Last Reviewed on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035
At an unspecified location in Dover, Kent, still in disguise, confers with a Gentleman about current political and military events. After first landing in Britain, the King of France, Kent already knows, has returned to his own country to deal with an internal problem, leaving a Monsieur Le Far to command his forces at Dover. The Gentleman informs Kent that Cordelia, at Dover, has read the letters informing her of Lear's mistreatment; she is understandably saddened by them and wishes to correct the wrong to which her father has been subjected. Lear, Kent says, is “in the town” but does not wish to see Cordelia in his shame over the way he has treated her. Lear emerges from his confusion at times and is aware of the injustices perpetrated both by him and against him, but most of the time, he remains in the same impaired mental state that has been worsening throughout the drama. The Gentleman tells Kent that Albany’s and Cornwall's forces are in action, and Kent says he will bring the man to Lear so he can attend to him, indicating that he, Kent, must preserve his unknown status now but will reveal his identity when the time is right.
At her camp in Dover, Cordelia speaks to a doctor about Lear's worsening mental state, of which she is aware, although she hasn't yet seen him. The Doctor indicates that the only hope for Lear's condition is rest and that the reason for his madness is the outward misfortune inflicted upon him. Cordelia sends out a “century” (one hundred soldiers) to look for Lear, who is wandering about raving and singing and dressed bizarrely, crowned with flowers and weeds. A messenger arrives to tell Cordelia that the British armies are approaching, with the intention of attacking her forces. Cordelia states that it is only her love for her father, not ambition, that has caused her to employ the power of France to defeat the British forces.
Regan confers with Goneril's steward Oswald, who, in answer to her question about Albany's forces, tells her they are not being led personally by Albany but by Goneril, who is “the better soldier.” Regan thus doesn't learn that Albany himself is opposed to Goneril's and Regan's actions. Regan questions Oswald about the whereabouts of Edmund and about a letter from Goneril to Edmund, the contents of which Oswald doesn't know. Regan's chief concern is about Gloucester, and she expresses the view that it was unwise to let him live. Though she wants Oswald now to stay with her, he tells her he must deliver Goneril's letter to Edmund, and Regan suspiciously wonders what purpose Goneril could have in writing to him. Oswald declines to hand over the letter from Goneril; Regan has noticed the attention her sister has paid to Edmund and states that she, Regan, will be a more appropriate lover for Edmund than Goneril could be. She charges Oswald with delivering a note to Edmund and with telling Goneril that it would be wise for her to stay away from Edmund. If he encounters Gloucester, she tells Oswald, he should “cut him off”—that is, kill him.
Cordelia's reactions are, like Edgar's toward his father, a model of kindness and forgiveness. Instead of being vindictive, she can think only of helping Lear in the pitifully impaired state he's in.
The manner in which Lear's condition is discussed and analyzed by the Doctor she consults is especially interesting. Perhaps reflecting the typical medical opinion of Shakespeare's time, Lear's mental state is attributed to outside factors—namely, the mistreatment that's been inflicted upon him. It's possible the physician is merely portraying Lear's condition as positively as he can in order to reassure Cordelia that Lear's mental impairment is only temporary. From today's perspective, this evaluation would seem unrealistic, given what we know concerning various forms of dementia that permanently affect elderly people. It makes sense, however, that Lear’s “madness” might come and go, as it does. Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses often follow a wavering course rather than a relentlessly downward trend, with patients having moments or even days of lucidity before lapsing again into their impaired state. The information from Kent that Lear doesn't want to see Cordelia, out of his own sense of shame, indicates that beneath the dementia Lear is still aware of the truth, not wishing to confront the reality of his own failures and the responsibility he bears for his plight.
While Kent and Cordelia, like Edgar, show themselves models of forgiveness and loyalty, Regan continues to prove herself consistently selfish and cruel. The sadism carried out against Gloucester was arguably started by Regan in the first place when she “plucked at” his beard. She gives instructions to kill him, not in order to put him out of his misery but because she fears that he'll turn others against her.
The two dukes have now been eliminated as harmful or negative forces. Cornwall is dead, and Albany opposes the efforts against Lear and Gloucester. There is an element of misogyny in Shakespeare's portrayals, since at this point the darker powers are entirely in the hands of Regan and Goneril, who are the immediate source of the whirlpool of destruction in which all the characters are caught. But interestingly, all the active forces, both for good and ill, are now being directed by women. Cordelia's husband, the King of France, has gone back to his own country, leaving Cordelia in charge to fight her two sisters. What is seen is an empowerment of women, with the male characters either dead, disabled, or somewhat timidly acting in the background as Kent and Edgar have been doing throughout the drama in their disguises. Even Edmund at this point is a relatively passive figure, inspiring Goneril and Regan in their warped behavior but leaving them to spearhead the action. The latter doesn't even seem to care that her husband, Cornwall, has been killed, and Goneril is through with Albany, deriding him as a coward. These two are powerful women, though ironically, both are attracted to the evil and arguably weak character Edmund and are acting with him as their goal.
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