Act III, Scene 7: Summary and Analysis
Servant #1: Cornwall’s servant who stabs him and is fatally wounded by Regan
Servants #2 and #3: they follow Gloucester to Dover and soothe his bleeding eyes.
Cornwall instructs Goneril to bring Albany a letter containing the news that France’s army has landed. He then orders his servants to find the traitor Gloucester and bring him back. Regan wants him hanged immediately, and Goneril calls for his eyes to be plucked out. Assuring them he will take care of things, Cornwall advises Edmund to accompany Goneril since their revengeful act toward his father will not be fit for his eyes. Cornwall asks Goneril to encourage the Duke of Albany to send an answer back as quickly as possible. He bids Goneril and Edmund good-bye, addressing him as “my Lord of Gloucester.” Oswald enters with reports that Lear is being conveyed to Dover by the Lord of Gloucester accompanied by about 36 of the King’s knights. He has also heard they will all be under the protection of well-armed friends in Dover. Oswald then prepares the horses for his mistress Goneril, and she and Edmund begin their journey.
Cornwall’s servants quickly bring Gloucester back to his castle where he is immediately bound to a chair and cross-examined. Addressing them as guests, Gloucester begs them not to involve him in any foul play. Plucking his beard, Regan calls him an “ingrateful fox” and a “filthy traitor.” Gloucester rebukes Regan for her unkind treatment of her host. Continuing their inquiry with harsh invectives against the so-called traitor, Cornwall and Regan question him about the letter from France and about the “lunatic” King. Gloucester admits the King is on his way to Dover where he will be protected from Regan and Goneril’s cruel treatment of him. Lashing out at them for leaving Lear out in the storm, Gloucester calls for swift vengeance from heaven to overtake the King’s children. In response, Cornwall promptly gouges out one of his eyes. As Gloucester cries for help, Regan coldly prods Cornwall to pluck out the other eye, too. In defense of Gloucester, Cornwall’s lifelong servant draws his sword and orders Cornwall to stop tormenting the old Duke. Cornwall is wounded and Regan grabs a sword, stabbing the servant in the back and killing him. Cornwall immediately gouges out Gloucester’s other eye. Calling for his son Edmund to “quit this horrid act,” Gloucester is told it was Edmund who disclosed his father’s act of treason. Invoking the gods to forgive him for his foolishness in trusting Edmund, Gloucester blesses Edgar and hopes he will prosper. Regan orders Gloucester thrust out to “smell/ His way to Dover.” As Regan leads her wounded husband by the arm, Cornwall orders the dead servant thrown on the dunghill.
Left alone with Gloucester, two of the servants decide to follow him to Dover with the hope of engaging the help of Tom o’ Bedlam to lead the blind Duke. But first they apply a soothing remedy to his bleeding face.
In this scene we see the most overt expression of cruelty anywhere in the play, and, perhaps, in all of Shakespeare’s works. Cornwall unmercifully gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, which is shocking to our human sensibilities and has contributed to the difficulty producers have long had in staging this scene. Some critics have perceived Cornwall’s deed as an awe-inspiring act of terror designed to satisfy the human desire for sensationalism in Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century theater. This view does not consider, however, the symbolism of the blinding of Gloucester and its relation to the play as a whole. Ironically, it is not until Gloucester has literally suffered the loss of his eyes that he is able to realize how little he saw when he actually had eyes. As soon as his sight is gone, Gloucester immediately sees the villainy of Edmund, who has informed on him. Promptly recognizing his folly regarding Edgar, he asks the gods to forgive him. Stanley Cavell has observed...
(The entire section is 1,238 words.)