Act III Summary:
As it continues to storm, Kent enters the stage asking who else is there and where is the King. A gentleman, one of Lear's knights, answers, describing the King as struggling and becoming one with the raging elements of nature. The King has been left alone except for his fool. Kent recognizes the gentleman and fills him in on the events he has learned concerning the Dukes and the news from France. He explains that a conflict has grown between Albany and Cornwall which is momentarily forgotten because they are united against Lear. He then mentions that French spies and soldiers have moved onto the island, nearly ready to admit openly to their invasion. He urges the gentleman to hurry to Dover where he will find allies to whom he can give an honest report of the treatment to the King and his declining health. Kent gives him his purse and a ring to confirm his honor and to show to Cordelia if he sees her. They move out to look for Lear before the gentleman leaves on his mission.
We meet Lear, raging against the storm, daring the storm to break up the Earth. Fool pleads with him to dodge his pride and ask for his daughters' forgiveness so that he can take shelter in the castle. Lear notes that the storm, unlike his daughters, owes him nothing and has no obligation to treat him any better. Still, the storm is joining to help his ungrateful daughters in their unnecessary punishing of him. The fool says he is foolish, nevertheless, to reside in the house of of the storm but Lear responds that he will say nothing to his daughters.
Kent enters, pleased to have found the King, and remarks that he has never witnessed a more violent storm. Lear cries that the gods will now show who has committed any wrongs by their treatment in the storm and Kent pushes him toward a cave where they can find a little shelter. Lear agrees to go, recognizing the cold which must be ravaging he and his fool. Before entering the hovel, Fool prophecies that when the abuses of England are reformed, the country will come into great confusion.
Gloucester and Edmund speak in confidence. Gloucester complains of the unnatural dealings of Cornwall and Regan, taking over his home and forbidding him to help or appeal for Lear. Edmund feigns agreement. Taking him further in confidence, Gloucester alerts him to the division between Albany and Cornwall. He then tells him that he has received a letter, which he has locked in the closet because of it dangerous contents, divulging that a movement has started to avenge Lear at home. Gloucester plans to go find him and aid him until the forces arrive to help. He tells Edmund to accompany the Duke so that his absence is not felt and if they ask for him to report that he went to bed ill. Gloucester notes that he is risking his life but if he can save the King, his death would not be in vain. After he departs, Edmund tells the audience that he will alert Cornwall immediately of Gloucester's plans and the treasonous letter. The young will gain, he comments, where the old have faltered.
Kent and Lear find their way to the cave, where Lear asks to be left alone. He notes that the storm rages harsher in his own mind and body due to the "filial ingratitude" he has been forced to endure. Thinking it may lead to madness, Lear tries not to think of his daughters' betrayal. Feeling the cruelty of the elements, Lear remarks that he has taken too little care of the poor who often do not have shelter from such storms in life. The fool enters the cave first and is frightened by the presence of Edgar disguised as poor Tom. Edgar enters, speaking in confused jargon and pointing to the foul fiend who bothers him greatly. Lear decides that Tom must have been betrayed by daughters in order to have fallen to such a state of despair and madness. Kent attempts to tell Lear that Tom has no daughters, but Lear can comprehend no other reason. Fool notes that the cold night would turn them all into madmen. Lear finds Tom intriguing and asks him about his life, to which Edgar replies that Tom was a serving man who was ruined by a woman he had loved. Lear realizes that man is no more than what they have been stripped to and begins to take off his clothes before Fool stops him.
Gloucester finds his way to the cave. He questions the King's company before remarking that he and Lear must both hate what their bodies have given birth to, namely Edgar, Regan, and Goneril. Although he has been barred from securing shelter in his own castle for Lear, Gloucester entreats the King to come with him to a better shelter. Lear wishes to stay and talk with Tom, terming him a philosopher. Kent urges Gloucester to plead with Lear to go, but Gloucester notes it is no surprise that Lear's wits are not about him when his own daughters seek his death. Lear is persuaded to follow Gloucester when they agree to allow Tom to accompany him.
Cornwall and Edmund converse over the information Edmund has shared with him. Edmund plays the part of a tortured son doing his duty for the kingdom. Cornwall muses that Edgar's disloyalty is better understood in terms of his own father's betrayal. Handing over the letter Gloucester had received, Edmund cries out wishing that he were not the filial traitor. Cornwall makes Edmund the new Earl of Gloucester and demands he find where his father is hiding. In an aside, Edmund hopes he will find Gloucester aiding the King to further incriminate him although it would be greater filial ingratitude on his part. Cornwall offers himself as a new and more loving father to Edmund.
Gloucester finds the group slightly better shelter and then heads off to get assistance. Edgar speaks of the foul fiend and Fool tells the King a rhyme, concluding that the madman is the man who has too greatly indulged his own children. Lear pretends to hold a trial for his evil daughters, placing Edgar, the fool, and Kent on the bench to try them. Lear tries Goneril first and then Regan before crying that someone had accepted a bribe and allowed one to escape. Kent calls for him to remain patient as he had often been in the past and Edgar notes in an aside that he has nearly threatened his disguise with tears. He tells Lear that he will punish the daughters himself. Lear appreciates the gesture and claims that he will take Tom as one of the hundred in his train if he will agree to change his seemingly Persian garments. As Gloucester returns, he urges Kent to keep the King in his arms due to the death threats circulating. There is a caravan waiting which will take Lear to Dover and safety if they hurry. Edgar is left on stage and soliloquizes that the King's pains are so much greater than his own and he will pledge himself to helping him escape safely.
Cornwall calls for Goneril to bring the letter concerning France's invasion to her husband and calls to his servants to seek out the traitor, Gloucester. Regan and Goneril call for tortuous punishment. Edmund is asked to accompany Goneril so as not to be present when his father is brought in. Oswald enters and alerts the court to the news of Gloucester's successful move of the King to Dover. As Goneril and Edmund depart, Cornwall sends servants in search of Gloucester. Gloucester enters with servants and Cornwall commands that he be bound to a chair. Regan plucks his beard as he protests that they are his guests and friends.They interrogate him on the letter he received from France and his part helping King Lear. Gloucester responds that he received the letter from an objective third-party but he is not believed. He admits that he sent the King to Dover, explaining that he was not safe out in the terrible storm nor in the company of those who would leave him in such conditions. He hopes that Lear's horrific children will have revenge light upon them. Cornwall answers that he will see no such thing, blinding one of his eyes.
A servant speaks up in Gloucester's defense and is quickly stabbed by Regan using the sword Cornwall had drawn. Before the servant dies, he cries that Gloucester has one eye remaining to see harm come to the Duke and Duchess. Cornwall immediately blinds the other eye. Gloucester calls out for Edmund to help him in the time of peril to which Regan replies that it was Edmund who had alerted them to Gloucester's treachery. At this low point, Gloucester realizes the wrong he has shown Edgar if Edmund has done such evil. Regan has Gloucester thrown out of the castle and then helps Cornwall, who has received an injury, out of the room. Two servants discuss the incomprehensible evil of Cornwall and Regan, proposing to aid Gloucester in his blind stumbles. One of the servants leaves to find him while the other searches for ointments to sooth Gloucester's wounds.
Act III Analysis:
The theme of madness is explored deeply in Act III as we encounter at least three different forms of madness in at least three different characters. King Lear most notably goes, or is driven, to a madness he had predicted in this Act, but he is accompanied by two others whom are meant to be playing fools or madmen but to whom he grants the greatest sincerity. These two men, the two Lear places on the bench of his fictitious jury, are Edgar as poor Tom and Lear's Fool. Edgar feigns a madness as poor Tom that provides a great contrast to Lear's actual madness by bringing into question what madness is and how it was looked upon in Shakespeare's day. History shows that in Shakespeare's time lunatics were viewed as comic entertainment. Elizabethans would go to certain places simply in order to watch lunatics act crazy. Furthermore, Edgar's character was believable on the level of a mad trickster, a common character in the day who was known to trick others into believing him out of his wits. In a time such as this, one had to be careful to illuminate a lunacy which would be taken seriously if that was Shakespeare's intent, which concerning King Lear we must assume it was. The reasons which justify his serious plunge into insanity are many as the audience is privy to the actions of his daughters and the indignity he has been shown since giving up his title which could easily drop an old proud former king into madness. The horrific action of all but two children in the play, Cordelia and Edgar, is summed up in a neat sentence by Gloucester as he enters the hovel to speak to Lear. He cries, "Our flesh and blood, my lord, is grown so vile/ That it doth hate what gets it" (III.4.136-137). The vileness, the evil, of Lear's two daughters and of Edmund (though ironically, at this point Gloucester is still speaking of Edgar) is such a betrayal that it has made the skin crawl and wish to reject the beings it helped to create. They have forsworn any human tie to their parents in such a vile way that hatred is the only word which can describe the relation. We also learn from Gloucester that Lear's daughters are now trying to kill him. Not only have they stripped him of all dignity, condescendingly and hypothetically turned many of his own knights against him, and thrown him unsheltered out into a raging dangerous storm, but they have finally cut the corner of pretense in which they said they would accept their father if he came without train and resolved to kill their own father who gave them all of his kingdom. Lear's fault in facing them was a quick temper and a love quantified into value and material weight. This love, as we have discussed, could not have always existed in this form as we know from Lear's reaction in Act I that Cordelia had been his favorite daughter and that she had never rejected him or his wish previously. Thus, the self-centered plea for love seems to be a fault of old age as well as ego. As Gloucester mentions flesh and blood, Lear's daughters have turned out for blood and power, in a way again similar to the ambition of Lady Macbeth, to which they have no need to battle for but of which they can seemingly not get enough. The rumors continue along the vein of a rift between Albany and Cornwall and we will soon encounter a major rivalry between Regan and Goneril. Their undoing, their evil, is thus based on an arrogant ambition and a horrific filial ingratitude.
This evil leads Lear to his belief that madness on a large scale can only result from the betrayal of daughters. He has sincerely been led astray in his trust and loyalty and thus plunges into a darkness and a madness which the storm, the hovel, and the night quite literally and symbolically portray. Vividly Shakespeare portrays the transformation of man into storm and storm into man as Lear goes mad. Personifying the storm with himself and the children he has begotten, Lear wails, "Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain./ Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters" (III.2.14-15). The storm is given a belly and the elements are compared to daughters. Note even the sound effects are called for at key points in the dialogue to echo Lear's mutation. "Storm still " is included by Shakespeare, for example, between poor Tom's continuing rants and Lear's conclusion that his madness must be the result of the betrayal of his daughters (III.4.59-61).
In this state of rugged, stripped, essential man, Lear is able to focus on some important human issues that he has overlooked as king. Left to battle the elements of nature and the storms that are its products like the poor, Lear is forced to think on the daily lives of the homeless and his ignorance of the poor's situation. He comments, "Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en/ Too little care of this!" (III.4.28-33). This is a climactic moment for Lear, as he stands on the threshold of madness. He will descend, it seems, as soon as he comes face to face with Edgar the reflection of madness he holds as philosophy and wisdom. And perhaps Lear comes much closer to a wisdom of humankind as a result. Madly, he attempts to strip himself naked only moments later before being stopped by the Fool, whose madness (when faced with Lear's) becomes simple complacency as he tries to look out for his master's safekeeping. In this, we see again how sane the Fool has been all along and how real Lear's madness is to make the Fool's speech become so practical. Lear is trying to physically strip himself of the artifice he has noticed within himself and most of mankind. He wishes to be put on par with poor Tom, a man who has lived much closer, he thinks, to the truth of nature.
Edgar's character of poor Tom of Bedlam was based greatly on a text published shortly before Shakespeare's writing of King Lear. Harsnet's Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures, published in 1603, seems to provide much of the basis for Tom's language as well as the mention of the surreptitious "foul fiend" which plagues Tom constantly, biting at his back and instigating other evils upon him. With a feigned demonic madness, Tom's character is questioned less by the other characters allowing Edgar to provide commentary through his asides and the irony he often provides, especially in the contrast established between the disguised and acted madness he chooses and the uncontrollable, anguished madness which overtakes Lear. Tom also provides the physical character to represent the man Lear realizes he has ignored during his rule as King of Britain. Immediately after Lear cries out in recognition of his ignorance, he meets poor Tom. This allows Shakespeare to give more distinct meaning to Lear's, and later Gloucester's, wish for greater equality among the population in terms of money and favors. Lear exclaims, "Take physic, pomp;/ Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/ That thou mayst shake the superflux to them/ And show the heavens more just" (III.4.33-36). In much the same vein as Robin Hood, Shakespeare here promotes a system where the rich would share their excess, their artifice, with the poor in order to even out the ranks a bit. Lear, in this manner, places himself at an equitable level with Tom and refuses to leave the stormy outdoors for shelter unless he can bring Tom with him. Lear has made his greatest leaps in humane awareness since his descent toward madness and his acquaintance with Tom. He states this for the audience when he remarks, "Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow'st the/ worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfumeThou art the thing itself; unaccomodated man is no/ more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou [Edgar] art" (II.4.97-102). Clothing, excesses such as Lear referred to when speaking to Regan and Goneril about the need of his train, is superfluous and a great symbol of the artifice Lear has finally stripped from his body.
Regan and Goneril move ever closer to their tragic ends as they progress substantially in their evil, as evidenced through their desire to kill Lear and the blinding of Gloucester. Regan, thought at first to be the tenderer of the two by Lear, leads the charge against Gloucester. Gloucester responds finally to the demands of why he sent Lear to Dover by addressing her and her sister as the basest of evils. It is her nails he mentions, not the power of Cornwall, even though the two have been joined in the punishment of Gloucester. He declares, "Because I would not see thy cruel nails/ Pluck out his poor old eyes" (III.7.56-57). Ironically, this statement has greater truth for Gloucester himself. Regan taunts Gloucester after one eye is blinded and then takes the sword herself to kill a servant who stands up for Gloucester's honor. Moreover, she happily brags to Gloucester that his trusted Edmund was the one who alerted them to his treachery and then sends Gloucester out to "smell his way to Dover" (III.7.93-94). In truth, we recognize this woman as more of a beast, a "bare, forked animal" than any of the characters against whom she is battling.