ACT III, Scene 4
This scene returns to Lear and his sufferings. With Kent and the
Fool, the King finds a hovel that can provide some protection. He
tells the Fool to enter first, thinking of others before himself. He
also thinks about the contrasts between this modest hovel and the
splendor of his court; amazingly, he now seems to despise all of
the pomp and regality that he endured as the King. It is obvious
that Lear's outlook has undergone a significant change. He states
that physical sufferings pale in comparison to the keener sufferings
of his emotional anguish. He knows that he can endure the fury
exhibited by nature's storm, but he is totally undone by the filial
ingratitude that he feels. His daughters' cruelties to him are almost
As Lear is about to enter the hovel, a pitiful creature wrapped in a
filthy blanket emerges shrieking. This creature is Edgar; he is
disguised as Poor Tom, a lunatic beggar. Although he recognizes
the King, he does not show it; instead, he continues to act mad,
muttering wild fancies. Tom pleads for charity and speaks of "the
foul fiend" torturing him. Ironically, Lear sees a similarity between
himself and the loathsome beggar before him. He is sure that the
beggar, like him, has given away all his wealth to his daughters,
who turned on him and reduced him to this pitiful state. Certain
that Tom has evil daughters, he curses them with the plagues. Lear
next contemplates the sorry state of humanity, comparing it to a
bare animal that has no protection. As if to prove he is bare and
vulnerable, Lear makes an effort to undo his clothing. The Fool,
however, restrains him.
Gloucester enters the scene; he is shocked and deeply moved at the
pitiful plight of the King. He knows that it is filial ingratitude that
has driven Lear into this state of misery. Since he has suffered
filial ingratitude himself, Gloucester identifies closely with the
King. He thinks about Edgar, whom he had loved deeply and
Wanting to lend a helping hand, Gloucester offers Lear and his
companions shelter; but initially Lear refuses. Finally, with Kent's
aid, Gloucester succeeds in leading the king away, but not until he
promises Lear that Poor Tom can accompany them.
In this scene, Lear clearly expresses the nature of his torment.
Although he feels miserable from the storm outside, it is nothing
when compared to the storm that rages inside him. He feels totally
betrayed by his daughters, Goneril and Regan, and is totally
disgusted by their ingratitude. In spite of his deep emotions, Lear
tries to restrain himself, for he is very fearful of insanity; he tells
himself to "weep no more" and claims that he will endure.
Lear is a changed man. His cruel treatment at the hands of his
daughters has made him capable of empathizing with "poor and
naked wretches" to whom he had earlier been indifferent. Because
of his own misery, he has a new understanding of humanity and a
true sympathy for all those who suffer. He even condemns himself
for having done nothing to aid them when he had the power to do
so. He also condemns himself for the cruelty he has shown to his
own daughter, Cordelia.
Not recognizing Edgar in disguise, the King sees him as a man
reduced to the barest minimum, leading an animalistic existence.
In fact, Poor Tom becomes for Lear the symbol of ultimate
injustice. Identifying with this mad fool, he is certain that Poor
Tom has been mistreated by evil daughters, whom the King openly
curses. He then chastises himself for have begotten such evil
daughters himself. To make himself more like near-naked Tom,
Lear even tries to undress himself, stopped only by his own Fool.
As Gloucester arrives on the scene, the Fool notes, "Here comes a
walking fire." In truth, Gloucester has proven in the past he is a
man who burns hot and cold. Now he seems genuinely concerned
about the King and has come to offer him aid. He wants to lead
Lear to shelter, warning that "his daughters seek his death."
Gloucester's concern springs out of his own unhappiness. Like
Lear, he has banished the wrong offspring and suffers at the hands
of Edmund, just as Lear suffers at the hands of Regan and Goneril.
He can truly empathize with the King's misery, for he is miserable
himself, as shown when he says, "Thou sayest that the king grows
mad; I'll tell thee, friend, I'm almost myself. /The grief has half-
crazed my wits."
It is ironic that Gloucester's words are overheard by Edgar, his
supposedly banished son; father does not recognize son in his
disguise as an insane beggar. It is also ironic that Edgar,
Gloucester, and Lear, three wealthy characters who have hit rock
bottom, are taking refuge together in a hovel. The small space that
unites them in their exile also protects them from the outside
world, where the storminess of both Nature and humanity seems
bent on destroying them.