Act IV, Scene 6: Summary and Analysis
Edgar, dressed as a peasant, is supposedly leading the blind Gloucester to the precipice near Dover where the Duke plans to end his life. In an effort to dissuade him, Edgar tries to mislead his father by telling him they are nearing the steep cliff. Though they are on flat ground, Edgar talks of the sounds of the roaring sea and the ascent of the rising terrain that is leading them to the hill. Gloucester insists the ground is even, but Edgar replies that losing his sight must have affected his other senses.
His father perceives a change in Edgar’s improved speech, but Edgar flatly denies it. When they arrive at “the place,” Edgar gives a lengthy description of the view below with its people who appear dwarfed from such dizzying heights. Gloucester hands Edgar a purse with a valuable jewel and bids him farewell. In an aside, Edgar explains that his motive for his actions is to cure his father’s despair. Before he jumps, Gloucester prays to the “mighty gods” and renounces the world whose afflictions he can no longer bear. He blesses Edgar if he is still alive and then falls to the ground. Edgar then calls out to Gloucester, but he tells him to leave him alone and let him die. Pretending to be a passing bystander who has observed him from the bottom of the precipice, Edgar tells Gloucester his life is a miracle since he has survived a dangerous fall from the high, chalky cliff. Edgar lifts the disappointed Duke to his feet, and asks him about the fiend he had seen with him on top of the hill. Confused, Gloucester replies that he had taken him for a man. Edgar reminds his father that the gods, who deserve our reverence, have miraculously saved his life.
Lear enters, wearing a crown of weeds and flowers on his head and mumbling incoherently. Edgar is stunned at the sight of the mad Lear, and Gloucester promptly recognizes the King’s voice. Lear, in his madness, identifies Gloucester as “Goneril with a white beard.” Gloucester insists it must be the King. Lear replies, “Ay, every inch a king” and continues a long tirade defending adultery and denouncing cold, chaste women who feign virtue but are Centaurs from the waist down.
Asking Lear whether he recognizes him, the blind Gloucester laments that Lear, in his condition, is a “ruin’d piece of nature.” Referring to him as blind Cupid, Lear asks Gloucester how he sees the world without eyes, and he replies that he sees “it feelingly.” Lear reasons that he must look with his ears since he is left without eyes. The King again engages in a long diatribe, railing against the official who administers punishment by whipping the whore when he, in fact, should be whipped for using her in that way. He adds that “Robes and furr’d gowns hide all,” as sin is plated with gold, while those wearing rags are quickly brought to justice. Edgar observes that Lear’s talk reflects “Reason in madness.” Finally calling Gloucester by name, Lear preaches him a sermon on birth when all come to “this great stage of fools.”
A Gentleman enters who has been sent by Cordelia to rescue the King and bring him back to her, but the mad Lear runs away from them, challenging them to come after him. The Gentleman informs Edgar that any hour now, Albany’s army will be advancing toward the French at Dover.
Gloucester’s tone has changed as he calls on the “ever-gentle gods” to keep the evil spirit from tempting him to take his own life. With pity for Gloucester, Edgar takes him by the hand, leading him to a shelter. As Oswald enters, he promptly claims the blind Gloucester as his “prize” that will increase his good fortune. He draws his sword on Gloucester, but Edgar politely interrupts, asking Oswald to let them pass. Oswald challenges the audacity of a poor slave who would defend a traitor. Edgar slays him, and, as he is dying, Oswald requests that Edmund receive the letter he was sent to deliver to him. Edgar reads Goneril’s letter to Edmund in which she...
(The entire section is 1,684 words.)