Act 4, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

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Scene 1

Gloucester, blind and bleeding from the eyes, is being led by an Old Man outside of his castle. The two meet the disguised Edgar, obviously shocked to see his father in this condition and realizing his own state is worse than ever before. Gloucester has been stunned into realizing that when he could actually see, he was figuratively blind, and he “stumbled” in not understanding the truth about his sons. He wishes he could live to see Edgar “in his touch” and then to imagine that he still had eyes. Edgar considers dropping the pretense of being “Poor Tom” but decides he cannot do so. The Old Man has identified Edgar as the “naked fellow,” the mad one whom Gloucester and the others encountered before. Gloucester, still not knowing this is his son, tells the Old Man to find some clothing for Edgar and follow them to Dover. Gloucester gives Edgar a purse, then describes the high cliff at Dover and reveals that his intention is to throw himself from it into the depths below to relieve himself of his misery. Edgar, still calling himself Poor Tom, agrees to take him there.

Scene 2

Goneril, having returned to her and Albany’s home with Edmund, confers with Edmund and expresses surprise that her husband hasn't met them on the way. When the steward Oswald appears, he tells them that Albany has apparently turned against Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall because of their actions against Lear. Albany, Oswald says, disbelieves that Gloucester was a traitor and, moreover, seems glad about the landing in Britain of the army from France. He also says Albany knows that the true roles of Gloucester's sons are the opposite of what Gloucester had thought, so Goneril instructs Edmund to return to Cornwall's castle. It's clear that Goneril intends to begin (or has already begun) a sexual relationship with Edmund.

Albany appears and condemns his wife, Goneril, for her actions in having turned Lear out. He is amazed that Cornwall has gone along with the abuse directed at Lear. Goneril in turn accuses Albany of cowardice, of turning the other cheek and sitting and crying instead of making ready to oppose the invasion by France.

A messenger arrives and announces not only that Gloucester has been blinded, but that Cornwall's injury at the hands of the servant has proved fatal. To Albany this shows that there is some justice in the world after all. The messenger gives Goneril a letter from Regan. Goneril is pleased by the news but also fearful. The killing of Cornwall indicates that a rival to her own power has been eliminated. At the same time, she fears that the now widowed Regan will be a rival to her for the affections of Edmund. It thus appears that both Goneril and Regan have romantic designs on the scheming Edmund. Albany asks the messenger where Edmund was when his father was blinded. The answer is that Edmund was with Goneril, but the messenger also reveals to Albany that Edmund informed Cornwall and Regan of his father’s “treachery” and left Cornwall’s house deliberately in order that their punishment of his father might have “freer course.”


As bleak as the action is at this point, paradoxically it's the positive emotion humans are capable of that comes to the fore. In spite of the wrong that's been done to him, Edgar is heartbroken to see his father blinded and helpless. Gloucester has been disabused of the idea that Edgar is the treacherous son and regrets having banished him, perhaps so much that this is the main reason he's contemplating suicide, though in his impaired condition he may believe that life isn't worth living in any case. Instead of turning on his father as some might expect him to, Edgar keeps his identity hidden and only wants to help him. Shakespeare demonstrates the worst and the best that people are capable of—both extreme abuse and sadistic cruelty on the one hand, and the most forgiving kindness on the other.

It's also revealed that the motivations of Goneril and Regan are partly sexual. Both are interested in Edmund, and Goneril has no regard for her husband, Albany, reviling him as lacking courage, as a “milk-livered man / That bear'st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs.”

But Albany, who had previously not opposed Goneril's actions against her father, shows himself now, like Edgar, as one of the minority of characters in the drama who have genuine human feelings. It's not only the cruelty in the treatment of Lear that Albany decries, but the fact that it has been carried out by people who have benefited from Lear's generosity to them.

What occurs in these scenes is both typical of Shakespeare and perhaps the essence of tragedy, not only in the context of the plot of Lear but in literature as a whole. Despite the immense injustices carried out, some people show themselves to be defiant in the face of those wrongs and to oppose them. But at least at this point, those more positive characters also seem relatively passive and weak. Edgar, apart from evidently agreeing to lead his father to his own death, does nothing to attempt reestablishing the filial bond between them. Even Albany, despite railing justifiably against Goneril and the others who have committed these crimes, doesn't take any decisive action as yet. After Goneril exits, he merely asks the messenger to tell him everything he knows about the fact of Edmund's having given information against Gloucester. Both sides in the conflict express their anger volubly and poetically, but weakness of various kinds is in evidence all around, whether manifested in good or evil. It is a furtherance of the theme of man's helplessness that has dominated the drama.

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