King Lear (The New Folger Library Shakespeare)
Home : King Lear : Study Guide : Summary and Analysis of Act IV

King Lear Summary and Analysis

by William Shakespeare

Act IV

Act IV Summary:

scene i:

Edgar is alone on stage soliloquizing about his fate. He seems more optimistic than earlier, hoping that he has seen the worst. This changes when Gloucester and an old man enters, displaying to Edgar the cruelty of Regan and Cornwall's punishment. Gloucester urges the old man aiding him to leave him, noting that his blindness should not affect him as "I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;/ I stumbled when I saw" (IV.1.18-19). He then laments the fool he has been toward his loyal son, Edgar. The old man tells him a mad beggarman is present to which Gloucester replies that he cannot be too mad if he knows to beg. Ironically, he notes that his introduction to a madman the night before (who was poor Tom) had made him think of Edgar. This causes Edgar further pain. Gloucester again urges the old man to leave, commenting that poor Tom can lead him. He reasons that the time is such that madmen will lead the blind and tells the old man to meet them in a mile with new clothes for the beggar. The old man agrees to and leaves.

Edgar wishes he did not have to deceive his father but reasons that he must. He speaks in his poor Tom manner of all of the fiends whom have plagued him. Gloucester gives him his purse, hoping to even out some of the inequality which exists between them, and asks him to lead him to the summit of the high cliff in Dover and leave him there.

scene ii:

Goneril and Edmund are en route to Goneril's home when Goneril asks Oswald why her husband has not met them. Oswald answers that Albany is a changed man. To all events Oswald expects he would be pleased by, he is upset and vice versa. The examples Oswald gives are the landing of the French army at which Albany smiled and Edmund's betrayal of Gloucester to which Albany was very displeased. Goneril is disgusted and sends Edmund back to Cornwall's with a kiss, telling him that she will have to become master of her household until she can become Edmund's mistress.

After Edmund's departure, Albany enters and greets Goneril with disgust toward her character and the events with which she and Regan have been involved. He notes that humanity is in danger because of people like her. Goneril responds that he is weak, idly sitting by and allowing the French to invade their land without putting up protest or guarding against traitors. He lacks ambition and wisdom. The woman form she takes, Albany proclaims, disguises the fiend which exists beneath and if it were not for this cover, he would wish to destroy her.

A messenger enters, conveying the news that Cornwall has died from the wound given him during the conflict with the servant who had stood up for Gloucester after one of his eye's had been blinded. In this manner, Albany learns of the treatment and subsequent blindness imparted to Gloucester by the hands of Regan and Cornwall. Though horrified, Albany remarks that the gods are at least conscious of justice and have already worked toward avenging the death of Gloucester by killing Cornwall. The messenger then delivers a letter to Goneril from Regan. In an aside, Goneril comments that the news of Cornwall's death is bad for her in that it leaves Regan a widow so she could easily marry Edmund. However, it may be a positive event since it takes Cornwall's threat to her reign out of the picture. She leaves to read and answer the letter. Albany asks the messenger of Edmund's location when Gloucester was blinded. The messenger informs him that Edmund was with Goneril at the time but that Edmund knew of the events which were to take place because it was he who had informed on Gloucester's treason. Albany swears to fight for Gloucester who has loved the good king and received such horrible treatment.

scene iii:

We learn from Kent's conversation with a gentleman that the King of France has had to return to France for important business and has left the Marshal of France in charge. The gentleman informs him also of Cordelia's response to Kent's letter. She was very moved, lamenting against her sisters and their treatment of her father. Kent comments that the stars must control people's characters if one man and one woman could have children of such different qualities, like Cordelia and her sisters. Kent notifies the gentleman that Lear refuses to see Cordelia as he is ashamed of his behavior toward her. The gentleman confirms that Albany and Cornwall's powers are advancing. Deciding to leave Lear with him, Kent goes off to handle confidential business.

scene iv:

Pained, Cordelia laments the mad state of Lear and asks the doctor if there is a way to cure him. Rest might be the simple answer, the doctor replies, since Lear has been deprived of it. Cordelia prays for him and hopes that he will be revived. She must leave briefly on business for France.

scene v:

Regan and Oswald discuss how Albany's powers are afoot. Oswald points out that Goneril is the better soldier and informs Regan that Edmund did not have a chance to speak with Albany. Regan asks what the letter which Oswald brought from Goneril for Edmund says but Oswald knows only that it must be of great importance. Regan regrets blinding Gloucester because allowing him to live arouses sympathy which results in more parties turned against Regan and her company. Stating that Edmund has gone in search of Gloucester to put him out of his misery, she then claims that he is checking out the strength of the enemy forces. She urges Oswald to remain with her because the roads are dangerous. She is jealous of what she fears the contents of the letter may be, namely entreaties to Edmund for his love. Advising him to remind Edmund of the matters he had discussed with her considering their marriage, Regan allows Oswald to continue. Oswald agrees to halt Gloucester if he comes upon him and thus show to whom his loyalty lies.

scene vi:

Edgar leads Gloucester to Dover and pretends they are walking up the steep hill Gloucester wished to be taken to. Edgar says that it is steep and he can hear the ocean, noting that Gloucester's other senses must have grown dim as well if he cannot feel these things. Gloucester comments that poor Tom's speech seems much more elevated than before so Edgar attempts to drop back into his beggarman dialect. Edgar says they have reached the highest spot and Gloucester asks to be placed where he is standing. He then takes out another purse for Tom and requests to be left. Thinking Tom has gone, Gloucester prays to the gods to bless Edgar and then wishes the world farewell and falls forward of the cliff, he believes. Edgar approaches again as another man entirely, playing along with the idea that Gloucester has fallen off the high cliff and survived, calling it a miracle. Gloucester believes what the man says, though he cannot look up to verify. Edgar helps him up and questions the thing which left him at the top of the cliff, making it sound like it was not an actual man but a spirit. Gloucester is skeptical at first but realizes that would make sense for why he lived.

Stumbling onto the scene is Lear, still mad and wearing weeds. He rambles on about being king and then bitterly speaks of Goneril and Regan agreeing to all he said and then stabbing him in the back. Gloucester recognizes the voice and Lear confirms he is the King. He lectures about Gloucester's adultery being no cause to fear because his bastard son treated him better than Lear's own daughters. He then rages on the evil nature of women in his daughter's shapes, similar to Centaurs but fiends from the waist down instead of horses. Gloucester is saddened by this diatribe and wonders if Lear knows him. He does, but refuses to be saddened by Gloucester's blindness since one sees the world better through other venues than the eyes. In his ranting, Lear touches on such issues as the artifice of politicians and others in positions of authority who cover up their evil-doing and self-centered ambition with wealth and fashion. Edgar notices the sanity in his madness. Lear then identifies Gloucester and rages bitterly against the state of the world which has made them as they are.

A gentleman enters and, glad to find Lear, calls for them to put a hand upon him. Lear is afraid he is being taken prisoner but they are the attendants of Cordelia and happy to follow Lear as King. Still confused and mad, Lear runs out so they will not catch him. The gentleman informs Edgar that the army is approaching speedily, except for Cordelia's men who are on a special purpose and have moved on. When he leaves, Edgar assures Gloucester that he will lead him to a biding place. Oswald enters, pleased to have found Gloucester, and draws his sword upon him. Edgar interposes, using a rustic accent to play the part of a peasant. They fight and Oswald falls. Before dying, Oswald pleads with Edgar to take his purse and deliver his letter to Edmund, "Earl of Gloucester". Edgar reads the letter which is from Goneril, pleading with Edmund to slay Albany so Goneril can be free and they can be together. Edgar vows to defend Albany and defeat the lechers. Gloucester muses that he is self-centered to worry about his plight when Lear is mad. He wishes though that he too were mad in order to numb the pain he feels.

scene vii:

Cordelia thanks Kent for the goodness he has shown her father and the bravery he has espoused. She asks him to discard his disguise but he knows that he will be able to work better for Lear if he remains disguised. The Doctor remarks that Lear has slept for a long while so that they may try waking him. Lear is brought in, still sleeping. Hoping to resolve the horrors committed by her sisters, Cordelia kisses Lear and reflects on the vileness and ingratitude of her sisters, treating Lear worse than a dog by shutting their doors on him in the storm. Lear wakes and Cordelia addresses him. Lear feels awakened from the grave and wishes they had left him. Very drowsy at first, Lear thinks Cordelia is a spirit and then realizes he should know her and Kent (disguised) but has difficulty putting his memory together. Finally he recognizes Cordelia, to her delight, but thinks he is in France. The Doctor advises them to give Lear his space so Cordelia takes him for a walk. The gentleman remains and asks Kent if the rumors of Cornwall's death and Edgar's position in Germany with the Earl of Kent are true. Kent confirms the first, but leaves the latter unanswered. The gentleman warns that the battle to come will be bloody.

Act IV Analysis:

Act IV begins on a misleading high note as Edgar is pleased that any changes in his life will have to bring better times. Things cannot get worse, he implies. The paradox is established then with Gloucester's subsequent entrance and Edgar realizes that his life has gotten worse now that he knows the terrible treatment his father has endured. It is important to keep in mind that Edgar does not know how Edmund deceived his father into believing Edgar was the evil doer. All Edgar knows is that he had to run for his life because of the feelings Gloucester, Cornwall, and Albany held against him. Yet, even though he is incredibly saddened by Gloucester's appearance and torment, he does not once act reluctant to aid his father.

Oddly however, to the audience, must have been Edgar's desire to remain disguised. He is still not sure of Gloucester's feelings toward him and leads him to Dover regardless. But he does soon learn of the events which have occurred, when Gloucester, thinking he is alone with the old man, wails, "O dear son Edgar,/ The food of thy abus├Ęd father's wrath,/ Might I but live to see thee in my touch/ I'ld say I had eyes again!" (IV.1.21-24). Thus, though Edgar cannot know yet of the plot led by Edmund, he is aware that his father dearly wishes to see him and be reconciled to him. So why not give him this favor? The most practical answers critics provide concern the theatrical quality of leaving Edgar in his beggar/madman attire. This disguise materially is quite important to the theme of artifice which flows throughout the play. Picking up from Lear's discussion of poor Tom's "Persian" robes when in fact he was wearing rags, we have moved through Lear's realization that rich clothing and authority does not shield one from having to be human underneath. Need is often hugely exploited by the wealthier and more powerful, Lear learns, as he becomes more cognizant of the many poor in his kingdom whom he has ignored. This metaphor is again employed by Albany in scene ii who notes that a woman's form saves Goneril from him ripping her apart but does not excuse the monster she is underneath. Another allusion to this deceptive form is given by Lear in scene vi who compares women, especially the women his daughters have represented, to centaurs as fiends from waist down. The covering of clothing or womanly ways, in the case of evil Regan and Goneril, is a heavily significant symbolic weapon displayed by Shakespeare. Thus many critics point to the symbolic utility of having Edgar dressed as a poor beggarman leading a once authoritative and wealthy, now blind and ruined, old man.

Not only can Shakespeare further emphasize the dignified position which should be afforded to elders with this move, but he can make social commentary. The essential man, the philosopher for whom Lear saw Tom as, is stripped of social pretense and is leading the once powerful Earl. Moreover, he is the mad man leading the blind. Gloucester now too has been stripped of the illusions he once entertained and thus is rather fitted for this predicament. He gives voice to this element in the text by proclaiming, "'Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind" (IV.1.46). Gloucester himself has finally developed as a character whom has learned, like Lear has in his madness, of the errors in his life and of the things he has not given enough of his attention. He admits to the audience the central paradox of the entire play, one which we have pointed out since the beginning as it was highlighted very early by Shakespeare in many of the character's lines and references. "I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;/ I stumbled when I saw. Full oft 'tis seen/ Our means secure us, and our mere defects/ Prove our commodities" (IV.1.18-21). The eyes are not the necessary vessels, such as the heart or mind might be, to a better understanding of humankind.

He too, as Lear did, tries to equalize the financial inequalities by giving poor Tom his purse. Money provides another agent of the artifice which is becoming abhorrent to Gloucester and Lear but is desired by Goneril and Regan. Their battle for Edmund's hand stems not from love, as they eagerly wish to give up their husbands in order to take Edmund's side, but from their ambition and thirst for power. With Cornwall dead and Albany viewed as weak and overly moral, both sisters see Edmund as the proper choice for a mate. He has shown himself to be ambitious and loyal, even at the price of his own father's torture. Goneril views Edmund head and shoulders above a man who does not condone her ambition and refuses to fight for the power she wants to gain. She, as with Regan, likely hopes to rule a reunited kingdom and knows that her husband will not help her in this endeavor. Oswald, ever loyal to his mistress, retorts rightly to Regan that, "Your sister is the better soldier [than Regan's brother-in-law]" (IV.5.3). Albany has raised himself in the standards of nobility and clearly has separated himself from the evil of the two sisters, Cornwall, Edmund, and even Oswald. Though often paired with Cornwall earlier, he here moves so far from this category that Edgar later vows to defend him. Albany's angry outburst at Goneril echoes what the audience is likely thinking of her. It deepens their hatred for her when they realize that he does not even know yet about the blinding of Gloucester and he has no idea of the adulterous plans which Goneril has just hatched. We then look at Regan in scene v through the lens of the hatred toward Goneril and find her steeped in a hypocrisy just as great. Regan tries to manipulates Oswald, Goneril's loyal steward, to work for her means and when she cannot, she warns him to threaten Edmund.

By the time Cordelia enters the Act, she is already a paramount of good will and honor simply in comparison. Her complete absence in the text, excepting the few times that Kent has mentioned her and the letter from her, has created a curiosity, a void, which allows for a greater suspense and then satisfaction when she fills that void. Some critics feel that the reason she is absent for such a long period has more to do with the fact that the Fool may have been played by the same actor. They point to the Fool's entrance after Cordelia's banishment and his disappearance before her return. In any case, the last time Cordelia was present in a scene was the very first scene of Act I in which she acted rather coldly when questioned by her father. We are given good reason when she points to the nature of her sisters, quantifying love and manipulating their father, as well as by the support she receives from Kent and France and by the way her father had previously favored her. Yet, we are given no proof from her own mouth until this point in the fourth act. Similar to Edmund's caretaking of Gloucester, she immediately forgives her father for the misjudgment he has made and strives to bring him back to his comfort and sanity. Echoing an the earlier outrage of Gloucester, she bemoans the manner in which her sisters turned Lear out by crying,

Was this a face

To be opposed against the jarring winds?

To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?

In the most terrible and nimble stroke

Of quick cross lightening to watch, poor perdu

With this thin helm? Mine enemy's dog,

Though he had bit me, should have stood the night

Against my fire; and wast thou fain, poor father,

To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn

In short and musty straw? Alack, alack,

'Tis wonder that thy life and wits at once

Had not concluded all. (IV.7.31-42).

The audience had not heard any sort of passion from the earlier Cordelia but we hear her now, and the change is extremely welcomed by the audience.

This nature of extremes allows for the conclusion many make, linking Cordelia to a Christ figure. Ironically, this idea persists although she is a character in a pagan setting. Standing above the baseness of her fellow creatures, she has arrived in order to nurse her father back to health, having them change his garments (also significant if we think in terms of clothing and character) and bring him into the music. In a sense, she brings him back from the dead, as he moans, "You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave" (IV.7.45). Moreover, she turns her other cheek to the abuses her father had committed and eagerly forgives him and accepts him back into her life. Truly, there are Christian overtures in this, and throughout much of the play if we look for them. At any rate, Cordelia's sense of forgiveness and the goodness she exudes sets her far above her sisters and justifies the far lengths France and Kent have gone to defend her.

King Lear Essays and Related Content