King Lear Act IV, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act IV, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Old Man: Gloucester’s tenant who leads him after he is blinded

Alone on the heath, Edgar reasons that things can only improve since fortune has already imposed the very worst on him. Confident in the belief that he has paid his dues and now “Owes nothing” more, he begins on a positive note until he sees Gloucester. Edgar’s mood quickly changes as he watches his blinded father led by an old man, a former tenant. Concerned about the old man’s safety, Gloucester urges him to leave since the old man can do nothing for him. Troubled about Gloucester’s inability to see his way, the old man is persistent. Gloucester tells him he has no way and, therefore, needs no eyes since he “stumbled” when he saw. Lamenting the loss of his “dear son Edgar,” Gloucester wishes for a chance to touch him once more. Edgar is soon recognized by the old man as “poor mad Tom.” Seeing his blind father has caused Edgar to feel his life is worse than ever. Gloucester recalls meeting a madman and a beggar in last night’s storm. He remembers that seeing him brought his son Edgar to mind though they were not yet friends.

Edgar then greets his master and is immediately recognized by Gloucester as the “naked fellow.” The blind Duke orders the man to bring some clothes for Edgar and meet them a mile or two down the road to Dover. Gloucester says he will allow Edgar to lead him to Dover. The man exclaims that Edgar is mad, but Gloucester says it is a sign of the times “when madmen lead the blind.” Determined to find the very best apparel for Edgar, the old man leaves.

Edgar is afraid he will be unable to continue his disguise, but he decides he must. He looks sadly into his father’s bleeding eyes as he assumes the role of poor Tom who is haunted by the foul fiends. He assures the blind Duke that he knows the way to Dover. Gloucester then entrusts him with his purse as he confirms his belief in a more equitable distribution of wealth so that all men can have a sufficient amount. Gloucester describes a cliff near Dover where he wishes to go. After that he will need poor Tom no more. Edgar takes the blind Duke’s arm and the strange pair begin their trek to Dover.

In his opening soliloquy, Edgar expresses genuine hope that his situation will now improve since he has seen the worst. He decides the worst can only return to laughter. A reversal of circumstances in which he sees his blinded father immediately changes his perspective, however. He decides that the worst is, after all, a relative condition.

O Gods! Who is’t can say, “I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e’er I was.
And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say, “This is the worst.”

The degree of suffering is relative to our own experience, and, therefore, we can never say “This is the worst.” As is the case with Edgar, the characters in the play are repeatedly led to the brink, believing relief from suffering is in sight, but are again thrust into an even more difficult situation. This is particularly true of Lear and Gloucester. Lear’s madness continues in subsequent scenes and his suffering does not end even after he meets Cordelia. Gloucester too has suffered the sting of mistaken loyalties, lost his castle and title, and now even his eyes. Metaphorically, he voices his futility: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.” This is, in Edgar’s words, not the worst, however, for he still has the image of his “dear son Edgar,” and he lives to “see thee (Edgar) in my touch.”

As Gloucester meets Edgar in...

(The entire section is 977 words.)