Act 2, Scenes 3–4 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308
This scene consists entirely of a soliloquy by Edgar. He is fleeing through the woods from his father's men pursuing him and manages to hide inside “the hollow of a tree.” There he muses on his situation and resolves to escape detection by disguising himself as a lunatic beggar, hoping to become the recipient of people's charity. His predicament, he appears to believe, is utterly hopeless.
Kent is still in the stocks before Gloucester’s castle, and Lear, the Fool, and a Gentleman enter. Lear questions why Regan and Cornwall have not sent back his messenger and are not at their home, and the Gentleman informs him that so far as he knows, as of the night before last they had no intention of leaving their palace.
When Lear sees Kent in the stocks, he is outraged that a man who has served him is being so treated. He still does not recognize Kent, apart from knowing him as the supposed stranger who appeared at Goneril's palace and helped him. Lear refuses to believe that his daughter Regan and his son-in-law are the ones who ordered such a punishment for Kent. Kent now explains that when he first went to the home of Cornwall and Regan, a messenger from Goneril simultaneously appeared, and as a result of the letters this man delivered to them, they immediately left their castle and ordered him to follow them to Gloucester's. The subsequent action, Kent's encounter with Oswald, is what took place earlier in act 2. Lear asks Kent where Regan is, and Kent informs him that she is with Gloucester. Lear then exits, leaving the Fool to converse with Kent.
When Kent asks the Fool why Lear is traveling with only a small retinue, the Fool responds with his usual riddles and veiled sarcasm. Lear returns with Gloucester, having found that Regan and Cornwall are refusing to speak to him. Lear is furious that he is not being treated with the respect he still believes is due to him as a king. From his confused and exaggerated speech, it's obvious that Lear is indeed falling into an even worse phase of dementia than has afflicted him to this point. Gloucester exits and shortly returns with Cornwall and Regan, and Kent is released from the stocks.
Lear now realistically tells Regan of his mistreatment at the hands of Goneril. Regan shows no sympathy but at least speaks somewhat politely to her father, telling him that Goneril must have had good reason to complain about the behavior of his knights. She urges him to return to Goneril and ask her forgiveness, making it clear that she herself does not want to take her father in. Lear humiliates himself by kneeling before Regan and begging that she allow him to stay with her, telling her that he believes her to be kindhearted, unlike Goneril. His speech falls on deaf ears, as Regan insists that he return to Goneril. Lear changes the subject and begins asking, again, who put Kent in the stocks.
Oswald and Goneril arrive. Lear pathetically asks Goneril if she isn't ashamed of how she has acted toward him and repeatedly returns to the question of who is responsible for ordering Kent’s punishment. Cornwall admits that he was the one who gave the order and that Kent's actions were so unruly that he deserved worse. Regan then suggests that Lear go back to Goneril after dismissing half of his retinue, stay with Goneril for a month, and then come to live with her. Lear refuses, telling her he would rather be a “slave” like Oswald than humiliate himself by returning to Goneril under such conditions.
Lear's responses and pleadings take on an increasingly desperate and pitiful tone as he again begs Regan to be able to stay with her, retaining all of his men. Regan refuses, saying she is not prepared to accommodate him and asking why he needs so many knights to accompany him, while Goneril similarly suggests that Lear can be just as well served by her own men or Regan's. Finally, Regan proposes allowing him to stay with her so long as only twenty-five of his men accompany him. Lear rejects the offer, then turns to Goneril again, saying he'll bring fifty men with him and stay with her, to which she answers that he should not even need ten or five of his own servants in a house where there are “twice so many” of her own men to attend to him.
Lear laments his wretchedness in being treated so coldly and disrespectfully, then exits with Gloucester, Kent, and the Fool. The others observe that a terrible storm is brewing but have no intention of taking in Lear despite his being exposed to the elements. Only Gloucester shows some feeling for Lear, and when he returns from outside, he indicates that the king is in a “high rage” and has no means of protecting himself from the storm in the open. But Goneril, Cornwall, and Regan all say that Lear has brought this situation upon himself, that he and his followers are desperate and potentially dangerous, and therefore that Gloucester's doors should be shut against him. The act ends with Lear having received no sympathy from his daughters and been left out in the open to fend for himself in the midst of the storm.
These scenes are remarkable for the paradoxes or contradictions among the characters and their conflicts. On one hand, Lear is a pitiful figure, fighting against the loss of his mental abilities and the harshness of his eldest daughters, in whom he had placed all his trust. Goneril and Regan are guilty of the most shameful mistreatment of him. But at the same time, Lear's own behavior and demands are hardly reasonable. For all the audience knows, his knights have been wreaking havoc at Goneril's palace, and there isn't any valid reason, as the daughters suggest, that he needs to keep so many men of his own with him when their own households are adequately staffed. Lear intends to be dictatorial, as a king expects to be, though he has relinquished power. He's really no longer a king at all, but he believes he should be treated like one and expects sympathy to be shown to him, though he has shown no sympathy to Cordelia or to Kent.
As with anything in the theater, much of the audience's response to this situation depends on the quality of the acting. In the best productions of King Lear, the situation as it unfolds comes across as unbearably sad. Lear is, or should be, an object of sympathy. He is an old man who appears to be losing his faculties, and even if he has committed wrongs, the refusal by Goneril and Regan to help him is unconscionable. Yet, as stated, in some sense the two daughters cannot be entirely blamed for their reactions to Lear. In every drama there is a backstory, an unseen element that the reader or audience must imagine in order to come to terms with the action depicted onstage. It could be that Lear—judging by his dictatorial attitude—was abusive to Goneril and Regan in the past and that they can't help themselves in now being so harsh to him. The same is possible with regard to the conflict in Gloucester's family. There isn't anything surprising in the fact of an illegitimate son being resentful, as Edmund is, and seeking to discredit his brother. In Lear there are extremes of emotion and overreactions by all the characters, while the response probably experienced by most readers or theatergoers is one of ambivalence, especially in these scenes where Lear is in conflict with his daughters. There is no clear answer to who is “right” or “wrong” as the tragedy develops.