Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty
Goneril introduces a long series of eye and sight references which reverberate around Gloucester's blinding (3.7). Her formal rhetoric of love is manifestly insincere, but satisfies the vain and foolish Lear, who gives her half the Kingdom. Cordelia cannot compete with her sisters lies. Lear consistently misunderstands love, thinking it can be quantified – when Goneril and Regan combine to reduce his following he says 'Thy fifty do yet double five and twenty, And thou art twice her love' (2.2.448-449).
nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Lear, finding his vain-glorious set-piece of flattery falling flat, tries to wheedle some more fitting compliments from Cordelia. 'Nothing' is one of the key words in the play, and Lear's chilling formulation introduces the grim nihilism which is Lear's central mood. It is already a proverb when Shakespeare uses it.
O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Perhaps Lear's mind begins to go as he struggles with the consequences of giving away his power. He has already had difficulty in understanding the treatment he now receives in 1.4. He has always been King, and now he is not, he no longer recognises himself. To the Fool, he is already 'Lear's shadow' (1.4.222). Lear's madness may be thought to predate the beginning of the play, (or he would never have given everything away0, and this may be a lucid moment. Is it that the behaviour and expectations of a King are mad in someone without actual power?
O, reason not the need !
Lear's point is that he should be allowed something not out of need, but love, or at least politeness and custom. He carries on: 'Allow not nature more than nature needs / Man's life is cheap as beasts' (2.2.455-456). If we have only what we truly need, we are no better than animals. Lear is shortly to extend this critique, taking the other side of the argument, standing in the rain and shouting, and decrying wealth and privilege.
I am a man / More sinned against than sinning
Lear, now cast out on the heath, attempts to claim the storm as part of a scheme of divine justice, but the storm is apparently indifferent. He is probably wrong about sin: it is his pride that has got him into this mess. He still does not see himself, and the remark is merely self-pitying. However, as the surrounding evil continues to mount, we come to feel sorry for Lear ourselves.
the rain it raineth every day
The Fool, (as does Edgar later), preaches stoicism; endurance in the face of life's difficulties. There is a humorous resignation in his song which accords with the British climate. The song is related to Feste's at the end of Twelfth Night. Both Feste and the Fool were probably played by Robert Armin, a dwarfish clown noted for his wit.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport
Gloucester is in the depths of despair, and resolved on suicide. Improbably, he decides to walk to Dover, guided by a madman (actually Edgar, his son, in disguise), and throw himself off a cliff. Gloucester is now entirely cynical about divine influence, seeing the gods as malicious.
'Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind.
Gloucester's irony sums up his outlook. The time is plagued, or cursed. There is a Biblical echo in the proverbial 'blind leading the blind' (Luke 6.39). The nihilism of the play darkens to reach its first peak at Gloucester's tragi-comic 'fall'.
Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep.
Albany predicts what already seems clear to other characters, that if heaven does not intervene, humanity (in the sense of civilised behaviour, at least) will perish. The chain of events caused by Lear's abdication -or his rejection of Cordelia- is running out of control. Gloucester is blind, Lear running around mad, France has invaded, and his wife is having an affair with the bastard Edmund, by now Duke of Gloucester, although he doesn't know...
(The entire section is 1,170 words.)