Act IV, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Messenger: brings news of the death of Cornwall
Goneril and Edmund arrive at the Duke of Albany’s palace. As Oswald enters, Goneril inquires about Albany and is told he is altogether changed. Puzzled by the Duke’s behavior, Oswald reports that Albany smiled when he was told the French had landed, showed annoyance when he heard his wife was coming, and called him a sot when he told him of Gloucester’s treason and Edmund’s loyalty to the kingdom. Albany’s attitude is the direct opposite of Oswald’s expectations. Goneril promptly attributes his changed disposition to his cowardice. Afraid that Edmund will not be welcomed by Albany, Goneril advises him to go back to Cornwall and aid him in assembling an army against France. She tells Edmund she will take charge at home, switching roles with her “mild husband” and handing her duties over to him. She assures him that Oswald, her trusty steward, will keep them both abreast of the latest news. She then kisses Edmund, promising that he may find a mistress dispatching his commands. Edmund leaves in high spirits.
Reflecting on his manliness, Goneril refers to Edmund as “Gloucester” and compares him to the fool who “usurps my (bed).” Albany enters, immediately chastising her for what she has done to her father, the King. He tells her she is not “worth the dust which the rude wind/ Blows” in her face. He calls Goneril and Regan “Tigers, not daughters,” as he engages in a long diatribe concerning her degenerate and unnatural behavior. Ignoring his anger, she tells him his words are foolish, coming from a “Milk-liver’d man” who pities villains that are justifiably punished before they can do any harm. She tells him France is, at this very moment, ready to invade their military troops while he wastes his time moralizing. Unmoved by the news, Albany tells her she is a devil disguised as a woman, and he finds it difficult to keep from striking her.
A messenger enters with news of the death of the Duke of Cornwall. He informs them that the Duke has been killed by his own lifelong servant who opposed the act of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. He tells them that before the servant died, he wounded Cornwall who has since succumbed to the injuries he received. Overcome with empathy for Gloucester, Albany is promptly convinced that a higher power exists that has avenged Cornwall’s crime.
In an aside, Goneril expresses ambivalence about Cornwall’s death which would, on the one hand, give her complete power. Regan, being widowed, would, however, have free access to Edmund. The messenger continues the gruesome tale of the blinding of Gloucester. Albany, grateful for Gloucester’s kind treatment of the King, calls for revenge.
In reference to Goneril’s cruel treatment of her father, Albany censures her for the nature in which she holds contempt for her origins. With the use of imagery representing a family tree, he chides Goneril for slivering and disbranching or, in other words, cutting herself off from “her material sap.” He tells her that surely such a tree will wither and die. Referring to Lear as “A father, and a gracious aged man,” he reminds her of the reverence she owes him. Albany is certain that if the heavens do not show their powers soon to vindicate the good and punish the evil in the kingdom, chaos will be the result.
It will come
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.
When daughter turns against father and no respect is shown for age or origins, we are left with Edmund’s unnatural world where power is bought at any price, even the blinding of one’s own father. Conversely, Albany is the proponent of an orderly respect between child and parent where kings are awarded the reverence that is their due. This is not only Albany speaking but Shakespeare as well. Compare the famous speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida (Act I, Scene 3).
Take but degree away, untune that string
And hark what...
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