Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951
The exact location is not absolutely clear; it may be a small house or outbuilding on Gloucester's property.
Gloucester has taken Lear, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar indoors for protection from the elements. Gloucester leaves in order to fetch blankets and food for his guests. In his absence, Lear stages a mock trial in which Edgar, Kent, and the Fool can judge the evidence that Lear's daughters have betrayed him. Lear angrily indicts Goneril and Regan for their crimes against him. Kent and Edgar realize that Lear is making a pitiful display but still do nothing to reveal their identities.
When Gloucester returns, he indicates to Kent that he knows of a plot against Lear's life. He instructs Kent to accompany Lear to Dover, knowing that forces will arrive there from France to provide the king with protection. All of them leave the scene except Edgar, who is left to soliloquize that his own misfortune isn't as bad as that of Lear.
Cornwall gives Goneril a letter to take to her husband in which he informs him that the army of France has landed at Dover and will take Lear's side against them.
He then instructs the servants to find the “traitor” Gloucester and tells Edmund to accompany Goneril as she returns to her home, saying he doesn’t wish Edmund to see the “revenges” that will be carried out against his father.
Oswald, Goneril's steward, arrives and informs them that Gloucester has enabled Lear’s escape to Dover, where he will join with armed forces who have arrived to support him.
When Gloucester is brought in by the servants, Cornwall orders him bound to a chair, and he and Regan begin interrogating and torturing him. Gloucester is forced to reveal that the king has gone to Dover on his advice and that he facilitated Lear's escape because he did not wish to see Regan “pluck out his eyes” and Goneril inflict other cruelties upon him. But now, it is Gloucester’s eye that is literally torn out by Cornwall, after which he stamps upon it with his foot.. When one of the servants tries to defend Gloucester, he wounds Cornwall, but then Regan kills the servant, stabbing him from behind. Cornwall tears out Gloucester’s other eye. In the midst of this mayhem, Regan reveals that Edmund, in whom Gloucester has put all his trust, is the actual traitor to him, and Gloucester thus understands the enormous folly he's committed in believing Edgar the guilty one. Two servants lead the bleeding, eyeless Gloucester out, intending to help him as best they can, while Cornwall and Regan exit as well, with Cornwall concerned only about the wound he's received.
These scenes intensify the themes of madness and cruelty that run through the drama. Lear’s staging of a mock trial would be comic if it weren’t so pitiful. An obvious question is why the others play along with him. It is either out of their own regard for his feelings—in other words, that it would be more cruel and dangerous to awaken a madman from his delusion than to attempt talking sense to him—or because irrationality has so overtaken all of the characters, including the disguised Kent and Edgar, that they accept the hopelessness of the scene and can do nothing to change it. But their pretences, as well as the delusion of Gloucester, begin to fall away at this juncture. In spite of having been gullible in the extreme about the real nature of each of his sons, Gloucester now becomes more aware of reality, wishing to help Lear and facilitating his escape to Dover, where Cordelia's forces will be able to aid him, as he believes.
It would have been better for Gloucester himself if he had remained in a state of ignorance. The scene that follows in the castle is perhaps more shocking than anything else in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. A kind of mercy would have been shown to Gloucester by Cornwall and Regan if they had punished his “treachery” by murdering him instead of gouging out his eyes as they do. The removal of Gloucester's eyes is not only a metaphor for his own blindness to the truth about Edmund's betrayal of him and Edgar's innocence, but is emblematic of the moral and rational blindness overtaking nearly all of the characters. Cornwall and Regan are shown lacking any human feeling or insight. But even the benign and well-intentioned Kent and Edgar have been blind in essentially making themselves powerless through their disguises and almost childish behavior. They have purposely separated themselves from reality, presumably because this was necessary for their own protection, though their plunge into fantasy has also been a willful and even perverse response to the intolerable conditions of the real world. And Lear, as well, has been unable to perceive any kind of truth about human nature or the specifics of his own predicament, as the fantasy world in his mind now becomes even more profound and despairing.
While blindness is an apt metaphor, there is irony in the fact that when Gloucester is physically blinded, in a figurative sense, his eyes are opened to the reality of his having been duped by Edmund, as well as to his foolishness in having trusted the unscrupulous and cruel Cornwall and Regan. Though Gloucester’s fate is disproportionate to his wrongdoing, it nonetheless illustrates the adage that what goes around comes around. His callous words and attitude about Edmund’s origin and, if those words are any indication, his probable mistreatment of Edmund because of his “illegitimacy” have come back to haunt him in a horribly exaggerated way.
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