Act III, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
Seeking shelter from the raging storm on the heath, Kent repeatedly prods Lear to enter the hovel. At first he rebuffs Kent, asking him to leave him alone, but the King finally replies that the storm invading his body is scarcely felt since the tempest in his mind is a “greater malady.” Ranting on about “filial ingratitude,” he reproachfully alludes to his daughters who, he thinks, “tear this hand” that feeds them. Vowing to refrain from weeping, he firmly resolves to endure, though his daughters have shut him out on a night like this. Calling their names through the din of the storm, he reminds them that he “gave all.” He promptly checks himself, afraid he will go mad. He decides to shun that kind of talk. Kent responds positively and again urges him to enter the hovel. Lear finally agrees to go in, but asks Kent and his Fool to enter first. He promises to follow them after he has said a prayer. Praying with heartfelt compassion for the poor homeless and unfed wretches, he is remorseful for having taken “too little care of this.”
As Lear ends his prayer, a strange voice is heard. Rushing out of the hovel, the Fool cautions Lear not to enter since there is a spirit inhabiting the shelter. Responding to Kent’s command, Edgar, disguised as Tom o’ Bedlam, appears from the hovel, muttering incoherent phrases about the “foul fiend” who is following him. Lear immediately perceives him as one who has been swindled by Goneril and Regan, but Kent informs Lear that this man has no daughters. Lear is not convinced. He is sure that nothing but “Those pelican daughters” could have brought the madman to this pass.
The disguised Edgar portrays himself as a former servingman who has lived a life of questionable morals. The King contrasts Edgar to the three sophisticates: Lear, Kent, and the Fool. He recognizes Edgar as “the thing itself,” devoid of all the trappings that distinguish man from a “bare, fork’d animal.” Identifying with Tom’s madness, Lear tears at his own clothes that are only “lendings” from nature.
Gloucester enters with a torch. The disguised Edgar identifies him as the “foul (fiend) Flibbertigibbet” who roams the streets at night. Gloucester gives an account of the impossible situation with Lear’s daughters, explaining their command to bar the doors of his castle, shutting Lear out in the storm. He assures the King that he has come to take him to an outbuilding near his castle where he will be given food to eat. Lear, in his madness, responds by requesting a word with the philosopher, Tom o’ Bedlam. In his concern for the King whose “wits begin t’ unsettle,” Kent implores Gloucester to extend the offer of food and shelter once more.
Gloucester empathizes with the mad Lear whose “daughters seek his death.” He tells the disguised Kent that he had a son who also sought his life, and it has “craz’d my wits.” Ironically, he makes a positive reference to the banished Kent who had predicted this would happen. Gloucester finally convinces the King to take shelter in the hovel, but Lear will only go in if his philosopher, Tom o’ Bedlam, will keep him company. Humoring the King, Kent and Gloucester usher all of them into the shelter. Tom o’ Bedlam echoes a familiar English ballad as the scene closes.
The storm on the heath is symbolic of the tempest in Lear’s mind. He censures Kent for his excessive concern over bodily comforts as he repeatedly urges Lear to go into the hovel. “Thou think’st ‘tis much that this contentious storm/ Invades us to the skin; so ‘tis to thee.” On the edge of madness, Lear is tormented by a “greater malady” bringing visions of his unkind daughters shutting him out on such a night. The storm outside is scarcely felt when it is met by a stronger affliction which is that of “Filial Ingratitude.” Agonizing over his misfortunes, the tortured Lear can only see others’ adversities in terms of his own. As he...
(The entire section is 1,221 words.)