ACT IV, Scene 1
Still disguised as the filthy beggar Tom, Edgar tries to be
optimistic and cheerful. He says that it is better to be openly
despised than to be openly flattered and secretly despised. In his
beggar's garb, he is no longer troubled by the contempt that society
heaps on him. Then an old man leads Gloucester in front of Edgar.
At the sight of his blinded father, Edgar's optimism breaks down.
He feels tremendous pity for his father and knows that his own
misfortunes are nothing in comparison to Gloucester's anguish.
Still ignorant of the beggar's true identity, Gloucester asks Edgar to
lead him to a cliff in Dover. Edgar agrees, and the two set out, a
beggar leading a blind man.
In his soliloquy, Edgar is presented as a model of patience and
endurance in the face of adversity. He believes that he has suffered
the worst that fate has in store for him and adopts a cheerful
attitude for his circumstances. His optimism is quickly dashed,
however, when the "blinded and bloody" Gloucester is led before
Gloucester, driven to the edge of sanity, states, "I stumbled when I
saw." It is a reference to his figurative blindness when he could
actually see; he was unable to view the truth of his sons' hearts and
misjudged them both foolishly. His figurative blindness led him to
stumble--to make the mistake of accepting Edmund and banishing
Edgar. Now that he is literally blind, he longs for Edgar, not
realizing he is at hand. He dreams of touching his son once again
and says, "Might I but live to see thee in my touch, I'd say I have
eyes again." Gloucester's pain and misery is great, just like the pain
and misery felt by Lear, who also misjudged his offspring.
Gloucester is embittered by his fate and says, "As flies to wanton
boys are we to the Gods/They kill us for their sport." But in his
misery, Gloucester has a new identification with humanity, much
like Lear. Still unaware that the beggar is his son, he hands over
his purse to him in generosity.
Critics have often questioned why Shakespeare does not allow
Edgar to reveal himself to Gloucester at this point. The answer
seems to be that Gloucester must hit rock bottom, going far beyond
ordinary human suffering, before he can be spiritually redeemed.