a subliminal message is again that of an indefinable mystery that governs human behavior. Even the evil characters, in addition to perpetrating deceptions and cruelties upon others, are themselves deluded into thinking they are the guardians of some sort of truth or justice. Edmund believes he is avenging all people of “illegitimate” birth by victimizing his brother, or at least he uses this pretext to rationalize his actions. But if so, he's deceiving himself.
The same is true of Kent, though he is one of the few virtuous characters in the drama. When he encounters Oswald, he is more intent on pouring out a flow of unrestrained insults to him than acting like a responsible person who might deal with Oswald realistically and thus gain support from Gloucester and the others who arrive on the scene. Perhaps he actually believes his anarchic comportment will achieve results. But his behavior is rooted in his own powerlessness. He's trying to help the king, or avenge the wrongs being perpetrated, but because Lear has banished him, he can't state his purpose openly. Kent's situation is a microcosm of the general predicament of humanity in its inability to confront evil directly. He takes refuge in an almost clownish comportment and speech similar to that of the Fool. His outbursts form a counterpart, as well, to Lear's speeches and expressions of frustration with the hostile people ranged against him. The only positive or hopeful element in this scene, as Kent is imprisoned in the stocks, is the thought that Cordelia is aware of what is taking place and will be able to remedy it. Other than this, the whole situation is steadily developing into a grotesque nightmare.
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