Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892
Kent leads the King to the “hovel” where he is to take refuge on the heath, but Lear does not want to go in. He declares himself immune to the fury of the storm because, he says, it's nothing compared to the human cruelty his daughters have carried out against him. Finally Lear agrees to take shelter, but he tells the Fool to go in first. Edgar, in disguise, is within the hovel, and the Fool is frightened by him, thinking Edgar a spirit or a ghost. When Edgar, calling himself “Poor Tom,” emerges from the place of refuge, he seems insane himself, crying that “the foul fiend” is following him and speaking in a generally incoherent manner. In his own ravings, Lear asks Edgar—not knowing who Edgar actually is—if “his daughters” have done the same thing to him that has been done to Lear. In a way similar to that of other characters, Edgar, who is naked, pours out a stream of nonsense words, giving what appears to be a totally invented account of himself as a servingman who frequented brothels and committed other sins. Lear, even in the midst of his insanity, relates Edgar’s situation to his own and views him as an emblem of guilty mankind.
Lear begins to tear at his own clothes, and then Gloucester enters with a torch. His presence increases Edgar's hysteria, and he apparently identifies his own father, Gloucester, as the “foul fiend,” an observation both true and not true. Gloucester now offers Lear sanctuary in his castle, in defiance of Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. But Lear insists that he must first talk with “this philosopher,” meaning Edgar. Kent tells Gloucester to insist that Lear go inside to the castle with him. Gloucester remembers that Kent, at court, had predicted terrible things would happen. He realizes that the king has gone mad, and understandably so because of what his daughters have done to him, but says that he, Gloucester, has nearly gone mad himself as the result of the treachery of his son Edgar—whom he does not recognize as the naked man who has been speaking. All of them exit the scene.
At Gloucester’s castle, Edmund is now conspiring with Cornwall against Gloucester. He has given Cornwall a letter indicating that Gloucester is colluding with France to invade Britain and thus dislodge Cornwall from power. Cornwall pronounces Edmund as the new Earl of Gloucester, since his father, according to Edmund's charges, is guilty of treason against Britain.
These scenes bring together the main plot of Lear and his daughters with the subplot involving the Gloucesters, all within an atmosphere of violence and insanity. Though Lear has been both overcome by dementia and driven mad by cruelty, Gloucester feels that he, too, is descending into madness because of what his son Edgar has supposedly done to him. He is right, but the guilty son who has caused this is actually Edmund, not Edgar. The mixture of truth and delusion in Gloucester’s thoughts is a focal point for the overall themes of deception, ambiguity, and miscommunication that permeate the story. The same combination of reality and illusion is represented in Edgar’s speech, his hysterical riddles delivered in the same style as that of the Fool.
Though hostile critics such as the novelist Leo Tolstoy held the view that all of Shakespeare's characters “sound the same,” in this case and in others there is a thematic rationale for that sameness. It is as if a blight of madness has descended upon Britain. Lear, Edgar, Kent, and the Fool have all been subjected to various injustices and cruelties, and their reaction is either to become mad or to veil themselves deliberately in a kind of madness almost as a form of protection. The similarities among their behaviors suggest a generalized victimization of humanity.
For the modern reader, the crazed or nonsensical speeches of the Fool, Edgar, and even Kent pose special difficulties. But their words are incoherent in whatever language they are expressed. Even Shakespeare’s first audiences would have had trouble making sense of these rants. In act 3, scene 5, when Cornwall speaks with Edmund, the clarity of their dialogue strikes one as a return to sanity, because although they're plotting evil, there is at least an ironic veer of rationality to what they are saying. It makes perfect sense, in its way, that Edmund seeks advancement and would use Cornwall to accomplish this, and it also makes sense that a tyrannical duke, as Cornwall is, would be angered by the kind of insubordination a mere earl such as Gloucester has committed by overruling his orders not to help Lear. But the question persists at this point: why is it that Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan are so irredeemably cruel that they can't at least take pity on a harmless old man such as Lear? It would have been kinder if they had dragged Lear against his will into the castle for his own protection than to let him go out on the heath in the middle of a raging storm. There is no answer to the mystery at the heart of this callousness. In a sense, the evil characters are in fact caricatures, abstractions of negative human qualities on a grand scale representing a hyper-reality that surpasses normal existence.
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