ACT II – Scene.iv
(This scene takes place outside Gloucester’s castle with Kent in the stocks)
Lear and his entourage enter and they are hailed by Kent. Lear cannot
believe that anyone would dare to treat his emissary so.
Regan and Cornwall decline greeting Lear claiming they are tired.
Kent acquaints Lear with the facts of the situation and Lear swells with
rage, despite the Fool’s attempts to keep him calm.
Gloucester greets them and Lear immediately sends him to find his daughter
Gloucester returns with Regan and Cornwall, but they make it clear that they have not been summoned; they have come according to their own free will. At first they are respectful to Lear, but then Regan advises her father to go back and seek Goneril’s forgiveness, which causes Lear to rant and rage. Regan suggests that the problem lies with her father’s followers and that she would take the same action concerning the size of the King’s entourage. In fact she suggests that he doesn’t need any followers, as Goneril’s and her servants can look after him. Lear repeats his curse that he laid on Goneril.
Lear wishes to establish who put Kent in the stocks.
Just then Goneril arrives with Oswald and Cornwall acknowledges that it was he that ordered Kent to be placed in the stocks. Regan tells her father to dismiss most of his knights and return to Goneril’s castle. In a few months he can return and stay with her once she has had time to prepare.
The distraught Lear cannot contain himself. He will not give up his
independence or his followers, which is what distinguishes a man from the beasts. He denounces his daughters as being, “unnatural hags, terrors of the earth”. A storm breaks over the castle and Lear says
that he would prefer to live outside under the stars, or go and beg shelter in France rather than stay with his disrespectful daughters.
Regan and Goneril tell Gloucester to prevent their father leaving the castle
and going out into the stormy night.
It requires a good deal of acting in order to project Lear’s desperate
situation in this scene. He is bombarded by a series of insults, which causes the hope he had at the start of the scene to dissipate, leaving him in the hopeless situation of facing the world almost alone on a
Firstly, he deals with the humiliation of seeing his messenger in the stocks.
Then he is not properly received by his daughter and her husband, and given
the respect he should be due.
He then learns that it is his own son-in-law who had Kent placed in the stocks.
For a brief moment, his daughter acts correctly towards him, but this is
short-lived and she starts to echo the views of her older sister.
His pleas to Regan and Goneril when she enters the scene fall on deaf
ears. He is left with a stark choice – to live out the rest of his life shuffling between his two daughters’ homes like some unwanted baggage losing all of his followers, or to keep his independence and fend
for himself in the wild.
Gloucester is shocked by the turn of events, but he is powerless to do
anything to prevent the harsh treatment of Lear.
Lear has to resort to cursing his daughters and appealing to the gods for
help. There is even a suggestion that he should give in to the madness that he has been trying to fend off, as this may provide some relief.
In the end, it is Lear who chooses what action to take by removing himself
from the castle and facing the elements.
We note that Shakespeare uses terminology carefully in this scene.
Lear originally calls his daughter “my daughter”, but this changes and he refers to her as “this daughter”. We read,
“But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
Or, rather, a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou are a bile,
A plague sore, an embossed carbuncle
In my corrupted blood.”
Lear recognizes that the original source of the evil now manifesting itself
in his daughters must have come from him.
There is a distinct bond between him and his daughters and he acknowledges that he must take some responsibility for their actions. The word bond is also used by Cordelia when she made her testimony about her love for her father. Evil outranks good in Lear’s family. He has two cruel daughters whom he embraced while he rejected his one good daughter. What he has embraced are two poisonous snakes.
Again, the Fool has a small but important part in this scene. His
commentary really does help the audience understand what is happening. We read, “All that follow their noses are led by their eyes but blind men, and their’s not a nose among twenty but can smell him that’s
Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it; but the great one that goes up the hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man gives the better counsel, give me mine again: I would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.” The Fool is saying this to Kent, advising him that he should go with the flow, be more subtle, for up until now his bluntness has brought him nothing but trouble.