Act II Summary:
Act II begins with a return to the secondary plot of Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester. Edmund speaks with the courtier, Curan, who advises him that Regan and Cornwall will arrive shortly at Gloucester's castle. He also passes on the gossip that there may soon be a war between Cornwall and Albany. After Curan leaves, Edmund expresses his delight over the news he has learned as he can use that in his plot. Edgar enters and Edmund cleverly asks if he has offended Cornwall or Albany. Edgar says he has not. Edmund cries that he hears Gloucester coming and forces Edgar to draw his sword with him. Telling Edgar to flee, Edmund then wounds himself with his sword before calling out to Gloucester for help. Gloucester arrives quickly and sends servants to chase down the villain. Edmund explains that he would not allow Edgar to persuade him into murdering their father causing Edgar to slash him with his sword. He continues that Edgar threatened him and by no means intended to permit Edmund, an "unpossessing bastard", to stop him from his evil plot. Gloucester is indignant and claims that Edgar will be captured and punished. He promises that Edmund will become the heir of his land.
At this point, Cornwall and Regan enter the scene, wondering if the gossip they had heard about Edgar is correct. Gloucester confirms it is. Edmund cleverly confirms Regan's fear that Edgar was acting as part of Lear's riotous knights. Cornwall acknowledges the good act Edmund has done for Gloucester and promises to take him into their favor. After Gloucester and Edmund thank them, Regan explains why she and Cornwall have come to Gloucester's castle. She had received a letter from Goneril and so had left home to avoid Lear. She asks for Gloucester's assistance.
Oswald, Goneril's servant, and Kent, still disguised as Lear's servant Caius, meet at Gloucester's castle after first trekking to Cornwall's residence with messages. Oswald does not first recognize Kent but Kent recognizes him and responds to him curtly with curses and name-calling. He claims that Oswald comes with letters against the King and sides with his evil daughter. He calls Oswald to draw his sword at which Oswald cries out for help. The noise brings in Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester, and some servants.
When asked what the commotion is, Kent continues to insult Oswald, who is breathless. Oswald claims that he has spared Kent because of his grey beard at which Kent scoffs. He describes that Oswald is like a dog, ignorantly following a master. To Cornwall's incredulousness, Kent says that he does not like the look of his face. Oswald explains that Kent had no reason to strike him in Lear's company or to draw on him at Gloucester's. Kent refers to Cornwall and Regan as cowards and they call for the stocks. Regan comments that they should leave him not only until noon, as Cornwall had suggested, but for over a day. Gloucester protests but is overruled. After the others have exited, Gloucester apologizes to Kent and admits that the Duke is to blame. Alone, Kent muses over a letter he has received from Cordelia, implying that she knows he has taken disguise and promises to try to save her father from the evil of her sisters. Kent recognizes he is at the bottom of luck. He falls asleep.
Scene iii is solely a soliloquy by Edgar discussing his transformation into poor Tom, the beggar. He tells us that he has just missed being hunted as he heard them coming for him and hid in a hollow tree. In order to remain safe, he proposes to take on "the basest and most poorest shape", that of a beggar. He covers himself with dirt and filth, ties his hair in knots, strips off much of his clothing, and pricks his skin with pins and nails and so on. He no longer resembles Edgar.
Lear enters the scene with his fool and a gentleman, who tells him that he was not advised of Regan and Cornwall's removal to Gloucester's castle. They come upon Kent, still in the stocks. Lear does not believe that Regan and Cornwall would commit such an offense to Lear has to place his servant in the stocks but Kent reassures him that they have. He stresses that their punishment came only because he was angered enough by Oswald's presence and his letter to Regan to draw his sword upon Oswald. Fool comments on human nature, retorting that children are only kind to their parents when they are rich and that the poor are never given the chance for money. Lear feels ill and goes to look for Regan. Kent asks why Lear's train has shrunk to which Fool replies that many have lost interest in Lear as he has lost his riches and power. He advises all that are not fools to do the same.
Lear returns, amazed that Regan and Cornwall refuse to speak with him over weariness from travel. Gloucester attempts to excuse them by mentioning Gloucester's "fiery quality". Lear is enraged by this excuse. Although he momentarily considers that Gloucester may truly be ill, he is overwhelmed by anger and threatens to beat a drum by their door until they speak to him. Gloucester leaves to get them and shortly returns with them. They appear to act cordial at first to Lear and set Kent free. Lear is cautious toward Regan and tells her that if she is not truly glad to see him he would disown her and her dead mother. He expresses his grief to her over his stay with Goneril and Goneril's demands on him. Regan replies that he is very old and should trust their counsel. She advises him to return to Goneril and ask for her forgiveness as she is not yet prepared to care for him. Lear admits that he is old but pleads with Regan to care for him. She again refuses even with his arguments that Goneril has cut his train and his subsequent curses of Goneril. Regan is horrified. Lear pleads with her to act better than her sister. He finally asks who put Kent in the stocks.
Goneril arrives, as forecast in a letter to her sister. Lear calls on the gods to help him and is upset that Regan takes Goneril by the hand. He asks again how Kent was put in the stocks and Cornwall replies that that it was his order and Lear is appalled. Regan pleads again for him to return to Goneril's but he still holds hope that Regan will allow him all hundred of his train. However, Regan assures him that she has no room for the knights either and alerts him that he should only bring twenty-five with him after his month stay with Goneril. Lear replies that he has been betrayed after giving his daughter's his all, his land, authority and his care. He decides to go then with Goneril as she must love him more if she will agree to fifty knights. At this point, Goneril diminishes her claim, asking him if needs twenty-five, ten, or five? Regan adds that he does not even need one. Lear cries that need is not the issue. He compares his argument to Regan's clothes which are too scant for warmth. She wears them not for need but for vanity just as a King keeps many things he does not need for other reasons. He hopes that he will not cry and fears that he will go mad. He leaves with Fool, Kent, and Gloucester. A storm is heard approaching and Cornwall calls them to withdraw. Regan and Goneril discuss how it is Lear's own fault if they leave him out in the storm. Gloucester asks them to reconsider but is again overruled. Regan has the house boarded up.
Act II Analysis:
Interestingly, we begin Act II with the subplot, encountering Edmund with a minor character, the courier Curan. Shakespeare is pointing out that the subplot carries significant weight in his message. Furthermore, stylistically it makes sense for the subplot to start the Act because the main plot had finished the Act before and the two plots generally alternate. Edmund speaks with the courtier so that he can learn of Regan and Cornwall's approach and so the audience can see his inherent ability to quickly manipulate information and use it to his advantage. Within moments, he has succeeded in convincing Edgar that Albany and Cornwall are after him and that it is better to draw swords.
He also easily manages to demonize Edgar in Gloucester's eyes with out arousing any suspicion toward himself. His appeals to Gloucester are craftily devised, even to the extent that he brings up the subject of his position in such a manner that he creates sympathy in his father while further ruining Edgar. These events further establish Edmund as evil, especially compared to the gullible Gloucester and Edgar, and move him closer to the monster we will see him become. It is common in Shakespeare's plays, however, for the good characters to easily fall victim to their evil counterparts, whether to show how trusting they are or simply to make the plot flow easier. Especially in King Lear, which follows a very patterned, symbolic parable form, the good characters must fulfill their role without questioning much of the evil they encounter. We see Gloucester making attempts to overcome the cruelty Cornwall and Regan show to Kent when they put him in the stocks and to Lear when he is closed out in the storm. However as he is overruled on both occasions, we note that Gloucester is too weak to follow his conscience at this point in the play.
These encounters also illustrate Regan's dominance over her husband, paralleling the relationship we saw between Goneril and Albany except for in the manner in which the husbands react. Cornwall easily acquiesces to his wife's demands and calls them into action himself. Albany shows a bit of humanity when he questions Goneril's treatment of her father and refuses to agree with her. Thus Regan and Cornwall set up a united and cruel front when facing Kent and Lear. Regan's demands are harshest as she calls for Kent to remain in the stocks through the next night. Furthermore, it is her idea to close her father out in the storm. The largest front though which Lear faces is the united team of Goneril and Regan who, regardless of their husband's supposed land quarrel, stand together against their father's attempt to guard his dignity. In much the same way Shakespeare allows the audience to feel a certain sympathy to Edmund, people could empathize with Goneril and Regan's positions as they are forced to have a new and somewhat pompous house guest with a hundred followers. The evil they show more and more as the play progresses thus hits the audience harder as they must come to realize the true and hardened evil the sisters represent. Again, they are emblems following a pattern in the parable. King Lear, it has been said, is very much a Cinderella type fable and Goneril and Regan satisfy the roles of the evil stepsisters. They are coldhearted and by the end of the Act we cannot help but feel pity for Lear is stripped of every one of his knights if he wishes to live in accordance to the agreement he set up with his daughters so that he could live out his retirement happy. That will not be and they are cruel in understanding his transition.
Moreover, the two sisters calmly justify their treatment of Lear to each other while they nonchalantly decide to leave their elderly and emotional father out in the large storm forming. Symbolically that storm is a representation of Lear's own fury and the evil doings of his daughters, while also foreshadowing the mental storms to come for Lear and Gloucester. With the familial conflicts brewing, the gods, so to say, are not pleased, thus echoing the emotional environment on Earth. In this Pagan play, the symbolism becomes important, establishing a spiritual signifier, an agent, for expressing the mood which Shakespeare is creating. Gloucester functions as the character who follows the messages of the gods and cosmos the most in order for the audience to get a feel for its importance in the lives of the characters without having to involve Lear himself too deeply in this issue. Gloucester predicts the disasters to come through comments such as, "'Twill be ill taken" (II.2.155). He cannot be referring to the household itself with this comment, spoken about Cornwall's action in putting Kent in the stocks. Likely the action would be ill taken by Lear but also by the Gods and they prepare to show their fury and unleash their storm.
Lear's descent toward madness is foretold further, and more explicitly, when he cries, "O fool, I shall go mad!" (II.4.281). During Act II, the symbolic components in addition to the cruelty of Goneril and Regan surpass Lear's threshold for sanity and he is thrown out into the elements and left to find himself. Lear after this point will move toward what many call essential man, stripping himself of the pretense and artifice and assumed importance he has drawn around himself as King and ruler and father. Lear, though seeming more the honorable man we know he must have once been, is still hung up on love as an object which can be quantified. He decides which daughter he would most want to live with based on how many knights they will allow him to keep. He claims, "I'll go with thee [Goneril]./ Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty,/ And thou are twice her love" (II.4.253-255). By so basely equating love and quantity, love and material things, the audience feels dearly how much Lear is still missing the point.
One almost wonders if the methods through which Goneril and Regan expressed to Lear their love in Act I was based somewhat on the way they had been taught to love by their father. We must conclude, however, that love was not their intention, but manipulation. We are given even greater notice of their contrast with Cordelia as we hear of Kent's letter from her. Time is left vague in the play purposely. We are not meant to question how it is Cordelia knew how to find Kent, nor how she knew he was in disguise when it had been about a day, it seems, since he had arrived to Lear in disguise. Instead, recognize these events as part of the sequence of patterned movement in the parable. Cordelia, often seen as a Christ figure (though less significant in a pagan setting), is moving behind the scenes to aid her ailing father and save him from her evil sisters before too much cruelty is enacted. Kent is her agent on the front, seeing more clearly through his disguise than Lear has yet been able to in broad daylight.
It is intriguing to consider Kent in his disguise along with the disguise Edgar takes on as Tom the beggar and to think about them in the context of clothing within the play. One of the best speeches Lear makes in the play concerns the topic of need. Of course he does not need his knights and train, but so little of life is made up with solely what we need. He points to Regan's skimpy clothing, noting that she needs warmth from her clothing but sacrifices that for fashion and beauty whereas the poor must simply wear clothing for warmth. He is taking his first step her to stripping humanity of its artifice, by relating need to clothing and the way in which humans wear both. Edgar is Shakespeare's attempt to combine a number of the issues it seems he wished to be brought to attention. The beggar costume will allow Edgar to remain on stage much of the time without his father having an inkling who it is. It also allows the struggle of the poor in Shakespeare's time to be commented on. We will speak much more about Edgar and the contemporary issues he raised. For now, think about the act of disguise and how it is honorable characters who are forced to create themselves anew in order to accepted in their society. The ruling people after Lear gives up his authority will only promote a society in which good is covered or put in the stocks or abandoned.