ACT III – Scene.iv
(This scene takes place at a hovel on the heath)
The Fool has entered the hovel, but the King still refuses to take
shelter. The Fool rushes from the hovel saying that there is a spirit inside.
Edgar emerges disguised as Poor Tom, and the King thinks he has found a kindred spirit, and to be like him he tears off his own clothing so that he too can be unclad like Poor Tom.
Gloucester enters carrying a torch, and he is shocked to see how Lear has
deteriorated. He persuades them to follow him as he has found a warm shelter and has food. Lear declines the offer, saying he wishes to converse with Tom. Gloucester agrees that Tom can accompany
him, and they all proceed to the shelter.
Shakespeare uses this scene to add depth to Lear’s mental disintegration.
Not only has Lear been battling with the storm on the heath, he has also
been fighting against the tempest inside his head. The storm signifies the chaos both inside and outside the King. The storm’s fury parallels the anger that Goneril and Regan have for their father.
There is much irony in this scene.
Only by being brought low does the King realize what life is like for his lowliest of subjects. He realizes that he is now like them and he wishes to commune with Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise). He now appreciates that the only hope for the wretched people like Tom, is through a benign ruler. When he abdicated his powers to his daughters, he also abdicated his responsibilities to the least fortunate people of his land. To show his kinship for his newfound ‘brother’ Tom, he rips off his clothes so that he will be nearly naked like Tom. To the onlookers, this is just another symbol of Lear’s madness, but this scene finally shows the audience that Lear’s eyes have been opened to the truth of the situation and the consequences of his poor decisions. He calls Tom “a learned philosopher” as he represents the true nature of man.
In this scene we are also reminded of Gloucester’s initial errors, which
have now placed him in a similar situation to Lear. The meeting of Gloucester and Lear is also a meeting of the main plot and sub-plot of the play. Their common plight arises from similar errors.
The irony in this scene continues when we examine the various statement made
regarding both Kent and Edgar, who are still in disguise, and Gloucester, Lear and perhaps the Fool fail to see through to the real people underneath.
You will note that Gloucester innocently says to Kent, “Poor banished man” ironically that is exactly what he is.
Just as in the previous scene, the Fool made a prophecy announcing it as
such. In this scene, Kent makes a prophecy, but this is harder to recognize, and scholars have argued over this. We note that Kent says,
“Child Roland to the dark tower came;
His word was still - fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
The dark tower symbolizes death and also symbolizes the fortunes of Lear,
Gloucester and Edgar, which are at their lowest ebb.
Salvation is at hand, but much blood will be spent and life lost. Reference to Child Roland is merely a character derived from folklore. We note that this rhyme is used in the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.