Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
As a terrible storm is raging, Kent speaks with a Gentleman (or Knight) who tells him Lear is alone in the open with the Fool. Kent informs the man that Albany and Cornwall are at odds with each other—that there is “division” between them. He also says that the conflict and disorder in Britain have become known in France and that agents have been sent from France as a vanguard, apparently of a military force that will intervene in the situation in Britain. Kent gives the Gentleman money and a ring and instructs him to go to the port of Dover and to show the ring to Cordelia if he encounters her. He also says they should first try to find Lear in order to help him in the midst of the storm.
Lear is in a wild state of anger and distress on the heath in the midst of the violent storm. He addresses the gods and the elements, seeing them as a natural reflection of the cruelty that people inflict upon one another. The Fool tries to distract him with his usual series of riddles and jokes, but Lear is in an uncontrollable rage, obsessed with his treatment by Goneril and Regan. Kent appears and says that in his lifetime he's never seen such a horrifying storm. Lear apostrophizes the elements, wishing for them to carry out retribution against human evil and saying,
the great gods
That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,
Should find out their enemies now.
Kent directs Lear to a hovel where he can be sheltered against the wind and rain, but the Fool remains in the open, soliloquizing about the storm and uttering what he describes as a prophecy. He mentions a series of anomalous events, things which presumably will never happen, and declares that if these things ever do occur, then “Albion [Britain] shall come to confusion.” The irony of the Fool's speech, of course, is that there already is great confusion in Britain.
At his castle, Gloucester confers with Edmund and expresses his regret over the way Lear has been treated, as well as anger over the fact that Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan have essentially taken over his own house and ordered him not to help Lear under any circumstance. Like Kent, Gloucester observes that there is “division between the Dukes.” Gloucester has also received a letter indicating that a military force has arrived from France that will help Lear against his enemies. Gloucester instructs Edmund to say nothing about this; he has resolved to help the king even if doing so will lead to his own death.
When Gloucester exits, Edmund unsurprisingly announces that he will do the exact opposite of what his father has charged him with. He intends to inform Cornwall immediately of the news about the imminent help the king is to receive and to side with Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan against his father and Lear.
These scenes depict Lear's complete descent into violent “madness” but imply the even greater cruelty of Goneril and Regan against him in deliberately allowing him to remain outside in the storm. They also have, as the entire drama does to an extent, a fantasy-like element. In reality it probably wouldn't be possible for men to declaim long and complex sentences to one another in the midst of a raging storm. It is a sort of mental theater Shakespeare creates for the spectator, just as Byron over two hundred years later said he intended in his own Manfred. Before the advent of the cinema, stage directors could only use their limited means of depicting the natural horrors of the scenes on the heath. But the human horrors of the situation are even worse. For all his unreasonableness and the injustice he has perpetrated on his own, Lear emerges as a character for whom the audience would have to sympathize fully. He is a sick, elderly man raging against the elements and understandably lamenting the fact that he is unloved by his daughters—and practically everyone else, as he's now accompanied only by the Fool and by Kent, whom he still fails to recognize as the courtier he banished.
As the drama becomes more fantastic, as if a massive illusion is being depicted onstage, it's ironically more realistic given that the actual affairs of state that form the underpinning of the plot are revealed. Word has been sent to France that Britain is descending into chaos, with the at least theoretically still-reigning king the victim of abuse and with the two sadistic wives of the now de facto ducal rulers manipulating things for their personal benefit. Kent's sending the Gentleman to Dover is a practical act and reveals that Kent, at least, has not taken leave of his senses. The same is true of Gloucester. Though Gloucester is a complete fool in not recognizing Edmund's deceptions, he understands that the king has been mistreated, and he wants to do something to stop it. But Gloucester's motives are self-interested as well, because he obviously resents that Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril have in effect pushed him out of his own house.
The Fool is a symbol of both reality and illusion. As George Orwell and other commentators have noted, the Fool acts as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and understanding Lear's predicament better than Lear himself does. But the Fool's speeches are also a kind of meta-speak, an intentional babbling divorced from the actual world. It defies any conception of realism that even a professional jester would make these extended jokes in the midst of such chaos, especially when he does so in the form of a soliloquy after Lear and Kent have left the scene.
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