“When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools.”

King Lear

Act Four, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


lear_1962_gallery_prod_06Act Four:  Edgar finds his blinded father who – not recognizing his son – asks to be taken to Dover to commit suicide.  Edmund, Goneril and Oswald enter, discussing Albany’s inaction. Goneril gives Edmund a love token; Albany appears and accuses Goneril of cruelty towards her father.  Meanwhile, Cordelia, now leading a French army, has landed in Britain. Goneril’s and Regan’s armies separately prepare for battle. Near Dover, Gloucester attempts to throw himself off a cliff but Edgar arranges it so that his father is in fact on level ground. When Gloucester fails to die, Edgar pretends to be a stranger, and convinces him that he has in fact jumped and survived. When Oswald appears, delivering a message from Goneril to Edmund, Edgar kills him. At the French camp, Cordelia and Kent are reunited, and Lear is carried in, asleep.  He awakens and recognizes Cordelia.

The sense that the most horrific things imaginable are being acted out for real (Cornwall stepping on and squishing Gloucester’s eyeball?) dominates the experience of seeing or reading King Lear, but as always, Shakespeare retains the ability to surprises his audiences (and readers). One of the tragedy’s most poignant albeit strangest moments occurs in Act 4, when Gloucester decides that, now blind (and realizing how badly he treated Edgar), his only option is to commit suicide. Encountering a man calling himself “Poor Tom” (in fact, his disguised, badly treated son Edgar), he asks to be led to a cliff at Dover so that he can throw himself off into the sea. And instead of revealing himself, Edgar agrees to show him the way: it is as if the play will not let them be reconciled so easily (see Booth on Shakespeare’s delaying tactics in Lear) and so the two undergo a seriously bizarre charade in which Edgar persuades his father that they have arrived at Dover, then tells him to jump. As Edgar well knows, Gloucester is nowhere near a cliff, and ends up throwing himself merely onto the ground. But this is not the end of Edgar’s charade:  now pretending to be a mere passer-by, he attempts to convince his father that he has in fact fallen, and has survived only by the unlikeliest of miracles. ‘Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,’ he tells the incredulous Gloucester,

So many fathom down precipitating

Thou’dst shivered like an egg. But thou dost breathe

Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.

Ten masts a-length make not the altitude

Which thou has perpendicularly fell.

Thy life’s a miracle.

Yet the ‘miracle’ is entirely of Edgar’s doing, and it is also cruelly absurd, a unreal pre-echo of the mystical transformation and revelations that, as we’ll see, close Shakespeare’s final plays, and – some have thought – the playwright’s mocking expose of the triviality of his own craft. ‘Why do I trifle thus with his despair/Is done to sure it,’ says Edgar, but it is not clear that performing this ritual has done anything of the kind, or granted Gloucester any touch of happiness. Later on Edgar finally reveals himself, and father and son are reconciled, but it is somehow tragically fitting that the joy of the reunion – the joy of discovering love – ends tragically. ‘I asked his blessing,’ Edgar tells Albany long after the event,

    and from first to last

Told him our pilgrimage; but his flawed heart –

Alas, too weak the conflict to support –

‘Twist two extremes of passion, joy and grief,

Burst smilingly.


It is not true, as some have said, that King Lear is loveless or cold; the problem is that explores the difficulty of communicating that love.  (Or, perhaps it’s just that the universe of Lear is loveless and cold…)  Lear mistakes Cordelia’s love for arrogance; Kent has to pretend that he is someone else in order to convince Lear of his faithfulness; Gloucester’s misplaced love ends in physical torture; and both Goneril and Regan inexplicably (and at the same time perfectly), fall in love(?) with Edmund, a doomed passion that he uses and ultimately and chillingly betrays. Even so, when Cordelia and France’s army finally arrives in Britain, it seems as if further tragedy might somehow be averted. Lear is found and taken in – and – in contrast to the fractured meetings between Edgar and Gloucester – father and daughter are movingly reunited. Kneeling in front of Lear, Cordelia prays, ‘O look upon me, sir.’

And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.

You must not kneel.

Lear:       Pray do not mock.

I am a very foolish, fond old man.

Fourscore and upward,

Not an hour more nor less; and to deal plainly,

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Methinks I should know you, and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is; and all the skill I have

Remembers not these garments; nor I know not

Where I did lodge last night.

Though confused, Lear does eventually recognize Cordelia and for the moment his insanity seems to dissolve. Touching her weeping eyes and finding them “wet” he is brought into physical contact with his child – a moment we’ll see echoed in The Winter’s Tale, when it is touch that alerts Leontes to his wife’s survival – as well as with his own plight. It might be said that just as his experiences on the heath teach him what it is to suffer, in this reconciliation, the King learns for the first time what it is to love.

The moment is so moving and precious, that it is difficult not to interpret it as a sign of Lear’s redemption, but if that is in fact true, Shakespeare will not grant him any lasting peace.


From Garber:

lear and gloucester“Most evidently, and perhaps most importantly, madness permits the maddened victim to speak the truth, like a licensed fool, and be disbelieved. A madman or madwoman is a sublime version of a fool – in the confines of theater. He or she can echo the prevailing madness of the world, speaking through the onstage audience to an audience in the theater, asserting, proclaiming, or establishing contestatory and unwelcome ‘truths’ about the human condition:

Lear:  They told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.


Gloucester:  O, let me kiss that hand!

Lear:  Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.


Lear:  When we are born, we cry that we are come

To this great stage of fools.


As Edgar, ever the audience’s eyes and ears onstage, remarks,

[aside]  O, matter and impertinency mixed –

Reason in madness!


Edgar is the spokesman for (as he says in the play’s last lines in the Folio text) ‘[w]e that are young.’ For the survivors, for those who must go on. And Edgar cannot believe, or bear, what he sees.

The King’s madness is also a forum for social criticism, a final indictment of a handy-dandy world. In the latter part of act 3 the mad King stages a trial (this trial scene appears only in the Quarto, as scene 13). The scene is part ironic truth, part social satire, and part the final unmasking of ‘justice,’ as always limited and inadequate. From this moment the play will move deliberately toward the hope for mercy as contrasted with justice. The trial judges are to be ‘Poor Tom’ – ‘the robed man of justice,’ naked and hunted – and the Fool, his ‘yoke-fellow of equity,’ whose only equity is that all men are fools. The prisoners on trial are joint-stools, and the scene onstage is heartrending. A king without a throne rails at joint-stools, real or imagined, without occupants. There is a bitter little joke embedded in this scenario, since the phrase ‘Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool’ appears often in this period as a proverbial expression of disparagement. When in the course of the trial scene in King Lear the Fool offers this very phrase as an insult to (the absent) Goneril, he is speaking, in literal fact, to a piece of furniture, reversing the usual gesture, in which a wooden ‘person’ is called a thing. (A comic version of this familiar insult can be found in The Taming of the Shrew [2.1.196]). The Fool thus offers his backhanded apology to a stool (‘Sorry, I took you for a stool’), and his mordant wit may recall the puncturing critique of other Shakespearean literalists, like the gravedigger in Hamlet (‘Upon what ground?’ Hamlet demands of him, and he replies, ‘Why, here in Denmark’). But the scene is rawly painful, and Edgar weeps as Lear had wept (Edgar: ‘My tears begin to take his part so much/They mar my counterfeiting.’ The storm now inhabits and afflicts them all. ‘Sir,’ says Kent, ‘where is the patience now/that you so oft have boasted to retain?’ But the King is mad, and the Fool of practical wisdom departs the play.

As if at a lull in the storm, we hear now that ‘Oppressed nature sleeps’ (Quarto, 13.86). Notice that is not the King but ‘[o]pressed nature’ that is the figure here. The inner and outer worlds of the play, and of the title character, have collapsed into one another, even as the characters of this third act have echoed and exemplified not only themselves but also parts of Lear. In fact, the madness now rages not only on the hearth or in the wilderness but in the court. For – and this is crucial for the dramaturgy of the central act – act 3 is structures so that indoor scenes set in ‘civilized’ courtly spaces intercut the scenes of the King and the storm. Scenes 3,5, and 7 of the act, scenes between Edmund and Gloucester; Edmund and Cornwall; and Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril are full of the language of inversion: ‘I like not this unnatural dealing’; ‘Most savage and unnatural’; ‘The younger rises when the old doth fall.’ And, perhaps most strikingly, Cornwall’s chilling remark to Edmund: ‘[T]hou shalt find a dearer father in my love.’

In every one of those scenes we hear about the unnatural; on the heath, in the storm, we see it in action. Edmund’s two betrayals – of Edgar and of Gloucester, scene 3 and 5 – are even more unnatural than the scenes of madness and nakedness we have been witnessing. And these two modes of presentation, metaphoric and literal, will come together in the act’s final scene, the scene of the blinding of Gloucester, another scene whose subject is ‘justice’ [‘an eye for an eye’), juxtaposed to Lear’s mock trial. Technically, dramaturgically, it is extremely difficult for Shakespeare to keep building this act upward, toward climax after emotional climax: the storm, the King’s outbursts, his madness, Edgar’s tears, ‘[o]ppressed nature sleeps.’ And yet this scene sustains rather than breaks the image and horror. The event it portrays – the onstage blinding of a helpless man – is itself dreadful, and it is almost always unbearable to watch, the audience ‘blinded’ by horror and disgust, tempted to close its eyes against the violation. But what increases the horror even further is the banality of the setting, a domestic interior.

Twice Gloucester reminds his torturers that this is his house: ‘You are my guests’; ‘I am your host.’ Their behavior abuses the canons of hospitality vital for a culture, and a landscape, in which houses are separated from one another by swaths of unfriendly and depopulated terrain.  (We [saw] a similar violation, and a similar disregard, in the murder of King Duncan when he is the houseguest of the Macbeths.) Like the King thrust out of his own kingdom, Gloucester is thrust from his own home, after being tortured there. Using a figure of speech that has been present throughout the play, Gloucester has told Regan that he sent the King to Dover

Because I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes…

He vows to see ‘[t]he winged vengeance overtake such children.’ Once again, the ‘safely’ figurative becomes the appallingly literal. ‘See’t shalt thou never,’ Regan replies – and they pluck out his eyes.

Two significant things take place in this appalling scene. The first is the attempted rescue of Gloucester by Cornwall’s servant, who gives his master a fatal wound but is instantly killed himself. This nameless servant provides not only a model of hospitality and decency but also an example of a good rebellion against nature and social order, a moral and healthy rebellion against a father figure, very like Cordelia’s rebellion against her father, Lear. ‘I have served you ever since I was a child,’ the servant says to Cornwall. ‘But better service have I never done you/Than now to bid you hold.’ Cordelia and Kent made much the same appeal in the love test of the opening scene. Here a servant not only holds to it, but dies for it.

The second event of significance occurs at the moment of Gloucester’s torture, when blinding becomes enlightenment. Like Clarence in Richard III, Gloucester calls out for the person he thinks will save him, in this case his own son Edmund, and is told, succinctly, ‘Thou call’st on him that hates thee.’ ‘O, my follies!’ he cries. ‘Then Edgar was abused./Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him.’ these ‘[k]ing gods,’ plural and unspecified, evoked at the moment of maximum pain and suffering. We might also notice Gloucester’s word ‘follies’; he knows that he, too, has been a fool.

In the third act of King Lear, Lear’s moment of madness is also his moment of sanity: ‘See better, Lear.’ Gloucester’s moment of blindness is also his moment of insight: ‘I am almost made myself’; ‘I stumbled when I saw.’ The metaphors of acts I and 2 – madness, blindness, storm and rage, fools and folly, and the omnipresent metaphor of ‘nothing’ – are all performed on the stage in act 3, translated simultaneously into action and emblem. With ‘washed eyes, like Cordelia and Edgar, the spectators in the theater have seen these figures come to life on the stage. We have seen it happen, and we have seen it survived, as the suffering audience has also survived it. [MY NOTE:  Again, see Booth.]  what is truly remarkable is that the play can continue to build from this achievement, this recognition, so that the succeeding scenes grow even richer in power, and more acutely painful.

With a superbly ironic juxtaposition, characteristic of the design of this play throughout, the next act opens with Edgar, still disguised as ‘Poor Tom,’ convinced that he, like the audience, has now endured ‘the worst’:

     To be worst,

The low’st and most dejected thing of fortune,

Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.

The lamentable change is from the best;

The worst returns to laughter…

If he finds himself at the bottom of Fortune’s wheel, he has at least the advantage of knowing where he is. No unexpected reversal can throw him lower. Hope (‘esperance’) is thus kindled by a sense of having lived through the most difficult moments: ‘The worst returns to laughter.’ No sooner has he spoken these words, however, than he sees before him the spectacle of Gloucester, blind and halting, led by an Old Man: ‘But who comes here?/My father, parti-eyed?’ Gloucester is poorly led in a literal sense, since his guide is a poor old man of the country, not a nobleman. But he is also a living emblem of that poor leading that has brought him, like Lear, to the devastation of the heath/wasteland in the first place. ‘O, sir, you are old,’ said Regan to her father, the King. ‘You should be ruled and led.’ The handy-dandy world in which children lead parents (‘The younger rises when the old doth fall’) is now in full view. Gloucester was led by Edmund’s lies, by his ‘auricular assurance’; Lear, by his own obstinacy and that of his daughters. And Gloucester, a walking emblem of this interior blindness, cries out for his true son: ‘O dear son Edgar…Might I live to see thee in my touch/I’d say I had eyes again.’ Now Edgar is confronted with a kind of tragedy more immediate and personal than ever before, and he begins to realize, and to convey to the audience, his sense that the essence of tragedy may lie not in spectacle but in identification:

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.’

‘So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’’ Again, the rhetoric of silence marks the limits of human endurance. As always in Shakespeare, where language is the index of full humanity, speech and communication are bounded by the unutterable and inexpressible. To control language, to produce even a sentence as despairing as ‘This is the worst,’ is to know that something more can be endured: ‘worse I may be yet.’ Thus there was a crucial difference, in her replay to Lear, between Cordelia’s saying ‘nothing’ and saying nothing.

Edgar’s response is crucial to an understanding of his role, for as we have already seen, he is the appalled spectator to sights that appall us, the go-between who mediates between actors and audience. As he will be our final link, in the play’s final lines (in the Folio edition), to the spectacle that is the tragedy of King Lear. As he watches what is perhaps the play’s ultimate icon of tragic inconsequence, the encounter on the fields near Dover of the mad King and the blind Duke, Edgar again gives voice to what many spectators in the theater – or readers of the play – may be thinking and feeling:

I would not take this from report: it is,

And my heart breaks at it.

This sentiment is close to the heart of the tragic experience, and it has led generations of writers, critics, and audiences to wonder whether there is any redemption in King Lear, anything beyond suffering but endurance, and more suffering.

For Shakespeare as playwright – rather than, say, philosopher or theologian – the challenge was both technical and metaphysical. How does the playwright move beyond the ultimate tragic confrontation, past the moment when a trusted dramatic character says he has seen ‘the worst’ and then realizes that ‘worse I may be yet.’? After the heartrending meeting of blind man and madman, where can the play go, and how can he take the audience with it?

Shakespeare achieves this further growth, and is able to make his play move even beyond the unspeakable moments of tragedy, by a deliberate recourse to two other dramatic modes he has at his command: comedy and romance. He turns to romance, because it is the mode of transformation and rebirth, and comedy because it is a built-in safety valve for tragic emotions, just as we sometimes laugh uncontrollably when confronted with news that is shocking or traumatic. Both in comedy and in romance there is also the possibility of a saving estrangement, making ‘victims’ appear ultimately invulnerable. The cat in the cartoon does not show signs of pain when he falls off the roof or crashes through the windowpane. Comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, faced with impossible adversity, emerge unscathed.

One small but significant example of this kind of ‘escapist’ comic behavior comes in the fifth act, when Albany, Goneril’s husband, solicits Edmund on behalf of his own wife, ironically contradicting her sister Regan’s claim, ‘If you will marry,’ he says to his sister-in-law, ‘make your loves to me./My lady is bespoke.’ Goneril is engaged to Edmund, says Albany. I know I am a cuckold, or that she would like to make me one. To this unexpected sign of liveliness in a husband she has clearly dismissed as tamely inconsequential Goneril replies, ‘An interlude!’ An interlude was a comic play, old-fashioned, broad in its humor – a good modern translation of her riposte would be ‘What a farce!’

tom and gloucesterFor a more extended and moving example of how the mode of comedy functions to adjust the tension of a scene in a tragedy, consider the adventures of the disguised Edgar and the blinded Gloucester on Dover ‘cliff’ – in some ways a paradigm of the way the play depicts the barren condition of the universe:

There is a cliff [says Gloucester] whose high and bending head

Looks fearfully in the confined deep.

Bring me but to the very brim of it

And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear

With something rich about me. From that place

I shall no leading need.

Notice how the language of this passage subtly anthropomorphizes the cliff. Its ‘head,’ high and bending, ‘[l]ooks’ on the water of the English Channel as he himself can no longer do. The disguised Edgar, remembered by his blind father only as ‘the naked fellow’ he met before, in the stormy night, takes his arm and leads him not to the cliff top but to a flat field near Dover. And here is played out a scene that constantly and perilously approaches the condition of comedy or farce. A later era would coin the term ‘black comedy’ for this kind of tonal dissonance, but the Dover ‘cliff’ scene is more pathos than satire:

Gloucester:  When shall I come to th’ top of that same hill?

Edgar:  You do climb up it now. Look how we labour.

Gloucester:  Methinks the ground is even.

Edgar:   Horrible steep.

Hark, do you hear the sea?

Gloucester:  No, truly.

Edgar:  Why, then your other senses grow imperfect

By your eye’s anguish.


Give me your hand. You are now within a foot

Of th’extreme verge. For all beneath the moon

Would I not leap upright.

The entire scene takes place, we need to recall, on a perfectly level piece of stage. The blind man teeters on the edge of what he imagines to be a hellish drop. It is an extremely risky moment in the theater. And then he jumps, and falls. What keeps this jump, this fall from level ground to level ground, from being wholly and broadly comic? The scene is grotesque – it is, in a way, a mere pratfall. How does it manage to avoid the ridiculous? How is the audience prevented from laughing at this spectacle? What gives it dramatic significance, and makes it work?

The answer lies at least partly in the effectiveness of Edgar’s language as he conjures up the image of the infinite distance below, an image that emphasizes everything the play has been saying to this point about human insignificance:

Come on, sir, here’s the place. Stand still. How fearful

And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down

Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.

The fishermen that walk upon the beach

Appear like mice, and yon tall anchoring barque

Diminished to her cock, her cock a buoy

Almost too small for sight…

Here a human being is seen through the wrong end of a telescope: tiny, puny, insignificant and futile, clinging to a cliff for survival and for sustenance. This essential tragicomic moment, a jump from nowhere to nowhere, from flat ground to flat ground, is rendered – instead of being slapstick – very close to sublime. In a sense the cliff is real, and it stretches below us all.

So, too, Gloucester’s salvation is real, though not in the sense in which he understands it. In yet another one of his many voices, Edgar greets the blind man as if had fallen from a great height and is now, miraculously, alive at the bottom of the cliff:

Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,

So many fathom down precipitating

Thou’dst shivered like an egg. But thou dost breathe,

Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.


Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

Like so many others in the play, this scene is a variant of a resurrection (‘Thy life’s a miracle’), and a resurrection in which once again the sign of being alive is language (‘Speak yet again’; ‘thou…speak’st, art sound’). In short, language in this scene continues to shift away from the literal and specific toward the general and the metaphorical. Gloucester’s physical fall leads to a spiritual rise, not only a symbolic resurrection but, equally important, a lifting of his spirits. Just as Gloucester arrived at psychological insight through physical blindness, now we find that he has subliminally associated Edgar with ‘Poor Tom’ (though he will not know they are the same person until the instant of his death):

I’th’ last night’s storm I such a fellow saw

Which made me think a man a worm. My son

Came then into my mind…

At this point, too, Edgar begins to address Gloucester as ‘father,’ using the term in its general sense of ‘honored old man’: ‘Well pray you, father’; ‘Sit you down, father’; ‘Come, father, I’ll bestow you with a friend.’ The complimentary address has its roots in family feeling: to call a stranger ‘father’ is to treat him with the respect and affection due one’s own parent. In bringing together, yet again, the metaphorical and the literal, Edgar is able to employ both usages, one enabling him to keep his disguise (to Gloucester), and the other enabling him to cast it aside (to us).

The scene at Dover ‘cliff,’ then, is an essentially comic device turned to the service of tragedy, a mistake that is not a mistake, a fall that is not inglorious and ludicrous but glorious and lifesaving. (‘Give me your hand. You are now within a foot/Of th’extreme verge.’) The episode averts the pitfalls of comedy not only through its suggestive language, which grows ever stronger in the direction of archetype and symbol (‘man’ and ‘father’ and ‘son’), but also because of a more specific and emblematic archetype, the story of the blind man Jesus restored to sight, from the Gospel according to Mark:

And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he puts his hands upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.

Mark 8:23-24

‘Look up,’ says Edgar. ‘Do but look up’ – and Gloucester is restored, not magically to sight, but to an interior vision of the truth. More than once in this act Edgar’s language reminds us that he is not only a spectator but also a sufferer. ‘O thou side-piercing sight!’ he cries when he sees the mad King crowned with flowers, and Shakespeare’s audience would be invited to think not only of heartache, but also of Christ’s side pierced by the soldier’s spear.

But perhaps more important for King Lear as a whole than these Christological associations is the key gesture of the Dover ‘cliff’ scene, a gesture we have seen before and will see again in this play, the gesture implicit in Edgar’s gentle invitation, ‘Give me your hand,’ as when Jesus took the hand of the blind man and led him to sight. The taking and losing of hands has been an insistently meaningful gesture in this play since the opening scene, when Burgundy refused to take Cordelia by the hand without her father’s promised dowry – a hand not taken, a broken bond. Another bond was broken when Edmund forged Edgar’s ‘hand,’ his handwriting, in the letter given to Gloucester, and thereby robbed him of his birthright. The theft of Edgar’s birthright by his brother Edmund might well remind a Bible-reading audience of the story of Jacob and Esau, a story that also involves the substitution of one ‘hand’ for another. Jacob deceived his blind father, Isaac, and stole his elder brother’s birthright by covering his hands with hairy kidskins, and the blind Isaac said to him, ‘The voice [is] the voice of Jacob, but the hands [are] the hands of Esau,’ and he gave him his blessing. In the same way, Lear is appalled by the unholy bond between his elder daughters, who have joined against him: ‘O Regan, will you take her by the hand?’ We find images of hands putting eyes out; of ‘filial ingratitude./Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand/For lifting food to’t?’; of Edmund as more convenient for Regan’s hand than for Goneril’s; of bloody hands, and hands in gesture of the clasped hand of friendship, and the healing act of laying on of hands. ‘Give me your hand,’ says the gentleman to Kent as they part in the storm to look for Lear. ‘Give me thy hand,’ says Kent to the frightened Fool as he encounters ‘Poor Tom’ – ‘Give me thy6 hand. Who’s there?’.

No fewer than three times in one scene (4.5), Edgar says to the blind Gloucester, ‘Give me your hand’ – at the beginning of the scene and at the end. Cordelia seeks Lear’s hands in the benediction, but Lear is not sure these are his hands. The most poignant of all the play’s interchanges about the hand comes, of course, in that terrible scene that Edgar ‘would not take…from report,’ but must report,’ but must believe because he has witnessed it, the meeting of the blind Gloucester and the mad Lear, the latter dressed in wildflowers, on the fields near Dover:

Gloucester:  O, let me kiss that hand!

Lear:  Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.

The hand here becomes the emblem of humanity, of the bare human condition, and of the need for touch, contact, kinship, and love. A play that began with a scene about the taking of Cordelia’s hand in marriage culminates in this terrible act of homage and humility. Once again, in act 5, scene 2, we will hear Edgar urge Gloucester, ‘Give me thy hand,’ as he hastens him from the battle that Lear’s forces have lost. But the tragic emblem of the hand as naked mortal bond is most acute in this meeting on Dover field, from which Lear, that ‘ruined piece of nature,’ the ‘natural fool of fortune,’ exits running, and from which Gloucester is led away by Edgar’s hand once again.

We have said that the play progresses by pairings, by analogies and juxtapositions. The relationship between Gloucester and Edgar, father and son, is clearly constructed in a way parallel to the relationship between Lear and Cordelia, father and daughter. In the play’s final acts Cordelia begins, like Edgar, to speak in a language that Shakespeare’s Christian audience would associate with the Bible and specifically with the life of Jesus (for Cordelia, like Edgar and the Fool, as previously mentioned, is at moments in this play an avatar of Christ). ‘O dear father,/It is thy business that I go about’, she cries out while he sleeps, echoing Christ’s words to Mary and Joseph: ‘How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ But where the unbearable tragedy of Gloucester resolved itself, in a dramatic shift of genres, into a scene that was almost black comedy and grotesque, the scene on Dover ‘cliff,’ the play’s treatment of Cordelia and Lear turns another way to escape the crushing burden of tragedy. That way, the path of romance, fantasy, poetry, and dream will be the path of the future for Shakespearean dramaturgy; and will manifest itself in the brilliant achievement of several of his late plays, from Pericles (which resembles Lear in many ways) to The Tempest.

The Quarto text, the Historie of King Lear, contains one of the loveliest manifestations of this kind of poetry, the lyric passage in which a gentleman reports to Kent about Cordelia’s grief. (the passage is omitted from the Folio, perhaps because it was thought to slow down the action.) The gentleman says:

     Patience and sorrow strove

Who should express her goodliest. You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears

Were like, a better way. Those happy smilets

That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamond dropped. In brief,

Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved

If all could so become it.

Quarto, 17.17.24

King-Lear-as-Cordelia-romola-garai-6878978-300-400Cordelia cried out once or twice, he tells Kent, and ‘shook/The holy water from her heavenly eyes,’ and ‘then away she started/To deal with grief alone.’ Importantly, this scene is reported to us, rather than shown us. It belongs in the category of what I have been calling Shakespearean ‘unscenes’ (Another scene of this kind will take place in the fifth act of The Winter’s Tale, when the offstage reunion of a father and his long-lost daughter will be disclosed, in short bursts of information, by a group of courtiers.)  By having the scene of Cordelia’s grief reported rather than shown, Shakespeare makes possible descriptions such as that of hear tears falling from her eyes like ‘pearls from diamond dropped,’ so she becomes virtually an art object, made of precious and eternal jewels. Since the speaker is an anonymous gentleman with no defined character – he exists only to deliver this speech – the picture that he draws is convincing and moving, without any personality or attitude to get in the way. A speech like this becomes a lyric emblem removed from dramatic tension, creating a moment of powerful contemplation.

The most striking single image in this passage is the description of Cordelia’s passionately mixed feelings: her smiles and tears were like ‘[s]unshine and rain at once.’ We will hear a very similar phrase later, in Edgar’s description of the death of Gloucester, who is likewise town by conflicting emotions: ‘his flawed heart –/..’Twist two extremes of passion, joy, and grief,/Burnt smilingly’ Cordelia’s ‘[s]unshine and rain at once’ make her into an aspect of the weather, an aspect of nature, like the King in the storm. But where he is a ‘ruined piece of nature,’ Cordelia is nature as redemptive sign. For what happens in nature when sunshine appear at once is a rainbow, the emblem of God’s covenant with Noah that ‘the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.’ Cordelia does not live to see such a new world, but the compelling description of her condition as like sunshine and rain at once paves the way for not only a new kind of Shakespearean drama – the romances – but also for whatever promise, or covenant, is held out for the spectators of this play.

The language of romance and transformation is powerfully present in the scene of Lear’s awakening, act 4, scene 7, the scene that follows what has seemed to be the tragic nadir, the meeting of the two old men on the field near Dover. The King is now asleep – the healing sleep denied to kings afflicted by conscience from Richard III to Macbeth – but his is no ordinary slumber. ‘In the heaviness of sleep/We put fresh garments on him,’ says the doctor who attends this ceremony of transformation. Lear is a ‘child-changed father’, both changed by his children and changed into a child. His early wish to ‘[u]burdened crawl toward death’ is a sign of his ambivalence. We could say that he desired to be mothered by his daughters, only to discover that, like the fabled pelican, these ‘pelican daughters’ feed on blood and may kill their ‘young’ (On the other hand, the ‘Pelican in Piety,’ the image of the pelican piercing her breast to feed her children, was also a symbol of Jesus. Like so many images in King Lear, this one cuts both ways, and presents itself in both a fallen and a redeemed version in the play.) This is Lear’s ‘resurrection scene,’ as the aftermath of Gloucester’s fall from Dover ‘cliff’ was his. Again the ministrant is a loving child, who seeks the father’s hand in benediction. The King’s awakening is accompanied not only by fresh garments but also by music, which becomes, as we will see, a traditional ceremonial feature of scenes of ‘rebirth’ in the romances. (In this way, the scene looks ahead to the awakening of Thaisa from her coffin in Pericles; the awakening of the supposedly dead ‘Fidele’ – the disguised Imogen – in Cymbeline; and the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale.)

This scenario, the extraordinarily powerful and moving reconciliation between parent and child, is absolutely central to the dramaturgy of late Shakespearean drama. Yet Lear at first thinks he’s in hell, among the damned:

You do me wrong to take me out o’th’ grave.

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead.

As the recognition scene unfolds, however, hope begins to arise in him; perhaps he is alive, perhaps there is something better to come. The poignancy of this moment is extreme, and we may notice that it is, in many ways, a restaging of the love test in the play’s opening scene. It begins, however, not with the King’s majesty, but with his humanity, and his desire, contrary to every rule of order and precedence, to humble himself before his daughter:


I know not what to say.

I will not swear these are my hands. Let’s see:

I feel this pin prick. Would I were assured

Of my condition.

Cordelia [kneeling]

O, look upon me, sir,

And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.

You must not kneel.


Pray, do not mock.

I am a very foolish, fond old man,

Fourscore and upward,

Not an hour more or less; and to deal plainly,

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Methinks I should know you, and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is; and all the skill I have

Remembers not these garments; nor I know not

Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,

For as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child, Cordelia.


And so I am, I am.


Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.

I know you do not love me; for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.

You have some cause; they have not.


No cause, no cause.

In contrast to the opening scene, it is Lear who now knows not what to say. He now kneels, he now emphasizes his basic and unadorned humanity: ‘I feel the pin prick’; ‘I am a very foolish, fond old man.’ The exchange is heavily weighted with negatives: ‘I am doubtful’; ‘I am mainly ignorant;’ ‘the skill I have/Remembers not these garments; nor I know not where I did lodge’; ‘Do not laugh at me’; ‘I know you do not love me.’ In effect, Lear asks the same question he demanded of her long ago: Do you love me? And once again Cordelia asserts, as she did then, the natural bond of parent and child toward which the play has, all the time, been leading. But she, too, has learned something, and now is not silent. Crucially, she speaks, and in speaking avoids the ambiguity or supposed equivocation that has led to misunderstanding – and to tragedy. ‘No cause, no cause.’ Her affirmation itself comes as a negative. Something can come of nothing. Love is not a matter of pretty speeches, nor of ‘cause,’ that legal word to which Othello clings, so desperately and futilely, at the end of his tragedy. (‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.’) Love is a bond that transcends both rhetoric and the law, but it requires expression and communication, voiced or unvoiced. The fourth act of the play closes on this redemptive vision, and even the agonizing events to come cannot render this scene anything but central to the lessons of the play.”


Sorry if today’s post went on too long, but…there’s a lot to say.  In my next post on Act Four, we’ll look at Bloom, who calls the meeting between Lear and the blinded Gloucester the “poetic center of the play,” at Kermode, and much more.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s