Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101
Edgar is leading his blind father to Dover Cliff, from which Gloucester intends to hurl himself to his death. It is clear that Gloucester is beginning to recognize his son's voice, which Edgar is not disguising as thoroughly as before.
Although they are on level ground, Edgar convinces his father that they are climbing up toward the summit of the cliff. He says that they are only a foot from the top, then moves aside. Gloucester throws himself forward but simply falls harmlessly upon the ground on which he has been standing. Edgar then reappears and speaks to him, claiming that Gloucester has actually fallen from a great height, as he had intended, but has miraculously survived without injury. He also convinces Gloucester that he, Edgar, is not the same person who had been conducting him, but that the other was some sort of monster whom he took for a man.
Lear appears on the scene, raving and talking nonsense interspersed with realistic observations about his own fate. Gloucester recognizes Lear's voice, but Lear imagines Gloucester to be Goneril with a white beard, or Regan. Lear nevertheless seems to know who Gloucester is and compares their situations, saying that Gloucester’s “bastard son” was kinder to his father than Lear’s daughters were to him. Lear's further ravings seem to be focused upon a general loathing of women and sexuality. Both Gloucester and Edgar are astounded and heartbroken over Lear's mental state, but Edgar observes that even in the midst of his madness, much of what Lear is saying is based on reality: that there is “reason in madness.”
The Gentleman sent by Cordelia arrives with two others to help Lear. When the Gentleman mentions Lear's daughter, Lear misunderstands and thinks the men have come from Regan or Goneril to take him prisoner. After further nonsense talk which strangely includes witty punning about sexuality and death, Lear flees the scene, and the other two gentlemen run after him.
The remaining man tells Edgar that a battle will occur soon; the opposing forces are within an hour's march of each other. Though Edgar had seemed on the verge of revealing his identity to his father, he still refuses to answer Gloucester's direct question about it. Oswald appears and asks Edgar (not knowing Edgar is Gloucestor's son) how he dares to protect a “traitor” such as Gloucestor. They fight, and Edgar kills Oswald and removes from his pocket the letter he was to deliver from Goneril to Edmund. In it Goneril encourages Edmund to kill her husband, Albany, when he has the chance so that he can take Albany's place as her lover. Gloucester continues to lament the king's condition, and drums are heard in the distance, indicating the imminence of a battle.
Lear has been found and brought to Cordelia's quarters, where he is now sleeping as Cordelia confers with Kent and the Doctor. Cordelia thanks Kent for giving her a report of all that has transpired in her absence. He warns her not to reveal his identity to others yet. The Gentleman asks if it will be all right to awaken Lear now, who is brought in on a chair by servants. A scene of reconciliation between Cordelia and Lear occurs in which the latter now speaks rationally and says he doesn't deserve to live, given the enormous wrong he perpetrated against her and the misfortune with which he has been afflicted. Lear asks if he is now in France, to which Cordelia answers that he is in his own kingdom. The Gentleman observes that although Lear no longer is consumed by his previous “rage,” he needs rest, and therefore Cordelia should allow him to sleep again.
Kent and the Gentleman confer, and Kent confirms the report that Cornwall has been killed, indicating that Edmund is now leading Cornwall's forces. Kent also tells him not to believe the report he has heard that Edgar is together with Kent in Germany. Both await the impending battle.
In a play replete with unexpected and bizarre happenings, act 4, scene 6, seems especially to focus on the irrational and surreal, in depicting Gloucester's attempted suicide. Perhaps not unrealistically, Edgar leads his father to a place that is supposed to be the summit of Dover Cliff but is merely a field where the ground is level. Gloucester throws himself forward, only to fall harmlessly, but Edgar then manages to convince him that he's fallen off an immense cliff and survived. He also claims he's a different person from the one who led Gloucester there.
The whole scene is representative of the grotesque sense of illusion in which most of the characters in Lear are enveloped. Lear, Goneril, Regan, the two dukes, Gloucester, Edmund, and even Kent and Edgar are all in self-delusionary states, for different reasons and with different results. The illusion of power and of the ability to control others and their own destinies is central to their thoughts. But in reality, none of them are in control. They are all defeated by their own plans for self-aggrandizement and conquest, or conversely, the idea of redressing the situation through deception, as Kent attempts. Though the outcome is uncertain, even the positive development of Lear reaching Cordelia's camp, and his safety and reconciliation with her, has the air of a nightmare in which a temporary resolution is doomed to failure.
Various smaller points make little sense, but it is unclear if Shakespeare intended it this way or if a degree of dramatic carelessness, noted by various commentators, is the cause. Though Gloucester has been taken prisoner by Cornwall and Regan, attacked, tortured, and blinded, he has apparently been left with money on his person that he can give Edgar for helping him. One would think the first thing his captors would have done is to empty his pockets. Gloucester is in such a mental fog that he seems to believe the story that he has fallen off a cliff when he is clearly on level ground. But a few moments later, Gloucester is rational enough to understand the misfortune Lear has endured. Later, Cordelia recognizes Kent, addressing him by name, but others in her camp, such as the Gentleman, are not told his identity—for what reason it is not apparent.
The mixing of comedy and tragedy is so normal a feature of Shakespeare that there should not be anything remarkable about it. But Edgar, while fighting with Oswald, affects a comical regional accent which seems out of place even in a drama emblematic of the universality of tears and laughter at the same moment.
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