Act IV, Scene 4: Summary and Analysis
Doctor: Cordelia’s physician brought to heal the mad King
Messenger: brings news of England’s armed troops
In the French camp, Cordelia speaks of her mad father who has been seen wandering around in the fields, wearing the weeds that grow among the corn as a crown on his head. She orders the officer to scour every acre of the fields until they find him. She then asks the doctor whether medical knowledge can do anything to heal the King’s mind. The doctor assures her that rest, brought about with the aid of medicinal herbs that grow in the countryside, will be an effective treatment to cure the King’s madness. Cordelia calls upon the rare healing herbs of the earth to grow as they are watered by her tears. Afraid the King may die, she feels an urgency in her request.
A messenger enters, telling Cordelia that the British powers will soon invade the French army. Cordelia has officially taken command of the French troops in the absence of her husband. She wants it understood, however, that it is not her own ambition for power that moves her army to fight. She declares that her motive is solely to defend her father’s rights so unjustly taken over by Goneril and Regan.
After Lear falls asleep in the shelter during the storm, we do not hear from him again for almost 500 lines. His next appearance will be in the countryside near Dover where he meets the blind Gloucester who is led by Edgar. In this scene, Cordelia prepares us for his reappearance by describing his condition, which has steadily declined into madness. Singing loudly, Lear wears a crown made of weeds and flowers that grow in the cultivated fields. The gruesome picture Cordelia paints is a far cry from the image of the King in royal robes that she remembers. In view of this contrast, it is no wonder that she is moved to tears.
The “idle weeds” that the King has shaped into a crown for his head is, ironically, an incongruous symbol of his kingship. Hemlock, immediately associated with Socrates’ death, is a poisonous plant with a disagreeable odor, and nettle is an herb with stinging bristles. Cordelia’s aversion to this pathetic image of her father promptly leads her to send out an officer to search for him.
Cordelia does not accept the King’s fortune as one that is governed by the stars as Kent and Gloucester would, nor does she invoke the gods to free her father of evil...
(The entire section is 643 words.)